Sunday, December 26, 1993

Sermon -- 26 December 1993

1st SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS - 26 December 1993
Trinity, Iowa City - 9:00 & 5:00

Isa 61:10-62:3 Ps 147:13-21 Gal 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

The very Word of God, who was in the beginning with God and who was God, became flesh and lived among us! Astounding! Incredible! Scandalous! How are we to make sense of this?

The fact that you're here this Sunday, this year the very day after Christmas Day, and evidently aren't yet churched out by Christmas, suggests that you're fairly serious about this whole enterprise! So today, when the Gospel reading from St. John's Prologue calls us to step back from the Christmas narrative of Jesus' birth and to consider its meaning and implications, I'm going to presume upon you a bit, and invite you to accompany me on a bit of theological reflection about the Incarnation, the "enfleshment" of the eternal Word of God. This is very much a work in progress, and any comments from you will be most welcome. And if instead you'd rather go strolling off through the Historical Documents in the Prayer Book during this sermon, that's quite okay; in fact, we'll catch up with you there in a few minutes!

Anglican theology, over the four hundred fifty-odd years of our distinct existence, has not really been notably systematic, in the sense that Lutheran theology can be argued to hang on justification by faith or Calvinist theology on the sovereignty of God. But to the extent that our theological tradition shares a systematic principle, it is the Incarnation. But what can this mean? The official statement of the Church, as we know, is that Jesus Christ is truly and fully divine, and truly and fully human: the Word became flesh. (The classic instance of the doctrinal statement is the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, printed in the Prayer Book on page 864; you can look it up!) But that doesn't provide much of an answer to how this can be; it just states the question correctly. And despite St. John's Gospel and the official doctrinal statements of the Church, we still have a real tough time with this "the Word became flesh" business.

Now, "The Word put on a flesh costume and lived among us as if he were one of us" we wouldn't have too much trouble with. "The Word specially inspired one of us flesh folks, who was of course living among us, but the Word was really still up there somewhere" we wouldn't have too much trouble with. But "the Word became flesh" - ho Logos sarx egeneto - that we have trouble with. The result is that we end up thinking that Jesus was a super special guy (whose wonderful message later got all screwed up by theologians), or else (and actually, this has been much more common through the Christian centuries, even though it's been explicitly rejected as heresy in several variants) we end up thinking that Jesus was God walking around wearing a people suit but not being really completely human; and this is what we're falling into every time we wonder, "If Jesus is God, then how come he didn't: [fill in here whatever intellectual, social, psychological, political, economic, philosophical, medical, scientific, or artistic issue you wish Jesus had dealt with but didn't]?"

The Word became flesh.

Shift of gears. The Article of Religion about the Eucharist (Article 28, "Of the Lord's Supper," page 873!) rejects the doctrine of transubstantiation (that in the Eucharist the substance of bread and wine are wholly converted into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ; the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century defined this as an essential article of faith for Roman Catholics) because, among other reasons, it "overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament."

I turn to sacramental theology for a moment here because I think that our theology of the sacraments and our theology of the Incarnation are and must be mutually coherent. That is, I would argue, God's rela­tionship to the created world, in revelation, in the infusion of grace, and in the supreme revelation and infusion of grace the Incarnation, is a sacramental rela­tionship: the outward and visible is an effective sign of the inward and spiritual; human realities, as human realities, are bearers of the reality of God. So perhaps our understanding of the sacraments can illuminate our understanding of the Incarnation.

Back to the Eucharist for a moment: the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation says of the Eucharistic elements: "These things are no longer really bread and wine; instead they are now the Body and Blood of Christ." (The denial that they are any longer substantially bread and wine is what "overthroweth the nature of a sacrament".) I'm not very well read in Lutheran sacramental theology, but as I understand it, their doctrine of consubstantiation says: "These things are both bread and wine, and also the Body and Blood of Christ." The Zwinglian, radical protestant doctrine says: "These things are only bread and wine, but they remind us of the Body and Blood of Christ." The sacra­mental understanding I would argue for says: "This bread is the Body of Christ; this wine is the Blood of Christ." (This is a subtle distinction, but I think it's important.) This bread, not only without ceasing to be bread, but precisely as bread, is the Body of Christ for us, to nourish us as the Body of Christ in the world.

This is my Body.

The Word became flesh.

Transubstantiation is a "monophysite" understanding of the Eucharist, and coheres with a monophysite Chris­tology: the heresy that in Christ the divine more or less completely subsumes the human; Jesus was God in a people costume. Zwingli's protestant doctrine is an "adoptionist" understanding of the Eucharist and coheres with an adoptionist Christology: Jesus was just a human being, whom God then chose to become the Christ to tell us about God. (Zwingli of course would have vehemently rejected this heretical Christology, not realizing that it is what his sacramental doctrine arguably implies.) The Lutheran doctrine of consub­stantiation seems to cohere with the orthodox Christology of the Definition of Chalcedon; but, like the Definition, it states the issue, juxtaposing the two natures: bread/Body, human/divine, but not moving on toward a deeper understanding of their union; and I wonder if indeed the "consubstantiation" concept may not leave us rather close to the edge of sacramental schizophrenia and Christological Nestorianism. (And anybody who followed me through that gets a gold star!)

The Word became flesh.

God really did enter into our human world, as a real human being - not to turn us into something different but to restore us to what we really are and were created to be as human beings - reflections (finite reflections, created reflections, but true reflections, the image and likeness) of God's own reality. Our human nature, as such, (not as fallen, not as sinful, but as human) is capax Dei, capable of fellowship with God. Our fallen human world needs to be redeemed, it needs to be reconciled, it needs to be healed, it needs to be brought to its fulfillment; but it does not need to be denied, it does not need to be escaped, it does not need to be transcended, except in the sense that our world's final redemption and resurrection by God will be a self-transcendence, and our ultimate and eternal destiny. All our hopes and dreams, our loves and joys, our art and science, insofar as they are authentically human (and not corrupted by self-seeking and sin) are no mistake. Our problem is not that we are human, but that we are sinners, and to that extent subhuman. The Incarnation of the Word of God affirms our humanity as such, while healing our sinfulness and reconciling us from our estrangement from God. The Incarnation demonstrates, as the sacraments celebrate, that it is in the ordinary things of our human lives, not just the extraordinary, that God acts to restore us to wholeness. It is in the daily fabric of our lives - our work and our play, our arts and our crafts, our science and our technology, our politics and our economics, and above all in our relation­ships with one another, that God is present to us in transforming gracious power. Christ was not born among us, did not live and teach and heal and die and rise, to make us more "religious" but to make us authentically human once more.

For God to come slumming among us in human guise but without really touching or being touched by our humanity - that's not good news. For God to pick one of us and entrust to that one a message - well, God has done that many times, all over the world and all through the ages, but if that's all there is, it's not really very good news. The Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory - now that's the Good News of Christmas!

Sunday, May 23, 1993

Sermon -- 23 May 1993

7 OF EASTER—23 May 1993
Trinity, Iowa City

Acts 1:1-14 Psalm 47 1 Peter 4:12-19 John 17:1-11

[Stare at the ceiling, until most of the congregation is also staring.]

One of the oldest practical jokes in the world! We’ve all done it, or wanted to do it, or had it done to us. And of course the joke hangs on the fact that there is something contagious about staring at the sky.

“Hey, whatcha lookin’ at?”

And, of course, today in the reading from Acts, a repeat from Ascension Day this past Thursday, the disciples are staring at the sky, and God says, “Hey, whatcha lookin’ at?”
Well, the text says it was two men in white robes, but we’ve always assumed they were angels; and since “angels” means “messengers,” and these figures were delivering a message from God, that makes them angels, whatever else they may or may not have been.

“Men of Galilee” (—by the way, if you were worried that we had lapsed here from political correctness, that’s what the original Greek text says: “Adult male Galilaeans”; “Hey, you guys from Galilee!”)

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I’ve always found these words—clearly a rebuke to the disciples by the angels—a little troubling. Because if Jesus is coming back the same way he went—and that’s what this verse has usually been taken to mean—then it seems to me that standing around watching the sky and waiting would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. And indeed some of the dispensationalist sects have developed standing around watching and waiting into a high art form! But when God’s messengers say, “Why are you staring at the sky?” the implication seems fairly clear that we ought to have better things to do. So maybe we’re missing something here.

[Art: L’Ascenzione da Christo]

Images of the Ascension of Jesus. Balloons. “We have liftoff.” [Stare at the ceiling again.]

Except that isn’t what the New Testament actually says. The Gospels and the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament say a fair amount about what the Ascension of Jesus to heaven means: Jesus in his risen, glorified humanity going to the Father, entering into his glory, the true High Priest into the true Sanctuary, transcending a particular time and place (first century Judaea) in order to be Lord of all times and all places. But the New Testament doesn’t say very much about what the Ascension of Jesus looks like; and actually, the distinct impression I get is that it isn’t really the sort of thing that can look like anything. What we see in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles today is Jesus’ final appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. And he leaves them in such a way that it is clear to them that this is the final appearance. They aren’t to expect any more. They’re out on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, a place where they apparently often went, a hill overlooking the city but hardly a towering mountain. And there’s a cloud, which for the Jews is the standard sign of the presence of God. And then Jesus is gone. Archbishop Ramsey suggested that the ascension as an event can be understood as an enacted parable of a reality which is actually concomitant with the resurrection itself.

I am reminded of two other episodes in the Gospel narratives. One is the morning of Easter Day. The women come to the tomb, and find the stone rolled back, with an angel sitting on it (these guys in white robes do get around! Especially when God suspects, with good reason, that we’re too dumb to pick up on the subtext without prompting). And, as Fr. Parkin reminded us six weeks ago, the angel told the women, “Come, see the place where Jesus lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples.” “Come and see; go and tell.” That’s really the same message the angels bring today: “Okay, you’ve seen; now go and tell.”

The other episode I’m reminded of is the Transfiguration, when Peter, James and John had a vision of Jesus transformed in radiant glory. You remember how Peter, the national poster child for the “Doesn’t Get It” Society, was all set to build three shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, so eager was he to remain basking in the glow of this tremendous experience. When the cloud (the sign of the presence of God) passed, Jesus—alone—was still there; he told them to keep this under their hats for the time being, and took them back down the mountain to continue the ministry of proclaiming and enacting God’s Reign. “You came and saw; now we still have to go and tell.”

This time, today, when the cloud passes Jesus is gone, at least in the way the disciples have known him until now. But the message is still the same one: “You’ve come and seen; now go and tell.”

Go and tell what? Aha, that’s a good question! Go and tell the good news! The good news about what? Go and tell the good news that Jesus the Messiah is risen and is ascended into heaven! But what does that mean? We know what it means, I trust; we know it well enough that we’ve forgotten how very densely packed full of meaning it is, and that for most folks, hearing it all still packed up, it’s just “religious stuff.” Actually, a lot of these folks believe that the resurrection and ascension are true as a matter of fact, but don’t have a clue why it makes any difference to their lives. So we must tell, not only with our lips but in our lives: that we can walk in newness of life because Jesus Christ is risen: Jesus, no longer just a figure in history but now and forever the Lord of all time and space; Jesus, who calls us into loving fellowship with him and solidarity with his cause: our sinfulness forgiven, our estrangement reconciled, our deathliness forever vanquished, our freedom and worth eternally ratified in the power of the Spirit! The Reign of God is upon us!