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The Incarnation and Discipleship

The Incarnation and Discipleship

Once I was criticized by a communications expert for offering a Christmas greeting to our conference because it was "too theological."

I plead guilty to the charge. What is Christmas except the festival of the church which celebrates nothing less than the most theological of ideas, the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ?

The classical text of the New Testament on the incarnation is the Gospel reading appointed to be read in all the Western Christian churches on Christmas Day--John 1:1-14.

This prologue to the Gospel of John describes the drama of God's salvation of the world. It discloses God's plan to rescue the world from the power of sin and death. How has God acted to save the world? God acted by entering into the world in order to establish a base of operation from which to re-create it from within.  As Robert Webber wrote, "God could have destroyed the creation and started over.  Instead he chose to become his creation and re-create the creation from the inside by destroying the power of death and sin that ravaged it" (The Majestic Tapestry, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Pp. 29-30). Therefore, the Gospel proclaims the climax of the divine drama of the salvation of the world: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."

"The Word was with God, and the Word was God." The church learned by the illumination of the Spirit that only a doctrine of the Trinity can enable us to interpret the mystery of the Word of God. That is, God is a world without end, and within this one world of eternal divine being there are three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All three Persons are God, and so we have to say that "the Word (or Son) was God." At the same time, since there is a distinction between the Persons who are one God in a community of essence, we also have to say that "the Word (or Son) was with God."

What is amazing is that "the Word became flesh." That is, the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus Christ.

The news of the incarnation is "full of grace and truth." It shows us the real truth about the Deity, which is that the divine majesty consists of divine mercy. Karl Barth wrote, "It is in His love above all that God reveals Himself as the One who is incomparable and therefore unique; which means that He reveals Himself as the true and essential God" (Church Dogmatics, II.1, T & T Clark, p. 450). God's majesty is never more revealed than in God's mercy of entering into creation as the human being Jesus Christ for the purpose of re-creating the world. We could have never imagined that such an event would have occurred, but that is because the incarnation is an act of God and the highest revelation of who God is.
Within this drama of the salvation of the world by the incarnation of the Word of God, we are given a role to play. The Gospel of John describes our role: "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God." The Son of God by nature became a human being so that we human beings may become the sons and daughters of God by grace. Our transformation into the children of God occurs as a new birth by believing in Jesus Christ. The church's festival of Christmas is fulfilled when we allow the One who was born in Bethlehem to be born anew in us.

The incarnation has been accomplished once and for all, and yet its aim is to be actualized in us in the life of discipleship. It is here where the climax of God's drama of salvation provokes a crisis for each of us.  It is possible that "his own people did not accept him."

We are threatened by this invitation to accept him because that would put an end to our claim to be autonomous, to be what I want to be, and to live my own life the way I want to live it.

Whenever we attempt to reject the invitation to accept Jesus Christ, the result is that "those who want to save their life will lose it" (Luke 9:24). The reason that our rejection of Jesus Christ results in the loss of our own self is because we are created to conform to his image since "all things came into being through him" who became incarnate in Jesus Christ.

The irony is that when we do accept him, then we become the person God created us to be through the Word who became incarnate in Jesus Christ.

Following Jesus Christ in the way of discipleship and conforming to his image does not rob us of our uniqueness or thwart our development as true persons, but liberates us to become who we are created to be.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, "And the more the person, in response to the Son's call, walks toward his prototype in the Son, the more unique he becomes."  The reason for this is that each person is "founded" upon the prototype of the incarnate Son, but this prototype "permits each individual freedom to fulfill itself in an utterly distinct manner" (Theo-Drama, Volume II, Ignatius Press, p. 270).  This is why Jesus Christ promised that "those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24).  Giving over our presumed autonomy to our Lord by discipleship is the way to discover our true self.

Discipleship is not only for us as persons, but it is also for the world.  As disciples who follow Jesus Christ, we participate in God's purpose of the transformation of the world into a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth.  The way of discipleship carries us into God's work of loving all people, restoring justice, bringing peace, and caring for the earth.  As Sergius Bulgakov said, "The world created by God is completed by man," and "without this accomplishment... the universe cannot attain to its end and its ultimate transfiguration, the passage to the new state of things," for it is God's plan that there be "a natural preparation for eschatology in history"  (The Bride of the Lamb, Eerdmans, Pp. 321-322).

Or as N.T. Wright writes, "We can't build the kingdom by our own efforts; it will take another mighty act of our God to bring it in at the last. But we can build for the kingdom. Every act of justice, every word of truth, every creation of genuine beauty, every act of self-sacrificial love, will be reaffirmed on the last day, in the new world" (Following Jesus, Eerdmans, Pp. 112-113).

I pray that during this Christmas that each of us will begin or renew our discipleship as we participate in the new life made possible by the incarnation of the Word of God.