… or, why a load of words written thousands of year ago inspire me today.
One of the currently in-vogue words among mission-type people is ‘incarnational’. Whenever it is used there is always lots of nodding. For the first several years I heard it bandied around, the term troubled me. I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it meant. I knew God became ‘incarnate’ in Christ – so it obviously had something to do with God taking on bodily form. But what did that have to do with me? And how could my ministry be described as ‘incarnational’?
In the past months I have reflected on the term at length. This is the first in a short series of articles, through which I intend to tease out what I understand by the term ‘incarnational’. I will explain why I consider it so important in the context of twenty-first church mission and ministry, and how it has been outworked in my particular context. As is my habit (partly because it reflects the theological tradition from which I come) I will begin exploration in the pages of scripture.
Incarnation and Identity in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament
Essentially the Bible is a book about relationship: between human beings and a God who loves them. Described in the first book of the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings, from the earliest times, let God down, both in their obedience to God and love for one another. The story known as The Fall, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, is symbolic of the breakdown in relationship between creator and created. When God searches for them in the garden, Adam (the name means human being) and Eve (whose name means alive) hide, ashamed and exposed. This is their last physical encounter with God. The result of their disobedience is expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a recalibration of their relationship with a now-distant God. The journey towards redemption and reconciliation with their creator, who still loves them, will be an timeless one, with many twists and turns along the way.
The Hebrew scriptures – the Jewish Bible and Old Testament of the Christian one – tell the story of that journey. There are swashbuckling heroes and and nasty villains; paupers, prophets, priests and kings; all searching for the redemption that will bring them back into full relationship with an elusive and at times seemingly fickle God.
These people, whose stories are recorded in scripture, are the Jewish ancestors of Jesus and his first disciples, a people whose self-identity was as a holy nation. Despite their propensity to sin, they understood themselves to be chosen by this God, who communicated with them through a variety of means. Although generally a distant deity, God could, and did, respond to the people when called upon. Over the generations a cycle of rites of passage, worship practices and feasts and festivals developed, during which the stories of their ancestors were retold in a way that gave shape to people’s lives and helped build both their corporate and individual identity as people of God.
An important element of that corporate worship life was the burnt offering or sacrifice of animals. In burning all or part of an animal or plant, the smoke emitted was believed to create an odour ‘pleasing to the Lord’, transforming it into a heavenly substance, and providing a link between heaven and earth (Lev.1.14-17). When they are burned, God responds. An example of this is in the incredibly moving interaction between Jacob (also called Israel) and God when he is on his way to Egypt in search of his lost son Joseph (the one with the ‘amazing technicolour dreamcoat’):
When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’ (Gen. 44.1-4)
Through Jacob’s sacrificial activity, God breaks ineffably into his human consciousness, assuring both his identity and legacy, in just the same way God did with his Grandfather, Abraham.
Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures, at times when all appears lost, God breaks ineffably into the human consciousness of the people of Israel, acting to assure their salvation. And in first century Palestine, when the punishing rule of Roman occupation seemed an inevitable future, God broke ineffably into human consciousness once again. Only this time the form God took was human.
Incarnated identity in the New Testament
God, taking on bodily form in the person of Jesus, signifies the beginning of the fundamental restoration of the relationship between God and humanity. The God who walks in the garden of Eden, searching for the shamed Adam and Eve, is the same God who befriends, heals, serves and commands in the everyday ordinariness of first century Palestine. No longer is there a need for burnt offerings to thin the divide between heaven and earth. It has been permanently breached in the most glorious way; for in Jesus the ability to see God is opened to all.
This concept of bodily redemption is then modelled in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, who describe themselves as the ‘Body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 12). This corporate embodiment is outworked, both through their tangible attachment to each other, and the way they reach out together to the world around them. Rather than making sacrifices of animals, the followers of Jesus reaffirm their identity as God’s chosen through the sharing of bread and wine together; and it is not long before this possibility is opened far beyond the reaches of those born into the Jewish bloodline.
The way of life lived by the Jesus-believing communities, recorded in the Book of Acts, demonstrates how this body of otherwise unremarkable fishermen, zealots, wives and mothers become exemplars of what it is to live as people with God ineffably present among them:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)
Through a combination of Biblical, literary and archeological evidence, it is possible to piece together a picture of how the earliest Christians lived. The image is of small communities popping up throughout the Near East and Mediterranean Europe. They gathered to share food and friendship, to learn more about Jesus, and to commit themselves to modelling a way of life which was gracious, generous, egalitarian and compelling. For more on communal eating and worship practices in the earliest Christian communities click here.
Relevance for Today
Of course all the events referred to above were said or spoken between two and four thousand years ago, and canonised (selected and ordered) almost 2,000 years ago. There are those who say it is out of date, that it has no relevance to, or bearing on, our lives today. But regardless of how literally the words in the Bible are taken (and in ancient times many words were meant figuratively rather than literally), there are universal truths to find amongst the pages.
Without doubt, the human race is fatally and fundamentally flawed. What we have done to each other and to our planet in recent history is enough to testify to that. And if, as a species, we were able to obey the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the Pentateuch , strive to learn from the ancient teachings in the wisdom literature (books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), and follow Jesus’ example and teachings from the New Testament, the world might look very different.
As it is we can only make a difference where we are, in our own realm. At the end of the Bible is a future vision of a new heaven and new earth. In that new world the nations, identifiable in their uniqueness, live in harmony. There is food enough for everyone, and love reigns. And we do live on a planet where that is humanly possible. It is also our ‘humanness’, flawed as it is, which prevents that happening.
The Bible teaches me that it is not all hopeless. The picture of goodness, painted in the words and deeds of Jesus and his followers, is inspiration enough to make me want to try and model it, both in my personal life and in my professional dealings. So therein lies the basis for my incarnational theology. I am called to ’embody’ the person and teachings of Jesus, to see others through the eyes of God incarnated, and to love my planet and its inhabitants, however hard they sometimes make it.
More next time…