The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s090g09 St John 27/12/2009
'he saw and believed' John 20.8
We have the opportunity to celebrate the readings for Christmass 1 or St John today. However I have chosen St John, because I want to explore the similarities and the differences between the incarnation and the resurrection.
We are still celebrating the incarnation, for we do this for the 12 days of Christmass as the song concerning this arcane piece of liturgical trivia teaches us and in doing so we celebrate the fact of God entering into the reality of human existence as it really is. The birth is a real birth not a pretend one, even if we believe the conception was something different from a real one. Jesus was born, not into a family of one of the secular or religious 'movers and shakers' of the society of his day, but into an ordinary peasant family. And so we rejoice that Jesus became as we are, and became as everyone else is. We rejoice that his birth transfigures our own birth and existence, even while we remain as obscure and historically insignificant, hidden amongst a great company of others who are likewise obscure. His incarnation is not to make us great, rich, powerful, eternally free of pain and frustrations or persons who will change society. His birth means that his blessing is not confined to a select coterie of faithful devotees, but gives our present existence dignity as it gives everyone else's existence dignity.
The difficulty that I want to point out is that traditionally we look at the resurrection and ascension as the reversal of the incarnation. We look not for a blessing on this life but an escape from it. In this view, the incarnation is but a temporary aberration that is 'fixed' by Jesus death and ascension into heaven. This would make the gospel message fleeting, time limited and therefore illusory for us mortals here and now. It promises nothing for us as we are; only a future 'pie in the sky when we die', that we have to earn. It offers an endless indeterminate quest that only a few will complete successfully and a huge number who have neglected even beginning or who have fallen by the wayside along the way, will not share.
But the resurrection is the demonstration that God cannot be confined. God cannot be confined by the grave. God cannot be confined by the theological perceptions of those who tried to save the divine for themselves. So God cannot be confined by the theological perceptions of us, when we want to save the divine for ourselves, even if we call ourselves 'christian'. So the resurrection is but the extension of the incarnation, that Jesus does not belong to a subset of humanity titled 'christian', but that the incarnation into continuing humanity as it really is. His resurrection means that his blessing is not confined to a select coterie of faithful devotees, but continues to give our present existence dignity as it gives everyone else's existence dignity. Mary Magdalene, for all her love, cannot hold the risen Jesus to herself. The risen Jesus goes before the disciples away from the supposed presence of God in the Temple, to the unholy Galilee, back to ordinary life. Religion, typified by the Temple, but also by Mary Magdalene's clutching, St Peter wanting to build the booths on the mountain of Transfiguration and a multitude of other exampes; each want to restrict God to itself and to its faithful devotees. The risen Christ means the divine is found in everyone.
And I need to point out that the ascension reinforces this. The risen Christ is not just a possession of the disciples, they are merely witnesses that God is present in the unholy, in the ordinary, in the unfaithful, in the sceptical in others. His ascension means that his blessing is not confined to a select coterie of faithful devotees, but continues to give our present existence dignity as it gives everyone else's existence dignity.
The incarnation means that God cannot be confined in a womb. The whole purpose of pregnancy is to give birth, into the real world. God does not need to be protected from the world and real people - in the unholy, in the ordinary, in the unfaithful, in the sceptical; either in womb, temple, scripture, sacrament or tomb. Indeed we celebrate not the conception of a foetus but the birth of a baby into the real world. It is in the world where complete relationship becomes possible.
Thus 'repentance' is not turning away from historical personal realities, but towards those present around us. Our task, our mission, is therefore not to convert others to be followers of a coterie of faithful, defined by liturgical, scriptural or theological orthodoxy, promising greatness, riches, power, eternal freedom from pain and frustrations or to be agents of change in society; but to see, acknowledge and celebrate the divine in all.
So the mission of the church has to be to confer dignity on others. St Paul says to those in the Corinthian church: 'who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?' (4.7). The 'mission' of the church is to be re-integrated into society, not to be separated from it.
Sadly, of course, the church has indulged herself in debates about who Jesus was before the incarnation the credal phrase in Greek is 'homo-ousios' 'of one substance with the Father'. The important thing is not about who Jesus was before the incarnation, but who he associated with after the incarnation. The important thing is that Jesus became 'of one substance' with all of humanity with the prostitutes, the tax-collectors and the sinners. We are fighting the wrong fight and missing the point of it all if we continue to argue about Jesus' pre-incarnation existence. Jesus wasn't crucified because he claimed to be the son of God that was the excuse of those who had him killed, and why on earth should we believe their excuse? He was really killed because he was associated with others - in the unholy, in the ordinary, in the unfaithful, in the sceptical. They tried to confine God to their perception of liturgical, scriptural or theological orthodoxy, promising greatness, riches, power, eternal freedom from pain and frustrations or to be agents of change in society. Delusions of grandeur indeed!
I started with the quotation: 'he saw and believed'. Our faith is based on what we see, not on what we hope for. The disciples saw Jesus associating with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. They saw him incarnated into real society. Others saw the same thing and couldn't believe what they were seeing. So shocking was it, such a reproof to their own faith and sense of spiritual superiority that they had Jesus killed. In our day, do we look for God in all that we see around us, or do we see only people who do not live up to our expectations? If the second is the case for us; and someone tried to enlighten us to the reality of the first, would we be dismissive, even contemptuous? And in doing so, do we not condemn ourselves to simply more of the same?
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