At the end of the school carol service, the headteacher of our church school walked to the microphone to give her votes of thanks, on the way she whispered to me that I was on next, to say a few words and to give the blessing. I was all ready and had in my mind lots of good things to say about the Christmas story; about God in humble places and appearing to the shepherds, lowly people and the like. The headteacher stood up, did the votes of thanks, and then spent a moment talking to the congregation about Christmas and about God in humble places and appearing to the shepherds, lowly people and the like. I simultaneously felt delight that she was on-message and panic that I had been robbed of my lines. As I stood in front of the microphone I struck out into unanticipated territory. I said that while Matthew and Luke, in their gospels, give us our kings and our shepherds, angels and so forth, John begins his gospel with a wedding. That the wedding of Cana was setting the mood of a story which would be telling us what it was like for someone to be truly and fully alive.
Getting into my stride, I said that Christian living was like a dance, learning the steps to move in God’s way, and that John’s gospel was a story of how lives were transformed by this dance.
A couple of days later, I returned to the prologue to John’s gospel, a familiar text, to see what I could preach about on Christmas Day. As I read the lines I had read countless times before, it struck me that I was not far from the truth in describing the gospel as a dance. As my eyes scanned the verses about everything beginning with a still point, I began to contemplate the gap between this origin, and the promise of what we could become if we “received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” [John 1:12]. Yes it was a dance, a dance between being and becoming; between what is and what will come to be.
Suddenly I saw the wedding in Cana where the old ritual jars were transformed, the encounter with Nicodemus a point of disclosure, the meeting of the woman at the well as a holding and hallowing of a shameful history, and so on, as occasions of people coming into contact with something which made them more human than they were before. It went on, to a blind man healed by someone who did not have the right credentials onto the climax of a dead man breathing again. John’s gospel is indeed a dance, a dance into fuller humanity through contact with the source of life.
In the week before Christmas I was intrigued to read David Cameron’s speech to clergy at Christchurch Oxford on the No.10 website. He was speaking of the legacy of the King James Bible, the phrases it has left us in our language, and the fact that the church has been in the forefront of education for the masses and social action. He said that we need to remember that we are a Christian nation, that it is part of what we should stand for, because we have to stand for something in order to know who we are as a people. His speechwriter had done a good job in saying what he thought the audience would want to hear. But he was saying we had to go backwards, conveniently ignoring that a state church had meant our monarchs could not marry Catholics, and Jews were forbidden from reading for a degree at Oxford until the early last century, or that only Anglican clergy can sit in the House of Lords. He spoke of a past maintained by coercion. To this day the Unitarian and Baptist church buildings in my parish do not have doors which open directly onto the street, a reminder of the time where it was not legal for them to do so.
If Christian values have any place in our contemporary public life as a nation, we need to recover what our sacred texts tell us about what it means for human beings to flourish in the way that St John’s gospel offers us, a way of transformation upon contact; a way of re-connection with the source of life.
What does it mean to flourish as a human? This, in a world where there are some very skewed visions about what it means for humans to live well. Look at our rich, look at our celebrities, look at the anger of the dispossessed which spills out of the pubs onto Evesham High Street on a Saturday night.
We need to rediscover what it means to say that, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” rediscover the celebration and to learn again the dance steps to become the people God intends us to be, and to be the transforming presence God will for his people in the world.
Vicar of Evesham with Norton and Lenchwick