Incarnation

“I learned as a child not to trust in my body.

I’ve carried that burden through my life.”

-  Bruce Cockburn, “Last Night of the World”

“This is how you know the Spirit of God:

Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is from God.”

      -  John the Apostle, 1 John 4:2

One of the first tasks of the early church was figure out exactly who and what Jesus is.  It took three centuries to collect all the New Testament teaches about Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of God into a single view of Jesus Christ.  What emerged from that discussion is the doctrine of “incarnation.”  The church came to believe Jesus was and is everything that God is while He also came to earth “in flesh” (the literal meaning of “incarnation”) and is everything that we humans are.  He is fully God.  He is fully and physically human.

From the first decades of Christianity some believers under the influence of Greek philosophers devalued the physical humanity of Jesus.  All the writings of John the Apostle were meant to refute this intrusion of Greek philosophy into Christian belief and to reaffirm that Jesus came in the flesh: in a body that could be physically seen and touched.

Plato, the Greek philosopher, and his students believed that the world of the mind is morally superior to the world of the body.  We can imagine a perfect chair they said.  But as soon as we build an actual chair there will inevitably be some flaw in the physical representation of that perfect idea.

A friend recently completed a seminary course in church history.  He reported that the most important lesson of the entire semester was something the professor said as he was dismissing students on the last day of class: “Always remember the church and its thought have been more influenced by Plato than by Jesus.”

Roughly a century after the doctrine of incarnation was fully formed one of the church’s most influential writers wove together Christian theology and Greek thought into a Christian philosophy.  The son of a Christian mother and a Gnostic (Greek) father, Saint Augustine struggled mightily with his own physical temptations.  His infamous prayer was, “Lord, give me chastity!  But not yet.”  The dualism (body vs. mind) of Greek philosophy fit well with much of Augustine’s experience.  Through his writing Greek dualism rapidly grew in influence across the church.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation a few fine cracks began to appear in the Greek foundation of Christian thought.  Celibacy was dropped as a requirement for clergy.  A number of ascetic practices designed to discipline and punish the body toward greater spirituality were rejected.  But Greek thought had become so thoroughly woven into western thought it remained firmly embedded in the Protestant mind, albeit manifested in different ways.

The Protestant Reformation recognized faith as the basis for our salvation.  But like any truth this very biblical truth can become misleading when out of balance.  The Protestant mind came to regard faith (what we believe: a function of our mind) as more valuable and important than works (what we do with out bodies).  So committed was Martin Luther to this principle that he questioned the inclusion of the Epistle of James in the New Testament.  James had asked, “What good is it my brothers and sisters, if someone says they have faith but do not have works?  Can their faith save them? … Faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.”

Let’s take a break from history and celebrate Christmas!

Most of us love Christmas.  But perhaps we don’t understand some the important message of a woman giving bloody birth to a baby in Bethlehem.  It is incarnation: in flesh.  In Jesus God did not merely come to humanity.  In Jesus God came as humanity in human flesh.  The body which can so easily become a vehicle for sin also became a vehicle for moral perfection.  The human body which God created and then declared “very good” is not sinful or evil.  It is a gift from God, carries the image of God, and in the human person of Jesus carried the very fullness of God.

One characteristic of emerging churches (not to be confused with emergent Christianity which is a small and generally more radical movement within emerging Christianity) is a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of incarnation.  Not only does this help us love the humanity of Jesus along with his “God-ness”, but also helps us better understand ourselves as physical beings created in the very good image of God. 

The idea of incarnation – the idea that God can express his holiness and perfection through the physical - has great implications beyond how we understand Jesus.

  If God were only interested in souls the work of mission here and elsewhere would simply be to save souls.  The point of building hospitals or schools, developing agriculture in the third world, or advocating for affordable housing in the city would be simply to gain credibility in the soul-winning venture.  But if God truly cares about people’s bodies we will feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and house the homeless simply because they are hungry, naked and homeless.  We care about what God cares about.  Of course, this implies we will also share the Good News of Jesus because God does care that people experience His love and forgiveness.

If you have been following these musings you know that I am an unrepentant Baptist.  I take a possibly unholy pride in the knowledge that Canadian Baptists have led the way in incarnational mission for many decades. 

  Our bodies are equal vessels of holy worship as our minds and spirits.   Not only do we lift our minds and spirits to God, we lift our voices, our hands and our emotions to Him.  Not only do we learn through listening to words but also through creating art, reflecting on symbols and listening to beautiful music.  We taste the Gospel in the bread and cup of the communion table.  We are immersed in the tomb of Jesus in the water of baptism only to join His resurrection in rising again to a new way of life. 

  We were created to take care of the earth, not to consume it.  Planet earth is not a mere staging ground from which our souls depart earth to spend eternity with Jesus; earth was created to be our home and our responsibility.  The first command we received from God was to care for our planet.  How we inhabit this earth is a deeply spiritual issue as well as an environmental issue.  (The church in North America, however, will never be able to take an effective stance against prevalent consumerism while churches operate on consumerist models of behaviour and decision-making.)

  The New Testament promises a resurrection body along with a new heaven and a new earth.  God plans not only to rescue us from the fall; but to rescue the creation itself that is groaning in desire to be all that God designed it to be.

  Faith is a way of life.  Faith is offering our body as a living sacrifice to God: treating our body as a suitable temple for the Holy Spirit and using our body for holy acts of love and good works.

The Good News of Jesus is larger than my soul and yours.  The Gospel brings the whole human person living in a whole human society under the redeeming rule of Jesus Christ, the “in flesh” Son of God.