What is incarnation? While some of us may be comfortable speaking Christianese, many of us may not have a clear answer to this question.
Where Does the Idea of Incarnation Come From?
First, the word itself is derived from the Latin words ‘in’ and ‘carno’ - ‘to make into flesh’. Jesus was literally made into flesh. This is the mystery of the incarnation, that a being beyond our experience, existence, and intellect chose willingly to enter into all of those things to relate to us. And he did this over and over again throughout his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Hebrews 2:14 says, “Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus shared in these…” Not just to save us, but through intentional moments of incarnation, Jesus entered into every aspect of our existence to enter into a deeper relationship with us.
This is the theology of incarnation, and there have been millions of essays, sermons and books on the topic. I’m not here to add another, but to share why this is one of Servant Partners’ core values, and what this looks like in our lives and work - and perhaps in yours too!
The six core values we aspire to are Servant Partners are Discipleship, Joy in God, Servanthood, Justice, Transformation, and of course, Incarnation. The other five are often quickly understood and explained, but why choose incarnation? In a recent survey we released to our supporters, incarnation was the value with the least familiarity. We’ll explore what incarnation looks like practically in our lives, and offer ideas for you to live this value.
African American theologian James Cone teaches us in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree that: “The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross.” (pg. 150). Jesus’ physical presence on earth mattered and still does. This is the Gospel, that through Jesus’ physical presence on earth, salvation came. And so, at Servant Partners we believe that our physical presence matters too. Choosing to enter into the experiences of others, especially those who experience considerable difficulties, injustices, and oppression, is to follow Christ. We intentionally move into urban poor communities to be physically and spiritually present there, just as Jesus did in Judea 2,000 years ago.
Incarnation in Our Communities
In doing this, we step into a deeper, Christ-like love by choosing to experience life alongside the poor. This love says ‘I cannot be well if you are not’ in a tangible way. If I too am experiencing the frustrations, fears, and negative experiences alongside my neighbours, I am choosing to allow the things that impact their well-being to impact mine as well. It also allows me to see the small beautiful moments of shared humanity and connection, such as when kids share their coats as winter sets in, or moms who speak different languages find smiles and shared benches enough to begin friendships.
Tying our welfare to the welfare of the community and people around us allows us to enter into deep relationships. Here is how: First, we share experiences. We live in the same community, at a similar income level. In this, we find the commonality and comradeship from which relationships can grow. Second, we share time and space. By bumping into each other as we walk our dogs or check our mail, getting to know the routines of our neighbours, and allowing them to get to know ours, we build a quiet trust that is foundational to deeper relationships. We know our neighbours, and we are known by them. Third, we share hopes and desires. We can come together around our frustrations and triumphs, and when our neighbours share their hopes, the echo is found in our hearts.
This may look like a calling to a slum community in the Philippines, or Mexico City. It may look like choosing to live in the ‘hood’ in LA or Saskatoon. For Servant Partners staff, our calling is to live specifically in urban poor communities. This may not be the case for you. That is fine, good even! God’s presence, love, and transformation do not only exist among the urban poor. We are glad that we are connected to a network of believers in diverse circumstances. Incarnation is deep enough to encompass all the places we find ourselves.
5 Ways to Explore Incarnation, Right Where You Are
What could this look like in your life? Here are some ideas to enter meaningfully into God’s invitation to incarnation:
1. Learn the rhythms of your neighbourhood. Who walks their dogs when? Whose children play in the street? Who goes to get their mail or leaves for work at the same time as you? For my rural friends, what does each season hold for the farmers, commuters, and small-town dwellers? When do people gather, and when do they stay home? By learning these things you can see the community through the eyes of its members, allowing you to further empathize and rejoice with your neighbours.
2. Be present in public spaces. This suggestion can be awkward and lead to uncomfortable encounters. Embrace that! We often travel through public like soldiers on a mission or orbiting satellites. Look for people who might be willing to talk in the check-out line or while you are waiting to pick your kids up from school. Arrive a few minutes early to work to ask your coworkers about their weekend, and take the time to listen. There are invitations to new relationships in the spaces we frequent.
3. Invite your neighbours into your home, and say yes to their invitations. Did someone new move in? Invite them over for supper. Notice your neighbour putting up Christmas decorations? Go over and chat, maybe with an offering of hot chocolate.
4. Enter into the sufferings or joys of someone from a different time or place. The negativity in the news can be overwhelming, but we can more meaningfully engage by taking the time to consider one story. Maybe it's a story of mothers in Gaza or an acquaintance’s story of their grandchild’s Christmas concert. Try to put yourself in their shoes and consider the humanity and full emotional and relational experience behind what is being expressed. Even better if it is someone you find it hard to agree or identify with–I’m sure God has found this to be true of us many times!
5. Read a book about incarnation. Here are some examples you could consider:
The Cross and The Lynching Tree, by James Cone: Focusing on the experience of African Americans during the lynching era, Dr. Cone challenges us to consider what a more radical incarnation could have looked like for white churches during that time, and why this is still a question we need to wrestle with. This book has inspired me to consider the ways God intentionally chose to suffer on earth so that people who have been oppressed can see themselves in his experience.
Thriving in The City, by T. Aaron Smith: Aaron and his wife Ema have been on staff with Servant Partners for decades serving in the Philippines. He does a great job explaining what sustainable incarnational life and ministry look like.
The Power of Proximity, by Michelle Ferrigno Warren: An alternative to armchair activism, this book invites us to enter into relationships with the people who are experiencing injustice. These relationships help center the complexity and compassion needed to emulate Jesus.
Take some time this Christmas season to consider what the incarnation means for you. What does it mean that Jesus chose to enter into your experience to get closer to you? What could emulating him mean for your relationships and community? I’ll leave you with a quote from Aaron Smith; “[incarnation] means acting in thoughtful love wherever God has brought you to engage your community for transformation.” (Thriving in The City, pg 27). You don’t need to be in an urban poor community. You don’t need to be in ministry. You just need to be right where you are.