First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Christmas Day 1

William Loader

Christmas Day 1: 25 December  Titus 3:4-7

These neat almost poetic lines capture a summary of the gospel which the writer, traditionally identified as Paul, has incorporated in his letter using what seems to be well used and well crafted formulations of the time. It is not the usual language of the historical Paul, but it holds together many of his key themes. The setting is a reminder of the hearers' former state, described in terms which suggest depravity and ignorance. Notice that a central element is lovelessness (3:3). It is explained as the consequence of being enslaved to the norms which govern many people. The author might have spoken of other gods, idolatry. The variants of idolatry are often more subtle than the real thing. Conforming to the normal pursuits and passions of a society, wanting to be 'in' or just wanting not to swim against the current, can often mean colluding in evil. One of the most difficult tasks is to recognise where we are allowing ourselves to be swept along by the embedded values of the wealthy and the market. People in the developing world long for us to see - and to take a look at ourselves.

The change to all of this, then and now, comes from 'goodness' and 'philanthropy'. These are characteristics of God as 'saviour', because deliverance is about releasing us to become generous, to become people who love people. Note the revised version of Paul's preaching: this salvation did not come about because we made a big effort either to pay off a debt of sin or create the basis for a claim to be loved (makes people very, very busy!). It came about from sheer generosity: 'mercy' or 'compassion' (3:4). The writer does not slip here into mechanisms which might be turned literally into some kind of pay-off by Jesus to balance the equation (which would leave God looking rather mean and ungenerous), but simply speaks of the character of God, the saviour, the deliverer, the liberator.

The allusion to washing and birth and the Spirit belongs firmly in the language found elsewhere describing baptism. Conceptually the act of baptism, the response of faith, appropriating God's compassion - all three aspects belonged together, so that at times a writer could speak of being baptised into Christ, while at other times could speak of faith alone. The notion was not of baptism as a magical piece of manipulation nor of faith as something quite independent of it nor of God's saving goodness through the Spirit as something purely abstract. All these things belonged together (even when they did not come together in time). They thought them together, whereas in many western cultures they have been separated with very odd consequences resulting in distorted understandings of each component - to the extent that for some the receiving of the Spirit can become a kind of second baptism independent of the first or that being baptised once or coming to faith once is all that matters.

The pouring out of the Spirit is nothing other than the pouring out of God and God's life. To be born of water and the Spirit, a phrase John 3:5 uses (doubtless dependent on tradition), is another way of speaking of the regeneration being celebrated here. The emphasis is ultimately on God's rich generosity - on God's person and attitude. Renewal is about reconnecting to God's life. Baptism is about celebrating the life giving being of God. For most in the early days it was seen as celebration of the change of direction which occurred at conversion. In Christian families it came to be a celebration of that renewing life already from the first moments of life. For all, baptism embodies in an act a hope for a continuing relationship of renewal and growth.

It is helpful that here we find big concepts like justification and righteousness connected so closely to goodness, 'philanthropy' (love!) and compassion. For the hope of inheriting eternal life, God's life, has its genesis in sharing that life in the here and now. The term 'saviour' belongs to both God (3:4) and Jesus (3:6) and is set in the context of renewal and new birth. Undergirding the whole statement is what lies at the heart of God's life: love and compassion, so that to share God's life, to be 'saved', 'justified' or 'set right', is to allow oneself to be incorporated into the expansiveness of God in generosity and care as an ongoing state of affairs. This makes good sense because the alternative - to be swayed by the gods of the time - is described primarily in terms of lack of love and compassion. Christmas celebrates that generosity. The world still desperately needs it. Caesar did not bring it.

Gospel: Christmas Day 1: 25 December Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
Christmas Day 2: 25 December  John 1:1-14

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