Incarnational mysticism | January 5

Text: John 1:1-5; 10-18

Over the years I’ve taught a number of youth catechism Sunday school courses.  We talk about the big ideas of Christian faith.  Words and concepts that get used all the time in church, which can benefit from more focused attention.  Little things like “God,” “Jesus,” “Creation,” “Bible,” “Church,” “Prayer.”  You get the idea.

One of my favorite exercises is when we focus on Jesus.  I ask them to imagine themselves in the place of the gospel writers.  What those writers had to work with was a collection of stories and sayings and memories, some written down, some passed on through word of mouth.  They’re trying to draw a picture of who Jesus was, and who he is for the people reading and hearing their gospel account, now several generations removed from Jesus’ life.

Now, here’s the question:  Where do you start?  Where does this story begin?  What do you say in chapter 1 that introduces the story you need to tell, sets it on the trajectory it needs to go?  How do you introduce Jesus?

The youth split up into four groups, each one reading through the first chapter of one of the gospels in the Bible.  One of the things I ask them to notice is how far back their gospel writer traces the lineage of Jesus.  Where does he come from and who does he belong to?  We then come back together and talk about what each group noticed about how their writer introduces Jesus.  We go in the order scholars generally believe the gospels to have been written.

So we start with Mark.  Mark traces the coming of Jesus back to the words of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus emerges out of and belongs to the prophetic tradition.  In Mark, we first meet Jesus as a full grown man, ready for baptism and the wilderness pilgrimage that follows.  I’m rather fond of Mark’s gospel, which makes me hesitant to give the youth any reason to not like it, but I still feel compelled to point out that if Mark’s gospel were the only one we had, we would have no Christmas story and thus no Christmas.  Which, from reactions over the years, does indeed seem to knock Mark down a few notches.

Scholars aren’t sure whether Matthew or Luke was written next, so we go with Matthew because it makes the exercise turn out the way I want it to.  Matthew opens with a genealogy.  It’s a genealogy of fathers and sons.  A was the father B.  B was the father C.  C was the of D and so on.  All the way up to Jesus.  One of the most interesting parts of this genealogy is the mention of five women, each of them, in their own way, standing outside of socially accepted norms – Rahab the prostitute, Tamar the trickster, Ruth the foreigner, Bathsheba the object of King David’s lust, and, at last, Mary, who is pregnant and unmarried.  Jesus is heir to all these stories, holds them all within his being.  Also, very importantly for Matthew, A stands for Abraham, the first and furthest back father mentioned in the genealogy.  Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back past the prophets through women and men, the righteous and the morally suspect, to Abraham, the father of all the Jewish people.  If you want to know about Jesus, Matthew seems to be saying, you’ve got to go all the way back to Abraham.

When we get to Luke, this is where I cheat a little bit.  Luke also contains a genealogy of Jesus, but doesn’t get to it until chapter 3.  So, along with parts of Luke chapter 1, I have them read that part of Luke 3.  Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back past the prophets, past Abraham, all the way back to Adam, the first human being in the biblical story.  Adam, formed from the dust of the ground, is the common ancestor of all of humanity.  If you’re trying to trace anyone’s lineage, you can’t go back further than Adam.

Unless you can.  We still have one more gospel to go.

John, when trying to fathom and communicate where this story originates, and just how wide a circle it might include, begins by taking us back before the prophets, before Abraham, even before the first human drew a breath, even before creation burst into being.  “In the beginning,” John begins.  “In the beginning was the Word… and all things came into being through it.”  John goes on to write: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  That’s John’s Christmas story in a single verse.

John peers deeply into the significance of what has transpired through Jesus and says “The whole universe is in there.”  It’s not that creation or any person gave birth to the Word.  It’s that the Word, the Christ, gave birth to creation.  There’s a thought.  John gives a mighty boost to Communication and English majors who may sometimes feel inferior to physics majors.  The Word precedes existence itself.  As I once heard a preacher say: “It was before was was.”  OK, so you can’t go back further than that.

Part of the reason for the exercise is to highlight how differently even the official gospels introduce Jesus.  Where do you start?  Well, there’s more than one option.  There’s more than one way to tell a Jesus story.  Rather than having one authorized, certified version, we have four angles on the same story, like some kind of pre-modern cubist painting of this man from Galilee.

Another reason, obvious by now, is to highlight this progression from the first to the last of the four gospels.  To summarize: The more time the gospel writer had to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life, the further back they trace it, the deeper the lineage goes.  Even if the order of Matthew and Luke isn’t a sure thing, there’s still a general pattern from Mark to John.  The more time the gospel writer had to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life, the further back they trace it, the deeper the lineage.  Ponder Christ long enough, and eventually you have to include everyone and everything.

Liturgically speaking, this is the message of Epiphany, the capstone of the Advent/Christmas season.  Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem in Palestine to a Jewish mother… AND… he is a light to all peoples – even those magi who made their long trek from the East.

There’s something that feels quite natural and organic about the kind of trajectory the gospels have in how they understand Jesus.  There’s an immediacy and urgency to Mark’s gospel that pulses with the energy of youth.  He even uses the word “Immediately” throughout.  In our youth we can appear to ourselves as fully self-made.  In our minds, we arrive on the scene fully formed, ready for all the baptisms and wilderness trials like has in store for us.

A little further down the road, in the Matthew and Luke era, we become more attuned to our family lineage.  In a healthy situation, our parents, and their parents on back, rather than being an obstacle to our self-realization, become a key to understanding the deeper movements and inclinations within our own lives.  Knowing that we are children of Abraham, and children of Eve and Adam, becomes immensely important in grounding ourselves in a larger story, a wider identity, and sense of self.

And then, as we continue to mature, a certain mysticism offers itself to us, like the kind in John’s gospel. Mysticism, as in a sense of connection or union with something much larger than ourselves.  After enough decades, even our family ties aren’t enough to ground us in the way we intuitively know we need grounding, aren’t enough to illuminate what it means to be the particular human being that we are.  And so, like John, we go cosmic.  We are a part of something on a grand scale, which reaches inside us and forms a kinship with all being.  The rocks, the trees, the animals, are also our ancestors, we the heirs of this grand inheritance we barely know how to manage.  But that’s OK because it’s not about management.  It’s about participating in the word becoming flesh over and over again.

Since I’ve already proclaimed my affinity for Mark’s gospel I’m not claiming here that the gospels become more and more enlightened over time.  One could argue just as convincingly that the further away they get from Jesus actually walking the earth, the fainter the reverberations of his life, the duller the edges of his jagged existence.  Still, it’s noteworthy that the gospels unfold the way they do.

And now that more time has passed, quite a bit more time, we can make some more observations.  An obvious one is that this pattern of widening circles is not an automatic thing.  It seems to be the case of every religion and philosophy that there are multiple streams that flow of its source.  Many of these streams flow quite narrow, to the point of insisting they are the only true descendants of that original source.

Through another class I teach, the Inquirer’s class – adults who are new to Columbus Mennonite and interested in knowing more – I’m increasingly aware that a decent portion of CMC folks fit into the post-evangelical crowd.  People for whom an evangelical understanding of Christian faith – in its 21st century American version – no longer works.  Specifically, things like a literal reading of scripture, God needing the bloody death of Jesus on the cross to forgive sins, and the whole eternal punishment in Hell thing, not to mention the social and political orientation that regularly comes with the package.  Some of you have found your way into CMC with the open question of whether this is your last stop on your way out of the church.

I can’t answer that one for you, but on this first Sunday of the new decade – I thought I’d say that just to make it sound really important – I can offer that we – and many other like-minded communities – are in process of working this out: claiming a lineage that goes through Bethlehem and Calvary, expanding to include all the Wisdom humanity and creation has to offer, including the insights of scientific inquiry.

Last week Julie Hart cited the writings of Richard Rohr, who I know many of you follow, either through his books or his daily meditations.  He’s a Franciscan priest, sympathetic to Anabaptism.  Rohr has been a leader in giving voice and language to this articulation of faith.  It’s almost to the point where if you want to avoid the labels of conservative or liberal, you could just call yourself a Richard Rohr Christian, and people will likely know what you’re talking about – at least the liberal ones will.

When asked to summarize all of his teachings in two words, Richard Rohr answered “incarnational mysticism.”  Incarnational mysticism.  That’s language from John’s gospel.  Incarnational means God/Love/Eternal Mystery/Spirit became and becomes embodied.  The physical world is a manifestation of the Divine, and Jesus is a primary model of incarnation.  The word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

Mysticism is that sense of union, on a very personal level.  It moves beyond belief to a deeper sense of knowing that’s pretty much impossible to argue with once one knows on that level.  I will add that mysticism is not just for the few, or only those advanced in years as I previously mentioned.  It is the birthright of all of us.  It is our inheritance as human beings, our natural way of relating with the world.  The child is more the mystic than any of us, so mysticism is in many ways a project of recovery.

British philosopher Alan Watts is someone who describes this very well: “From the beginning, institutional Christianity has hardly contemplated the possibility that the consciousness of Jesus might be the consciousness of the Christian, that the whole point of the Gospel is that everyone may experience union with God in the same way…as Jesus himself.” (Alan Watts, Beyond the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, xix)

I think another name for all this could be called Evolutionary mysticism, but incarnational mysticism works just fine.

So that’s where I’m leaving it.  I’m wishing you a good year and a good decade of incarnational mysticism.  And I’m inviting all of us to consider the beautiful and vast lineage that is ours.