The incarnation is my favorite part of Christianity. When we say ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ we say something unique and particular about who we believe God to be.
The divine became human – that which was beyond came near – the unknowable made itself known to us – the transcendent fused the imminent horizon – the eternal entered time … however one frames it, we make bold claims when we talk about what happened in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
From there it gets steep! Folks start talking about the cosmic Christ and the 2nd person of the Trinity and the eternal nature of the Godhead. Those are all great but they are also lofty and can be abstract. Incarnation is the opposite: it is down to earth and fleshly.
Incarnation may seem like an odd thing to talk about during Easter week, but one can never escape the fact that the reason we think something significant happened on the cross and in the empty tomb is because of what we think happened in the person and work of Jesus.
The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are four of the acts in the great drama that Christians are called up into.
The life of Jesus – including works and teachings – is one that called the entire system of political and religious power into question. His parables undermined and interrogated the assumed order of things as well as the inherited understanding of how the world worked.
This inversion of assumed structures and subversion of “the powers that be” characterized not only his life and death … but the very notion of an incarnation.
Christianity is undeniably incarnational. The Romans tacked lots of people up on crosses – anyone they perceived as being subversive to the order and stability of the empire. Jesus was crucified for sedition, as were many others every week of every year. The reason that we think something significant happened on that cross is because we believe that God was present and revealed in some unique way in the person and work of Jesus.
John Cobb has said that Jesus embodied God’s presence in a unique way in history – a way that constituted Jesus’ very being and allowed him to say things like “I and the Father are one”.
If, therefore, this is what sets Jesus apart and makes that cross different from all of the other crosses – then we who follow the way of Jesus can not be satisfied to simply receive what was done on our behalf and then continue to participate in the system as it is and continue to reinforce the structures as we have inherited them.
We must ask the questions:
“Who is getting conned?” and “What is being served?”
There is a built–in romanticism to Christianity when it comes to the notion of the ‘early church’. There is a perpetual longing to return to some romantic ideal that we see re-presented in the Acts of the Apostles.
Returning to the past is trap for two reasons:
1) As books like The Churches the Apostles Left Behind have shown, the early church was as plural and diverse as one could possibly imagine. There is no such thing as THE early church. That is a romantic construction that serves as a kind of Eden image we are to be haunted by and perpetually longing to return to.
2) Even if it did exist, it would be impossible for us to return to it. We simply cannot get back to that romantic ideal or edenic notion. Time travel is impossible and too much has happened for a return to be possible.
Which is fine! Because Christianity is incarnational and our calling is to embody the spirit of God in our time and in our place as those early believers did in their time and place.
The church’s calling is not simply to repeat what those in the early centuries did – but to speak to and live in our culture the reality that they attempted to do in theirs!
You can hear more about this on the FreeStyle Christianity interview
Incarnation is why the impulse to preserve or conserve some former notion of culture is not Christian. Christians are not called to conserve some antique expression or ancient manifestation. Christians are to in-carnate (embody) the life of God by following the way of Jesus in their ‘here and now’.
In fact, I would take it one step further.
To follow the way of Jesus is to call into question and interrogate the very assumptions about the way things are and to subvert the inherited systems and structures that keep people from living the abundant life or the ‘life of the ages’ (eternal life).
One way that we would do this is to ask those two earlier questions:
Who is getting conned?
What is being served?
Given the chance, I would respond that those who have been sold a romanticized notion of the past – a past that we can never return to even if it was as good as remembered – are being conned.
It is somewhere between fantasy and fiction to long for a return to a time that is embedded in structures of patriarchy, sexism and injustice. Jesus would construct stories (parables) that captivated people and caused them to question the assumed order of things and to undermine their inherited notions of the way that world works.
The bigger question might be “what is being served?”
Christians are not supposed to get hung up on issues of flesh and blood but instead to combat the principalities and powers that reside in high places. It is a tragedy that so much of contemporary Christianity is consumed with culture wars obsessed with issues of flesh and blood … all the while neglecting the larger structures of power and control.
We think that we have really done something when we buy a Jesus-themed T-shirt at Walmart – or put a NoTW sticker on our SUV. We have purchased (within capitalism) and display (within consumerism) our branding that sets us apart (identity) and all the while ignore that we are participating in a larger system that doesn’t care if the $10 dollar shirt we bought has Jesus, Che, Bob Marley, Mother Theresa or Satan on it. The important thing is that we bought the shirt and reinforced the system as it is without asking who made that shirt or how in the world it only costs $10.
We say lofty things about Jesus. Jesus’ teachings were done in a way that undermined the established order and called into question the way things were.
The calling of the Christian is not to con/serve some former notion of a romanticized past – but to incarnate the life of God by the spirit of Christ in her time and in her place.
Yesterday I talked about the problem of the past and tomorrow will be part 3 of this series.