Sermon preached by Fr George Guiver, Superior of the Community of the Resurrection at the Comunity Church Sunday 6 December 2009

INCARNATION  

John the Baptist famously proclaimed that there is one who is to come who will turn everything upside down. The hills will be laid low, the valleys raised up, the crooked will be made straight. When that one eventually came he did precisely that -the first shall be last - the master must be a servant - the poor will inherit the earth - enemies are to be loved.  

There was more, though: one great act of turning things upside-down was to make Christianity unique among world religions.  

God became a human being. The omnipotent one became weak and vulnerable, the everyday was united with the divine.  

There is a very strange thing about the way we think of the incarnation - a very strange and striking thing in modern histories of Christianity or in TV series about Christianity. I donít know whether this is true of the history of Christianity being broadcast at the moment but it is certainly true of histories of Christianity in general and it is this: they will talk about the incarnation in terms of God becoming a human being - and they will leave it there. What they never bring out is the way it determines all the rest of the Christian life. They will talk about Christianity as a creed, a body of beliefs, as a history: a string of successive events; as a way of personally relating to God. What they never say much about is the incarnational dimension that is absolutely fundamental to following Christ and is particularly in-your-face in the sacraments.  

We are very aware of that at the moment, gathered as we are to celebrate the eucharist. Whatever the nuances of our eucharistic theology may be, the tradition of the universal church asserts very extraordinary things about the eucharist, not just about what the bread and wine are to us but what the eucharistic celebration does to us and for us and much more besides. Baptism in the same way is more than just a rite of initiation - it creates and makes manifest the Body of Christ and the Body of Christ cannot exist without it. The Christian understanding of ministry is utterly incarnational - whatever we may believe about how apostolic succession works, it is a fundamental characteristic of ministry in the Church. That points us to one aspect of the incarnation unique to Christianity: the Church. The Church is seen as the foundational sacrament, the continuation of the incarnation. What people outside the Church rarely grasp is the way these three things go to make up something quite extraordinary: the three things are: 1) God becoming human, 2) The Church and 3) The sacramental order. You canít separate them and together they make the heart of Christianity and it is something that outsiders rarely grasp.  

Christianity is usually assessed in terms of ideas, of the personal spiritual journey, the institution. However, the things which give the true measure of Christianity are other. Physical practices, physical continuity, the unity of human bodies in one body and our physical and spiritual unity with God in the physical sacraments. Even the scriptures fit within this scheme: the daily office can be seen as a meditating on the scriptures, as a building-up of personal spiritual life within the context of the Church, as the offering of corporate prayers but first and foremost it is none of those things. First and foremost, even when it is reduced to mere recitation of texts (as all too often is), the daily office is an action. It is practising the scriptures in the physical dimension, so that they can convey their sacramental life in ways that we will never measure. All the other aspects of the daily office are important too of course but they come next.

The whole of Christian life has to be seen in this sacramental way: church buildings, personal meditation (which is itself a physical practice), music, images, the liturgy, monastic life. All of that and much more goes up to make the Church, the context in which we can flourish and expand into life abundant.

You might say that there are many forms of Christianity that arenít so strong on the sacraments, that have produced impressive church life and examples of great holiness. That is true but more internal, abstract ways of being Christian will work with people who are made that way: with people who arenít made like that it will flop. It is based on a mistaken assumption that the only way to have an inner, personal religion is by personal attention and concentration, when in fact our inner relationship with Christ is fostered in many other ways as well. We have a great tendency in our culture to internalise, privatise, spiritualise in an abstract sense. That direction takes us away from the incarnation.

All of these things constitute one part of the incarnational revolution. There is another dimension to it which is complementary: it concerns how we relate to the ordinary things of this world. Christís incarnation opens our eyes to the fact that God is to be known in the ordinary. All the ordinary situations and people of everyday life are loved by God, important to God and inhabited by him. This was beloved of many of the 19th century Anglican catholic reformers (not least Charles Gore behind me - and we wonít be moving his ashes!). We may be familiar with Bishop Frank Westonís famous remark that it is no good worshipping God in the tabernacle if you arenít worshipping him also in the slum.

These two dimensions: God in holy things and God in the ordinary. We often get the balance wrong. Christians are often tempted to set holy things above the ordinary, to remain unspotted from the world in a way that undermines the incarnation. The world is then seen as dangerous to the faith and to be kept at armís length.

The other extreme has been popular among us since the mid-20th century: the world is seen as the real place; the Church has a tendency to out-of-touch fantasy and has to be put firmly in second place, subservient to the sovereign realities of daily life and real people and issues. There is plenty of that around in the contemporary Church, of course and its effect, unintended, is to undermine another aspect of the incarnation: the fact that the world will always come under judgment from the Gospel. However holy ordinary everyday life may be, it must never be made the default point to which the Church has to adapt itself. In following our vocation to see God in everyday things we must never fall for the temptation of being over-sanguine about the goodness of the ordinary. 

Incarnation means tightropes. It is a great temptation to ditch the tightrope for an easy path, either of an unworldly Church, or of an unsinful world.

John the Baptist prepared the way for something he can hardly have expected in the strangest of his dreams: a totally different way of seeing the world - a world so enmeshed with God that all the bits would be brought together in a way never imagined before: the ordinary with the divine, the spiritual with concrete things and actions, the individual with a whole physical and spiritual coherence of all, called by God to unity with him.

Today people are thirsting for meaning as they rarely have before; people are also discovering afresh the foothills of the sacramental dimension in all manner of forms of physical expression, from the arts to flowers tied to lamp posts. The times are ripe for us to be proclaiming the incarnation as the tightrope it is and without reserve.

        George Guiver CR