Apr. 15, 2012 Easter 2 John’s First Big Idea: Incarnation

The season of Easter doesn’t end when we have finished our Easter dinner leftovers and put our wilting pots of Easter lilies on the back porch. Easter, the celebration of our new life in Christ, continues on for 50 days and ends with the wonderful feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, it is time now for us to keep mindful of the joy of Easter for another seven weeks. You might think that would be easy, but life in this world is very, very good at robbing us of our joy, sometimes by assaulting us with great sorrows and worries, but oftener just wearing us down with the day to day problems of normal life. We just get tired. And so, just as in Lent we took on the extra disciplines of fasting and meditation and prayer to keep us mindful of Christ’s suffering and our own sinfulness, I am going to suggest that we take on a new project this Easter season to keep us mindful of Christ’s victory.

The Lectionary readings for the Easter season this year are all from the first letter of John. It’s a little letter, five short chapters – in my Bible it only takes up four pages. But in that short letter are some big truths about Jesus Christ, about the world, about who we are and what it means to be children of God. It’s not a systematic letter like Paul’s letters where you can make an outline and follow the logic from beginning to end, but what seems like John’s rambling is actually more like a piece of music that keeps returning to the same lovely themes, playing the same themes over and over, but with variations.

What I’d like us to do with our Easter season, then, is to really feast on this letter week by week. Instead of preaching on the passages as I have always done, I will take six of the big ideas that John talks about in his letter and each week I’ll preach about one of them. And in addition to that we’ll have a Wednesday evening Bible study, beginning on the 25th – that’s a week from this coming Wednesday –  where we can go through 1 John verse by verse and discuss it together. I’ve also begun a study of John’s letter on our website, so that if you can’t come out to an evening Bible study you might still be able to participate in a discussion with me and other people in the church online. I sent out an email to those of you whose email addresses I have, but if I missed you please let me know and I can send you the link to our website.

I know not everyone can participate in these studies, but there is one thing I would like everyone to do as we are studying John’s letter. I would ask that you try to read through the letter – it is very short – many times. You could easily read it through once every week, or even several times a week. But read it through slowly, pray through it, stop to meditate when you come to something that really speaks to your heart or something that seems confusing or mysterious. If you find something that you really love, copy it out and learn it by heart. And then, as you remember what you have read throughout the day, try to live them out, putting skin and bones on the written truth, incarnating John’s words in our small ways, just as in a big way Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God himself.

Incarnation – putting skin and bones on the truth – is at the center of being a Christian. It’s the first big idea in John’s letter. We human beings are incarnational people. Imagine that you are at a party and one person says that he has seen every movie that Harrison Ford ever made. And then a second person says quietly, well, Harrison Ford was my next door neighbor when I was growing up. He’s a good friend of mine. The second person wins! No matter how much we know about someone, it’s always incomplete until we have really met them face to face, talked to them, physically spent some time with them.

The most intimate relationship that human beings can share is marriage, and at the core of the marriage relationship is the physical union. That is why infidelity is so disastrous in a marriage, because the physical bond has been broken. It might be that the married couple has everything in common on an intellectual level, that all their purposes and views of life are in complete agreement, but if a marriage is to be successful, the relationship has to be incarnated by the physical expression of their union. In the Bible the sexual relationship is expressed by the verb “to know” – Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore a son.

To know a person, whether on the deep level of marriage or just in the relations of friends or neighbors, requires a physical presence on some level, an encounter between whole persons, whether you’re shaking a person’s hand when you’ve just met them, or putting an arm around someone’s shoulder’s to comfort them, a voice of encouragement or just being present to support someone who needs company. It is the way God created us.

And from the time he spoke the sun and moon and stars into being, it was God’s plan to enter into his creation so that we could know him in the only way we are able to know anything, physically, with all our senses. So when John wrote about Jesus, who was both man and God, he bore witness to him in those human terms. That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed upon and have touched with our hands – we knew Jesus with all our senses, and we proclaim that the man Jesus that we knew is one with God the Father, the creator of heaven and earth.

Without the Incarnation there is no resurrection, no gospel, no church, no Christianity. John wrote, “This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” You can’t separate a human being into its component parts, body and mind and emotions and spirit. Just so, John says, now that Jesus has come in the flesh, the divine and the human are inseparably and eternally joined in him: if you reject one you also reject the other. If you say that Jesus was not really a man, but just God putting on the appearance of humanity, or that Jesus was a man, but wasn’t really divine at all, then according to John you have turned your back on God, or at least on the God that John proclaimed, the God of the gospel. There were teachers who were saying just those kinds of things, and John calls them false prophets and antichrists.

But there is more. God hasn’t only taken humanity into himself, he has also put his own Spirit into his people. Jesus has gone back to the Father for a time, so that we can no longer see him; he is no longer present to us in a physical way. But he has made us his children, so that as we have fellowship with one another we are also having fellowship with him. That word fellowship means relationship, and especially very close relationships like marriage. John wrote that it is in loving one another that we love God, and that if we love God we must love our brothers and sisters. If we don’t love our brother who is standing right in front of us, that we can see and hear and touch, how can we possibly say that we love God, whom we can’t see or hear or touch? The ultimate command of Jesus, John said, was that we love one another – and not just theoretically or by some kind of emotional feeling. We are to love one another in tangible ways –  we are to incarnate love, to make it present in a way that can be seen and heard and touched. John wrote that if we see our brother in need and close our heart against him, how can we say that God’s love abides in us?

This is why our life as Christians makes no sense if we try to live it all on our own. We can sit at home and pray and read our Bibles, but we can never enter into true fellowship with God if we don’t enter into fellowship with his children. John wrote “Whoever loves God must love his brother.” Being a Christian isn’t about having a moral lifestyle or good theology; it’s about living in loving relationship with God’s people, and it’s about extending that love to the world around us, incarnating the love of Christ, being his physical hands and feet and voice in the world, bringing all of God’s people into his family.

And being a Christian is also about growing up into the inheritance we have as God’s children, and that inheritance is the kind of life that John and the other disciples saw when they met the risen Christ. In Jesus human flesh overcame the power of death and escaped from the grave, and that unconquerable life that John saw, that Thomas felt with his hands when he put his fingers in the places where the nails had pierced Jesus’s hands and where the sword had torn his side – that unconquerable life is our inheritance, though it is beyond our imagination to know what it will really be like. John put it like this:

“Beloved, we are God’s children, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”. The Incarnation meant that God took on our human flesh, but it also means that we will put on his divine nature, and even John himself has no words to describe that. Meanwhile, we live as his children in this world, learning to love one another according to Jesus’s perfect example, loving our Father God by loving his children, incarnating the love of God, giving it flesh, for our brothers and sisters until Jesus returns.

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