God's Present Incarnation

June 4th, 2013

This article is a free sample from Understanding Biblical Themes, included in a premium subscription to the Ministry Matters Library.


God is incarnate in the world today in the body of Christ. The church becomes the physical presence of God in the world. What God does in the world, whatever actions of God take physical human form, are actions performed by God's body.

This line of thinking is dangerous, especially because it can slide into arrogance. Paul equates the church with the body of Christ, which is the body of Jesus crucified, which is the body of God incarnate. The idea of the church as God incarnate, however, can tempt us to think of the church as the only manifestation of God's presence. Combined with arrogance, this belief could encourage a rejection of the other ways in which God is present. We could emphasize God's incarnation in the church and use that emphasis to exclude and demean religious groups that do not agree with our particular views and who do things that we might not understand as being part of the body of Christ. Similarly, understanding the church as God's body could feed some of the church's long-standing hatreds, especially of Jews and of the created world. God's full incarnation in the church does not mean that the church is the only way God is present. God is much more than can ever be expressed in human form or human institutions, even in the church that is the body of Christ. Just as the gospel of John quoted Jesus' saying that he was a shepherd who had other flocks of sheep (John 10:16), God's incarnation in the church means that God may well be incarnate in other places as well. God's perpetual habit of surprising humanity with presence means that God is likely to be found in more places than we have ever realized. But at the same time, we as the church are God's body, with the full experience and responsibility of being not only God's people but the very physical presence of God in the world today. Whatever God should do in the world, we as God's body should do. In incarnation as the body of Christ, we share with God completely the tasks and purposes that God has undertaken throughout the ages.

In ancient times, the Israelites wrote stories of God as present in the flesh. God walked in Eden's garden; God parented the children of Israel, as well as the child Ishmael. Those old stories portrayed God as present in the flesh. These images of God as incarnate carry through the tradition of scripture to its very end when God sets a table for all at the end of the book of Revelation. God also works through people—although not always through the leaders whom we expect and elect. In fact, God's work with people often occurs best at the margins, not in the centers of human power, which are more sensitive to their agendas and the maintenance of their own human privilege than they are responsive to God's desires for the world. God is also present in the spirit, in ways that shock, surprise, and motivate, for the spirit blows through our lives like a wind that is unpredictable, sometimes destructive, always refreshing and empowering. The whole experience of God as present in our lives can be traumatic, for God refuses our prediction, resists our desires that God play by our rules, and confounds the understanding of our best-trained minds and our most faithful hearts. God is truly an other, not like us—yet God desires us.

In the New Testament, God's incarnation takes the form of Jesus. In this way, we see God among us and we hear clearly God's repetition of the ancient prophetic statements of God's desires for the world. God desires that we join in the transformation of the world, and God explains what this transformation can offer and what it will cost. God even demonstrates that cost, for human rejection of God's desires seems inevitable and culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet crucifixion is not the end. The death of Jesus and the disappearance of God's incarnate body in the world leaves three sets of traces: the sightings of Jesus' resurrected body for a few weeks or months, the presence of the spirit that had always been among God's people but is freshly experienced in Jesus' absence, and the church as the body of Christ and as God's continually incarnate presence in the world.

God's incarnation takes many forms within the biblical witness. God has always been and will continue to be present in human flesh in God's own body, in the body of Jesus, and in the church that is the body of Christ. God is present in the world through spirit and through people who follow that spirit. God is incarnate in the world through believers today.

The body of God goes beyond those who believe. A cell does not need to understand that it is part of the body or to believe in the body or to love the body. It is enough that the cell function as a cell, and thus is part of the body. Likewise, God's body extends far past the believers who identify themselves as God's body. All people become essential elements of God's body, removing the barriers we construct of gender, race, class, age, language, creed, and ability. God's body is all of us.

Furthermore, God's body is more than just the human. All creatures are expressions of God, and God's body ties us together with animals and other living creatures. The ecology of the world is fully within God.7 All things animate and inanimate in the world and throughout the cosmos together make up God's body. In fact, God's body is large enough and pervasive enough to include all the world, even all the universe.

In this sense, God is revealed in all of us. In fact, all creation is necessary to begin to manifest the full being of God. People of all varieties, whether we like them or not, are vital parts of God's body. God is incarnate in all, whether they realize it or not. God lives within the universe, from the vast galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles.

The cosmic body of God is a rich metaphor, showing the vastness of God beyond our experience. But the image of God as a body is ultimately personal. God is in a form we can know and love, even if we cannot quite understand.

One of the letters written to the early church contained this cryptic sentence: "when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as God is" (1 John 3:2). Seeing God for God's self is almost the same as being like God. For those who live as part of God's body, it makes sense that seeing God and seeing the self are just about the same thing. God's incarnation among us and in us brings God amazingly near, almost too near to see or touch. When we do see God, we know that God has been among us all along. Incarnation began at the same moment as creation and continues to the end of the age. God's body remains in the world today, and its tasks are our tasks. We have longed to know God, to see God, to touch God, and to love God, and in the end we find that God has been present, within us and us within God's body, all along.

Our desire for God has changed us. We have longed for God until we have seen God and have become made new in God's image, with God's body. Now that we are the body of Christ, God's own body, God lives on in us and will not go away. We live as God's body. In our striving for God's tasks, we are unstoppable; in our partnership with God, we are eternal, because we have become the body of Christ. The first letter of John states this similarly:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with God and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with God and God's Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

When we see and touch God, as we have sought to do from the very beginning, we touch life and we bring that life within us through the connections we have with each other. And our joy is complete. We have seen and touched God; we have shared heart and purpose. Now, since we are the body of Christ, we have come so close to God that we will never be apart. The boundaries have been broken down; the spaces between us and God have been removed. This has happened in Christ's flesh, in the body of God, where we are now united, reconciled, and combined.

For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph. 2:14-16)

Humanity ends its divisions as it ends its separation from God in one body, the body of Christ that died on the cross and lives in the church. We are as close as a part of God's own body. God is incarnate in us, God's people, who have carried the image of God from creation's first moment and who have now become more like God as God is revealed in us. Our longing turns to delight in this union within God's body.

From the stories of the most ancient days in Eden's garden, to the story of the life and death of Jesus the Messiah, and onward in the continuing story of the church's life in partnership with God, we have been in God's image and God has been in human flesh. As God has been incarnate and has learned through life and death what it means to be human, we have learned what it means to become one with the body of God. Incarnation is more than just God's presence with us, past or present. It is a shared life, a common task, a unity with purpose, a single goal in our multiple visions. Yet it is even more. As God taught us to walk as humans, as we witnessed God's first steps as incarnate human, now we walk hand in hand with God. With the hesitant steps of children, God's children, we learn to walk in God's own body.


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