Thursday, March 25, 2021

Jesus the Human Being...

A Sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation

It is an odd fact of the liturgical calendar that just one week before we commemorate the death of Jesus, the church invites us to contemplate his conception in the womb of Mary!  That is, of course, because we are now nine months away from Christmas.

I’m sure you’ve heard many sermons – some even from me – about Mary’s vital role in the birth of the Saviour.  So, I want to offer you something new to think about, this year.  I’d like to focus on the thorny question of the virgin birth, itself.

It may interest you to know that virginal conceptions were nothing new – at least not to the people who wrote and read the Scriptures for the first time.  There were Jewish legends suggesting that great patriarchs of the faith, like Noah and Moses were also conceived in virgin wombs.  In other regional religions, it was a common theme, too. 

The evidence for Jesus’ own virgin conception is pretty scant, no matter how often we’ve heard the passage read at Christmas.  The concept of Mary’s virginity doesn’t appear in any of the earliest Christian writings.  St Paul does not refer to it at all, and neither does Mark (the first of the Gospel writers).  It just wasn’t important to them, nor necessary to their belief in Jesus as Messiah.  Actually, the idea is only found in Luke and Matthew – both of which were written towards the end of the first century (as much as 100 years from the events they are describing). And, I find it fascinating that Matthew substantiates his claim to the idea by entirely mis-quoting a verse from Isaiah chapter 7.  You know – the one about ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and you shall call him Emmanuel’. Closer study of that particular text, which Matthew quotes, quickly demonstrates that Isaiah was addressing another circumstance altogether.  And, Isaiah didn’t actually refer to a virgin at all, but rather to a ‘young woman’. 

So why are Matthew and Luke so keen to build a virgin birth into their Gospel narratives?

Well, you see, virginal conception mattered to the ancient mind, because they didn’t understand (as we now do) the biological mechanism of conception.  Our ancestors didn’t yet understand that the creation of life is a joint endeavour, biologically speaking.  So, if you want to claim that a certain famous man was actually a son of God, you needed to show how God planted his seed into the Mother’s womb.  And she needed to be a virgin – so that there could be no doubt.  The only way to be certain that a baby was a son of God was to emphasise the virginity of the mother.    

The reality is that, despite the tradition of the church, modern scholars agree that the evidence of Jesus’ own virgin conception is flimsy, at best.  But it has nevertheless persisted as a way of understanding that Jesus was both fully human AND fully divine.  Mary offers her own genetic material to the baby.  She provides the humanity.  God provides the divinity. 

(Theological nerds beware, however; the idea of co-mingling humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus strays into the heretical territory of ‘monophysitism’ which was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon.  Orthodox teaching is that Jesus was, mysteriously, both fully God and fully human at the same time, without any mingling of his two natures whatsoever).  Quite how that works, practically speaking, is one of the great ‘mysteries’ of theology.  We believe something to be true, even though we have no idea, with our limited brains, how it could be true!

But what if the virgin birth turns out to be as flimsy an idea as many scholars believe?  Does the possibility that Jesus was ‘just a man’ destroy our faith?  Not at all!  In fact, I would argue that the idea of Jesus’ complete humanity offers us even greater hope, even greater assurance of the most important aspects of our faith.

You might recall that Jesus preferred to describe himself as ‘the Son of Man’.  To our knowledge, he never spelled out why he preferred this description to, for example, ‘son of God’.  Could it be that this Jesus whom we call Lord, was just one of us?  That he didn’t have a divine advantage, conferred on him by a miraculous birth?  After all, how many times have we said to ourselves, ‘it was all very well for Jesus to be holy: he was God’.

Rather, let’s imagine that he managed to achieve all that he did, hold all the wisdom that he had, demonstrate the power that he held within, whilst being purely and only a human being?  Could it be that a man, only a man, was tempted in every way that we are and yet lived without sin?  Could it be that a man, only a man, rose from the dead?   Could it be that Jesus, a human being, managed to attain such a level of awareness of the presence of God that he could say, with his hand on his heart, that he and the Father were one, whilst at the same time chastising anyone who suggested that he was also God?  (cf John 10.30 and Mark 10.18) 

If that were true, what might that say for our potential?  Could it be that we too have the same capacity, the same potential, to become fully developed, fully wise, complete and eternal human beings, who are capable of also living lives that can change the world?  Could it be that Jesus, our brother (as St Paul calls him) is showing us the truly awesome potential of an entirely human life lived completely, utterly, and without reserve in the pursuit of God?  Could Jesus’ life actually be our life too?  Could it be that the image of the Trinity is given to us so that we can know it is possible for a human being – any human being, even me – to attain complete union with God.

I do not want to tell you what to believe.  You are perfectly welcome to go on believing in the virgin conception of Jesus if you wish.  Ultimately, it makes little difference, either way, to the decision that we all have to make about life. Each of us must decide whether we choose to call Jesus our Lord, and our guide to the Way.   If it helps you to believe that Jesus accomplished all he did because he had a direct helping hand in his biology, then so be it. 

But as for me – I’m prefer to focus on the essential humanity of Jesus.  Because recognising Jesus as the Son of Man, (as well, of course as the Son of Woman) gives me hope.  It gives me the hope that if I keep striving, and keep running the race that is before me, I too might one day attain the prize of living a fully realised human life, with all its potential.   It gives me hope that I too, by God’s grace, might be caught up in the presence and reality of the Divine Trinity.  Amen. 

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