The fancy word “incarnation” might be new to some, and depending on how much church background you have, might be so confusing that it might as well be new. In Christian orthodoxy, the incarnation of Christ is the way the divine nature is expressed as it relates to Jesus. If you’ve ever heard Jesus described as fully human and fully God, that’s incarnation. The Word of God made flesh is a very powerful image when applied to a particular person – Jesus – and commands respect immediately.
Unfortunately, our Christian ancestors who worked very hard to understand this dynamic relationship happening in the person of Jesus could not have realized that in their attempt to clearly explain, quantify, and codify what this means, they unwittingly turned Jesus into a demigod. That’s a problem on two levels. First, the Jewish tradition never would have signed off on the notion of their messiah being a demigod – the result of copulation between a mortal and a god. The demigod notion is anathema to their theology and cosmology. Second, the demigod position, while it certainly made sense to the non-Jewish audience who were familiar and comfortable with this way of thinking, automatically created a necessary distance between everyday people like you and me and Jesus (the demigod). Our tradition essentially merged two theologies as they were trying to clarify and codify their belief in Jesus.
Jesus didn’t like the title Son of God (too demi-gaudy – see what I did there?). His favorite title for himself was Son of Man, or, using our language, “every man.” If he saw himself as truly human like the rest of us, the demigod denotation didn’t and doesn’t fit. I don’t think Jesus was a demigod, and I don’t think he thought so, either. Jesus is not Word made flesh in that way, which creates distance and exclusivity (one reason it’s popular). Jesus is Word made flesh in an inclusive way that provides a guide and example for all of us, for every man and woman to learn from and follow. I don’t think Jesus was anymore infused with God than anybody else in human history. Take a deep breath – on its face it’s heretical (but it isn’t). I do believe that Jesus at some point began believing in the divine presence within him, learned to cultivate it, leaned into it in ways that were deeply profound and incredibly powerful, impacting him and the world ever since. Instead of creating distance, his message was to share this very Good News with everyone: the divine breath in me is no less in you – see where that takes you. This idea is what shows up at the very beginning of the Bible in the poetic metaphors of the creation stories. The disciples-turned-apostles got it and lived it. You and I are invited to get it and live it, too.
With this foundation – that you and I are no less divine than Jesus(!) but aren’t as aware or tied into it yet – we will take a look at what this sort of incarnation looks like lived out in a handful of scenarios. What does it mean to be fully engaged when we are faced with times of loving adoration and celebration, betrayal, suffering, and even new beginnings? Let’s look at three scenes – all including food and/or drink – because we live meal to meal.
Anointing the Anointed. Not long after Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave, Lazarus threw a dinner party. The disciples were there, along with Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary (see John 12). During the course of the meal Mary got out what was likely her dowry: very expensive perfume packaged in a fancy vase – easily portable and also easy to hide. She dumped it on his feet and wiped it with her hair. The place was filled with more fragrance than a Middle School Boy’s bathroom at a Homecoming Dance (I think we all bathed in Polo back in the day…). Judas, the Treasurer, threw a fit: “What a waste! We could have sold it and paved CrossWalk’s parking lot with that kind of money!” Jesus, unphased and filled with the love of her gesture, put Judas in his place and chose to elevate and celebrate Mary’s gift. Allowing our indwelling divinity to guide and direct us leads us to really savor the moment for what it is. In this case to really be in the joy of the moment, which some of us have a hard time doing.
Recently, someone was trying to give me a compliment about the number of lives I touch directly or indirectly (I don’t like writing this…). I wasn’t going to have any of it. I was hemming and hawing trying to wriggle away from a very loving gesture when someone else present broke in and said, “Just accept the compliment already!” So I did. Am I the only one who struggles to accept someone else’s gift of love and joy? Jesus, fully embracing his divine nature and human nature together gave us a model: accept it and savor it.
That gift, by the way, was going to be so helpful in the days ahead. Jesus would soon be arrested, tortured, and executed by crucifixion. All the way through however, he would still smell the gift lingering in the air. So would others around him. So would Mary as she wept at the sight of it all. How well do you allow the Spirit of God within you to let you embrace love and joy, and also to express love and joy? In honor of Mary’s beautiful gift, go get a fancy, expensive piece of chocolate. Smell it, letting it fill our senses. Take and eat in remembrance of them both.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The Last Supper (John 13) features Jesus and the gang enjoying what we think is a Passover meal (the different Gospel accounts muddy this up a bit). The fully human, fully divine Jesus notes a few things through the course of the evening. First, since they couldn’t hire a foot-washer (nasty job) and nobody was willing to do it, Jesus took care of business personally, to the chagrin of all his pride-filled disciples. How dumb they must have felt… Second, he was fully aware that the disciple who was going to help orchestrate his arrest later that night was at the table. Jesus never excused him from the fellowship, from the communion that was to come. Third, Jesus was also aware that there was another disciple present who was unwittingly not as committed or courageous as he claimed. Jesus let him know, yet again, kept him at the communion table. I find this to be incredibly profound, deeply moving, and really challenging.
There have been some funerals I chose not to attend. I wanted to because of shared relationship. But I didn’t because I reckoned that if the deceased were throwing a going away party, I would not be invited. Mainly because at one time I was their pastor who they walked away from because my way of thinking was just too much for them to take, or I had the audacity to promote changing the name of the church from First Baptist to CrossWalk, or in a few cases, because I held them accountable. While I may have wanted to pay my respects, I deemed it selfish, and chose not to go so as not to in any way take anything away from the deceased’s memorial. I most cases, I think I was right. Because that’s how human beings are, which is totally fine. Why would you invite uncaring people, or your enemies, or people who claimed to be friends until things got too hot? We wouldn’t. Which is totally appropriate.
Sometimes, however, we don’t have that choice. We are simply at table with those who are rude, selfish, duplicitous, and fair-weather fans. Jesus showed us how to handle ourselves in such contexts. In a word, he was graceful. He doesn’t rip on the disciples for putting their stinky, manure-under-their-unkempt-toenails too near the food or faces. He simply and lovingly served. He didn’t kill Judas with his hands or words – he knew to do either would only hurt the situation and change nothing. He didn’t roast Peter for an hour recalling all of his previous blunders to assure him that he would do so yet again before dawn. They were all allowed around the table. Toward them all, Jesus responded with grace.
Everybody wears their trail, you know? Where we’ve been is in us and on us all the time. The sooner we realize this is true of ourselves and everyone else, the better. Got a big attitude about someone? Respect the trail they’ve been on and are on. Choose to be graceful instead of perpetuating the problem. (This does not mean we put up with abuse. If that’s happening, get out! Run for your life!) What I’m saying is that we should model our lives on Jesus more than our federal politicians. Hurtful, undignified rhetoric is horribly destructive and has served to increase hateful expression. It works for them as it strengthens their relationship with their base. You are not them, so don’t be. If you call yourself a Jesus follower, a Christian, then realize that such designation is one that is higher than your political affiliation. Don’t model your lives after them, but rather Jesus. And, by the way, how about, from a Jesus position, you speak words of graceful accountability when you hear your party leaders go all Middle School…
In honor of Jesus’ willingness to be with those whose trails were clearly evident in and on their persons, find yourself some trail mix or a trail mix granola bar. Take and eat as a remembrance of Jesus and his inclusivity, all born from his incarnation.
Welcome Wine. The next scene worth looking at is one of horror: Jesus dying on the cross (John 19). Very near his last breath, someone had the decency to give him some alcohol to ease his pain. Delivered through a sponge, Jesus welcomed it. He was surely in agony. To have that eased would have been entirely welcome. Three things are happening here: First, Jesus expressed his need, second, Jesus’ mother, sisters, and two followers were especially helpful, and third, Jesus accepted their help. How many of us try to tough it out when there are people who love us who would love to help? Jesus, fully divine and fully human, said he was thirsty – that’s stating what he needed. How well do you do that? Family and friends present heard him and immediately met his need in the most helpful way. Sometimes we are really dumb in painful, awkward moments when people right in front of us are struggling. We often opt for expressing sympathy instead of empathy. Check out this video to see the difference. Finally, Jesus accepted the help offered. Some of us get all prideful at this point, choosing self-imposed martyrdom of sorts instead. Some of you need to take medication to help you survive and thrive but you are too prideful to accept it. Follow Jesus and take the help that is offered.
Find some grape juice or wine, put some in a glass, and add a touch of vinegar. In remembrance of the need expressed, the help offered, and the offer accepted, take and drink.
There is one more meal we’ll look at, but not yet. Come back on Easter.
Questions to think about…
How are you at honoring others with words, gifts, acts of service, time, etc.? How are you at receiving honor? Which is easier? Why? How does our understanding of our own incarnation impact both of these?
What’s your MO when it comes to reacting or responding to rude people, people who you know betray you, or friends who don’t really have your back? Are you passive? Do you get in their face? How does this line up with Jesus? How does out understanding of our own incarnation – and everyone else’s – mess with the way we respond?
How good are you at asking for help? When you hear of someone’s struggle, do you lean more toward sympathy or empathy? How are you at receiving offers of help? How does our understanding of our own incarnation – and that of others – shape your capacity to ask for help, offer empathy, and accept help?
Our coming to grips with our own inherent incarnation – and everyone else’s – can be an incredibly powerful influence in our lives. How does knowing the Spirit of God is within us and those with whom we interact shapes our mindset, mouth, and motor skills?