Sermon “When God Had a Body,” December 11, 2016
New Testament scholar and sometimes-skeptic Bart Ehrman tells the story of one special person who lived about 2000 years ago.
Just before this person was born, “a heavenly figure appeared to his mother, telling her that her son would be not just human but also divine. His birth was surrounded by all sorts of supernatural signs, and as a child he taught those who were much older than he about religious insights and ideas.
This person went town to town with his message, gathered around him disciples
who witnessed his teachings, flawless character and multiple miracles. At the end of his life, however, his enemies made up charges and he was placed on trial before the Roman authorities and put to death.
After he died, some claimed he had ascended bodily into heaven; others said he appeared to them, that they had talked with and touched him. A number of followers spread the good news about this man, recounting what they had seen him say and do.” (From Ehrman’s New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings)
Unfortunately, however, this news never made it much further than his own time, so it’s unlikely you have ever heard of the neo-Pythagorean teacher, pagan, and holy man known as Apollonius of Tyana – who is the special man that Ehrman describes.
I start with this story because my plan for today is to go full-on Jesus….for us to explore not just the story of Jesus as human – something we do with some degree of comfort as Unitarians, but less traditionally for us, also the story of Jesus as the embodiment of the Infinite Mystery that some call God….and I know that for some of us, this idea brings up some resistance, annoyance, and injury. And, I understand.
When I first started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, I told some friends, with great passion, that one of the best things about my new religion was that they barely ever said Jesus. Jesus had been used as a weapon against me, and my wounds were still pretty fresh.
Over time, however, I have become even more passionate that we should no more allow a profound perversion of the story of Jesus -for example, any version that could be used as a weapon – to be represented as the truth – than we would allow the perversion of science to stand as the central truth about the earth, or our climate, or our place in this universe.
Both of these, if left unopposed are equally capable of destroying human life. And so we need to be just as willing to engage the Jesus story as we are any of our other sources for truth – especially when the perversion of the story of the “prince of peace” has never felt more pervasive, or dangerous.
Which is all to say, I hope that Apollonius of Tyana helps. Apollonius and the many other stories of the divine becoming human circulating around the 1st century remind us that there is something here that has captured the imagination of many different sorts of people for millennia, in ways that may or may not be related to what we now call the Christian religion.
And so my question is why – what is it about this story of God as a person,
and the divine as flesh – what is it about this that speaks to people – that keeps speaking to people – powerfully, resiliently?
Many of us today feel liberated by the opposite, actually. If we engage with a concept of God at all, it’s usually by way of “Spirit of Life,” or Infinite Love, Great Mystery, or even simply, the Universe. No body, no being.
But here we have this story that proclaims the eternal has been given form, and gender and skin, a particular, living, breathing existence.
What liberation might be found here?
What piece of the truth, and what good news might this story offer us, and our world?
The good news, of course, starts with a baby, which is always good news….except…not entirely. Because babies are beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and smell really good…..but also can be real jerks. They cry and don’t use their words; they refuse to do their own laundry, and they never do the grocery shopping. They wake you up at all hours of the night, and demand you feed them, change their diapers, or just hang out and pay attention to them.
These human realities are some of the many reasons why scholar Cynthia Rigby describes the idea of God becoming “one of us,” as the song would have it, scandalous. (Check out Rigby’s essay in Constructive Theology edited by Serene Jones & Paul Lakeland)
How could something infinite be contained in something so profoundly limited?
And how could the perfectly good and entirely powerful square with something so messy, selfish, dependent, and demanding?
Also, It’s actually wrong to say that this starts with a baby – it starts with a woman who grew that baby, which is to say a woman who created God, formed God, a woman who was pregnant with God, and who gave birth to God with all the mess and blood and curse words that come with labor and birth.
And no one ever seems to talk about the fact that this God necessarily was a teenager – awkward and pimply, eager and even…..horny…
This is the mystery of the incarnation, and in the earliest days, no one thought to try to solve it. This paradox of God in a human body sought no explanation, no clarification, no resolution, no absolutely sinless life, no doctrine of the virgin birth.
The hard lines of orthodoxy came later, along with the organizing, the power struggles, the boundaries of who’s wrong, who’s right, who’s in, who’s out.
But before all of this, there was only the allure of this impossible possibility: that the eternal would know the mortal, and perhaps more importantly, that the mortal would know the eternal.
That the two seeming opposites would fully co-exist in a great intimacy and partnership between human life and the universal source.
God doesn’t just walk among humans, God is human.
God doesn’t just shape human life, but is subject to that shaping.
God is not residing in some celestial heaven, God abides here, fully present with us, in us.
The story of God becoming human lifts up God’s immanence – instead of an untouchable transcendence that occasionally comes over us in a great and rare sacred shiver, this story says that the holy knows human life intimately – that the universe knows what it means to want what you cannot have, and also the pleasure of getting everything you hoped for, and more. Strong mother God, working night and day;
This story says says the spirit of life gets why you’re losing your temper, and knows how much you long to be forgiven; it says the Ultimate knows what it is to be betrayed by those you love, and also to die too soon, and to long for more life. Warm Father God, feeling all the strains of human living;
This story says that Life at its very essence understands when things fall apart, the helplessness of realizing there is no fixing this, and the reasons why you’d decide to show up and love anyway. Old, aching God, grey with endless care.
There is something deeply comforting and consoling about imagining the vast infinite this present – that this aging body, this stumbling spirit, this doubting, suffering, hopeful, imperfect person; that every boring, embarrassing, gorgeous corner of our lives; every melting glacier and bullied child, every relapsing addict and terrified soldier – all of it, and all of us is known and held in divinity, known entirely by the infinite universe.
We speak about an infinite love that will not let us go, a love that has not broken faith with us, and never will – this is the promise of this story. Emmanuel – God With Us.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said this was the real scandal of this story – not what it implies about the divine, but what it says about humans – and how much we are loved. This infinite, unconditional love is too much for us – it’s an embarrassment of love, an unfathomable abundance, a scandal.
We should have to earn love like that, we think, only some could deserve love like that – not everyone; only some parts of ourselves should be loved like that….not all the parts….not the pimply parts…The co-existence of God with flesh, however, refuses such a division. All are worthy, all are loved; every part of you is worthy, every part of you is known, accepted, and loved.
It is a problem, however, that this story comes to us with God as man, let’s be honest.
David Bumbaugh’s winking response – that God could learn more about limitations by becoming a man – and also Satan’s question about whether or not God has fallen victim to sexist assumptions – pretty smart, ok.
Some say that the story wouldn’t have had the lasting power if it had been focused on a woman who was fully human, fully divine; others say that the transgressions of a woman in the first century of Palestine would not have held as much social and political power as they did for a man – it had to be a story about a man.
All of these are good ways to think about the fact that this culture-shaping story centers on God becoming a man – but it’s still a problem. Because they can’t overcome the inevitable conclusions that – as feminist theologian Mary Daly put it, “if God is male, then the male is God.”
With that said, focusing too much on Jesus’ gender overemphasizes the humanity in the story over the divinity – the point is that neither is more present than the other –
they are equally co-existent. Which means, as I keep saying about our signs – the particular expression does not necessarily limit the infinite reality it points to, but just gives it tangible expression.
Which is one of many reasons I love the artists who toy with how they portray Jesus – willingly offering a Jesus who presents as female, Hispanic, disabled, or even – Caucasian.
These portrayals remind us that the particular embodiment should not be confused with a permanent limitation.
Despite all this talk of scandal, it was not new or radical to imagine that God is changed or changeable, or even that the source of that change is human interaction. Much of the Hebrew scriptures tell stories of God learning, messing up, trying again, and as the hymn goes, “being changed by what God started.”
The new part of this story is the body. It was the fact that God had a body, the story goes, that changed everything – for humans, and for God, from then on. Which I think makes sense.
It reminds me of a poem I have read at memorials – from Dorothy Monroe, it goes:
“Death is not too high a price to pay for having lived.
Mountains never die, nor do the seas or rocks or endless sky….
they stay eternal, deathless.
Yet they never live!
If choice there were, I would not hesitate to choose mortality.
Whatever Fate demanded in return for life I’d give,
for, never to have seen the fertile plains
nor heard the winds
nor felt the warm sun on sands beside the salty sea,
nor touched the hands of those I love–
all the gains of timelessness would not be worth one day of living and of loving.”
We idealize the possibility of immortality, omniscience, omnipotence, but there is something particularly beautiful and transformative about our simple, limited, vulnerable human life.
Once God had a body, the idea of living forever like the rocks and the sky, of remaining at a distance from everything and everyone – it just wouldn’t have had the same appeal. We so often curse our unknowing, imperfect existence – but when you think about it –
how beautiful this stumbling and sometimes surrender can be – you too might understand how it might persuade divinity to abide with us, forever.
Unitarian Universalist minister Galen Guengerich says that in our world today, “each of us are the face of God in this world, and God’s voice and hands.”
And so it may be true that there is no all-knowing, all-controlling force, but rather God is that which is present in all, the presence which remains, that abides – that presence that chooses to stay within and among humankind, and that power that knows how to love –
that presence that loves abundantly, scandalously.
Such an idea would mean that we are all the saviors of the world, or we could be, which is terrifying, especially right now, but only scandalous if we fail to take our responsibility seriously. If we fail to see in every person, a possible partner, an image of God.
And so, in this dark time, let us pray by way of persistent kindness, worship through a practice of relentless compassion, and restore our beloved creation, and ourselves,
through the tender task of seeing one another, in all our humanity, holy, and abundantly loved.