Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What Part of Incarnation Do You Not Understand?

A blog post by Bill Mefford

I have unfortunately turned off most of the current praise and worship music. It focuses on a private relationship with Jesus and says little to nothing about the world that Jesus calls us to love. The music reflects and feeds the individualism and detachment that sadly pervades the Church and distorts our true calling to love and serve others, particularly the vulnerable.

But this kind of worship has not always characterized the Church, and certainly not in its earliest stages. This is clearly seen in Paul's letter to the church in Philippi. In his letter Paul uses a hymn sung by early Christians in 2:5-11. In this passage Paul describes Jesus in v. 5 as being in the "form of God [but who] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." This means that Jesus, though at the same time fully human and fully divine, did not use his divinity for his own selfish purposes. Instead, he gave up the rights to his divinity as he took human form and he poured out his life entirely for others.

Why did Jesus do this? Because incarnating himself among the human race was not enough - he longed to identify himself fully with all of humanity to even the most vulnerable and least powerful. Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross."

The story of God's incarnation among the most vulnerable of humanity did not begin in the New Testament. In Isaiah 57:15, God is described as "the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; 'I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.'"

God is incarnated among the most lowly in society because that is in the very nature of who God is. Likewise, incarnation among the vulnerable in society is what God expects of those who follow him. The story of Acts is not just the story of the beginning of the Church, it is the story of God's repeated urgings, pleadings, cajolings to the new followers of the Way to go to those they once believed not worthy of God's love and to incarnate themselves among them and share with them in God's love and transformation. It is through incarnation that not only those we go to are transformed by God's love - so are we. Incarnation in therefore implicitly mutual ni that both the vulnerable and those incarnating themselves among them are transformed. Incarnation is how true biblical community is created.

The implications of the downward trajectory of Jesus' call to his followers in missional engagement are enormous, but all too often ignored. For those of us who wish to receive the benefits of God's redemption, we must also follow in his footsteps into incarnation among the most vulnerable in society. But yet, there are too many in the church who refuse to follow Jesus into incarnational relationships among the most vulnerable, including newly arrived immigrants.

Jesus invites us to follow him into shared existence with the sojourners in our land where their joys become ours, their fears become ours, their hopes become our own. But he also has a stern message for those who sit safely on the sidelines and pass judgment on the most vulnerable. Jesus angrily charges the Pharisees with engaging in the exact opposite of incarnational mission. He tells them, "they tie up heavy burdens hard to bear and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger." (Matthew 23:4) The Pharisees are guilty of offering instruction without empathy and making demands on others when they make no effort to provide support or relief.

And couldn't the same be said of all those who mindlessly repeat the mantra, "what part of illegal don't you understand?" So often, these words are spoken by people who, within the comfort of their isolation, are so willing to offer advice (no matter how bad it might be), but who are not engaging in any missional actions that provide true relief and compassion for immigrants.

So, let me offer a way to respond to the thoughtless mantra. We can now respond, "what part of incarnation do you not understand?" If incarnation is integral to God's character - and it is as we have seen, then anything short of this kind of missional engagement falls short of biblical and missional faithfulness.

Jesus invites and empowers us to follow him into incarnational relationships with those who are vulnerable and too often neglected and demonized by the rest of society. I pray this Lenten season we will accept that invitation for it is an invitation for our own liberation. And anything less, as the Pharisees sadly found out, denies the ultimate gift of transformation for our world, and especially for ourselves.

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