Sermons & services

Lent 5 - And was made man

Published Thursday 14th April 2022, at 7:15 a.m.

In the museum of Colmar in Alsace there is one of the greatest pieces of religious art in the West. It’s a depiction of the crucifixion, painted by Matthias Grunewald in the early 16th century. It is uncompromising in showing the tortured and ravaged body of the crucified Christ, his body twisted upon the Cross. It is like a sermon for Passiontide, leaving nothing to the imagination in order to bring home the horror of the last hours of the suffering Jesus of Nazareth who died on the Cross for us and for our salvation. I was reading a book recently by the Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, who wrote that the adoration of Christ’s humanity is almost alien to Orthodox piety. That’s certainly not true in the West where the humanity of Christ has been central both to theology and the spirituality, as the Isenheim Altarpiece clearly shows. Whether it is the preaching of St Francis of Assisi or John Wesley, the Church wanted to proclaim the truth we profess in this week’s sermon on the Creed: who for us and for our salvation .. was made man, made human. This is what Christians call the Incarnation. A claim so bewildering to Jews and Muslim: and some Christians! Did you know there are some Christian groups that don’t celebrate Christmas? It was true in Cromwell’s Protectorate in the 17th century here in England. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some strict Presbyterian groups, don’t celebrate the Nativity. As one group put it: History shows that Christmas does not represent Christ. It misrepresents sound biblical teaching and is in opposition to God’s truth. So why Christmas? Why the Feast of the Incarnation? Why this clause of the Creed? I’m going to start in an odd place: Santa Claus! Santa Claus is derived from the real-life bishop of St Nicholas. Along with more than 300 other bishops, he was called to a council of the church at a place called Nicea in AD325. The council had been called by the Emperor Constantine because of a dispute caused by the teachings of a priest called Arius. Put simply, Arius taught that Christ, though on a spiritual level higher than anything or anyone else, was, nevertheless, a part of creation: there was a time, he said, when the God the Son did not exist. The passions around this debate were hot! So hot that at one point, according to legend, St Nicholas charged over to Arius and slugged him one in the face: just like Will Smith at the Oscar’s! The bishops argued, fought – literally – and hurled abuse at one another. Monks fought running street battles. We might look back at this and struggle to understand the passions raised by the Arian controversy. And yet what was at stake was the vital question of the Incarnation and salvation. It can neatly be summed up in the teachings of a later church theologian called St Gregory of Nazianzus, who famously said: that which [Christ] has not assumed has not been healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is saved. This goes to the heart of how we view salvation. As I’ve said before: salvation is not a single event, but the whole of the event which is the coming of Christ to us, and for us. And again, as I’ve said before, we should view salvation not as a courtroom, but as a hospital in which we – humanity wounded by sin – come for healing. Human nature, scarred and disfigured by sin, needs a makeover: somehow the reset button needs to be hit. And God does this by becoming a human being like us in all things but sin. Christ shares in everything that it means to be human, with the difference that he lives human life as God intended it to be lived. And so Christ heals human nature at every step of human life from conception to the grave. Another Gregory, St Gregory of Nyssa, says: ‘The power amending our nature had to reach to both points. It had to touch the beginning and extend to the end, covering all that lies between’. And he does this so that we can be remade. Through nothing we have ever done or earned, through faith and baptism, we are regenerated. Recreated. Born again. So that we can become the people God wants us to be. So that we can be saved; so that we can be healed. As the early church used to delight to say: God shared in our humanity so that we might share in the life of his divinity. This is salvation by sharing. One of the Church’s greatest thinkers, St Augustine, a bishop in North Africa in the 4th/5th century put it like this in one of his sermons: “he would first share with us, and then enable us to share with him. In other words, he performed the most wonderful exchange with us. Through us, he died; through him, we shall live.” And this is why the early church was so determined to teach this truth: that Christ was both fully human, and fully divine: God of God, light of light, very God of very God. It’s why we celebrate the Annunciation and Christmas with such joy and festivity. It’s why Christians, when the Creed is being recited, kneel or bow at those words: and was made man. Because only a Christ that is fully human and fully divine can be our saviour. If Christ is part of creation – and remember all creation is limited and distorted as a result of the Fall – then he cannot be a saviour. In fact, he will be as much in need of salvation as every other part of creation. Hence the awesome – and still to some bewildering doctrine – that God became a human being who, and here’s the truly amazing bit, came in search of us. The great Cistercian reformer of the 12th century, St Bernard of Clairvaux, once asked the question in one of his sermons: I should like to know why Christ determined to come among us himself, and why it was not, rather, we who went to him. It was our responsibility to go to Jesus: but a double obstacle prevented it. For our eyes were blind, and he dwells in inaccessible Light. We are lying paralysed on our pallet, incapable of reaching the goodness of God. Then this was the answer he gave to his own question. He came because of us, so that the mercies of the Lord might be revealed with greater clarity, and his wonderful works for humankind. What amazing condescension on the part of God who searches for us. God in Christ – the Good Shepherd – comes to us, as one of us, to search out the lost and broken and wounded children of God, scattered through sin. Just think about that for a moment. God doesn’t abandon us to sin and evil and hatred and revenge. He doesn’t just leave us festering in our woundedness. He comes to us. To find us. To bind up our wounds. To heal us. To bring us home. Amen.