I believe in the Incarnation!
As you continue your trek through the Apostle’s Creed I am here to offer my two pennyworth about Jesus in fifteen minutes or less, at least I only have to look at two thousand millennia of teaching on the incarnation and not at any other subjects!
It would be easy with the part of the creed that I am covering this evening to be distracted and talk about whether the Virgin birth really happened. Whilst it is a fascinating argument, I am not sure that going off into such realms will really advance us on our journey of faith here this evening. Though the assumption of human form, enfleshed through the human nature of Mary and enlivened by the Holy Spirit of God is an important part of the theology of Jesus being both God and Human, it is an explanation, rather than part of the core theological concerns of the Creed. I don’t want to disappear into talking about what some do and do not believe, but in the spirit of the creed to talk about what we as Christians are claiming when me make these statements in the Creed and to talk about what we do believe.
If we, as Christians, claim to know Jesus, how much of that knowledge is (to be frank) ‘made up’ – by ourselves, by the Churches we are a part of, by a lack of understanding of what the Church believes. IF we want to know Jesus better, then I think we need to know what we believe about him….
By many people’s standards Jesus was a failed teacher with a disastrously short ministry and a life ending with a fiasco. Yet those who had shared Jesus life for three or so years had no problem at all expressing both the human and divine side of him. There was something more that they had to express, and their talk of ‘resurrection’ added something beyond normal comprehension to their message.
Sometimes these early Christians struggled with the words they had, sometimes they took over words being used for something else and sometimes they made up new ones. As this understanding was passed on the most important thing that was passed on what that Jesus was absolutely and completely human, and at the same time utterly and completely divine. He was God made flesh. Hence St Paul in Philippians talking of Jesus writes down a hymn that had probably been in circulation for a while
“who being in very nature God
he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped
but made himself nothing
taking the very nature of a servant
and being found in human form
humbled himself and became obedient to death
even death on a cross’.
And so we’re off. This becomes the first problem. The educated Romans, Greeks and Jews who heard this message could not believe that a God would really go through this. So the logic dictated that Jesus wasn’t really human. Or that he was much more divine than human. So Jesus only seemed to be human.
St Paul himself encountered this 1 Cor 1:23 explains that ‘Christ crucified’ is ‘a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles’. Many thinkers in the Jewish world thought Jesus could not have been divine because he suffered and Gentiles whose thought was based on Greek philosophy said that Jesus could not have suffered because he was divine.
For those who like to read up on heretics one of the most strident on this was Clement of Alexandria. His Christ had no physical passions, neither digested nor excreted, had no need to eat (sustained by Divine power). The only reason he did seem to eat was (says Clement) to confound those who might have thought we wasn’t human. (Clement obviously knew otherwise….)
In this kind of thinking the logos (the word of God) which is Christ, takes on human form like a costume, (like and Edgar suit for those who’ve seen Men In Black’) and fails to become fully human. The man Jesus thereby serves as a front for the deity but is not God made man.
But why is it so important for God to be Incarnate? To be made flesh. To be conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary And why such a crucial part of our creeds! The early Church was convinced that Jesus was (and is) a unique person – exactly what God would look like if he became human. This revealed something about God’s absolute commitment to humanity and also made it possible for us to become God-like. The death of the real, physical Jesus was also the means through which God healed the rift between God and humanity, and if he was only pretending to be God then surely our salvation is only a pretence. Gregory Nazienzan (end of 4th Century) said ‘…what has not been assumed, has not been healed.’ It was only through the reality of God becoming human in Jesus that the reality of salvation was made possible.
For the early Christians this was the crunch issue. In some way God had completely taken human form and thereby had changed reality, making it possible for humanity to share life with God at a deeper level than ever before. They wanted to make these things clear:
That God is eternal and unchanging. Always of the same nature and substance.
That the Word (Logos) exists within this eternal unchanging God and remains God at all times.
YET They wanted to maintain that
Jesus was God Incarnate Not just taking the appearance of flesh, but becoming human. This meant that they wanted to stress the uniqueness of human nature alongside the uniqueness of the Divine nature.
So Jesus was described as being two hypostaseis – two substances or two Ousia, two natures. This is often summed up in the term ‘the hypostatic union’. These natures are so perfectly fused that there is one prosopon/persona, one concrete reality that is Jesus.
And this is what the earliest fighting was about in the Church. Various individuals popped up with their own concerns and disagreements. – a rough guide to these might mention, Marcionites, Montanists, Gnostics, Arians, Appollinarians…all of which and more I could continue at length on, but wont.
These heresies and more all offered a challenge to a Christian faith, which was inclusive, that claimed God was one God, always the same, that this God had, in Christ, become human and thereby had identified with the material world and embraced it, and had made it possible for all people to know and be more like God. Many of our greatest thinkers in the Church, the Early Church Fathers and others set about refuting those things which were contrary to the understanding passed on by the first Christians, the work of such theologians culminates in our creedal statements, both the Apostle’s (as it is traditionally known) and Nicene creed.
These are the definitive documents of the early Church – which is why we still use it today. But it is important to read it and know it if we are going to say it Sunday by Sunday or whenever.
Why is all this important (you may well be asking). Well it so often impacts on the Church of today, we have forgotten our roots and so often forget who it is we follow and why he is unique and special. If we fail to grasp exactly what it is that the Church spent so many centuries coming to grips with then we perhaps fail to grasp exactly what our faith can be about.
Orthodox Christian Faith has always maintained that Jesus is exactly as we are, but without sin. He felt as we do, he suffered, he laughed, he ate and drank, he got tired, he got angry etc etc. Yet at the same time there was something about him, and this was made clear after and due to the resurrection, that he was God. Not just like God, not just inspired by, but actually God. It is this God who understands exactly what it is to be human and this human being that is an expression of God to us.
If Christ is fully human, then he really does understand exactly what its like to be us, not in a detached and clinical sense, but in a true, earthy and real sense.
If he is fully divine Jesus offers us the hope of eternity straight from God. He offers us the chance for an intimate relationship with a God who is truly involved in and engaged with the world.
We are called to be Christ-like, and through God’s spirit we can be so. We strive for perfection, therefore, not thinking that we are bound to fail but that if we are called by God we know it is possible for us to be perfect like Christ. FOR HE WAS EXACTLY LIKE US – YET WITHOUT SIN. I think that so many Christians start by saying I can’t be like Jesus because he was special. Yes he was, but only in the same way that we can be special, say the teaching of the early Christians, those who knew Jesus, and those who knew them..
If we are constantly pushing Jesus divinity then we will miss out on what he achieved as a human being, if we just see him as a human being (albeit divinely inspired) we will lose out on all that he achieved for us through being God made flesh. It is only in taking the issues the early church spent so much time on seriously that we can understand just how much God can make of us, as brothers and sisters of Christ, fellow heirs. And then we can get to grips with being, in Christ, who God really wants us to be – fully human.
So I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary….