Towards a Theology of Incarnation’

Posted: January 3, 2020 in Uncategorized

 Towards a Theology of Incarnation’

“In the beginning was the performance; not the word alone,
not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked
with the other forever”
(John Crossan 1991:xi)

Today’s sermon is an attempt to look at the doctrine of incarnation by listening to two stories. Bothe are stories by a John. The first is John Dominic Crossan who is a leading, progressive, biblical scholar. Depending on one’s theological persuasion, some would say, ‘the best’! Others don’t or won’t even mention his name. In his 500+ page book on the ‘historical’ Jesus, published 25 years ago, (and usually referred to as ‘big Jesus’, because his second book on Jesus was a much slimmer publication, known as ‘little Jesus’) he weaves this story…

Crossan’s story….

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.  He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution.  He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle.

He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.  They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession” (Crossan 1991:xi).

This Crossan story helps I hope to enter the texts for today especially the one from the Gospel we call the Gospel of John. For a lot of the time following modernity and In the circles of the liberals this gospel was left alone because it didn’t quite fit with modernity and the ascendency of reason in scholarly priorities. One might suggest that John’s Gospel was too mystical for liberal academics as it didn’t fit well with the historical critical method that was the popular method if approaching the scriptures. I with Marcus Borg might suggest that John’s Gospel was written in building Christendom as an empire of God, a post Easter Jesus at its core, the image of The Christ is birthed and the supernaturalism is created to met the differences between Hebrew world view and Roman and Greek world view. Today’s biblical storyteller, a bloke we also call John, has told his similar sounding, yet different, story:

John’s story

“He came in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13, NRSV).

I hope by now you have twigged that Both stories are interpretations, imaginative reconstructions, of the one we call Yeshua/Jesus and the past. One is mystic, perhaps even gnostic. The other, everyday, ordinary – even what we might call secular if we see that secular is opposed to Christian.

I have to admit that the bloke we might call biblical John, has never been my favourite but he is an interesting theological storyteller. In my youth he was the most quoted biblical writer and it was almost required that to be a Christian one had to quote from John’s Gospel to prove one’s faith. The most quoted phrases seemed to have come from John’s gospel. And it is from biblical John we hear some of the most memorable sayings attributed to, or about, Jesus:

  • God so love the world that he gave his only son…
  • In my Father’s house there are many mansions…
  • I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…

When we read John’s Gospel his audience seems to be mostly made up of Judeans influenced by a multicultural lifestyle shaped by Greek thinking. While his primary purpose in being a storyteller/theologian is to get this audience to think theologically on various God-events. Not having the scientific knowledge we have today, it does make cosmological sense to him and other biblical storytellers “to talk about God or messengers of God coming to Earth to speak to humans in dreams or special religious experiences.  This is the religiously significant universe constructed out of experience and the cultural thought patterns available… two thousand years ago” (Peters 2002:127).

However, unlike in John Crossan’s story, there is little to no ‘historical’ Jesus material in these writings. Instead, Jesus is nearly always presented as ‘divine’. Indeed, according to biblical John, Jesus himself “voices the fully developed Christian conviction about who he is” (Fortna 2002:223).

So that’s the first thing we need to remember when we hear or read biblical John.
It’s the stuff that orthodox or ‘correct’ belief, and the Nicene Creed, are all about.
It is about Jesus being divine!

The second thing we need to remember is, biblical John begins his reconstructed story of Jesus – or of the ‘Christ of faith’ – within the matrix of late first-century Judaism. This is important in context and influence on the thinking of the day. Remember here that the Gospel is thought to have been written between AD95 and AD 130. Depending upon how developed you might think the orthodoxy is you might choose as some recent scholars do that the later dates is more likely. But the key thing to remember is that the writer of John is writing about Jesus at least 95 years after his death and more likely. 130 years after.

John’s Jesus is a religious Jew within a culture dominated by the actions and power of the Roman Empire.

That power and action was military power: with the monopoly or control of force and violence; It was an economic power: with the monopoly or control of labour and production; It was political power with the monopoly or control of organisation and institution; It was also an ideological power with the monopoly or control of interpretation and meaning (Crossan 2007:12-15).

Two things stand out about John Dominic Crossan and they are that he is a good storyteller. He is also a person who deserves great respect for his intellectual honesty.

Crossan’s Jesus is very much ‘human’.  The subtitle of his ‘big Jesus’ book, for instance, is: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Crossan’s human or ‘historical’ Jesus is also more sage-like than priest-like. And certainly not theologian-like. A sage who spent much of his time among the farms and villages of Lower Galilee. A sage whose wisdom is embedded “in his seemingly innocuous observations on the everyday world” (Funk 2002:1).

One dictionary I looked up has a sage as a profoundly wise person and a priest as a person who performs religious ceremonies. This suggests there is a distinct difference and I think one of the key things here is that one might question belief and assumption and the other protect and project faith. The sage might have a worldview that involved experience and practice and not just theory, know a life-style and not just a mind-set.
A sage might hold “Not the word alone, not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked with the other forever” (Crossan 1991:xi). I don’t think the difference is about importance or status but rather about a more inclusive, all-encompassing and unifying approach.

I can recall parishes seeking to call ministers who were very good priests and sages at the same time and I am now of the thought that this is because of our institutional view of the church with Parishes, Presbyteries and General Assemblies with paid leadership that the institution expects to be priests and the people expect to be sages. Priests are easier to control by the institution because it is more measurable whereas wisdom is more difficult to evaluate and thus control.

But returning to the text and listening to biblical John’s story through the critical biblical thought of the scholar called John Dominic Crossan, we see that the influence of culture and time we need to shape a new/different ‘religious’ story. Different from the one generally available through the Bible and the Creeds, and which reflects the fact we are living in a scientific, pluralistic age.

The old cosmology of much of the biblical stories, spanning a 1000, years plus more,
and the traditional hymns and prayers shaped by those stories, and their sense of the ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’, is now found wanting in the main. If you sense in my saying that a reaction the suggests we need to protect the gospel or the divine Jesus I suggest that that is a logical and human reaction. If something is important it needs to be protected but that does not say that it cannot be replaced because change is life giving. The death of the old has to take place if we are to experience life. Otherwise why are humans born and die? Why is eternal life so important?

The reality is that our new religious thinking/story must be credible in the light of scientific understandings. Some might say its too late for that. People are no longer religious because that gap has grown too large.

The trouble is that we need to feel at home in our expansive and changing universe.
Yes that means that most of us, apart from a few fundamentalist Christians accept that the proposal given us by scientific research and study that while we are created and nourished by our past, generally speaking, we actually live in the present, and therefore as Gordon Kaufmann wrote in 2006 we need to “come to terms with the major problems we now face if the human race is to survive into the future and flourish in that future” (Kaufman 2006:105).

It is true that today our world community is facing many crises:

  • environmental crises of pollution and climate change;
  • political crises often aided and abetted by terrorist groups;
  • economic crises of unemployment and burgeoning national deficits,
  • not to mention natural disasters…

But on the other hand there are also many positive breakthroughs:

  • breakthroughs in medical science and technology;
  • breakthroughs in new developments in political systems;
  • breakthroughs in exciting new insights as to how to live our lives (Peters 2002:130).

The new has always been seen as bad by some but it is regulated by its ability to affect the world and that is always and always has been within the control of people who care.

Thus, I along with many am firmly of the belief that the old religious story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus, as conveyed by biblical John in the Fourth Gospel, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives.

As some religious naturalists have pointed out, regularly, as old myths, religious stories, and other shared narratives of humankind “are increasingly viewed as intellectually implausible and morally irrelevant, they become less likely to fulfill their original purpose. And as I suggested last week its easier to paint ghost, and dragons that what’s real; the human race. The supernatural no longer seems – to give people answers and provide a sense of stability and peace in daily life” (Rue 1999).

On the other hand, I and others are also firmly of the belief that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

“In this understanding of Jesus,” suggests former Harvard theologian, the late Gordon Kaufman, “…no supernatural authority or extra-human power… is invoked to compel our attention… The important point to note is that if we decide to order our lives in terms of the [human] Jesus-model whether as churches and communities or as individuals, it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take – or fail to take – the steps to carry out that decision… Only in this way will we be living and acting with a proper openness to, as well as accountability for, not only the religious and cultural pluralism of today’s human existence but the human future as well” (Kaufman 2006:32-34).

This suggests that this year 2020; is going to be a watershed year in the life of progressive religion/Christianity! It will be a year confronted with pollution and climate change; political crises that empower terrorism, economic concerns with unemployment and burgeoning national deficits, and as the world works out a new system that enables a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, and how it deals with natural disasters that disrupt those systems and cost the lives of people on a planet under stress of production and distribution. It is also a year where much new and exciting is due to burst forth. The breakthroughs in medical science and technology; are mind boggling in their reach into the unknown artificial intelligence is on the brink of engagement that both frightens and excites us with its ability to transform lives. The ability of technology to make life so different is huge that it too is scary and exciting. There is also much being done in developing new political systems; The Wellbeing approach to policy development is filled with promise and at the sane time fraught with skepticism. It has to be said that with the pace of change 2020 is a watershed year like every year but specific in its content as new insights as to how to live our lives unfolded.

Today’s theme I think is to invite you to continue the ‘progressive’ journey, courageously.

Stories for both Johns ask us to remember that we are on that journey. And another story from the Jesus of the so-called ‘heretical’ text, The Gospel of Mary is reported to have said: ‘The child of true humanity exists within you’. Hopefully, that is inspiration enough for us to keep on asking the big questions. Amen.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991/1993.
Fortuna R. T. “The Gospel of John and the Historical Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Holy Bible. NRSV. Nashville. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002.
Rue, L. Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. New York. State University of New York Press, 1999.

rexae74@gmail.com

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