Loving the World
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 7, 2014
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (3:13-17)
In my days as a Southern Baptist kid at Elm Street School, in the hills of Appalachia, in Erwin, TN we used to be visited by Uncle Bob the Bible guy. He would meet us all in a yearly school assembly and we would sing a little song. “The B I B L E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand upon the word of God, the B I B L E” and memorize Bible verses. Of course, everybody in the school, in the whole county was evangelical of some sort. The only minorities we had were the Pentecostal Holiness folk and one family of Lutherans! And at every assembly, after the Star-Spangled Banner, we would sing Dixie, too. Two verses! I’ll bet you didn’t know it has more than one. Ah, those were the days!
The first verse I learned was John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” I even memorized the last part, “For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world.” I have never forgotten it! It became my definition and my hope as I went about searching for some place where this was actually believed.
According to John, God loved the world so much that he came to tell us and to show us. Although God could always be found in nature and in Scripture, that was not enough. Love cannot stay at arm’s length. An incarnation is God’s most personal invitation to us to accept his embrace.
So, when we look at Jesus we see two things: we see what God is like and what it truly means to be human and we learn that the emphasis should not be on the glorious works of God in the past or the glorious works of God in the future, both of which are inaccessible to us. Rather, the emphasis implicit in a real, true, specific, concrete Incarnation is the presence of God now, at this moment, today, God with us.
The Incarnation was meant to wipe away forever the idea that God is remote and separate. Christ’s ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit were meant to make that even more palpable. Jesus told Mary in the Garden when she reached out to touch him, “Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to my Father,” which is to say, “Do not hold me at all,” since she could not possibly do so after the Ascension! And he tells his disciples that is “better that I go” so that the Holy Spirit could come. The Incarnation was an essential introduction and preparation for Pentecost when the Spirit of God would become the means of the deification of all things. Far from holding on we are called to let go.
The Incarnation of God in the flesh points to the incarnation of God in your flesh and my flesh. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each one of us is what restores us as to be god-women and god-men. We are all called to realize in ourselves the original purpose and the truth of what it means to be human and that is to be divine.
All of this, including the entire life of Christ and his teachings, and the Old and New Testaments, comprise the Christian metaphor for expressing the universal truth that God is with us and his kingdom is at hand.
Thus, Christianity is a mystical religion. Unfortunately, it has been reduced to an insipid moralism by many today into something that is hardly Christian at all because it does not take seriously the all-important reality of Christ’s first coming into the world. I think a lot of Christian folk are a little fuzzy on the incarnation and maybe a little disappointed. I think that is why they get so excited about the Second Coming, hoping that God will get it right next time and once and for all prove how great he really is and how right they have always been. Like the crowds on Palm Sunday they want the King to finally show up and smite all the godless and the unrighteous (that is, those with whom they disagree) to smithereens.
But the truth is much different. The King has come, the kingdom is now, the Holy Spirit is the yeast at work in the restoration of all things. For St. Paul the hope of glory is not the Second Coming, but as he wrote, “Christ in me, the hope of glory…For to me to live is Christ…Christ lives in me.” Our hope is not in apocalyptic world destruction, but in the ending of the world as we have come to see it: the end of the world is all about the end of ignorance, the end of misunderstanding writ large in the metaphor of apocalypse. Will he come again? Certainly. As a matter of fact he comes to us at every Liturgy. And when he does we see him as he is, the Compassionate Lord, the One who has enwrapped everything and everyone in his mercy. God is love both in Incarnation and Second Coming.
For the kingdom of heaven will not be ruled by a Divine, vengeful Tyrant, but by the Suffering Servant who came and will come not to be served, but to serve. The kingdom of heaven now and forever is a kingdom of Unconditional Love, Radical Acceptance, and Unconditional Positive Regard. This is what the First Coming of the Son of God teaches us. The Second will teach us nothing at all different than the first. For there are not two inconsistent, waffling gods, but One God whose will is always the same revealed in Christ who, according to Paul is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
For now we must replace our lack of the consciousness of God’s eminence with the knowledge of his Real Presence and allow this truth to dawn within us. This is the truth that sets us free. He is our sun and moon, our air, our breath, our food, our neighbor, and our self. He is the foundation of all that exists, the Word, the Reason, the energy of life itself.