Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday after Christmas – December 30, 2012
Well, here we are, the one Sunday between our celebration of Jesus’ birth and the feast of the Epiphany – the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise ones from the East – the story of Jesus being recognized as something special by outsiders.
The Gospel lesson, known as the Prologue to the book of John always falls on this day – and it’s John’s rather convoluted profession of who he believes Jesus to be – John’s introduction to the man the rest of his Gospel will all be about.
Our challenge today isn’t very simple – but grappling with the question of the incarnation – the Word made flesh – who this God-man Jesus is is an important one and worth some brainpower, I think – at least I thought so when I wrote this sermon!
Let’s go back – way back.
In the fourth century, during the time of Constantine, the church was rocked by a controversy started by Arius, a deacon of the church of Alexandria. Arius denied that Christ was truly and fully God, arguing from the Bible that only the Father was truly God, and the Son was the firstborn of creation.
Athanasius was his archenemy – and a deacon in the same church. His main disagreement with Arius concerned salvation: we are saved because in Christ God himself became a human being and died a human death. God became a human to make humans divine; the immortal became mortal to raise mortals to immortality. No mere creature could achieve this but only the very Word of God.
His theology was recognized by the Council of Nicea as being the true Gospel of Christ, and as such it has been passed down through the centuries.
The Nicene Creed, which we recite together nearly every Sunday is the result of this council and has been understood to be the most basic belief statement of the Christian Church – and of Jesus’ nature – since that time. It contains a concise statement about who Jesus was. You know the phrases: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten not made, of one being with the Father…”
While this is the Church’s official teaching, it has always left me wanting a bit more.
It reminds me of being in a Chemistry lab, armed with a beaker, a pipette and a calculator over a Bunson burner. One could perform the required experiment, and even come up with a lab report that garnered a decent grade, without really understanding what all had happened as things boiled, changed color, emitted gases, and finally transformed into an entirely different substance.
Certainly, there is room in the world for the mysterious (thank goodness!), but if you’re like me, there are times when more details would be nice, a greater understanding of the process of transformation, appreciated.
So, let’s dig a little.
First, it is important to note that ideas about who Jesus was and his significance – the study known as “Christology” – has been around since he walked the earth. Scripture itself offers a variety of images and titles that attempt to identify and explain this man (at the Children’s service on Christmas Eve, we considered 7 of the over 200 names and descriptions for Jesus that appear in the Bible).
As unique individuals with a variety of intellectual, physical and emotional capacities added to the immense variety of cultural influences, the “stuff” with which we make meaning varies widely – especially over centuries of time.
There is bound to be wide variation in how a particular phenomenon is understood and the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is one such phenomenon. Unfortunately the often strange, contradictory, and paradoxical ways of understanding the divinity of Jesus have divided communities of faith and have often had a numbing effect on individual believers – including me.
The divinity of Jesus, traditionally attributed to his position as second person of the Trinity, but that argument doesn’t always cut it for me and over the years I have been pushed into new theological territory.
In my studies, I have found the relatively new “Spirit Christology” described by Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight to be helpful in providing an understanding of the divinity of Jesus that resonates with my own experience.
According to Haight, the foundational metaphor for Spirit Christology is “empowerment” – empowerment that presumes the indwelling of God as spirit in the human person Jesus.
To assert that Jesus is divine in this framework, Haight says “God, and not less than God is really present to and at work in Jesus, and that this is so in such a manner that Jesus is a manifestation and embodiment of the reality of God.” Jesus is “the revelation of God, the self-presence and gift of God to human existence, history and the world.” Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, lived into, grew into his divine nature.
As such, Jesus the Christ, can be portrayed as the New Adam – appointed by God to be the first born of many.
This understanding of Jesus the Christ, allows us to embrace the historical Jesus that recent research has supplied, while maintaining an understanding of his uniqueness. And it is consistent with the biblical presentation of Jesus’ life and work.
Plus, it not only provides an example for individuals to follow, it also suggests that the work of God as spirit is possible in our own lives. Human freedom is maintained while at the same time, we are able to recognize the work of God in our lives. We are not puppets, nor are we simply “good people.”
We, too, are empowered to be about the work of the Kingdom – individuals living into and participating in the ongoing creation of a loving God.
This kind of Christology also demands tolerance on our part; the work of God as spirit in the world is bound to show up in a variety of ways – in both actions and in understanding like the conflict between Arius and Athansius.
We do not need to fear differences, however. Instead, we are invited to look for, celebrate, and be willing to testify to the presence of God whenever and wherever it occurs – while holding the person of Jesus up as the one who is the reality of God.
For years I have struggled with the desire to have a kind of umbrella-like doctrine that would help me make sense of all of this – not only in terms of how I might understand Jesus as the Christ, but about human nature and my own faith-life.
And I think I have found one. For me, the umbrella consists of a doctrine of creation – an understanding that creation is an ongoing process of the unfolding purpose of a loving God combined with the ongoing work of the Spirit. This allows us to experience all of life as part of God’s grace – including our capacity to wonder, our attempts to understand, our ability to make meaning. It also allows for growth and change in our intellectual and spiritual understanding, for diversity and for freedom as we move toward a more complete – a more appropriate – understanding of our faith as situations change and growth occurs.
This continual, redemptive work of creation must include the work of the Holy Spirit – the living, animating ruach – the breath of God, it was present at Jesus’ birth and throughout his life and it continues in the lives of human beings today, drawing all to their fulfillment – into intimate relation with God.
May that be our desire, our reality – an intimate relationship with a loving and continuously creating God. And may we, too, be so filled with the Spirit, that our whole lives – our thoughts and our actions – not only reflect, but actually become the ongoing work of God in the world.
And so we meet the incarnate God again today. First and most importantly in the person of Jesus – and then, by God’s grace and through the empowerment of the Spirit, we meet God again and again and again – in each other, and in our very own hearts – because we have been invited, each one of us, to be the daughters and sons of God.