Julie Canlis: The Incarnation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Last month, my husband Matt and I attended Eugene Peterson’s funeral in Montana. We studied under Peterson at Regent Seminary and stayed in close touch over the years. For someone who sold millions of books, translated into multiple languages, his funeral was a wonderfully ordinary affair: a small, local church with fraying red carpet, a local slightly-wet-behind-the-ears pastor who gave the homily, stalwart hymns, and a casket made by his sons.

The simplicity of the event represented everything Peterson taught Matt and me (and many others): Press into what God has already given us in the ordinary people we love, the ordinary church we attend, and the ordinary sacraments we have been given. These unpromising things will keep us rooted in Jesus, despite the temptations around us.

In his books, talks, and sermons, Peterson railed not against the temptations in the world but rather the temptations within the church. And the temptations are plenty. But the way to avoid these temptations, he said, is not to leave the church and all the ugly things about it but instead to stay close and be transformed by it. “The antidote,” he once pointed out to us in a letter when we were knee-deep in solitary ministry in Scotland, “is near the poison.”

One of the key poisons in the American church is the temptation to be extraordinary and visibly radical in order to avoid being “lukewarm,” which more often than not means living a faster pace of life and becoming worn out to prove your authenticity to Jesus (or to yourself).

We find many antidotes within our own ecclesial treasury that counterbalance this tendency. The church over the centuries has made saints of certain individuals precisely because of their ordinariness and their ability to discover God right in the middle of the quotidian. Brother Lawrence was sainted despite performing no miracles. He was made “lord of the pots and pans” and spent his life as a glorified short-order cook and bottle washer who learned to “turn my little omelets in the pan for the love of God.” The mystic Therese of Lisieux and many others, too, were similarly revered for their simple piety and sainted because of, not despite, their ordinariness.

More than figures of Christian history, however, we find our ordinary posterchild in Jesus himself.

Theologians have always had difficulty figuring out how to talk theologically about our humanity and also the humanity of Christ. Calvin begins his Institutes with the confession that he still didn’t know how to begin. “Our wisdom consists nearly entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” That tension defines the mystery of the Incarnation—God’s life and our lives are forever bound, such that we can no longer think of them separately.

Early on in my theological career, I made a decision to study what it means to be human. I walked into the Regent College library, past the giant shelves on creation and the imago Dei, past all of the shelves on anthropology and the sciences that study human behavior, and went instead to the section labeled Christology. Why? Because, as Karl Barth says, Jesus is “the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity” and is therefore “the one possibility of discovering” the true nature of what it means to be human. This was Jesus’ mission—to reveal God to us and to reveal us to ourselves.

Nowhere is this revelation more evident than in the birth of Christ.

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Source: Christianity Today