I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about “incarnation” in recent weeks. What does it mean to say that we believe in an incarnational god, or that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ? Do I, unlike Nick Cave, believe in an interventionist God? What does that mean? And is an incarnational god necessarily interventionist, or is such a god not interventionist since Jesus is now returned to heaven?
What started me thinking was my reading in Orthodox Christianity. Not as in “orthodox doctrine” or “fundamental Christianity”, I mean the beardy guys from the east of Europe. The Greeks and Russians and their many mates “over there” are very much a mob who believe in God Incarnate. Their understanding of the Cross is far more about God-in-Man victorious over satan and the evil work of men than it is a mystic propitiation of the wrath of a jilted Father. Their issues with Western doctrines centre on this sort of thing. The wisdom that God once walked here is so immeasurably indescribable that the seeming indifference and academic tail-chasing of Rome and Geneva baffle them. Even though I’m of the Geneva stream I get that.
So what does incarnation mean for mission? Again I have been reading and again this reading has caused me to think. I understand that Jesus did not come to change a culture, he came to fulfil one. It can even be said that he came to fill a culture. Jesus did not change Jewishness, he added to it and completed it. Jesus did not create Christianity, he fulfilled Judaism. So as his evangelists today what are we to do? I have gained a fresh understanding from the twentieth century writer Vince Donovan who suggested that in any form of “missionary work” it is the recipients, (call them “natives” if you must) who own the culture, and it is the missionaries who own the message. But the message is not a culture, the message is a story of good news. The story of the gospel is the story of the God-made-skin who entered the world via a manger, communicated through bread, wine, fish, joy and stories, filled the world’s meaning through a hilltop cross and an empty tomb, and returned to heaven on clouds only to return in fire and fellowship. The new incarnation is seen in a fresh understanding of the God-made-Church.
What does any of this mean? It certainly means that the gospel must be shared vigorously as tidings of great joy, but the message of the Church’s culture needs to be held back. Let the body of Christ be formed as an outworking of the fulfilment of the culture of the people new to the story. Jesus’ work at Calvary was the reconciliation of creator and creation, and the victory of God over evil. The work of Christ had nothing to do with getting Aborigines to decorate fir trees in December. As Christians are we still trying to civilize the world in our own likeness. or remind it that each was created in God’s own image?