The claptrap of niceness vs. the true meaning of Jesus.

Sunday 2 February 2015


10.00 St Mary’s Hadlow

Readings Luke 2:22-40; Heb 2:14-end


May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

If you read the Daily Telegraph, or if you are friends with me on Twitter or Facebook, you will have heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke this week about the ‘claptrap’ in many Church of England sermons. Tell us something we don’t already know, I hear you think.

Although he was reported slightly out of context, as you might expect, Archbishop Justin was actually saying something incredibly important about our faith and something which I have also banged on about from time to time, although not being the Archbishop of Canterbury and not using the word ‘claptrap’ I got rather less media coverage for saying so.

Archbishop Justin was preaching about Jesus being ‘good news for the poor’ and how we miss exactly how radical a message that was at the time, and how our faith has simply become too cosy by comparison. So that I don’t also report him out of context I want to quote the Archbishop fully:

“We often hear it in our culture as a rather agreeable and heart-warming little ditty about good news for the poor. In the exceptionally hierarchical and deeply unequal society of the time of Jesus it was provocative in the extreme. He had taken the passage, and claimed that in him alone was it fulfilled. It is no wonder that there was outrage. Jesus comes into the exile of the city of man (as Augustine described it) in which human beings find themselves and he challenges every assumption we make as to what is a good outcome for our society. He does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded (whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability, or sexuality). Nor did He permit us to turn religion into morality. The old sermons that we have heard so often in England, which I grew up with, which if you boiled them down all they effectively said was: “Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?” That is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.

We are, by contrast, as Christians to be caught up in a revolution of expectation and of implementation. Were it not for the fact that He is in title Prince of Peace, and lived out his mission in service and foot-washing, ending it in crucifixion and resurrection, this would be a call to violent revolution; but even that option is removed from our hands by the way in which He lived his life and calling.”

So Archbishop Justin made the point loud and clear that Christianity should never be allowed to become the moral claptrap of mere niceness, but is about something much greater and more transformative than that. As I said on Facebook I have never knowingly preached niceness and no one has ever accused me of practising mere niceness. Of course that is not to say I have avoided all claptrap, but I hope I have avoided that claptrap!

And then the Archbishop went on to talk about the Christian imperative to get stuck in and to get our hands dirty in the service of the poor and excluded but, of course, if you take his argument to its logical conclusion, Christians should not only be serving the outcasts of society we should also be working for non-violent revolution of the very systems that keep people poor and excluded. One of the five marks of mission are that the church should be seeking to challenge the unjust structures of society – i.e. we are good news to the poor not simply by feeding the poor but by challenging prophetically a world order that keeps so many poor.

I suspect that this is a bit of a conspiracy going on to neuter the truly radical nature of what it means for God to break into the world in order to restore the world to his values. Our society is keen to maintain its unjust structures and therefore it tells people of faith that faith has no place in the public sphere. Don’t bring your faith to work or onto the streets or anywhere outside the confines of the church walls on a Sunday morning. Faith, they say, is a matter of personal piety not societal transformation. And we, so often, are complicit in that conspiracy ourselves – the church by preaching the claptrap of niceness and each of us as Christians by so often accepting the message that being part of the body of Christ can somehow not affect our actions in the wider world.

But those around Jesus recognised the revolutionary nature of his incarnation right from the start. At the feast of the annunciation we heard the Song of Mary, the magnificat, at which Mary said before he was even born:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble, he has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

And those who know the prayer book will know that the magnificat is mirrored by the nunc dimittis, which is part of our gospel reading for today, and in many ways that is no less radical in its prediction of who Jesus is and what he will do.

Today we celebrate the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemass. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus had been taken to the temple to be presented to the priests and to God by Mary and Joseph. They did this because the law of Moses said that 8 days after a son was born he should be circumcised and 33 days after that the mother should go to a priest and offer a lamb as a burnt offering or, if she could not afford a lamb, she should take two doves or two pigeons.  This was in order for the women to be purified from childbirth and there were echoes of that tradition in the churching of women which has fallen out of use here only relatively recently.  The fact that Mary and Joseph took doves or pigeons and not a lamb tells us that they were not a wealthy family.

Whilst Mary. Joseph and the 40 days old Jesus are in the temple they have a remarkable encounter with the righteous and devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Simeon and Anna have a lot in common – first they were, it seems, both well on in years. We are told that Anna had reached the incredible, unbelievable age of at least 84 and that Simeon was on the verge of death. We are also told that both Simeon and Anna were full of the Holy Spirit. Again it is useful to be reminded that the Holy Spirit did not come into existence on the day of Pentecost but was at work in the story of God and his people throughout the bible.

God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, the one who would bring salvation to Israel, and, when he had saw Jesus Simeon say that he can now die in peace because he has seen the one who was promised:

“Master you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

These are the words that will be familiar to many from the nunc dimittis of evensong but they do not represent all of Simeon’s words. After he spoke these words Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, although not to Joseph,

This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own heart too.”

These words are the true mirror of Mary’s own words – casting down the rich and lifting up the lowly – the rising and falling of many. And Simeon also promised that Jesus would be spoken against, because he would reveal the thoughts of many hearts which is often an uncomfortable experience, and that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart, and you only have to think of a mother at the foot of a cross on which hung her executed son to understand that.

None of this is foretelling a world in which we are called to simply be a bit nicer to one another. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were ushering into the world God the Son and the point of Jesus was to upset the status quo, to up-end the accepted hierarchy, to be good news to the poor, to cast down rulers from their thrones, to lift up the humble, to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich away empty.   How have we allowed that message to be so neutered in our church and in our lives?

So I am pleased to say that the Archbishop of Canterbury and I are of one accord on this issue – out with the claptrap of niceness and in with the true meaning of Jesus!


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