Minister's Sermon - Sunday 30th December 2018
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 30th December 2018

Ephesians 1.3-14

John 1.1-18

I want to reflect on the incarnation this morning. So, I wonder how you picture it? And how that picture shapes your understanding of what it’s all about. My guess is that most of us will begin with a picture that’s similar to the one Daniel has created. Mary and Joseph, Jesus, a shepherd, some animals, and maybe some magi and angels. It’s a picture based on the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. They’re pictured on Christmas cards with religious themes. And they shape the most popular Christmas carols and songs. But it isn’t the only picture of the incarnation. There’s another! And the one we have in today’s readings from John and the letter to the Ephesians is less easy to portray. So, it’s usually done with words, but this artist has had a go.

Today’s readings aren’t readings we normally hear in nativity plays and Christmas services for all ages. They don’t even sound Christmassy. Yet they do speak of the incarnation in ways that begin to make sense of the mystery of God being embodied as a human being. And they place this intimate event within the story of the whole cosmos. For which the traditional Christmas blessing begins with these words. “May he, whose incarnation gathered into one - things earthly and heavenly…” (1) This morning, I want to explore three aspects of the incarnation that arise out of the readings we’ve just heard. I want to reflect on God pitching God’s tent among us first. Then ask why. Why the incarnation? And finally offer the beginning of an answer. Love. God’s love.

The first 18 verses of John’s Gospel are the Prologue to the Gospel. There are various theories about its origin. Some argue that it contains an ancient poem or hymn – perhaps adapted from the Jewish wisdom tradition or Greek philosophy – into which prose sections about John the Baptist have been inserted. Others that it’s composed by the writer of the Gospel. While others suggest that it’s a combination of both! I guess it doesn’t much matter. So, I don’t have a particular view. And today, I’m going to leave aside the references to John, and focus on the Word. Who is also spoken of as the Father’s only Son, and at the end, as Jesus Christ. The Prologue speaks about two different spheres – or maybe we could say modes – of God’s presence. The first 5 verses focus on the eternal, the sphere of the cosmic Word of God, who was with God from the beginning. Everything was made through the Word. The Word is the source of life. And then, from verse 10 onwards, John writes about the earthly sphere, of the world, and the incarnate Word. The Father’s only Son. Jesus Christ. Who was not recognised or received by his own people, but so welcomed and believed by others, that they became God’s children. I’ll return to the cosmic Word later on, but for the moment, I want to stay with the Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The original Greek word for dwelling – which is also translated as lived – comes from the same root as the word for tabernacle or tent. This is the first in a series of images, that draw us Israel’s experience in the desert of Sinai, where the Israelites lived in tents - as nomads. As they wandered through the desert, God’s glory was contained for them, in the impermanent and fragile structure of a tent. Now, once again, the Word who was with God from the very beginning, pitches tent, and dwells with human beings. But this time God’s glory is seen in the incarnation of a human being. God is not distant, remote or isolated. In the Word become flesh, God comes in the fragile, impermanent form of a person. That God dwells in the midst of human weakness, confusion and brokenness, isn’t new. The stories of Israel’s desert wanderings make it clear that God’s people were all of those things and more. The new thing, is that God has chosen to live among us, as one of us. And as Gail O’Day says, “to become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die. So, the incarnation binds Jesus to the ‘everydayness’ of human experience.” (2) Through Jesus, God knows the fullness of our humanity, and we are bound to God. For a few moments I want to invite you into a world of fragile, impermanent, structures. Not human beings this time. But tents. Not the sort of tents most of us are familiar with. But the tents used by those fleeing conflict, violence and persecution, and those who do not have homes.

This is the world’s largest refugee camp in North-western Kenya. Its inhabitants come from 20 nations, the majority from South Sudan and Somalia. Four refugee camps in in Kenya house nearly half a million people.

This is in Northern Jordan and it is home to 77,000 largely Syrian people. It has 2 hospitals, 9 schools, a circus academy, a soccer league, and at least 3,000 refugee-owned shops.

This is a temporary camp of Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders waiting to cross into Jordan.

And another in Irbil in Northern Iraq.

A temporary camp in Greece.

The jungle in Calais.

Since the jungle was cleared, refugees have set up camp in the woods, around Calais.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Stuck. Unable to return to Myanmar.

Cities of tents are increasingly the norm in the US. But we’re also seeing them here. This is Park Hill in Sheffield.

And they’re now, not only a familiar sight in cities, but also in the countryside as people camp in woodlands and ditches.

These are all intended to be temporary, impermanent camps, to provide emergency shelter. But some are beginning to look as permanent as Gaza City. And living in them, and in temporary accommodation in forgotten neighbourhoods all over the world, are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. When God pitched God’s tent among us, God came to all of humanity. But in those few words John connects 1st century Palestine, to the story of the Exodus, and to God’s people being freed from their suffering as outsiders in Egypt. In Jesus’ life, they became real to those who received him, and were freed from exclusion and suffering. So, I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to imagine God pitching God’s tent, among the 70 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. Or to seek God in the impermanent fragility of people living on the edge. Except that they are far from glorious… When the Radio Solent’s Carol Concert was recorded in this church, earlier this month, Tim Daykin said this church reminded him of Noah’s Ark. That hadn’t occurred to me before. I’ve always thought it tent-shaped. So, I wonder, what it might mean for God to pitch God’s tent in Chandler’s Ford, and in the other communities in this circuit. In places like this? Or elsewhere? When we say that the Word pitched his tent among us, we affirm the link between the incarnation and our own humanness. But in John’s Gospel, the mystery of the incarnation, is about more. And just as the images of tents challenge us to see a bigger picture. John stretches us. To see beyond what we think we know. And to place all that we know within a cosmic context.

And it’s that bigger picture that brings me to the question of why incarnation? Why did God not continue to dwell with God’s people in a tent? Why come as a fragile, human being? If you’re familiar with the pattern of the traditional nine lessons and carols, you’ll know it begins with the story of Adam and Eve - with humanity’s fall – and then travels through the Hebrew scriptures, to the birth of Jesus, and ends with the mystery of the incarnation from John’s Gospel. The story it tells is that the incarnation is God’s answer to the fall. It’s rooted in on a theory developed by St Anslem in the 11th century. He thought that Adam and Eve’s disobedience could only be repaid by an act of obedience. And in order to satisfy God’s justice this demanded the birth, passion and death of Jesus. I’ve long-struggled with this theory of atonement ‘though - and it is only one theory among several others – because it has shaped our hymns and our reading of the scriptures. And I’ve also struggled with theologies rooted in the violence it ascribes to God. And to the religious practices its shaped that reinforce sin and shame - especially, but not only, for women. In 2016 at the beginning of my last sabbatical, I was sitting in Moorfields Hospital waiting for an eye-test reading in preparation for a retreat at a Franciscan retreat house. The book was by Sister Patricia Jordan who would direct the retreat. And she was writing about the great debate that took place in the Middle Ages about the reason for the incarnation. I can remember the moment so well, because as I read, everything fell into place and I felt as if I was breathing for the first time. This is what struck me. John Duns Scotus, an early Franciscan theologian said that “divine love within the community of the Trinity was the reason for Christ’s coming among us as a human being. (Repeat). Before the world was created, it was God’s plan to share his life and love in and through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the First-born of all creation.” (3)

I’d not noticed this in scripture before. Probably because my reading has been shaped by different theologies. But it is what the prologue to John’s Gospel and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says. Listen. “Even before the world was made…” “From the beginning the Word was with God.” “Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him.” The Word was a partner in creating human beings – “in our own image and likeness” – as Genesis says. And “God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy… Because of his love God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children… and God chose us to be his people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning.” These and other passages like these, led Duns Scotus to conclude that even if human beings had never sinned, Christ would still have been born as a human being. For Christ’s coming as one of us is the way God enables all human beings to become Christ-like. As the fullness of what God began, when God made humanity in God’s image and likeness, is realised. And God’s intention to “bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head” is achieved. None of this takes away from our fallenness. Human beings, and human society we’ve seen in the pictures of refugee camps and the tents of homeless people, is broken. But not all our suffering is the fruit of our actions, we are as much “done to,” as people who “do.” Creation may be good, but it is not yet complete, and the incarnation is a central to its completion. Concluding with the phrase that Julian of Norwich is famous for, Christopher Chapman says, “The incarnation is not an after though of God to put right what is broken; it is an expression within time of the eternal and active desire of God that despite everything, all will be well.” (4)

I didn’t want us to rush past Christmas without talking about this understanding of the incarnation, because I suspect that if it helps me make sense of it, it will help others too. Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting you should abandon Anslem’s view – or any other theory of atonement or incarnation - that holds truth for you. But it is good to recognise them as theories. everything about God is ultimately mystery. Yet having said that, I think the view that incarnation is not an after-thought in the mind of God, might be part of the answer to what it means for God to pitch tent in Chandler’s Ford. I think that when many people look at the church, and how permanent it is in contrast to their fragility, they (and maybe some of us) think we’re not good enough. That in order to belong - or to belong fully - we need to be good. Most of us have stuff about our lives that we don’t like, and some of us believe it makes us unacceptable to God. Often-times we can’t clearly articulate what that is. Rather, it’s a general sense of shame about who we are, that gets in the way. And it distances us from church, and more importantly, from God. So, I’m challenged by this comment of Richard Rohr’s. “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.” (5) And I want to say that Christians – the church – us / we - need to be involved in changing people’s mind about God and the church. And that means that our lives need to witness to the reality, that even ‘though we are less than perfect, even ‘though we are broken, God uses us because God loves us. So, we’re invited, to do as Jesus did, and pitch our tents among people who are suffering and struggling with life (because we’re no different). A few of these will be in the church. Some will use the Dovetail café, come to fellowship groups, or children’s and young people’s activities. But many won’t. They’ll be your neighbours. The people you work with. Those who share your life in other ways. In Jesus’ time, those who responded to him were called “sinners” and “unclean” by the religious people. Tax collectors, those assumed to be prostitutes, people who were blind, deaf or disabled. The shepherds and others who lived beyond the pale. People in whose lives fragility and impermanence is embodied. Because I suspect they sensed that he was comfortable with his. You may not think of yourself in these terms. Yet I think this is what unites us – with each other – and with him. And it’s brings me to my third theme.

To love. To God’s love for us. To the love that transforms us… Earlier on, I said John’s Gospel speaks about two different spheres or modes, of God’s presence. One of them is the earthly sphere of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, who pitched his tent among us. I showed you pictures of tents occupied by refugees and homeless people. And invited you to ponder what it might mean for the Word to pitch his tent in Chandler’s Ford or in this circuit. I think that the second sphere, the eternal sphere of the cosmic Word, is also part of the answer that question. So, I need to say more about the cosmic Christ, who is the bigger picture that John and Paul stretch us into. As they invite us to go beyond what we already know so that they can surprise us with love. You’ll have noticed that the way the Gospels and Paul’s letters speak about the second person of the Trinity is different. Paul’s letters do not tell stories of his earthly life. They speak about Jesus Christ, as a cosmic figure, who exists eternally. Whereas, when we meet Jesus in the Gospels, he is sometimes called Master, Lord, or Rabbi. But not Christ, except when Peter recognises him as, “the Christ.” The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, who is both human and divine, whose glory shone as he pitched his tent in 1st century Palestine. He was born there, so that the fullness of what God began, can be realised in us. And having been born as a human being there, he isn’t found in any other place or time, in that form. Yet, all that he was, through his birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection, is now part of God. As the cosmic, the eternal, Christ. And just as in the beginning at creation, and in the 1st century through the incarnation, God’s love continues to overflow. But now, through those bound to Christ, in every time and place. Through the mystery of people being transformed ever more fully into the image and likeness of God. Through people who have experienced God’s love, received the good news, and are now sharing it with others. When we see how far the tents of refugee and homeless people spread around the world, even before we take account of the suffering known to us, it would be easy to despair. For by ourselves, we cannot heal or reconcile the broken world in which we live, but listen to what Richard Rohr says. “Jesus the Christ has… planted within creation a cosmic hope, and you cannot help but see it in so many unexplainable and wonderful events and people. The ‘problem of good’ is just as much an enigma and mystery as is the oft-bemoaned ‘problem of evil.’” (5) This is the grace, the truth and glory of the overflowing love of God – Creator / Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit that Bonaventure, another mediaeval theologian described as a “‘fountain fullness’ that flows, overflows, and fills all things.” (5)

This morning, I wanted to place the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation, within the story of the God’s love for the whole cosmos. To offer you a way of seeing the whole sweep of salvation history – from before creation to the time when all things will all creation will be brought together – through Jesus Christ “whose incarnation gathered into one - things earthly and heavenly…” I don’t know whether I’ve left you more confused, straining to glimpse the fullness of the possibilities God offers to those who receive the Word, or clinging onto what you arrived with. The themes - God pitching God’s tent among us in Jesus - why the incarnation – and the overflowing of God’s love - are some of the ways I’ve found into this mystery. There are others that may lead you to different conclusions. But I offer them to you in the spirit of Gail O’Day’s comment about the incarnation, which she says, “binds Jesus to the ‘everydayness’ of our human experience.” For God is bound to the everydayness of those who seek to follow Jesus by pitching his tent in our fragile lives and opening them up to the fullness of love. God is bound to the everydayness of all those who know their lives are fragile, impermanent and broken, locally and globally. And God is bound to all and embraces all within the Trinity of love forever, because in Christ Jesus, God once pitched a tent among us. So, I pray that you may know the joy, the hope and the love of the incarnation, now and every day. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

Blessing from MWB 1999 p140

The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX, 1995, 525-6

Patricia Jordan, FSM Come apart and rest for a while Leominster: Gracewing, 2008, p27.

Seeing in the dark Christopher Chapman 2013, 83

Eager to Love Richard Rohr 2014, 187, 221 and 165