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The Word became flesh

Midnight Mass: 24th December, 2009
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

'The Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us' (John 1:14).

In this short, sharp sentence from the marvellous prologue of John's Gospel, the author makes the shattering historical claim that rather than being remote, divinely floating above the grubby realities of this world, God has daringly entered the world. God refused to be kept safe upstairs. Instead, 'the Word became flesh'.

There are many implications that follow from this staggering claim but let me spell out just two — one concerning intimacy with God (Spirituality) and the other concerned with intimacy with other people (Sexuality).

1. Spirituality and intimacy with God

Richard Dawkins once wrote a letter to his 10 year old daughter, Juliet. The letter concludes like this: 'Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: "Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?" And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: "What kind of evidence is there for that?" And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.'

Dawkins is surely right to encourage his daughter to look for evidence. Evidence for the Christian faith is not only legitimate it is absolutely necessary.

C.S. Lewis was a most reluctant convert to Christianity. He came to faith not by straining harder to believe something against the evidence but by yielding to something he could no longer doubt. To him, the evidence for the truth of the Christian claims was compelling. We Christians can therefore agree with Richard Dawkins encouragement to his daughter to search for evidence. But it is when we go on further to ask about the nature of the evidence he is expecting his daughter to find, that we must part company with him.

Dawkins expects his daughter to grow up adopting standards of evidence from one field, namely, scientific endeavour, and apply them to a quite different field, namely historical religion. This is to commit what logicians refer to as a 'category mistake'.

For instance, we do not get to know other people on the basis of scientific evidence. To be sure, we can gain a limited amount of information about another person by observation — height, weight, eye colour and so on. Such features do not however, disclose the 'self', the deepest reality of that person. In fact, if we want our knowledge of a person to be more than mere information about them, we require their free self-revelation or self-communication. I can only know so much of you as you will honestly disclose to me and vice versa. And the same is true of knowing God. Knowing God as distinct from knowing about God, requires the self-disclosure of God.

God's wisdom, the Bible claims, is something no eye has seen (it is invisible), no ear has heard (it is inaudible), and no mind has conceived (it is inconceivable). It is beyond the reach of eyes, ears and minds. In other words, it cannot be grasped by scientific investigation. It is absolutely unattainable by our little, finite, fallen and fallible minds. To expect scientific proof for the existence of God is therefore, to commit a 'category mistake'. To say this is in no way to denigrate the human mind. It is simply to insist that the human mind, capable as it is of remarkable achievements in the empirical sciences, flounders helplessly out its depth when it comes to seeking God and knowing God.

In spite of Richard Dawkins warning to his ten year old daughter Juliet about the danger of 'revelation', the truth is that we cannot know God's unless God reveals Godself. And in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we are shown that 'God is love all the way down!' If God is to be known, God must be known relationally not merely in static academic propositions.

So first, the incarnation is a revelation of God's inexhaustible love and it is this that opens up the possibility for a relationship with God — for intimacy with God.

2. The incarnation gives significance to the human body and sexuality

The early church tried its best not to fall into the Greek heresy of saying that our bodies were bad and that only spiritual things were important. Nevertheless, some of its greatest teachers taught a form of body-soul dualism. For instance, Bernard of Clairvaux, the famous twelfth century Cistercian Abbot instructed enquirers who sought entrance to his monastery to: 'leave your body behind when you enter these gates, only your soul is needed'. Little wonder that many have stereotyped Christians as joyless, repressed people!

In the incarnation, God endorsed our bodiliness. Nothing could be more convincing of the ultimate honour of human sinews, skin and bone than the reality of Emmanuel, God bodily with us. Among other things, the incarnation underlines the fact that the physical pleasure of sex is a good, healthy and positive thing and that the ascetic quest for 'unembodied holiness' was and is a serious distortion of Christianity.

This is not to say, as our culture often implies, that it is impossible to lead a contented and fulfilled life without sex. Jesus did, and some in our church are called and gifted to lead positive celibate lives. But whether or not that is our calling, we are all sexual beings. Sexual feelings are part of being human and cannot be entirely eliminated, nor should they be.

The apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians of our bodies as being temples of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Greek dualist philosophers, he saw no divide between physicality and spirituality. Paul insists that body and soul are inextricably entwined. What we do with our bodies we do to God's Spirit within us. We are not just 'bodies'. We are not just 'souls'. We are 'wholes' and the Christian mission in the twenty-first century needs to be holistic rather than dualistic.

Sexual feelings are God's gift to us and it would be unnatural and odd not to experience them at all. On the other hand, to treat another person as just a body and no more, is not love, but lust. Lust misreads people. It demeans them and reduces them. With love, we aim first and foremost to give, and we end up receiving as well. With lust the primary motive is to get, and although there may be some temporary relief, the end result is just more frustration. And that's why the church has always held that the appropriate expression of sexual love takes place within a life-long, committed and monogamous relationship. Without such a commitment we tell lies with our bodies. We pretend that we are serious about wanting someone else when we only really want a part of them.

What this all means for heterosexual people is clear enough, but for gay people in our Church it is currently a matter of debate. Actually, the global Anglican psychodrama over gay sexuality is not so much a matter of debate as a series of agonizing quarrels, 'tying the church in constipated knots', as one journalist put it! Often these quarrels mask fear and prejudice.

To his very great credit, Andrew Marin, a young heterosexual evangelical who has immersed himself for the past 9 years in the gay communities in the USA has called on Christians to elevate the current conversation by adopting what he calls 'an orientation to love'. Marin's proposal requires that heterosexual Christians should not take their sexuality as a birthright. Instead, they should ask themselves the following questions:

Why was I not chosen to have a same-sex attraction? Why was I born the way I was born? Why was I always sexually attracted to the other sex? Why was I not burdened with all that comes with being gay and lesbian? Why have I never had to entertain the idea of being celibate for my entire life? Why have I never had to think about fighting forever against a desire for sexual intimacy? Why am I me and not any of them? And why are they not me? [1]

The challenge is powerfully captured in the story of Ron, a homosexual man who attended a large evangelical church and watched a video taken of a man a few months before he died in which he said, 'the five best days of his life were the day he met his wife, the day they got married and the day each of his three children were born'. Ron then went tearfully to his pastor and said, 'If I continue to live the way that you're suggesting that I live (celibate), then I'll never experience any of the five best days that man experienced before his death'. [2]

For me personally, the final sentence of the book says what most needs to be said and put into practice in our Anglican Communion at this time:

'All God needs are willing hearts to extend his unconditional love for all of his children — gay and straight. This is our blessing. This is our bold calling. This is our orientation'. [3]


[1] Andrew Marin, An Orientation to Love, p.93

[2] op. cit., p.94

[3] op. cit., p.189


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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