The Word became flesh

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.” John 1:1-14.

When I was new, people sometimes asked, “What has been your biggest challenge as a baby bishop?” They think I’m going to say, “Moving from an intellectual to a nonintellectual environment,” or “Having to work harder than I did as a professor,” something like that.

I’ve come to say that the most difficult part of being a bishop is to have to live, on a daily basis, in that great gap between who Jesus is (a marginalized, fanatical, Jewish prophet who was the God we didn’t expect) and what the church is (a rather sedate, rule-driven group of people who just want to be left alone so we can be “spiritual”). Jesus’ Body, the church, is the greatest challenge in following Jesus.

“I could believe in Jesus,” declared the poet, Shelley, “if only he did not drag behind him his leprous bride, the church.”

One of last year’s most popular church books was entitled, Leaving Church. Oh to rise above the muck and the mire of the corporeal and the ecclesiastical so that we can be free to descend ever more deeply into the subjective and the personal.

We’re in Advent, that time in the church year when we attempt to prepare for the shock of the Incarnation, the shock that God Almighty refused to stay above us but got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, moved in with us. Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, has chosen to be a people, a family, this people, this church.

Bonhoeffer, before he went willingly to be hanged by the Nazis was forced by God unwillingly to hang out in the church. There he discovered the power of a God incarnate. Bonhoeffer, put it this way:

A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learnt, and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate son of God needs not only ears or hearts, but living [people] who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following, and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality… Having been called they could no longer remain in obscurity, they were the light that must shine, the city on the hill which must be seen.

In my own life, the church that previously had been relegated to the margins of the university as a “sometimes helpful spiritual influence,” has now assumed a large place. As a bishop the church has for me, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “taken up room”. It’s a “Treasure in earthen vessels,” (2 Cor. 4:5-7) yes, but it is also for me the sprawling, cracked earthen vessel that takes so much of my time there’s precious little room left for the treasure.

To be a lay or ordained leader of the church is to be called to care for the visibility of the church, the corporeal mass, the machinery. This task is particularly trying in age in the grip of anti-institutionalism and solipsistic spirituality.

Jerome Burce calls our age that of “spiritual agnosticism” (Marcus Borg and the so-called “Progressive Christians”) in which “The Fundamental truth claim of our culture with respect to matters spiritual is that we cannot know about them with anything approaching sufficient certainty to command the allegiance or shape the conduct or, least of all, correct the spiritual and/or moral opinions of another.”

Flee the Body in order to ascend to some disincarnate spiritual realm. Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” last year was, “You” – we have lost interest in anything but us.

Professor Bart Ehrmann, professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote a bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus. Surprise, there are all sort of stenographic errors in scripture, errors of transcription and questionable renderings of what the Jesus Seminar says Jesus said. So Ehrmann ends his book asking present day Christians (Ehrmann was a fundamentalist as a kid and appears not quite to have grown out of it), “Do you really want to put your trust in a flawed, thoroughly human book like the Bible?”

Well Bart, just where on earth would we put our trust? We actually believe that God became flesh, took on our flawed, thoroughly human corporeal nature. So if we’re going to put our trust in God, it will have to be in this God, it will have to be here, now, the same God who has condescended to take up room among us as the United Methodist Church. When we put our trust in the “thoroughly human” we actually believe we’re putting our trust in God who loved us enough to become human.

We can’t love Jesus without loving his body. It is a crucified body, to be sure, in bad shape, statistically speaking, but a body all the more in need of a loving caress.

We are those called, at this time in the history of Christendom, to worry about what constitutes a church, to be a sign of the visible unity of the church, to keep encouraging members of the body to honor one another, and sometimes even to promise a dead, decadent body nothing less than resurrection. An embodied, incarnate Christ sanctifies our mundane ecclesiastical body work as his. The church is Christ’s way of taking up room in his still being redeemed world.

The night I was ordained, a bishop laid hands on my head, repeating the ancient words of the Ordinal, “Never forget that the ones to whom you are called to minister are the ones for whom he died.” There I was, wondering, “Will the church appreciate my superior training? Will I get an all-electric parsonage?”

And there was the church, once again forcing me to be a Chalcedonian Christian, once again forcing me to believe in the blessed Incarnation, once again telling me, “The often disheartening, sometimes disappointing ones I’m making you fortunate enough to serve, are the ones for whom I died. This is my idea of salvation. Don’t mess it up.”

Oh the challenge of believing the Incarnation!
Will Willimon

3 thoughts on “The Word became flesh

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  3. I was looking for the origin of the description of the Church as Christ's Leprous Bride. I've seen it attributed to both Swinburne and Shelley. Any chance you have a citation for the reference by Shelley?


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