Some time ago, I preached a message in which I suggested that Jesus’ command to love your enemies and do good to those that hate you might have an application beyond the merely “private” sphere of interpersonal relationships. I used a word in that message that I probably should not have used. And no, it wasn’t a cuss word. It was a better one: “pacifism”. That I dropped this word in a sermon delivered in the heart of Oklahoma was likely poor judgment, and even though I tried to stress for the record that I wasn’t saying that I was a “p-word”, and that I only felt pulled that way because of my commitment to take Jesus seriously, nevertheless I drew some fire.
The negative responses I received by and large laid emphasis on how impractical and indeed patently absurd it would be to take Jesus literally at his word. In reply I tried to lay stress on contrasting passages like Romans 13 in which Paul ascribes a (more positive?) function to the State, etc etc., while adding that as evangelical Christians committed to a supposedly “high” view of Christ and Scripture, and given the fact that Jesus hardly ever (if at all) seems to distinguish between so-called “public” and “private” morality, shouldn’t we have at least an a priori obligation to try to figure out how far his commands go, even if that puts us in awkward positions politically? After all, isn’t our first “patriotism” to our King and his Kingdom and the State only secondarily? Predictably, the conversations got bottle-necked around the impracticality of the command.
In the Gospels we learn that a virgin, Mary, miraculously conceived a child “from the Holy Spirit”, a curious admixture of the Divine and Human, so that Luke can say that “the one to be born to you (Mary) will be called the Son of God.” Jesus, we believe, somehow is “God-en-fleshed”; a union of the mystical and the material, the secular and the sacred; but more than that, as the ancient Calcedonian creed declares, he is “consubstantial (of one substance) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.” That in Jesus we meet one who is both “truly God” and “truly Man”. A totally unique individual in the history of the earth, without precedent and never to be repeated. And we Christians believe that this “hypostatic union” in Jesus is foundational to our salvation; if he be not God he cannot save, if he be not man he cannot save us.
Now, if I may: this idea is an “absurdity” if ever there was one. (And for the record, I believe in the hypostatic union – the true-Godness and true-Manness of Jesus). We have no categories for making sense of this idea, and indeed, if we assume our present state of knowledge, it is utterly absurd. Impractical. Ridiculous. And of course it has often been ridiculed. The Cross has been called the “stumbling block” for Jews; the Incarnation is a similar “stumbling block” for many others. Foolishness. Idiocy.
And yet, we believe this absurdity our very hope … indeed the hope of the world … The Beautiful Absurdity that is the Gospel
So here’s what I think is odd to say the least: that people (Christians) can claim to believe in the Incarnation – the quintessential absurdity, a monumental metaphysical “impracticality” if ever there was one – and then complain that any of Jesus’ commands are “impractical if you take them literally.” I wonder to myself, “How does a person who claims to believe in Incarnation get away with saying ANYTHING is absurd, much less the teachings of the One who we believe is the very ‘Word’ of God made flesh?” Seems to me that it would be easier to believe in non-violence (which has, oddly enough, proven itself to be more than ‘practical’ on occasion) than it would be to believe that God has entered our experience by being made flesh in Jesus. Honestly, which is the greater absurdity?
I use the example of non-violence not because I’m trying to stir up any muck w/ regards to that debate (so please don’t try to get in a fight we me over right now), but only because it highlights the inconsistency of our thinking. I hear plenty of people say they believe in Incarnation but have a hard time believing that they can trust God for daily bread. “I just don’t have very much faith in that area..” they’ll say. “Really?” I wonder … “You’re telling me that you have faith to believe in INCARNATION and you can’t believe that if you sell your possessions and give to the poor, God will take care of you?” Or they’ll say, “I believe in Incarnation, of course, but Jesus’ command to keep our promises if it kills us (e.g., marriage), that’s just too impractical, too difficult to believe.” “Really?” I think to myself, “You’re telling me you have faith to believe that the eternal God wrapped himself in flesh and then tucked himself away in Mary’s womb for nine months and you can’t believe in keeping your word?” I REPEAT: WHICH IS THE GREATER ABSURDITY? WHICH IS THE LOGICALLY MORE DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE?
The only conclusion I can come to is that we don’t really believe in Incarnation, or that we’ve so domesticated it that it no longer possesses the generative power to open up for us new (and seemingly absurd, but also beautiful and hopeful) ways of living.
Incarnation, we ought to remember, is the first Absurdity in a long litany of Absurdities which culminate in the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God, crying out in God-forsakenness from the Cross. And this, we believe, makes for the world’s salvation. Most of us reading this blog believe this… And we’re going to complain about loving our enemies?
Maybe THAT is the real absurdity.