I am a theologian. To be a theologian is to have an extremely odd job. It is an odd job, but it is a job I love. One of the reasons I love my job is because I hope in some small way it is a job that makes some contribution to the common life Christians.
Christians are a people that have a faith that forces people like me to exist. Christians are a people whose faith demands we understand what we believe. Accordingly, theology is an office in the church which some are called to perform.
That does not mean that “understanding the faith” is restricted to those that identify themselves as theologians, but by being so identified you at least know who you are to hold responsible.
I have always been a bit hesitant to say what I do at Holy Family because I am not sure what you make of having a theologian among you. Because theology has become one subject among others in the contemporary university, I fear you may think that a theologian, like academics in other fields, may know something about their subject you do not know. For example, you may think that a theologian is an expert about Christianity or, God help us, even God.
Theologians sometimes encourage you to think they know more about God than you do. They do so because they have a doubtful status in the university. Most of their colleagues in other disciplines in the contemporary university think theology is a subject at best equivalent to witchcraft. One of the ways theologians try to secure some status in the university is to pretend we are really historians who do not necessarily believe in God; rather, God is what the people we study believe in. That strategy seldom works.
For the theologian, therefore, to be regarded by Christians to have some authority is reassuring given the lack of status theology has a university subject.
In truth, however, without the practice of the faith in Jesus Christ by the church, the work of the theologian is unintelligible. Our job is not to know more than those who gather Sunday after Sunday to worship God, but rather our job is to help us better to know what we do when we are so gathered.
The work of the theologian, I think, is not unlike English teachers who insist that the noun and verb agree. English teachers do not make us speak and write English with nouns and verbs. Rather they help us speak and write English well.
For those of us who have felt the fury and scorn of good English teachers because our verb and noun did not agree may sometimes wonder if English teachers do not make a mountain out of a mole hill. We suspect they may do so in an effort to make themselves more important than they are. But English teachers are right to think how we say what we say matters. The work of theology is probably not as important as the work of English teachers, but our work like theirs entails attention to grammar.
By now you may well be thinking: “He really is a hopeless academic. He has forgotten that this is supposed to be a sermon rather than a lecture.” In truth, I often try to defy those categories by preaching when I lecture and lecturing when I preach. But I have not forgotten this is the Second Sunday of Christmas.
I have begun making these general remarks about theology because I hope to show you that our texts demand certain attention to the grammar of the faith. In particular, they invite us to think about the mystery of the Incarnation.
For example, consider Paul’s letter to Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19). After beginning with his usual salutation he provides a blessing, a thanksgiving, to God, the Father of the Lord, Jesus Christ. He continues noting that we have been blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing because we have been chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” According to Paul we have been destined, elected, adopted from eternity by Jesus Christ to be God’s children.
Paul’s blessing – a blessing he seems to think is not in any way extraordinary – entails what I can only describe as maximalist Christological claims. Paul assumes that Christ was with God before there was a “was.” That Christ was before there was a “was” is a grammatical remark that suggests that Christ is not some subsequent thought God might have had, but rather that whatever it means to say God means we must also say Christ. Unlike us, there was or is no time when Christ was not.
This reality – that is, that there was never a time when Christ was not – forced the church to say what we say when we say God is three in one. That is why we say Sunday after Sunday:
“We believe in one Lord,
Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.”
Begotten, not made is a grammatical remark.
The Gospel reading (Luke 2:41-52) is about a twelve-year-old boy who went with his parents to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. After the festival was over, his parents began their trip home confident that Jesus was with relatives and friends. Discovering that Jesus was not with relatives or friends, his parents returned to Jerusalem only to find him in the temple expounding Torah with teachers who were amazed at his understanding.
Mary was, as we say in the South, “none too pleased” with him. In fact, we are told she was astonished, not only by his ability to hold his own with the teachers in the temple, but because he seemed to care so little about how Mary and Joseph would feel once they discovered he was not with relatives and friends. Jesus does not seem the least bit ashamed telling his mother that he must be in the house of his Father – that is, the God of Israel. An extraordinary claim they failed to understand at the time, though we are told Mary treasured “all these things in her heart.”
I fear too often sermons on this charming story cannot resist turning the story into a moralistic tale about what a good boy Jesus turned out to be. That he turned out to be a good boy because, even though as he said in the temple he must be obedient to the one who is the Father of Israel, he went to Nazareth with Joseph and Mary and was obedient to them. Jesus who, as he grew up increased in wisdom, was obedient to his parents. He is, therefore, a model of what every child should be. So, we are told, do what your parents tell you because Jesus, who was very special, did what his parents would have him do.
That is not, however, how Christians in the early church read this story. Rather, they wanted to know how Christ – whom Paul claimed was with God before there was a “was” – could be the Jesus who thought it more important to interact with the teachers in the temple than to join Mary and Joseph as they made their way back to Nazareth. How strange! The love that moves the sun and the stars is fully present in this boy. Though the Apostles’ Creed, because it is a creed for our baptisms, moves from the birth of Jesus to suffering under Pontius Pilate, the church could not forget, because of this text, that Jesus was a boy who had to grow up like any child.
When you have texts like our text from Ephesians and a story like this story from Luke, you begin to understand why I suggested above that theology is a discipline forced on the church. We have a faith that forces you to reason about what makes us who we are. The most decisive challenges concerning the truth of what we believe as Christians does not come from outside our faith – that is, from those who do not share our convictions – but from within.
Thus the early church had no time for moralistic questions about how to get our children to do what we want them to do. Rather, the challenge was how the church could believe that the Christ who was there before there was a beginning, could be the same Christ who had to grow up.
In truth, we are never quite sure what we believe until someone gets it wrong. That is why those we call heretics are so blessed because without them we would not know what we believe. In this case, a Bishop in Laodicea named Apollinaris could not believe that the one who is “true God from true God,” “begotten not made” could be fully God and fully a little boy. Accordingly, he thought Jesus had human flesh and soul, but his mind, the Logos, was divine.
Therefore, Apollinaris argued that when Jesus says he must be in his Father’s house he is speaking with the rational faculty that is of one Being with the Father. Yet that would mean that he was not really a twelve-year-old boy. Many worried if he was not a twelve-year-old boy, if he did not need to “increase in wisdom and in years,” then our salvation would be in doubt. Theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out that surely our minds need redeeming, so Jesus must share our rational nature. As Gregory put it, “what was not assumed cannot be saved.”
After much debate – a debate lasting a century – the church in 451 at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, declared that our Lord Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man,” being of two natures “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union.” Chalcedon did not “solve” or explain how this Jesus was at once fully God and fully human, but the fathers at Chalcedon gave us the parameters necessary for how we can continue to explore this mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation, that is the centre of our faith.
After Chalcedon, however, Christians no longer could read the scripture as if Jesus was God when he declared he must be in his Father’s house but human when he was obedient to his mother and father. Jesus was not 50% God here and 50% human there, but in everything he was 100% God and 100% human. Which means for those who worship this man, we cannot help but be forced to think again that we know what we say when we say “God.”
Thus the creation of that strange activity called theology. How extraordinary. You, the people of God, think it important to ask some to do nothing with their lives but to think about what we say when we say “God.” God knows those so set aside often make mistakes, tempted as we are to take pride in what we do by assuming we are more important than we are. But then we are humbled by the one about whom we think – that is, the one who became for us fully human so that we might share in God’s very life.
For what we do know is, if Jesus is not fully God and fully human, then we can make no sense of Eucharist. The wine and the bread is the food we need to sustain human life. Just as God joined his life with the life of Jesus without ceasing to be God, so we receive the very blood and body of Christ without this bread and wine ceasing to be bread and wine. So receiving, moreover, we become for the world, in the language of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:2-14), “a watered garden,” witnesses to God’s abundance.
Because Jesus is very God and very man, at the Eucharist we are consumed by what we consume. God became human, assumed our nature, so that we might share in God’s very life. The Eastern Church has a name for this transformation. It is called theosis, and it means we only are able to be fully human to the extent we are divinized. A heady claim but one we live out every time we share in this meal.
How extraordinary it turns out the ordinary is: a twelve-year-old is God’s son. Worship him!