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The Solidarity of Jesus in the Flesh
Christmas sermons can explore a central meaning of incarnation by considering Stephen J. Nichols analysis of who is the antichrist.
By Ed Knudson
Many Christmas sermons may focus on the wonder that God has in Jesus become a human being. But too many of them may make of the incarnation a kind of test of faith. We just have to believe in something that sounds illogical. And the hearers of such sermons may accede to the pastor's authority and "confess their faith" that they believe in the radical idea that God in Jesus became a human being. This places all the action on the believer's part, of course, and having faith becomes a work, in this case giving up on logic and believing something just because the pastor says it is so. Congregations made up of such people inevitably become self-righteous believers oriented against all those outside who refuse to believe illogical propositions.
This is the danger of all churches that put emphasis on doctrine. The idea becomes to believe in the doctrine, to prove we are good believers, rather than experience the internal spiritual dynamics to which the doctrine points. And this means the church can end up doing the exact opposite of what God calls the church to do, to judge and reject others outside the church rather than do what God did in Jesus, to enter into the lives of others.
In the incarnation God did not become a human being in order to demonstrate how capable God is. God didn't have to prove anything to anybody. So why did God do it? One way to summarize in one word what the scriptures tell us is that God wanted to create solidarity with us as human beings. God in Jesus entered into our lives. God did not just stand over and above us and away from us, but entered into the reality of human life so that God could be with us, close to us, part of us, so that God could know directly what it means to be one of us. In a word, this is solidarity.
And it makes a lot of difference that this happens in the flesh. That is, Jesus is not just a spiritual Jesus, this is a real Jesus in a manger, son of Mary and Joseph, at a particular time and place. This is a real, specific, in the flesh Jesus who is, we can say, right next to us in our own humanity. So the "in the flesh" part is critically important not because it creates an illogical proposition that we must never-the-less believe but because God wants to demonstrate full solidarity with us, sharing real material flesh and blood with us.
This is so important that in the epistles of John it is associated with the antichrist. That is, in 1 John 4:2-3 we read: "This is the proof of the spirit of God: any spirit which acknowledges Jesus Christ, come in human nature, is from God, and every spirit which does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God, but is the spirit of the Antichrist, whose coming you have heard of; he is already at large in the world." (JB) In the debate in the early church over who Jesus was those who did not affirm the human nature of Christ, Jesus in the flesh, are the antichrist.
It was not until later that the antichrist was associated with the "beast" of Revelation. Then with the Reformation Martin Luther famously attacked the Catholic Pope as the antichrist: "The papacy is indeed nothing but the kingdom of Babylon and of the true Antichrist." For Luther the Pope had spiritualized the faith and focused everything on gaining access to eternity. Luther wanted to return to the biblical gospel of God entering into the reality of life in the world; Luther wanted to bring the faith back to earth, so to speak. He taught that Christ was really present in material things, in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The material is capable of containing and mediating the spiritual.
The Puritans in England and later in the United States also associated the Pope with the antichrist. But this became the basis for a rabid anti-Catholicism still characteristic of some of those on the religious right today. And the most common references to the antichrist today are in such persons as Tim LaHaye who use it in calculations and predictions of the end of the world, such as in the series of Left Behind novels. LaHaye is a false prophet today; his thinking is not based on the solidarity God has made with human beings in the midst of history, but it is based on a threatening, judgmental God who stands apart from us and is against the world.
Because of the solidarity God has established with us in Jesus Christ in the flesh, we know who we are and no longer need be afraid or view ourselves as better than those outside the church. Rather, we too are called to enter into the world as Jesus did. We are the body of Christ alive today sent into the world to exhibit God's love by standing next to all those who experience suffering and pain in the flesh due to the misuse and abuse of power. We are called to be in solidarity with all these others, remembering Jesus among us and able to imagine a future of justice and righteousness in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The depth of the solidarity that God creates in Jesus can be seen in the experience of German theologian Jurgen Moltmann in World War II. Moltmann was an air force relief worker in the downtown center of Hamburg which was destroyed in a firestorm at the end of July, 1943. A bomb tore to pieces a school friend next to him but spared his life. “On that night I cried to God the first time: Where are you? Why am I alive and not dead like the others?”
During his three-year captivity in a prisoner-of-war camp, he sought an answer first in the psalms of lamentation and then in the Gospel of Mark. “When I came to Jesus’ death cry, I knew: This is your divine brother and redeemer who understands you in your God abandonment.”
(A very interesting article on the antichrist has been written by Stephen J. Nichols, professor of church history and theology at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA, in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.)
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