The most important word in the Christian lexicon is not consubstantial, perichoresis or ontological. No, the most important word for the Christian is the simple conjunction and.
As in, “Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human.” Indeed, that little conjunction makes that sentence the most revolutionary, fundamental, contentious, and ultimately liberating statement in all of Christianity. More important are those eight words than every creed, every tome of systematic theology, and every prayer book in all of Christendom.
Questioning either the divinity or humanity of Jesus of Nazareth is in vogue these days, an unfortunate side effect of the “Jesus Seminar” of the 1980s and 1990s. The Seminar brought together dozens of theologians (notables among them being John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong) to study the historicity of the person of Jesus. They conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was a living, walking, talking, breathing person born in a specific time and in a specific place.
In emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, however, the Seminar opened the long-shut doors of the Christian heresies of the first centuries. These various heterodox beliefs about Jesus, salvation, the Church, etc. became the fodder of fierce debates by early Church fathers and mothers, who offered their lives and ecclesiastical careers to further one theological point or another. Among their debates were the issues of God’s non-corporeality and the resultant skepticism of the flesh (Gnosticism), the origin of sin and the necessity of God’s grace (Pelagianism), the location of Jesus within or without the Godhead (Arianism), the identity of the persons of the Trinity (Sabellianism), and the full and equal divinity/humanity of Jesus (Nestorianism and Monophysitism.)
While these arguments were all formally settled by the ecumenical councils of the Church, their effects are still being manifested today in a variety of contexts. While I’ve known persons in various denominations to be guilty of perpetuating these heresies (and I use guilty intentionally–these heresies are harmful to individual believers and to the Body), I can really only speak with any authority on my experiences in the Episcopal Church.
While at a day-long formation class for persons discerning ordained and commissioned ministry in my diocese, I encountered surprising resistance to the divinity of Jesus in some of my classmates. While having a conversation about how marvelous Jesus was, a deacon-classmate of mine waxed eloquently about Jesus upsetting the metaphorical fruit basket, about Jesus talking to women, and about Jesus empowering others, all of which I nodded my assent to. The conversation turned suddenly when my classmate suggested that Jesus “was so aware of God’s presence in his life.” I tested the theological waters and offered, “Well, he was God, so of course he was aware of God.” My brief profession of faith was met with a dismissive laugh and an eye roll.
A roll of the eyes for the divinity of Jesus?
The conversation continued when another classmate brought up her parish’s debate over the Blessed Virgin Mary. The clergy at her parish suggested in adult formation classes that the Episcopal Church focused too much on Mary, claiming that she was just an ordinary woman like the rest of us. When I expressed my shock and dismay, my classmates laughed and said that they were so glad to have had the conversation. I tried defending Mary as Theotokos (literally, God-bearer.) I explained with some passion that Mary carried in her inner-most person the Son of God, that her own womb knit together Immanuel, God-with-us. More giggling, more eye rolling.
The trend in conversations continued with the subjects changing to Eucharist, to priesthood, to apostolic succession, to grace, to sin, to mercy.
Questioning the divinity of Jesus–and all that follows–is popular these days, within and outside of the Church.
And so here is where that little conjunction and becomes powerful.
That conjunction allows me to affirm that Jesus is human–that he upset the fruit basket, that he spoke to women, that he was a radical leader, that he was born to a teenage mother, that he was a 1st century Jew, that he had doubts, that he was born in Mary’s womb, that he was aware of God’s presence in his life.
But it also allows me to affirm that Jesus is God–that he healed the lame, that he calls and blesses the Church, that he died and rose again, that he ascended, that he sits on the right hand of the Father, that he sends his Spirit to strengthen the Church, that he hears our prayers, that he God became flesh and dwelt among us.
Why is all of this important? Precisely because of the Incarnation. God took on human flesh. God became one of us. God is not sitting in a distant cloud, pondering our existence or watching with voyeuristic indecency as we suffer. No, in fact, God is right with us in the suffering. God suffers with us. God lives with us. God is us.
God-with-us is about so much more than sin and redemption. It is about blessing an entire race, about granting dignity to all people. Without it, we’re only as good as our usefulness, however broadly defined. Because of the Incarnation, however, all are beyond important. All of humanity, with no exceptions (even and especially those humans whom we detest.)
That conjunction and is leading me into the great story of Holy Week. Beyond the palms and passion, into the heart of the matter: that God is on our side, even to the extreme, even to death on a cross.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.