A Sermon for the Advent Ember Days
Evening of December 17, 2023 at St Peter's Sandy Point and St Paul's Birchtown
“He himself if our peace, who has made us all one and broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Why is Christmas a season of peace?
We feel the peace of Christmas, of course. It is a time of returning to our old haunts, the places that make us feel the security of childhood. What a joy it is to be celebrating Christmas again in this church, a place where so many people were raised, and a place we come back to for the really important occasions. And we feel the peace because so many people around us are putting in the extra effort to give us the sense of peace, by decorating, by setting the mood, but doing the behind-the-scenes work that makes gathering possible.
But do you ever worry that it’s all made-up? To put it another way: is the peace of Christmas just a feeling, something we can create for ourselves by getting the lighting just right and hanging some evergreens?
Because for lots of folks it’s not a season of peace. A few Christmas carols come to mind. I think of “I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” whose third verse says,
And in despair I bowed my head
"There is no peace on Earth, " I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, good will to men
I also think of “It came upon the midnight clear,” which says,
And man, at war with man, hears not
the words of peace they bring;
The Christmas proclamation is often met with skepticism in a world of conflict and hatred, which sees in all the talk about peace just a lot of fond wishing.
Now, it will be no surprise to you that I think there’s more to it than that. But still the skepticism can be helpful, because the message of peace doesn’t mean anything to people who don’t recognize the need for peace.
The people who can understand the Christmas message are those who hear words like we heard in our second reading and know that it’s talking about them. We hear about people who were made to feel like they were “separated,” “alienated,” “strangers”—people who are “far off,” “without hope,” and “without God” (Ephesians 2:12–13). Does anybody know what it’s like to feel that way?
For those people, St Paul proclaims the Christmas message: “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near. … For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. He created in himself one new humanity in place of the two, so making peace,” (v 13–15).
Jesus Christ himself is our peace. That’s easy to say, especially if Christian talk means something to you. But Paul isn’t talking about the sentimental peace of manger scenes and nativity pageants.
Christmas is about God coming into the world. On Christmas Eve, as we will tonight, we’ll read the Christmas story, but in fact the central Gospel reading is from the start of St John’s Gospel, where it proclaims the mystery that God came into the world to live with us, he became a human being, so that human beings could live with him. When God becomes a man, when he choses to have a name and a face and a little hand, God is introducing into the world a new kind of humanity which lives in union with God. That’s what Paul means when he says that, in Christ, God is creating “one new humanity.”
When we live with and in and for Jesus, we live in God and God in us. God’s presence in our hearts and minds transfigures us, making us mirrors of the light of eternity, images of the goodness of the Father. If God is peace then we are peace. If God is love then we are love. There is no longer distance between us and God, but fellowship and intimacy.
Nor is there distance between us and our neighbours. St Paul knows what people are like. He tells us how we set up “dividing walls of hostility” every day. But not in Christ. If I live in God and you live in God that I live in you and you in me and we are at peace, because God is peace. The old humanity of treating one another like strangers is done. Everyone who lives in God through Jesus Christ is my brother.
“So then,“ Paul continues, ”you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (v 19). “For through Christ we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (v 18). We are fellow-citizens, children of the same Father, members of a single body whose hands and feet are the people who used to consider one another enemies. I live on my side of the wall and you live on yours no more.
This is divine wisdom. But St Paul can also be a practical man. Now, I imagine that some of you will be doing some hosting over the holiday. And I imagine that there will also be some moments with some people when you also begin to wonder whether it is in fact a season of peace. Perhaps you will be thinking less of the tender baby in the manger and more of what that baby said as an adult: “A man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:36).
Here’s what St Paul has to say about that: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink“ (Romans 12:18–20). Why? Because you know he’s not really your enemy anymore. No one is.
In Christ the dividing wall of hostility has been taken down, and a table of hospitality has been set up. We are members one of another, participants together in a single new humanity, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus“ (Galatians 3:28).