Archive

Incarnation

This sermon was preached in the parish of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale, on the east side of Toronto, on the second Sunday of Lent, February 24, 2013.

The Scripture readings for the day were Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35.

———-

“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” (Philippians 3.21).

Living God,

Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word

Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you

Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

“How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” These were some of the final words of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, before his hands were bound and his body thrown on the fire in the mid-second century for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. Yesterday was his feast day which Christians have celebrated for more than 1,850 years. The faithful who witnessed his death tell us that there was no stench of burning flesh from the fire but only that of baking bread, “a sweet odour…as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there,” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 15). Ignatius was a friend and contemporary of Polycarp who too was martyred. As he was being taken to Rome to die he wrote a number of letters one of which pleaded: “My birth pangs are at hand. Bear with me, my brothers. Do not hinder me from living: do not wish for my death…Allow me to receive the pure light; when I arrive there I shall be a real man. Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God.” “When I arrive there,” speaking of his martyrdom, “I shall be a real man”. That is to say, in death we shall be made fully human. Life in death. Is this not the mystery of Christ that we are confronted with and confounded by during Lent? As we journey with Jesus towards the Cross this Lent, as we consider the call of discipleship to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus, to come and die along with him, may we pray along with Ignatius, “Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God.”

polycarpmartyrdom

In our epistle reading from this morning the Apostle Paul exhorts the recipients of his letter to “stand firm in the Lord” (4.1) for the Lord Jesus Christ will return from heaven to rescue us and, “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself,” (3.21). This is the ultimate destiny of human creatures, to receive glorious bodies like the risen Jesus and to love God and live in Him forever. To say that our bodies will be conformed to the body of his glory is to say that human creatures were made for immortality. Fr. John Behr, an Orthodox priest and theologian, notes that “Adam and Eve are not presented in Genesis as being immortal beings who by sin fell into mortality, but as mortal beings who had the chance of attaining immortality” but failed to do so. The Early Church Father Irenaeus used the example of human growth to illustrate this same truth. Adam and Eve were, says Irenaeus, like infants in the garden and like infants they were to grow up in maturity and stature. Grow up into immortality. That is, grow up to be partakers in the Divine life. Irenaeus looks to the Apostle Paul for this. He points, for example, to Philippians which we heard this morning, where just before our lesson Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead,” (3.10-11). In the person of Christ Jesus, and the resurrection attests to this, the human project is complete. Humanity is finally taken up to partake in the very life of God. The mortal puts on immortality. This was always the goal for human creatures and in Christ, being fully human and fully Divine, it is fulfilled. While all of this happens in Christ’s own person, he will return and raise us up with him so that what he has done for us will be done in us and we will be transformed. We will become, finally, truly human creatures.

OK, so human creatures were made for immortality, made to be partakers in the very life of the Triune God. This is what it is to be fully human. But how does this happen for us, how is it that we put on immortality? It happens, quite paradoxically, in death as was the case for Jesus. Earlier in the letter Paul writes of Christ, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross,” (2.6-8). This is the power of God made manifest in human weakness. And by his death Christ Jesus tramples down death and transforms it. This is the mystery of Christ, the mystery of life in death. We know this because Paul continues, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name…” and so on (2.9-11). The point is this, Christ emptied himself, he suffered and died, therefore God exalted him. The resurrection of Christ Jesus is not the victory over what is the defeat of the cross. No, the resurrection of Jesus is the proof that the suffering way of the cross is the victory, that the way of Jesus is life. And so Paul can pray as he does with such incredible longing to share in the sufferings of Jesus by becoming like him in his death (3.10). Indeed, for Paul, that we can suffer for Christ is a privilege that he graciously grants us (1.29). Can we pray this along with Paul? To be sure this is a difficult way, hence Paul’s constant exhortations to “stand firm” and “hold fast” that occur over and over again in the letter. Can we not follow Jesus without all of this talk of suffering and death? I thought being a Christian was simply about trying to be a nicer person? Can we not have Jesus but leave the cross, leave our cross, behind? No, says Paul. For those who would desire to save their lives, those who would desire to preserve their lives and store up for themselves all sorts of trinkets on this earth are “enemies of the cross of Christ…and their end is destruction…their minds are set on earthly things,” (3.18-19).

As for us, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is, the Lord Jesus Christ who humbled himself unto death on the cross. The Lord Jesus Christ of whom Paul exhorts us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” (2.5). That is, the same mind which does nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than oneself. The same mind that looks not to one’s own interests, but to the interests of others (2.3-4). The same mind which led Christ Jesus to willingly lay down his life in suffering love for the world. S. John Chrysostom asks, “Was not thy Master hung upon the tree?…Crucify thyself, though no one crucify thee…If thou lovest thy Master, die His death,” (Homily XII, Philippians 3.18-21). In other words, even though no one may be crucifying you, crucify thyself. Even though you may not be dragged out into the streets and thrown upon the fire, daily throw thyself upon the fire. Chose the way of suffering, self-emptying love, and do so willingly.

None of this is, properly speaking, our own work. We do not faithfully follow the way of the Cross simply by trying really hard to do so! No, this work is accomplished in us as we open our lives up to the working of the Spirit: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (2.13). Are we willing to open ourselves up to the Spirit in this way, knowing full well that we will be led to pour out our lives unto death? Of one thing we can be sure, that if we journey with Jesus to the Cross we will die, but we will find life there in death because God raised Jesus from the dead and his corruptible body put on incorruptibility, his mortal body put on immortality, and he will return to do the same for us.

Some of you will know that I am hoping to be ordained in the Diocese of Toronto. I have been working on my application these last few months and one of the short essay questions is something like, “What is your hope for the future of the church?” Well, I suppose my hope for the future of the church is that she would die. Now don’t worry, I didn’t write that on the application of course. But is this not the calling of the church? We are Christ’s Body, but why? To be broken for the world. That we may be poured out as a libation, to use Paul’s terminology. That we might be as a grain of wheat, ground up to become bread for the good of the world. So, this Lent as we journey with Jesus, may we take the time to remind one another just where we are headed, namely, to a lonely hill outside of Jerusalem where our Savior will die and we along with him. And may we St. Matthew’s, right here in Riverdale, may we pour out our lives in suffering love for our neighbours right here in this place so that in our dying we become like the sweet odour of baking bread, to the glory of God.

As we eagerly await the return of our Savior, who will transform our body of humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, may our prayer be that of Polycarp as he waited for the fire to be lit: “Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and hosts and all creation, and of the whole race of the upright who live in your presence: I bless you that you have thought me worthy of this day and hour, to be numbered among the martyrs and share in the cup of Christ, for resurrection to eternal life, for soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them may I be accepted before you today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as you, the faithful and true God, have prepared and foreshown and brought about. For this reason and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen.”

Advertisements

I remember when I first realized that the Christian life was not about doing. Up until that point, and even now I find myself reverting ever-so-often to this line of thinking, I was convinced that we had to do things in order to be reconciled and to live in relation with God. Now, while there is certainly some truth to this it is vital that we get the emphasis on the right note. Any “doing” of the Christian life is secondary and derivative of Christ’s own doing. This is one of the greatest lessons which I have learned over the last few years from the likes of T.F. Torrance, the great Scottish theologian and student of Karl Barth. Torrance is known, among other things, for working out in much detail the vicarious nature of Christ’s humanity. Of course, we are familiar that in Christ God is acting towards us, in forgiving our sin and reconciling humanity and all of creation to Himself. That is but one side of the coin, however. The other side of the very same coin is that Christ Jesus is the true human who lives in proper and full obedience to God on our behalf. In other words, Jesus Christ fulfils the God-human covenant from both sides, from the side of God and the side of humanity. He is ultimately for us what we cannot be for ourselves and this is just as much a part of God’s redemptive work as any reconciling that Christ does from God’s side. Torrance puts it this way:

The act of God in Christ for us, and the act of man in Christ for us, are inseparable, in an atonement of substitutionary nature. It is not only that as Son of God, or Apostle from God, Christ has done for us what we could not do, but that as High Priest in our humanity He has done for us what we could not do. He has once and for all offered to God our obedience, our response, our witness, our amen. He became our brother man and He offered on our behalf a human obedience, a human response, a human witness and a human amen, so that in Him our human answer to God in life, worship, and prayer is already completed. He is in the fullest sense our homologia.

We do have a response of course. But our response is secondary to Christ’s. Indeed, Christ’s response displaces our response so that all we have to rely on is Christ acting in obedience on our behalf. Torrance again is helpful:

It can only be ours, therefore, if it involves the setting aside of the obedience, response, witness, amen, and even the worship and prayer which we offer on our own. The radical significance of Christ’s substitutionary Priesthood does not lie in the fact that His perfect Self-offering perfects and completes our imperfect offerings, but that these are displaced by His completed Self-offering. We can only offer what has already been offered on our behalf, and offer it by the only mode appropriate to such a substitutionary offering, by prayer, thanksgiving and praise.

Another way of thinking about all of this would be to say that Christ Jesus is both God’s Word to us and our Amen to that Word.

Human creatures are not left with nothing to do, of course. However, our doing finds it’s place in response to Christ’s doing for us. Thus, our doing is primarily a thank-offering. Our response is to say Amen to Christ’s Amen on our behalf. So, next time we gather together for worship, be that a meal with friends or the celebration of the Eucharist on a Sunday morning, may we recall Christ’s life of obedience lived for us and be thankful that Christ is risen and his life and ministry continues on in our midst and that we are invited to participate in the very life of the risen Christ in our offering of thanks.

Amen.

 

*Both quotes taken from T.F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry.

**The picture is of St. Athansius’ who Torrance relied on for much of his theology in this area.

One of the things that has been a sort of paradigm shift for me over the last 8-12 months has been a deeper understanding of (please don’t read too much into that statement, in know way am I trying to suggest that I’ve once-and-for-all grasped the mystery of the Trinity!) and captivation by the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit, this is the gospel. There is no other God than this mysterious union of 3-persons who make themselves known as one. If God is not really Father, Son, and Spirit then the gospel is untrue and God is unable to save (and further, a liar!).

I’m reading through the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology for a class and I’ve again been struck by the beauty and wonder of the Trinity. In 10 §2 Pannenberg briefly traces the Christological development of the unity of Jesus with God when he beautifully touches upon the essence of the Son’s self-differentiation from the Father:

“The self-emptying and self-humbling of the Son [see Phil. 2] that found perfect expression in the history of Jesus Christ should not be understood first as an unselfish turning to us, though it is that also. Rather, it is primarily an expression of the self-giving of the Son to the Father in an obedience that desires nothing for self but serves totally the glorifying of God and the coming of his kingdom. Precisely thus the way of the Son is also an expression of the love of God for us. For by the self-distinction of the Son from the Father, God draws near to us. The kenosis of the Son serves the drawing near of the Father. It is thus an expression of the divine love, for we attain to our salvation in the closeness of God to us and in our participation in his life,” (379).

I think when I read that first my heart skipped a beat. Seriously. Read that over and let it sink it a wee bit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the doctrine of the Trinity is (IMO) the most important doctrine and the defining Christian doctrine of God. To speak of God Christianly is to speak of God trinitarianly. This may sound rather bold and harsh and perhaps I’m being a bit presumptuous but can we really say we know God if we think the doctrine of the Trinity is unnecessary and superfluous. To know God is to know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I’d say we often had a concept of God who is essentially some sort of great spirit being who created everything and has something to do with Jesus. Why is this? Have we lost touch with the scriptures? Have we forgotten how to read? Pray? Confess?

OK, perhaps what we need isn’t necessarily teaching about the Trinity (although that couldn’t hurt!) but rather trinitarian preaching (and worship)! I am thoroughly convinced that if we began to read the scriptures, and pray, and worship trinitarianly we may just be overcome with a real sense of awe and wonder at the God who is love and is so pro nobis (for us).

Whenever I pray with others I usually thank God that He is not distant and far off but with us. I do this as a reminder to myself and others that when we pray we are not crying out to a God who simply created the world, got the ball rolling, and then stepped back to leave us to our own devices. God is not far away. He is not apathetic towards the human project. It’s bad theology to think of God as distant from creation.

However, I’m coming to realize that this isn’t a danger for most Christians. We don’t generally think that God is far off. Rather, we have the opposite problem, we think that God is too close.

Now, let me clarify.

God is close. But, God can only be close because He is totally and utterly distinct from us. We often talk of God as if He is simply part of the created order. Or, perhaps, that He is the height of human capacity and ingenuity. When we talk about God as one who is within us and one whom we can experience tucked away by ourselves we are in danger of confusing Creator with creation, I think.

Let me say it again. God is totally and utterly distinct from us. In the words of Karl Barth, God is “wholly Other”. If we could somehow add up everything that is (the entire universe), the God who reveals Himself to us in Jesus could not be found in the sum. This is the meaning of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). God as Creator is distinct from creation. God is not a creature. So, God is not close in this sense.

How then can we maintain that God is “totally and utterly distinct” and yet “not distant and far off”?

The answer is the gospel, the identification of God with the man Jesus who hung on a Roman cross. Because God identifies himself with Jesus, because the one killed on the cross truly is the Son of God (as the Centurion confessed) for us this means that God has come near to His creatures.

And this is good news. But it also means that we do not set the terms for how we experience or come to know God. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself, but not in the sense that He is some sort of mystical inward experience. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself in that when the Son of God experienced death on the cross he did so for you and I, and that this God transformed death and thus humanity in that Jesus lives.

“What should one call that being which in such great dissimilarity is concerned for the greater similarity, in such great distance is concerned for the still greater nearness, in such great majesty is concerned for the greater condescension, in such great differentness is concerned for the still more intensive relationship? To ask it in a Pauline way (in all of this we are dealing with God’s relationship to ‘sinful man’): How is that being to be named who counters growing sin with still greater grace (Rom. 5:20)?

The answer does not have to be sought. It is both anthropologically and theologically evident and is called Love.”

Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (298).