The Incarnation: What is It? Why Does it Matter?
This post is a part of Rookie Anglican, a blog dedicated to Making Anglicanism Accessible. It was first preached as a sermon by Fr. Steven Lanclos on January 3, 2018 at Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Pelham, AL.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—
The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—
That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)
The Doctrine of the Incarnation
As we approach the end of this Christmas season, I keep returning to the doctrine of the incarnation.
St. John writes in the opening verses of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word, the second person of the Trinity, broke through to our timeline and dwelt in a virgin’s womb for nine months.
By her, he became a man, and his name is Yeshua, Jesus, which means “Salvation.”
As a human child, he grew. He fed on his mother’s milk, just like us. He first crawled then learned to walk, just like us. He fell and bruised his knees, just like us. He even lived through puberty, just like us. He grew in wisdom and knowledge, just like us.
He was like us in every way save one – he knew no sin. He entered into his creation that he might redeem and renew it.
This is the Doctrine of the Incarnation: God became man so that we might become one with him through his body. Jesus is 100% human while maintaining full 100% divinity. If the math sounds wrong it’s because this is a mystery, something we will never be able to fully grasp. The Apostle Paul calls it “the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16).
The Anti-Gnostic Gospel
Because John was the only apostle who lived into his twilight years, he had a lifetime to reflect on the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his first epistle, John expands on the incarnation to fight the heretical group called the Gnostics.
The Gnostics taught a false dualism between God and the world. Simply, they believed God is holy; creation is not. This corrupt physical realm has trapped us. It is our duty, therefore, according to the Gnostics, to spiritually ascend out of this corrupted physical realm via a “special knowledge” that only the Gnostic teachers possessed. This belief had profound implications for the ways Gnostics worshiped. They worshiped God in heart and mind only – never through physical means – for the physical world is corrupt. The Gnostic God is too holy to soil himself by entering his creation.
But John teaches us that true Christianity affirms God did just this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The incarnation is the Christian answer to Gnosticism! Paul writes, “Being in the form of God [i.e. being God], he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men [i.e. God became a man]” (Phil. 2:6-7).
1. The Physicalness of Jesus
There are three things we can learn from the opening verses of John’s first epistle.
First, the incarnation affirms that Jesus is a flesh and blood human. He was not a phantom nor a ghost like the Gnostics taught. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh through his mother Mary. John says that what was from the beginning – God – he has he has heard, seen, and touched.
Because Jesus is the Word of God made physical, our worship of Jesus must be physical. Our faith is a sensory faith, and our religion is a tangible religion.
Why? Because the Word of God entered into the physical realm of our existence: he took human nature upon himself. So many Christians crave this physical element to worship, and I believe the Anglican expression of Christianity provides it.
In Anglicanism, we physically reverence (e.g. bow, genuflect) the name of Jesus, for Paul teaches, “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow….” (Phil 2:10). We raise our hands in worship, for the Psalmist encourages us to raise holy hands in worship to our Savior. Because the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, Christianity (particularly the liturgical expressions) is not a mere religion of the heart and mind (like the Gnostics believed) but is instead a religion that engages all five senses.
If you’re anything like me, it was odd to discover that Christianity is a religion that has a necessary physical dimension to it. I was raised in godly Christian home. Both of my parents were Christians who taught me and my siblings to love Jesus and to trust in the scriptures. For that I am thankful. We believed the incarnation as a matter of doctrine, but we were functional Gnostics.
We did not physically bow in worship; instead, we bowed only in our hearts. We did not anoint people with holy oil. We did not adorn our worship space with sensory reminders of our Christian worship like crosses or candles. The Lord’s Supper was rarely celebrated. The doctrine of Christ’s incarnation did not impact my Christian walk. The incarnation was simply a means to provide Jesus a human body so he could die on the cross for the forgiveness of my sins.
As I grew in my understanding of the incarnation and its consequences, I delightfully discovered the beauty of sensory worship and the necessary physical aspect of my Christian faith. Further, I discovered that the doctrine of the incarnation provides the necessary fuel to ignite the doctrine of the sacraments.
If the incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God is not above using this physical world to save me. After all, Jesus took on physical flesh and blood to save us. God continues working through physical means to save and sanctify us. The waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist are physical means that God uses to invite us into union with Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
This brings me to my second point – our salvation is union with Christ.
2. Union With God
This is what the Anglican faith is all about: union with God.
Certainly, Anglicans cherish the doctrine of justification by faith; we maintain that our salvation is a free gift of God through Jesus Christ alone. But the doctrine of the incarnation is a central tenet of the Anglican faith because it is through Jesus’ humanity that we are united to the Godhead.
It’s not so much that when we are saved, God indwells us by his Holy Spirit (though that certainly is true). Rather, God invites us into himself: Christ isn’t put into us so much as we are put into Christ.
We are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We have union with God through Jesus Christ’s humanity! When we are united to Jesus Christ we are invited into the relationship Jesus Christ has with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit: Jesus’ Father becomes our Father and his Spirit dwells in us. We are made partakers of the Trinitarian fellowship because we are united to Christ Jesus. Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life by which our heavenly Father reaches down to us.
This has radical implications for our life. Everything we do participates in this reality.
Our worship in church is no mere duty we attend to (though there is an element of truth to this). Instead, in worship, we leave the world behind and spiritually ascend into the heavenlies to meet with God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Thus, everything in our worship (liturgy, icons, kneeling, crossing oneself, etc.) points to the reality of the heavenly participation that we share in Christ.
Further, because we are united to Christ, we are united to others who are united to Christ. The Church is the body of Christ sojourning through this world.
3. The Necessity of the Church
This brings me to my final point. The fellowship that we enjoy with Jesus is shared within the community of the faithful, the Church. Our faith finds its physical expression within the body of Christ!
To have fellowship with Jesus – to be united to him by faith – is necessarily to enjoy fellowship with others who are united to him. There is no such thing as a lone-ranger Christian. Our personal faith is never separate from the community of faith. A Christian shares in the corporate faith of the covenant community, and that community is the bride of Christ, the Church.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that our faith is not personal. Everyone must personally believe that Jesus his or her Lord and Savior, though our personal faith is never separate from the covenant community. Truly, our personal faith finds its place within the Church and draws its life from the Church.
We return to the great and glorious mystery of the incarnation year after year. For unto us is born in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.
Jesus is found in a lowly manger, a simple feeding trough used to feed animals. But that night it did not hold food for animals; instead, it held food for us. That night it held our savior, the Bread of Life. Jesus, even in his infancy, offers himself to us as food for the world. It’s this baby who grows up to die on a tree for the forgiveness of our sins.
Eating the forbidden fruit from a tree in Eden is what destroyed mankind; eating from the man who hung on a tree at Calvary will restore mankind. We are no longer exiled east of Eden but have been restored to a right relationship with God. We are invited into union with Jesus, a union through his humanity that we may partake of his divinity.
Fr. Steven Lanclos is the vicar of Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Pelham, AL. A graduate of Beeson Divinity School, he is also a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve Chaplain Corps. He resides in Pelham, AL. with his wife and two sons. Fr. Steven blogs at Sarum Notes.
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