A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard on the Ninth Sunday of Trinity at St George's Church and St John's Church
At this time of year, we are treated to three consecutive Sundays where the lectionary readings refer to bread, of the feeding of the 5,000; of Jesus being the bread of life, nourishing us on our spiritual pilgrimage; Jesus as the one who can quench our deepest need rather than the modern god of consumption.
I like the use of something so physical within our spirituality. So to help us think further about it, I am going to reflect upon the incarnation. This has traditionally been a doctrine that Catholics have particularly emphasized. Last week Fr Peter gave us a lovely quote (which is on our website) from the former archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. Here’s another: "[Christianity is] the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions." By which he doesn’t mean that the material world is all there is. But that Christianity is profoundly material in that the world is infused with the pulsating presence of God. Our Anglican tradition has always valued and stressed the sacramental life of the church – so the liturgy, the building, the visual depictions of stained glass windows and icons, art, music, the light of candles and waft of incense – these elements are windows to the divine. They not only express something of transcendence but they are conduits, or mediators of the divine energy that is all around us, closer to us than our very selves. The theological root of this is the incarnation.
But what does incarnation mean? Well, when we cook chilli con carne, we are cooking con-with, carne-flesh. Incarnation literally means enfleshment. The trouble is that most of Christian history has been excarnational – a flight from matter, embodiment, physicality, and this world. This avoidance of enfleshment is much more Platonic than Christian. There is often nervousness about the material, about the body, within some parts of the Christian tradition, which tends to emphasize faith as a knowing or feeling. We end up with a radically interior spirituality where ‘individual experience is sacralised’.
Incarnation means that the spiritual nature of reality (the immaterial, the formless, the invisible) and the material (the physical, that which we can see and touch) are integrally linked. And they always have been, ever since the Big Bang, which happened some 13 billion years ago. The Genesis story describes how ‘God's Spirit hovered over’ creation from the very first moment of existence – setting the trajectory for the rest of the book. And we continually need reminding of this.
We often associate the Incarnation only with Jesus' birth 2,000 years ago. And that of course was the unique and specific human incarnation of God, which Christians believe is found in the flesh and blood person of Jesus. That was perhaps when humanity was ready for a face-to-face encounter. But matter and spirit have always been one, since God decided to manifest God's self in the first act of creation. Where does this endless drive toward life, multiplication, creativity, and self-perpetuation, and generativity come from, except from Something/Someone we call an indwelling "Spirit"?
Unfortunately, many Christians believe that the motive for divine incarnation was merely to fix what we humans had messed up. The ‘substitutionary atonement theory’ of salvation (eg Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice, quenching God’s wrath, so that God can justly forgive the sins).
This theory treats Christ as a mere Plan B. In this attempt at an explanation for the Incarnation, God didn’t really enter the scene until God saw that we had messed things up. Creation was not inherently sacred, lovable, or dignified. And God is revealed to be petty and punitive. I believe this doctrine has done much more damage than good, and we are still trying to undo this view of God and reality.
By the modern age, which seemed to read everything in mechanistic and transactional terms, most Christians acted as if the only real rationale for the Divine Incarnation was to produce a human body that could die and rise again. It did not matter much what Jesus exemplified, taught, revealed, or loved. Things like simple living, compassionate self-less love, non-violence, inclusivity – which are now proving necessary for the very survival of the species – are ignored. Christians focused instead on the last three days of Jesus' life and his freely offered blood. Our narrow focus on this explanation for Jesus' divine-human existence allowed us to ignore almost all of what he taught. In this view, Jesus is a mere tribal god instead of the Cosmic Lord and Christianity ends up just another competing and exclusionary religion instead of "good news for all the people" (Luke 2:10b), which was the very first announcement at Jesus' birth.
Let me put this to you in another way, by means of a question: what is more important, Christmas or Easter? How we answer this reveals what we think about the significance of Jesus.
If incarnation is the big thing, then Christmas is bigger than Easter. If God became a human being, then it's good to be human and incarnation is already redemption. For the first 1,000 years of the church, there was greater celebration and emphasis on Easter. For St Francis of Assisi, if the Incarnation was true, then Easter took care of itself. Resurrection is simply incarnation coming to its logical conclusion: we are returning to our original union with God.
The Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr, describes how the early church didn’t have trouble with what we describe as universal salvation (apocatastasis, as in Acts 3:21). We are all saved by infinite love and mercy anyway. "God alone is good" (Mark 10:18), so there's no point in distinguishing degrees of worthiness.
Everything in creation merely participates in God's infinite goodness, and our job is to trust and allow that as much as possible.
At baptism preparation, the thing that parents often ask is a question about ‘original sin’. It’s a natural concern of parents to want their child to be safe, embraced by God, and yet there is sometimes a nervousness and confusion about a distant memory of ‘original sin’. But we make a terrible mistake by starting with ‘original sin’ (a phrase not found in the Bible); rather, it is essential that we begin with original blessing. In our creation story, it’s state six times in a row: ‘God created it, and it was good’ (Genesis 1:9-31), and it ends with ‘indeed it was very good!’ But, up to the present time, most of Christianity concentrated on what went wrong with our original goodness.
Richard Rohr goes on to say that the Franciscan starting point is not sin; our starting point is Divine Incarnation itself. So our ending point is inevitable and predictable: resurrection. God will lead all things to their glorious conclusion, despite the crucifixions in between. Jesus is the standing icon of the entire spiritual journey from start to finish: divine conception, ordinary life, moments of enlightenment (such as his baptism, Peter's confession, and Jesus' transfiguration), works of love and healing, rejection, death, resurrection, and ascension. That is not just Jesus; it is true for all of us.
Reference: Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I Am That Which I Am Seeking