June 2017: Love is embodied

The following is an excerpt from Love is a Verb: A one-year spiritual practice resource, written by Leo Hartshorn. The resource explores the 2017 convention theme Love is a Verb through the lens of Richard Foster’s six spiritual streams. Download the entire booklet from the Mennonite Church USA resource center.

The incarnational stream

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. —Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)

Among a number of Gospel stories about miracles and sabbath controversies, Jesus’ healing of a woman highlights Luke’s emphasis upon a universal gospel for everyone and Jesus’ compassion not only for women but for the poor and marginalized. The story also reminds us that healing is a significant part of Jesus’ ministry. The fact that her infirmity had lasted 18 years emphasized her desperate situation. At the same time, the real focus of this story is not so much on the miraculous healing of the woman as it is on the conflict that the healing incites.

The leader of the synagogue condemns the healing as work done on the sabbath, a day of rest from labor. The synagogue leader considers the act of healing as work, which is forbidden on the sabbath. He protests that there are six other days in the week when Jesus could have done the work of healing. Jesus defends his healing of the woman by referring to the sabbath allowance for freeing an animal to find drink. If animals can be loosed, how much more should he free a woman — made in God’s image and tied up in “the bonds of Satan” for 18 years? For Jesus, healing is a sacred and restoring act that conforms to the original intent of the sabbath and reflects the nature of the reign of God.

This text highlights the sometimes artificial separation between work and faith and between the sacred and secular.

The incarnational stream

Incarnation means “in the flesh.” It is a theological term Christians use to speak of God becoming incarnate in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The Gnostics and Docetists in early Christian history emphasized spiritual reality and denied the substantial, material reality of creation and the real, fleshly existence of Jesus. On the other hand, incarnational theology recognizes and celebrates the created order, the humanity of Jesus, and all of the concrete, material human existence. Incarnational theology emphasizes the recognition of God’s presence incarnate in common human experience. The incarnational stream makes the invisible presence of God evident in everyday life.

Sacraments are material forms through which we recognize and receive God’s presence and grace. We traditionally associate sacraments with religious rituals and observances (for example, the Eucharist, baptism, anointing). To say that life is sacramental is to affirm that God’s presence and grace can be experienced in the most mundane and everyday aspects of human life. The incarnational stream does not separate the sacred from the secular but celebrates all of life as a sacred, human, material form through which we experience the presence and grace of God. The incarnational stream is exemplified by such figures as John Milton, Isaac Newton, Susanna Wesley, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Dag Hammarskjöld.

Strengths of the incarnational stream are:

1) It affirms that God permeates every aspect of human life and creation.

2) It grounds our faith in everyday life.

3) It offers a way to appreciate the world of work.

4) It offers a critique of Gnosticism and the material world as completely bad.

5) It reminds us that our bodies are sacraments of God’s presence.

6) It opens up the possibilities of ecological theology and practice.

Pitfalls of the incarnational stream are:

1) It can lead to idolatry, the identification of God with the material universe (i.e., pantheism) and the fusing of the sacred object with the spiritual reality it points toward.

2) It can cause us to try to control God through human means, such as through our church structures, rituals, liturgies or sabbath/Sunday observances.

The incarnational stream and the Anabaptist tradition

The Anabaptist tradition is incarnational in its understanding of God manifested in the flesh of Jesus Christ. At the same time, Menno Simons, who affirmed the full divinity and humanity of Christ, went so far in stressing the divinity of Christ as to speak of his “celestial flesh,” which he derived from Melchior Hoffman. In other words, Jesus did not receive his flesh from Mary, but directly from God. This doctrine has hints of Docetism. Simons had a tendency to present a rather pessimistic view of human flesh and relied on church discipline to subdue the “sins of the flesh.” If Anabaptists had held to this theological peculiarity of Simons, we would have moved a step further away from a fully incarnational theology.

Among early Anabaptists, the strong separation between the church and the world did not position our tradition toward fully embracing the incarnational stream. The world was seen as the domain of the Devil. The church was to be “pure and spotless,” which led toward a burden of perfectionism. This view of separating spiritual and material matters isolates God from the world and centers God only within the church. Within Anabaptist-Mennonite life, God’s presence can be seen in hard work, mutual aid, relief and charitable acts along with being born and dying — all parts of our common life within the world. Herein lies the potential for an Anabaptist incarnational theology.

The incarnational stream and Love is a verb

Love became incarnate in Jesus Christ. We see God’s love in Christ through his acts of healing, mercy, compassion, confrontation and resistance to evil. Jesus was the sacrament of God’s love in the world. Following Christ means to live as Jesus lived within our personal and corporate humanities, cultures, times and physical locations. For us, to incarnate God’s love in Christ is to make it real and active within everyday life. By living in active, loving ways, we become sacraments of God’s presence to others.