What Does Incarnation Mean? (John 1:1-18)
In light of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, John’s prologue might not be something we get too excited about. Joseph and Mary, shepherds, magi, angels and prophets in the temple are much easier to imagine than words like light, glory, grace, and truth that are used here.
John’s prologue employs the concept of word, the Greek term is logos, to talk about God’s revelation of God’s self in the world. The prologue functions as a kind of overture or outline of John’s gospel. Words like “light”, “life,” “glory,” and “truth” will be used throughout this Gospel.
While all the Gospels are in essence theological presentations or proclamations of the Christ, it is a common assumption among scholars that John’s Gospel is less historical and more symbolic than the others. This Gospel often employs symbolical, mystical, and metaphorical language and it starts right here in the beginning with the Logos or Word in John’s introduction.
The theological term often used for talking about this is the term incarnation. Theologians like to debate and argue about the manner and degree to which the divine essence or nature became incarnate in Jesus. Some Christians are very specific about what this means. Others like myself are not. Unfortunately, throughout Christian history there has been a tendency to draw rather tight boundaries labeling those whose views and beliefs are outside those boundaries as heretical. There has also, unfortunately, been a tendency in our Christian history to treat heretics very badly. We have got to stop it sisters and brothers. We can talk about good and bad religion, healthy and unhealthy religion, religion that transforms and religion that hurts and harms, but let’s rid the English language of the word heresy.
In considering the question of what incarnation means I want to broaden this idea a bit. So let’s ask: What does it mean not just for Jesus, but for each of us, individually and as a faith community to incarnate the divine reality – that is, to live out God’s presence, to manifest God’s presence in flesh and blood, in our relationships, and in our communities?
Let me begin by saying that as a species we have to get past this idea that everyone else has to submit to our Christian view of incarnation and trust in Jesus in order to know God. The future of our world may depend on Christians becoming more inclusive, more generous, and more welcoming of others of different religious traditions or of no tradition at all.
For us to say that Jesus is our Savior, or that Jesus is our Lord, or that Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life, does not mean that Jesus is the only way anyone else can come to know God.
I heard about a young man who believed he was called to vocational Christian ministry and went through the appropriate training in the denomination that he grew up in. Toward the end of this process that took several years he met with an ordination board who would discern his suitability for ministry. This denomination was riddled with factious theological disputes at the time and one on the board asked the young man, “Do you believe Jesus is the only way to God?” Even those on the board had different ideas about that.
Spying a map of Indiana on the wall, he asked the members, “How many roads lead to Indianapolis?” No one said anything. Then this young man walked over to the map and pointed, “I get to Indianapolis this way.” And he showed them the route he takes. Then he said, “But I have friends who live over here” pointing to a very different place on the map. Then he marked with his finger a different route and said, “They get to Indianapolis this way.” He made his point. There are different ways to know God and experience God that are legitimate. That, of course, doesn’t that every way leads to God; there is both good and bad religion.
Whenever I get in a discussion about this someone always brings up John 14:6 where Jesus is purported as saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” I always respond by pointing out two things. First, I point out that this is a theological statement by John’s church, not a historical saying by the historical Jesus. It highly unlikely that the historical Jesus actually said this. That, of course, doesn’t resolve the issue, but it’s important to know. Second, John’s church was declaring what was true in their experience. For that community of believers Jesus was indeed the only way to God. They were not stating what is true for everyone, but they were stating what was true in their community and in their spiritual experience, which, by the way, is all any of us can do.
We should not assume today that if people don’t know Jesus the way we do they don’t know God. You and I look to Jesus as our definitive revelation of God and he is – for us. For us, Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the wisdom, grace, and truth of God. Jesus reveals to us the way to know God, experience God, and participate in God’s will. But that doesn’t mean there are not other mediators, other God bearers who reveal God in profound ways that lead people to know God and experience God and engage in God’s will in the world. Who are we to make our own experience definitive for everyone else? We must learn to appreciate and honor other peoples’ experience as well as our own.
I believe we are all called to be God bearers. We are all called to embody the divine and reflect God’s image, but not all in the same way. And God is so immense we can never reflect all there is to see and know about God. Someone has said that all our beliefs are like fingers pointing at the moon. God is so much more than our beliefs about God.
The first story of creation in Genesis which John’s prologue alludes teaches that the human couple was created in the image of God. The very life of the human couple is derived from God. God’s Spirit is the source of life. In fact, there is no life apart from God. I interpret that to mean that we are all potential God bearers.
The uniqueness of Jesus is one of degree. As Philip Gulley points out in the quote in your worship bulletin what distinguishes God bearers like Jesus from the rest of us is the degree of response to the Divine Spirit who indwells each of us.
You will notice in John’s prologue John extends the concept of incarnation to the rest of us as well. It’s not limited to Jesus, though without question Jesus is the word made flesh par excellent. We look to Jesus as the quintessential revelation of God, but Jesus is not alone. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out we are each one invited to participate in this word-made-flesh business.
For Christians Jesus is the prototype or archetype of God pouring out God’s self in human form, but the really good news is that God is available to pour God’s self out in your life and mine. God is the God of today. God is in the now.
John says in verse 12 that while many within Jesus’ own religious and cultural tradition rejected his message and witness to God, there were those who received him. To those who trusted in his message and witness God gave them the power to become children of God. That is, God gave them the power to become what Jesus became. Jesus appropriated and lived out his sonship to God by listening to God’s voice and fulfilling God’s will. By trusting Jesus and appropriating his teaching we can do the same, we can live out our sonship and daughtership to God.
I think it is really important that we understand that being a child of God is not a relationship we earn, it’s a gift we claim and live out. John says that we are born of God and it has nothing to do with what we believe or do or don’t do. It’s simply who we are. He says that we are born not of blood, or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God. In other words, it’s a divine gift. It’s who we are. This connection, this birthright transcends all other connections and identifications. Now we might go through life and never realize this divine gift, but it’s ours nonetheless. We might forget who we are, and need to be reminded. This is a big part of my job: To remind us who we are.
According to a Greek legend Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets in order to survive. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her.
One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a prostitute who looked strangely familiar. He asked about her name and she responded with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands.
When he looked at her hands and realized who it was he exclaimed, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she replied. When she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she reclaimed the name and life she had forgotten and became the queen she always was and called to be.
Sophie, my granddaughter, went through a stage, where if I said, “Sophie, you’re silly.” She would say, “I’m not silly, I’m Sophie Jordan Griffith” How silly of me not to know that. She’s Sophie Jordan Griffith. She knew who she was. When it comes to our true self and our identity in God, not all of us know who we are. Some of us may have known and forgotten.
What I am saying is that Jesus is not alone as the son of God. We are sons and daughters of God too. Jesus is the son par excellent – the quintessential son – but we are Jesus’ sisters and brothers and have the privilege and responsibility of living out the grace and truth of God in our unique way. The incarnation of God – the visible, material flesh and blood manifestation of God – is ongoing as we participate in the word made flesh, as we allow God to shine in and through us.
Later in this Gospel Jesus is purported as saying, “The one who trusts in me, that is, the one who is faithful to the God I have lived for and made visible in my own flesh, will also do the works that I do.” If that is not enough John has Jesus blowing our minds when he says, “in fact, those who trust me will do even greater works that these you see me doing.” I’m guessing that greater here means greater in terms of the impact such works have in the world.
We don’t have to do astounding things. We don’t have to raise the dead. We are invited to participate in the incarnation of God in the world in our unique way. We don’t all do it the same way. We have different gifts. Different personalities. Different interests and abilities. We talk about Jesus being unique in his revelation of God, but we are all unique in our revelation of God.
Philip Gulley tells about an elderly woman in a church he pastored who had committed herself to engaging in works of mercy. As he got to know her, he was astounded at the many ways her little acts of generosity and kindness blessed hurting people. Even though her income was modest, she decided to live simply so she could give generously. She was very reluctant to talk about the ways she gave and served her community, but one day she told Gulley, “Little is much when God is in it.”
John says that Jesus who is close to the Father’s heart has made God known. But this can be true of us as well. We are invited to share in the fullness of God that Jesus knew. We are invited to receive grace upon grace, grace in exchange for grace – because it’s all freely given. And once we receive we give away because we cannot exhaust the supply of grace coming from God. The paradox of the spiritual life is that by giving we receive. We participate in the fullness of God by giving away the life of God, not hoarding it.
God can use our little acts of goodness and kindness to make a difference. Even the smallest gestures of love and grace can bring light into very dark places and create hope out of despair. When love is present little becomes much.
When we allow the Spirit to flow through us, when we share in God’s fullness by being channels through which God’s love and grace can flow, then we too like Jesus participate in the ongoing process of divine incarnation, of God pouring God’s self out into this physical world where life can be wonderful and life can be tragic – sometimes at the same time.
Perhaps we might consider the following questions: First, how can I be more open to the Divine Presence that is in me and all around me? Second, am I willing to claim and live out my sonship or daughtership and do my part in the work and process of divine incarnation? And third we might consider our own uniqueness and ask: How can I, with my unique gifts, abilities, opportunities visibly live out God’s love and grace and truth?
Our good God, help us to be open and receptive to the ways we can incarnate your Presence in the world. Let us personally and as a church be faithful to live out in our bodies, in our relationships, and in the way we listen to and care for one another the reality of the living Christ. Amen.