3 January – “And the Word became flesh”
Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber
“And the Word became flesh”
With these five words we are at the centre of reality. Of course, this has been an increasingly contested claim right at the beginning of anything that could be called Christian faith, not only in the culture, but at the centre of the life of the Church – from the beginning, right down to today.
It is salutary that we should have such a text before us at Christmas with its proclamation that God has a human face. For Christmas obviously tells the life story of a human being. Jesus was born. He lived in subjection to his parents, grew up, learned a trade, made friends and enemies, climbed mountains, sailed boats, wept at a grave, lamented over the state of his church, cut he bled, crucified he died.
Nobody realistically disputes this except so predictably and erroneously the likes of Andrew Masterton in a leading article in The Age on Christmas eve.
But nobody gets really fussed about the catalogue of a biography. Only with a text like: “And the word became flesh”, does the adrenalin start pumping. For the question that rocked the early Church was whether the gospels record the human life of GOD. An influential theologian to be reckoned with was one Arius who said emphatically: No. Whoever it was who was born, hungered, wept, suffered and died it couldn’t be the Creator. God was too dignified to go through a birth canal or to shriek in agony from a Roman cross. Jesus must be a creature, albeit one so great that he deserves the honorific title “Son of God”.
Arius was not being unreasonable – indeed, in the light of the fundamental axioms of ancient theology which understood God to be utterly other than the world there could be no other conclusion.
But by the end of the fourth century, the Church rejected it. Still, discomfort with the gospel insistence that the word became flesh remained even among those who confessed the Creed. It reappeared in the early fifth century controversy that broke out when Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to calling Mary “the bearer of GOD”. All that could be said of her was that she was “the bearer of Christ”, because, like Arius, the followers of Nestorius insisted that God isn’t the kind of being who could be borne (with an e) or born (without an e).
It was all very subtle as reputable controversies always are. Jesus could be confessed to be true God and true man, but his followers maintained that the gospels were really the record of a double life. Jesus’ humanity was born of Mary, true enough, but none of his human experiences could happen to his divine nature which has no beginning or need, cannot grow up and cannot be acted upon. But on the other hand recorded Godlike actions such as healing the sick or driving out demons or being transfigured on a mountain are really speaking of his divinity.
All this sound familiar? Sounds reasonable too. But the Church drew the unreasonable conclusion that GOD was conceived and born of Mary, effectively closing the gap between the claim to a human as well as divine nature.
History has proved that what we might call the Nestorian shuffle is hard to break. The point is that still today, followers of Arius and the Nestorians think that they can understand an abstract term like divine nature without reference to the gospel, and who then try to retrofit the Gospel into what they already know. Thus it ever was. The orthodox – the word means right praise, not right belief! – did the opposite. They discerned that, however strange and disreputable, the Gospel reveals the only God who is. If that meant revising all they thought they knew about God, so be it.
Retrofit the Gospel or allow orthodoxy to retrofit the claim to “reality”, that most abstract of words! This has always been the issue, and it is well and truly alive in our day. Is Jesus an exemplary man who deserves the honorific title “Son of God”. Is he merely a divine emissary from God whose mission was a prophetic call to try harder at being human. Or is he the eternal Word that was at the beginning of Creation, now made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the very incarnation of the always creative Word, and thus is “of one substance with the Father”? If so, then before any other part of our anatomy, we have to “repent” with our brains, and so revise our understanding of reality?
The fact is that if the Church had not decided for the latter we would be living in a very different world. For example, we cannot live today without encountering Islam and its degenerate heresies. But this is an illustration of a religion that agrees with Arius. For Islam, Jesus is an honourable prophet, but certainly not God. This is why, though popular and a claim to peaceful co-existence, the claim that Christianity and Islam believe in the one God is simply an empty formula, apparent rather than real. Because for Islam there is no divine human incarnation (only the Book, the Koran) degenerate heretics can ultimately sit lightly to life, others and certainly their own. Killing bodies for a supposed greater good is not really a problem. The word becoming flesh, on the other hand, is the guarantee that bodies are everything. Mary “bears” God, of which the so-called Virgin birth is sign. Here, by the way, is where we must really think theologically not gynaecologically, if this really rather marginal witness of Jesus birth is a problem for you. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is not a sexual deputy. Rather the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit affirms that bodies and God inextricably belong together, which is why, too, the Church, the body of Christ, is not negotiable – if you had any thought of leaving! Indeed, to roll the dice for six, there is no life outside the body even in heaven, which the creed beautifully encapsulates in the confession of the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.
But enough. If the Church is to have any cutting edge in the future, those of us who are left must enter much more energetically into the vocation of practical theology, for in essence most of the problems of the present state of the world are deeply theological. Good will and try harder are now not good enough.
That is why any future for the planet, not to speak of Christian existence, will be nothing more than knowing why “and the Word became flesh” is absolutely everything.