Word made flesh
A homily given at St. Luke's and St. Margaret's, Allston, Massachusetts, December 26, 1999.
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."
We’ve gotten used to the idea that "no one has ever seen God". But to the good citizens of the Roman Empire, these were dangerous words. For the Romans thought you could see God -- or at least a god -- in the person of the emperor. If you wanted to know what a god was like, you could look at the emperor, the commander in chief of the mightiest military power in the world. This was a god who had a special place in his heart -- a preferential option, if you will -- for those whom Cicero calls the "clever and industrious men" doing business and investing money in the outlying provinces. The divine emperor personified the peace and stability of the farthest reaches of Rome’s influence, and his legions intervened with terrible, swift, and deadly force whenever the interests of empire were threatened.
I suppose "clever and industrious men" will always build themselves a god like that, a god whose power you can see. And they will always be wrong.
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." If you want to know what God is like, don't look in the places of power, privilege, and prestige. The hidden, unseen God has been made known in "a common man of the common earth," way off in one of Rome's most troublesome provinces.
If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus as we saw him Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. A God who couldn't even find a decent place to be born! A God in need. A God weak. A God utterly dependent on mortal woman.
God has been hungry, God has been helpless, God has cried. And made a bit of a mess now and then, as little kids will, and gotten all mixed up in the huge mess we've made of the world, wading through the broken pieces of his own creation, holding his hands out to be crucified. As one of us he lived with us, and bore a human name.
All that our humanity might be taken upon Himself by the Divine Word -- all that we might receive power to become children of God.
Children of God! How I wish we had never heard those words before! How I wish they were striking us with the same freshness with which they struck those who first heard them. Can we strip away all the cant, and hypocrisy and sentiment with which they’ve become encrusted over the years? Can we at least see that they describe not a goal, or an ideal, or a reward for being "good", but an accomplished fact?
And a liberating fact. Charles Kingsley spoke more prophetic words than he knew a hundred and fifty years ago. "And whenever you doubt," he said, "whenever the devil, or ignorant preachers, or superstitious books, make you afraid, and tempt you to fancy that God hates you, and watches to catch you tripping, take refuge in that blessed Name, and say, 'Satan, I defy thee; for the Almighty God of Heaven is my Father.'"
Children of God, and heirs. The implication of this was not lost on the slaves and day laborers who flocked into the new Christian movement. "With God no one is master, no one is slave," says Lactantius in the third century, "For if God is the same Father to all, we are all free by equal right."
Children of God, and more. God became human, the Eastern Fathers insisted, in order that we might become Divine! In order that we might become, all of us together in our human solidarity, what emperors longed to be, claimed to be, but could never bring to pass. He took our flesh, he shared our life, inviting us to share in his. All of us!
This, of course, was a bit much even for Christian emperors. The emperor’s religion likes to keep its God well apart from ordinary humanity, and to reserve for the rich and powerful a special place in God's scheme of things. The emperor’s religion is still with us today, in one form or another.
It's a hierarchical religion, one that sees on the bottom of the pyramid the poor, the slave, the disreputable, the weak, the hungry, the forsaken. A good distance up the ladder are the "clever and industrious men" Cicero talked about, and above them the ever-more-rarified reaches of the aristocracy, government officials, and then the emperor himself. Above him are only choirs of angels, Jesus -- wholly human or wholly God, never both in the emperor's religion -- and finally God, the ultimate autocrat, dwelling alone in majestic, but isolated splendor. God, like a sophisticated spy satellite, is watching us, from a distance.
It was on this whole scheme of things that Athanasius and the Fathers gathered at Nicaea blew the whistle. God is not way up there, somewhere above the Emperor, but right down here, Incarnate in the poor, the slave, the disreputable, the weak, the hungry, the forsaken. And God does not leave us there, but lifts us up, transforming us and all creation, making us over into the image and likeness of God -- a God, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, in whom "none is before or after another, none is greater or less than another."
"No one has ever seen God", but in the Word made flesh we are learning to seek God where God is to be found -- near and not far, in the very heart of God’s creation, in all the flesh and blood complexities and turmoil of human life. The Word became flesh and no longer can we put asunder what God has joined together, no longer can we disdain the things of this earth in favor of a "religious world" sealed off in its own safe little sphere.
The Anglo-Catholic mission priests and sisters of a hundred years ago, struggling for sanitation reform in those dreadful, disease-ridden London slums, were often accused of "neglecting spiritual things", of substituting politics for the Gospel. Their reply became a watchword for all who follow in their footsteps: "We fight for the drains because we believe in the Incarnation."
What do we fight for because we believe in the Incarnation, here in Allston-Brighton? "Have we remembered," asks Conrad Noel, "that our bodies and the bodies of our neighbors are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and are therefore to be fed, clothed, and housed adequately?" Are they? Why not?
And how about health care? Eleven million children in this country with no medical insurance! Worldwide, by this time next Christmas, something like 10 million children will have died of entirely preventable diseases and malnutrition.
Because the Word became Flesh all flesh is holy, theirs as well as ours, and we are all members, one of another.
"No one has ever seen God," John repeats in one of his letters, "but if we love one another God lives in us." If you want to know what God is like, look at people who love one another. Look at St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s. Maybe not too closely all the time, but maybe look at us when we’re at our best, when we’re washing each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday or in a few minutes as we celebrate the Eucharist together.
We will acclaim a God of power and might, but a God whose power is hidden in a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, which earth has given and human hands have made. And we will gather around God’s table to share that power, power to become church, to become ecclesia, a people called to come together.
The Eucharist, the early Christians knew, is not just about me and my God. They stood around God’s table as a community of equals and shared the Body and Blood as members of one family. And as they did so they burst into song. One of their favorite communion hymns Tertullian tells us, was the psalm, "Behold, how good and pleasant a thing is it to live together in unity." Unity not for themselves alone, but for the life of the world.
"In him was life, and the life was the light of all people," says John. "We beg you," asks an ancient Eucharistic prayer, "make us truly alive." Oh, if our Eucharist today would bring us to life, and send us out to be a light to all people! Send us out to be Isaiah’s people who just won’t shut up: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch."
For the Word made flesh, as Charles Marson said, is not just about unseen, spiritual things. "It is the honest loaf and the unpoisoned beer, the children's boots and the roses on their cheeks, the clearness of water and the sweetness of air. The grace and chrism, which began at Aaron’s head, must not stop there. They must descend to the most trumpery, meanest and trivial outworks of human life -- to the skirts of the raiment, till the most transient things of time have the consecration of eternity."
-- Ted Mellor