26th December 2021
The Feast of Stephen
A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
Sunday 26th December, The First Sunday of Christmas
(Acts 7.51-end; Matthew 10.17-22)
Twelve or so years ago, this pulpit was graced by the presence of Desmond Tutu, a heroic character whose death was announced this morning. He was here to be made a Sarum Canon of this cathedral. Just before that Sunday morning service began, I was tipped off by a former canon of Cape Town cathedral, who knew him from his time years earlier as Archbishop there. ‘Desmond only has one sermon’, he said: ‘God loves you’. And it came to pass that Desmond Tutu got into this pulpit, and preached, and returned again and again to the phrase: ‘God loves you’. And we all hung upon his every word.
What underpinned his speaking, and what gave intensity to our listening, was a life framed and moulded by experience of oppression, injustice, deprivation, and cruelty. ‘God loves you’ is not a trite and unimaginative phrase when it comes repeatedly from the lips of someone whose whole life has been affected by the antithesis of lovingkindness. Thank God for Desmond Tutu, and may he rest in peace in the God whose love he knew and shared.
His death comes to our notice as the Church keeps not just the feast of Christmas, but this day – 26th – with its somewhat contrasting focus on the martyrdom of Stephen and the promise of Jesus to h is followers that they will be flogged, threatened, and betrayed by their nearest and dearest. 24 hours after joyfully celebrating the birth of our saviour, marked with proclamations of peace on earth and goodwill among people, we encounter human violence, cruelty, and injustice. And it’s relentless, because in two days’ time the church will remember the baby boys murdered because of the fear stirred up in king Herod by news of the birth of Christ, and then on the next day after that we will remember the horrible murder at the altar of his own cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. In the Church calendar, no sooner are we into peace and goodwill, than we are into violence, injustice, and death.
‘Happy Christmas!’ indeed.
The Church does not give us a lovely Dickensian, Frank Capra or Irving Berlin Christmas, dusted with snowflakes and winter scenes, celebrated with good cheer and human warmth, in which twisted hearts and bitter lips break into bonhomie and smiles, and happy endings abound, sung in carols and enriched by compulsory feasting and drinking. The underpinnings of our PM’s puzzling recent notion of ‘saving Christmas’ in the face of the pandemic – for Christmas could be Christmas if we couldn’t meet, eat, drink, and be merry.
But it can – indeed it must. Christmas can only be Christmas if it brings in the violated and betrayed, the oppressed and the invisible. Tutu’s ‘God loves you’ means something because this is the Christmas story. Love came down at Christmas, peace on earth and goodwill to all were proclaimed – and humans got on with the routine business of exploitation, betrayal, and victimisation. As John’s gospel puts it, ‘the world did not know him’.
‘God with us’ is not about suffusing human life with a rose-tint, or deluding ourselves that there’s nothing nasty out there. It is not that kind of false comfort. Rather, it is the genuine comfort of knowing that something greater than all this viciousness is in our midst; of meeting a truth which sets us free.
According to Luke, Stephen followed the example of his master Jesus by praying for the forgiveness of those who were killing him. There is a remarkable freedom in this: by contrast, I saw recently a description of not forgiving as being like drinking rat poison, then waiting for the rat to die. The world is not transformed by adding to the sum of suspicion, anger, revenge, and so on; it is transformed by making present the peace and goodwill in the most bitter of circumstances – in Tutu’s case, for example by helping his society confront the truths of its past in the Truth and Reconciliation commission.
I like my Christmas dinner, my festive cheer, my wine and sweetmeats, as much as the next person. But we will know ‘God with us’ most truly when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.