Tuesday, December 20, 2011

the supernatural conception(s)


And so what exactly is Christian formation? Here’s my definition.

Christian formation is the Spirit’s work for forming Jesus Christ inside of us, which is our destiny as God’s image bearers.

That’s it! Christian formation is about Christ being formed inside of us. And so notice, Christian formation isn’t limited to a class, nor is it about doing something – it’s about the spiritual renovation of our insides. As the 2nd century theologian Iranaeus put it, out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are to make us what He is. In our words, we far too often forget the second part of the Christmas message. God became man – that’s the first part; but God became man for a purpose; so that we might become more like God. That’s the second part of the Christmas message, and what I’d like to talk about this morning.

After all, that’s what today’s Gospel is all about; Mary saying “yes” – Mary saying yes to God who wants to form Jesus Christ inside of her – right? Now, I’m not saying that today’s Gospel is merely a metaphor, or that it didn’t happen. Of course it happened. But the point of my sermon today is that it happens – that as unique as Mary’s supernatural conception was, it’s at the same time normative for the Christian life. And so as Jesus Christ was literally formed inside of Mary, the point of our faith is to have Jesus spiritually formed inside of us. And that’s what Christian formation is about; saying “yes” like Mary did to a God who wants to form Jesus Christ inside of us.

And what I see in today’s Gospel is a reliable, threefold pattern that can shed some light on how Christian formation actually works. And that pattern can be stated as follows: God visits us, God favors us and we respond by saying yes.

First, God visits us. God found His way to Mary; it wasn’t Mary who found her way to God. And of course the same is always true of us. You see, Christianity is not a set of teachings that will enable us to climb the ladder to visit God. It’s the good news that in Christ God has climbed down the ladder to visit us. As the author of 1 John puts it, “in this is love not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” It is not we who visit God. It is always God who visits us.

C.S. Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles of gods walking the earth. So what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before giving his one word response. GRACE.

Christianity is about grace. It’s not about us trying harder, or about us doing better, or about us changing the world. It’s about a God that freely chooses to visit us and heal us and save us. Christianity is about grace. God visits us.

But second, God favors us. And trust me when I say that there is nothing more difficult to believe, and at the same time nothing more necessary to believe, than this. God favors us.

It’s difficult to believe because our hearts, and sometimes other people, are always condemning us. We feel small and flawed and sinful and broken and so we come to church and hope that God will accept us. But the good news of the Gospel isn’t that God accepts us. I “accept” paying taxes. I don’t want to pay them, but I’ve got to. That’s what it means to “accept” something and far too often I think we assume that God feels the same way. “I don’t want to forgive them, but Jesus died so I’ve got to.” But notice, that isn’t what the angel tells Mary. “Greetings, favored one.” “Don’t be afraid, you have found favor with God.”

Brennan Manning, who’s one of my favorite authors, tells the true story of an Irish priest who stumbles upon a peasant praying by the side of the road. And so the priest, who’s impressed, says to the peasant, “You must be really close to God.” And this is how that peasant responded. “I am, because God is very fond of me.” You see this peasant knew what Mary did – that he had found favor with God.

How sweet would life be, how many problems would disappear, if we only believed that? If we believed that God is fond of us –not that we’re forgiven, or accepted, or tolerated – but that we are all the apple of His eye.

And so does the God we imagine only favor the right, the respectable, the religious, and the rule-keepers? Because God’s intention in visiting someone like Mary was to demolish that idea. You see in Mary’s culture no one was favored less than an unwed, childless, teenage girl. And God came to her and said, “I choose you. I favor you. Not because your good – but because I am. Not because you’re worthy, but because the Most High will overshadow you and Christ will form within you and that – that will make you worthy.”

God doesn’t just accept us. In Christ, he favors us, loves us, dotes on us, and embraces us. He calls us son. He calls us daughter. There is nothing more difficult, but at the same time nothing more necessary, to believe than this – that we, us! – have found favor with God.

Now, to the extent that we know that, we will respond by saying yes. You see a mature Christian is someone who lives their life with Mary’s words carved into their heart. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the spiritual word for this is submission. Submission begins the moment we acknowledge that God is incredibly invested in how we live, that our need to control things never turns out well, that when God forbids us to take the forbidden fruit it’s because He wants us to be happy, and that the only way to find our life is by losing it. You see what Mary did in today’s Gospel is something God asks us to do every single day. This is how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

The first job each morning consists simply in shoving [all your hopes and wishes for the day] back; in listening to that other voice. We can only do it for a few moments at first. But from those moments a new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because we are now letting Christ work [inside of] us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye that soaks all the way through. (Mere Christianity, 198)

In other words, submission is about saying “yes” to God – not with our lips, but with our lives. And so for example, every time we pray, read scripture, or sit in contemplative silence, we submit God. Every time we feed the poor, befriend the friendless, or greet the stranger, we submit to God. Every time we refrain from judging, show others mercy, or forgive someone who has hurt us, we submit to God. And we do this not in the hope that God will favor us; but in the knowledge that in Christ He already does; because God is incredibly found of us all.

Now, I know that Christmas is a week away, and you have a lot on your mind. It’s a busy time. I also know that in the coming year your rector will ask you to engage in Christian formation in a much deeper way than you have in the past, and a lot that is already underway. In fact, Josephine led an excellent class this morning. And so here’s what I’d leave you with as the 25th approaches.

God became like us for one purpose only: so that we could become more like Him. You see what happened to Mary in the physical sense must happen to us in the spiritual sense – there must be a supernatural conception. Christ himself must grow inside of us. The goal is to be able to say with St. Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Because there is a difference; between us trying to climb the ladder to be with God and us knowing that He climbed down to be with us; between trying to earn God’s favor and knowing that we already have it; between controlling, which leads to death, and submitting, which leads to life.

There is a difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye that soaks all the way through. The point of our faith is to have Jesus Christ soak all the way through.

Christian formation is the Spirit’s work for forming Jesus Christ inside of us, which is our destiny as God’s image bearers.

It still happens. Mary said “yes.” The question I leave us with today is, “will you?”

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