A sermon by the Rev. Joe Summers of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, an LGBT-affirming church in Ann Arbor, MI.
“The Revelation of the Human One” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers on December 31st, 2017 at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Readings for the first Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7, John 1:1-18)
As part of continuing to try to unpack the meaning of Christmas, I want to make a few comments about each of our scriptures today.
First, in Isaiah today we hear the prophet cry out over the people of Israel—“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”
For Isaiah, Jerusalem is the symbol of the people of Israel. For me it is a symbol of the state of humanity as it embodies everything from our painful collective history of domination, exploitation, warfare, and exclusion to the beauty of our art, architecture, music, literature and peoples. So today, on the verge of this new year, I want to say: “For Humanity’s sake I will not keep silent until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” This Christmas may we know the gift of the love of humanity.
Secondly, understanding Jerusalem as a symbol of humanity, its tragedy but also its glory, its continued love affair with domination, but also its yearning for peace, then allows me to hear our psalm as the early church heard it, as a promise—not to one particular ethnic group—but to all people—the promise of the One who gathers the exiles, heals the broken hearted, rebuilds what has been destroyed, lifts up the lowly and cast down the wicked, provides food for the hungry and who intends to establish the reign of peace on earth. This Christmas may we know the gift of the God who cares and works for the well-being of all.
Third, we have this very simple but powerful revelation in Galatians today, a revelation that is still resisted to the point that we don’t even hear it. Paul says we are no longer to live as slaves, but rather claim our freedom as children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom. After this passage, he goes on to say that if we continue to act like slaves, by putting ourselves under the law, making written words rule over us, we are forfeiting the freedom which is at the heart of our salvation. In other words, interior freedom is inextricably linked to salvation. When have we heard that message? Do we take it seriously? Or are we still tempted to live our lives as if there is a rule book that can tell us how to respond to everything we encounter in life? This Christmas might we be open to the gift of our freedom and what it means for how we are to live.
Lastly, we have these incredible words from the Gospel of John. For me they are some of the most powerful words in the English language or any language. On this the first Sunday after Christmas they present us with John’s incredibly moving vision of Christ and Christ –mas.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
We are hearing a re-telling of the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The difference here is that the heavens and earth are created through the Word and we know that the Word lives in us and the Word lives through us so the accent is not just on creation but on creating. Creating is at the heart of the life of God and that life lives in us. May we recognize what a gift that is.
“He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John is telling the beginning of the story of Jesus, not as a child born in Bethlehem but as the Universal Christ, the embodiment of Wisdom who was God’s handmaid and helpmate in the creation of the world. Again, the implications are staggering to the point of being mostly unheard and rejected.
First, if all thing were created through Christ, then there are no longer any grounds for declaring any people or any thing to be innately evil or impure.
Secondly, it means that God and Christ are present everywhere. There is no longer an excuse for some people imagining that they are bringing Christ/God to people. They may help to reveal Christ/God within and among people but you can’t bring them because they are already there. It also means that if the Spirit gives rise to the world of things, the world of things is not to rule over the Spirit, or over us.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him…But to all who received him…he gave power to become children of God.”
Into the world of domination, a world in which Cesar and kings were known as sons of God, immortals, suddenly we hear this revolutionary message that God seeks for all to know themselves as her or his children.
“And the Word became flesh and lives among us, and we have seen his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the Only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
Incarnation, the Word or Spirit becoming flesh, in human bodies, in human actions that are revelations of grace and truth. If we can get beyond the gendered language what we hear is a proclamation about the fullness of grace upon grace. It’s like another big bang of hope and Spirit bringing into existence not just a new humanity but a new universe.
Lastly, I think this whole text calls on us to reflect on the humanity of God. It’s an idea that scares many of us because we have so often seen the living God made into an idol based on various debased visions of humanity: God the judge, God the bloody warrior, God the King, God the patriarch. We absolutely need to be aware of our temptation of making God into our own image. That’s a truth that we need to hold onto. But perhaps the opposite truth is that human beings need a human God to show us what it means to be human, what being human is really about. Maybe until we see God as human we won’t ever be able to reconcile ourselves to our humanity, our bodies, our feelings, our needs and desires; we’ll keep thinking it is all some kind of mistake.
In the first chapter of Ezekiel we hear that in the in the thirtieth year of the exile in Babylon, on the fifth day of the four month, Ezekiel was among the exiles by the river Chebar, when the heaven were opened and he saw visions of God. Ezekiel goes on to say that at heart of the visions of the heavens, above the firmament over the heads of the angels, “there was a likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form…Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. And he said to me, ‘Human One, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you.’ ” (Ezekiel 1:26-2:1)
It’s a striking prophecy, a vision of God appearing in human form, a vision of a God seeking out the prophet as a Human being.
The only title Jesus claimed for himself was the title “The Human One”* so it’s pretty striking that that while the early church claimed all sorts of titles for Jesus (Messiah, Christ, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords) it’s the one title the early church seemed to leave behind.
“The Human One” is a mysterious phrase. We find it in a few places in the Bible including the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. When Jesus uses it he sometimes seems to be talking about himself, other times he seems to be talking about something larger than himself. One of the times we hear Jesus uses it is in his trial before the high priest, the chief priests and the elder and the scribes. Mark reports that towards the end of the trial the high priest asks Jesus “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” and Jesus responds, “I am; and you will see the Human One seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 15:61-62) Mark reports that on the basis of that statement Jesus is found guilty of blasphemy and deserving of death.
It is perhaps this prophecy that led the early church to mistakenly believe that Jesus was physically going to return to overthrow every power and principality and to bring about the final fulfillment of the reign of God on earth within a generation. I think it’s to the church’s credit that the scriptures don’t cover up this error. I would also suggest that it’s long past time that we consider whether when Jesus was talking about “The Human One coming in Power with the clouds of heaven”, whether he was talking about his physically coming back to earth, or whether he was presenting a vision of how he would return to redeem the world in and through the new resurrected humanity which he held up in his teachings on the Human One.
The Goods news of God in Christ is in part, God revealed in and through human flesh, not to condemn humanity, but to help us see and experience the grace and glory that can be part of our lives as human beings if we would embrace our humanity and the way of the Human One, the way of the One who, Paul says in his letter to the Philippians—did not count equality with God as some thing to be grasped—but poured himself out in love for others. As the theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it, on the cross Jesus restored to us the face of the humanity we had forsaken in our attempts to be little gods.
In this world of domination and degradation, John presents us with a lens that can enable us to see how, in the midst of all the suffering and crap (and I do mean crap) that we as human being have to endure—there is the possibility of knowing in and through this life and this world, grace and truth, love and glory and this good news has set the hearts of the poor on fire ever since. Perhaps it is now long past time that we come to claim the gift of our humanity and claim the reign of the Human One in our lives and world.
For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
*Walter Wink’s book The Human Being is about this phrase and how it appears in the scriptures. The literal translation of the phrase is “the son of the man” and so is often translated “Son of Man.” Wink and others argue, that the phrase is simply meant to refer to human beings. Some more recent translations have translated this phrase as “Mortals”, but Wink argues that Jesus teachings about the “The Human One” were in part about what it means to be human. A shorter discussion of all this can be found in Wink’s short memoir Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human which he wrote at the end of his life as he was facing dementia.