Incarnation – in What Respect is Jesus the God-Man? (Ken Pennings) 6.23.2019

I believe John’s Jesus is calling us to affirm ourselves as fully human and fully divine!

Audio version of Incarnation – in What Respect is Jesus the God-Man?

Scripture Text: John 10:22-33

At ORUCC, we have a diversity of beliefs. We all believe different things about God, Jesus, salvation, the after-life, etc., and to be quite honest, it’s rare for us to be engaging in conversation about what have traditionally been considered core doctrines of the Christian faith.

Though we have a diversity of beliefs, we have quite a bit of harmony and agreement about our core values or principles, captured so well by “The Phoenix Affirmations.”

The Phoenix Affirmations, which were formulated by a group of Progressive Pastors, Theologians and Lay People in the Phoenix area in 2005, are 12 statements about Loving God, Loving Others, and Loving Ourselves. They are not doctrines, but rather practices.

At ORUCC, what matters more to us than doctrinal agreement are the practices of loving God, loving others, and loving ourselves.

That being true, our summer series, “Our Language of Faith: Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?” is considering Scripture texts and interpretations that make us cringe or squirm. We struggle with certain texts because of certain doctrines that have been based on them.

One of the words in our language of faith is “incarnation.”

For you, is the Incarnation of Christ a stumbling block or a stepping stone?

While Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer a host of ideas about who Jesus was – a Jewish rabbi, a king in the line of David, a prophet and lawgiver like Moses – only in the Gospel of John is Jesus unambiguously recognized as the incarnate Word of God, or God in flesh.

Over time, the incarnation of Christ became the central Christian doctrine that God became flesh, assumed a human nature, and became a man in the form of Jesus, the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity. This position holds that the divine nature of the Son of God was perfectly united with human nature in one uniquely divine Person, Jesus, making him both truly God and truly human.

But it’s important to understand that the incarnation and the idea that Jesus is the second person in a divine trinity, are direct manifestations of a Greek dualistic mentality. Indeed in the first five hundred years of Christian history, most of the “church fathers” were so deeply dualistic in their thinking that they tried to figure out how divinity and humanity could possibly come together in one person without compromising the integrity of either the divine or the human. The great classical heresies, such as Docetism, Nestorianism, Patripassianism and Adoptionism, were thought to err on the side of making Jesus so human that his divinity was falsified, or so divine that his humanity was lost. 

The church fathers debated the identity of Jesus in a series of ecumenical councils, from which came a variety of creeds defining Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation into human form of the one true God, and later as the second person of “the divine and eternal Trinity.” It was the Fourth Gospel more than any other biblical source which was quoted in these formative debates and creeds. 

But the author of the Fourth Gospel would have understood none of this. John was a Jew, not a Greek. He was a mystic, not a rationalist. What he did understand, however, was that Jesus represented a new dimension of humanity, a new insight, a new consciousness, a new way of relating to the holy (Spong’s The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, page 89). For a Jewish mystic, it was a no-brainer for humanity and divinity to come together in one person. Mind you, a mystical approach to reality has always been a minority view. The majority of early Christians really struggled to understand how Jesus could be both human and divine at the same time.

In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong argues that the gospel of John was tragically distorted by the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, who used it to formulate their creeds. As Greek thinkers, these early Christian leaders had little appreciation for things Jewish, and, as far as we can tell, little understanding of Jewish mysticism. As dualists, they saw God and human life, spiritual things and material things, souls and bodies as two separate and divided, even antagonistic, realms. Not knowing the language of Jewish mysticism these religious leaders could not possibly hear the Johannine mystical tradition, which saw Jesus not as a visitor from another realm, but as the “defining” human life, bringing together into oneness the human with the divine, nor could they understand the divine as a permeating presence that opened its recipients to a new dimension of consciousness. These concepts would have been completely foreign to them (Spong’s The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, page 53).

John, writing as a Jewish mystic, speaks about a new dimension of life, not a new religious status….To read John inside a Greek dualism suggested there was an external realm of God to which Jesus belonged and that he had left that realm to enter the realm of flesh and blood. But the realm of God in which Jesus lived must be understood experientially, not spatially (as a new dimension of life, not a new religious status).

Keep in mind that in the earliest Christian churches there was a diversity of beliefs about Jesus. But after centuries of councils and creeds, orthodox Christianity identified Jesus as the incarnate God, God in flesh, and as the 2nd person of the Trinity. To deny the deity of Jesus was to be labeled a heretic.

I think it’s fair to say that very few, if any, of the earliest Christians would have expressed their understanding of Jesus in any of the orthodox creeds of later centuries.

Most conservative Christians today seem to understand the Jesus of John’s Gospel to be the external supernatural deity coming from heaven to bring salvation to a fallen race of human beings. But this is bizarre thinking in a post-Darwinian world. It pretends, in the pre-Darwinian fashion, that there was a perfect creation which preceded the fall into sin, which in turn necessitated the rescue that only the God from beyond the world could accomplish. That kind of thinking transforms Jesus into God’s divine rescue operation.

Post-Darwinian thinking, on the other hand, suggests that human life has never been perfect and thus could never have fallen and, in fact, requires no rescue. 

A better way to read John’s Gospel, which some of us are beginning to experiment with in our Wednesday noon discussion, is through the eyes of a mystic. The Jesus of John’s gospel is not a visitor from another realm, but a person in whom a new God consciousness had emerged. 

A mystical reading of John’s Gospel offers us a perspective on Jesus which helps us recognize the divine potential that is in all of life, including all humans.

Through a mystical lens, we can now view John’s Gospel as the story not of a divine rescuer entering the world, but of a human named Jesus of Nazareth, in whom the human and the divine are one. What Jesus did with his humanity is what divinity actually is! What is divinity like? Look at Jesus! It’s identifying with and including the outcast and downtrodden. It’s eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. It’s washing dirty feet! This humane way of being human reveals what divinity really is!

It is the mystic who identifies John’s Jesus with the Divine! In John 14, when Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father,” Jesus responds, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” For “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:8-10). This speaks of a mystical union of the human with the divine.

Similarly, later in ch. 14,  Jesus is made to claim in this gospel that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words. His works are not his own works but God’s works (14:24). 

In today’s passage, John 10, Jesus responds to the Jewish leaders, “I and the Father are one.” For this, they pick up stones to kill him, because it is clear in their minds that he is making himself equal to God, and thus is guilty of blasphemy.

Is John’s Jesus a megalomaniac, is he just full of himself? I don’t think so. Jesus clearly does not think of God as an external, supernatural deity, but rather sees himself as part of who God is. Jesus was the place where the human and the divine flowed together as one, so that Jesus could be heard as speaking with the voice of God. 

What difference does all of this make for us?

John’s mystical approach to Jesus sends us the message loud and clear that we can potentially share in the life of God, just as Jesus did! We can potentially share in the being of God, just as Jesus did. We can potentially transcend the fears and anxieties of mere self-consciousness to live with a universal God-consciousness, just as Jesus did.

For those of us entrenched in 1500 years of Orthodox Christianity, it may seem heretical to claim with Jesus, “If you have seen us, you have seen God”! 

And we can make that claim only if we’re acting out of mystical awareness and God-consciousness.

Acting in that mystical awareness and higher consciousness, we, along with Jesus, can also exclaim, “We are in God and God is in us.” 

“The words we speak are not our own words but God’s words.” 

“Our works are not our own works but God’s works.” 

“God and we are one.”

The author of John’s gospel expressed the mystical unity that a human being can have with God. God does the kinds of things Jesus does. Jesus does the kinds of things God does. It is that life-expanding oneness with God to which the author of the Fourth Gospel believed that Jesus was calling us.

John’s Jesus is a doorway into a new consciousness, a new oneness with all that God is, a connection with that which is eternal. In Jesus, people’s eyes are open to see that they are who God is, and God is who they are!

Do I believe in the incarnation? Yes, I believe that in the truly human Jesus of Nazareth the one true God was revealed and encountered. I believe that every one of us is potentially the incarnation of the divine. In each one of us, human as we are, the one true God is potentially revealed and encountered.

To be fully human is to be one in whom the life of God lives, the love of God loves, and the being of God is made manifest. As we go deeper and deeper into our true selves, we discover God within us, Heaven within us, Eternity within us right here, and right now.

It’s true that I stumble over the idea of Jesus being the one and only God-Man. But for me incarnation is a stepping stone into a mystical union with God. It’s a way of talking about the human and the divine revealed in one person. In Jesus, yes! But also in me and in you!

Call me a heretic, but I believe John’s Jesus is calling us to affirm ourselves as fully human and fully divine!


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