The Struggle Has Ended

Greg Hewlett passed away on January 17th after nearly eight years of battling colon cancer. While we grieve his loss, we are comforted to know that he is with his Lord.

If you would like to leave your thoughts on Greg, please see this thread.

If you would like to make a charitable donation in Greg's honor, please see this thread.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Greg's Last Sermon

This is Greg Hewlett's last sermon. He preached from John 1:1-14.

Word became FLESH

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory

This is perhaps one of the most mysterious statements ever written.

And the Word became flesh.

Put simply, the God of the universe, He who created all things – trees, monkeys, blades of grass, you, me, galaxies, helium, and oxygen, carbon, life – all things. The God of all creation became flesh.

This is what we call “the incarnation”. Incarnate – “become flesh”. Scandalous. Preposterous. Laughable. Paradoxical. Impossible. The Word became flesh.

I would like make some observations about this mysterious statement in the passage of John that Pastor Saji just read to us. I do so not as your pastor, but hopefully in a manner that in some small way does justice to the Apostle John’s words.

I hopefully will serve as a compliment to what Saji has taught us recently about the incarnation – about how Jesus came as a fulfilled promise into a lineage of broken promises, and about how Jesus came to break the seemingly endless cycle of strength and violence and power by coming in meekness as a whole new kind of peace.

First let us consider this word flesh. The word became flesh. Flesh is not just the material side of a human. It is not just matter. It is in the OT sense, all of the human person in creaturely existence as distinct from God.

Joel 2 – “And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.

So here flesh is referring to all of the human creaturely person. So, Christ is not merely God wrapped with skin and muscles. He is the word becoming a human person.

Now we know from other passages in Scripture that when the Word became flesh – became human – this does not include becoming sinful. In other words Jesus did nothing to displease the Father. He was not disobedient to the law of God nor did he inherit what we call original sin. But still, in every other sense, the Word became flesh.

Now here where I think this gets very interesting. This means that Christ – the second person of the Trinity - took on human weakness. Human frailty. He took on human dependence. And – get this – as one theologian, Hermann Ridderbos- puts it – Jesus took on human “perishability”. Jesus was perishable. He – like you and I – had as a human death to look forward to.

Jesus could and would, in his body, feel pain. He could and he would suffer. And He could and indeed would experience death.


Let us think about this idea of perishability. One could easily make the claim that persihability is one of the most central things to being human. A key thing that binds us together with all other people on the planet and in history is that we all stare death in the eyes. And, in fact, one of the unique qualities of being human, is the fact that we are aware of and consider our perishability. Animals avoid death, but we humans are able to contemplate death.

The idea of perishability is at the center of nearly all great stories in literature. “…all our yesterdays have lighted fools; The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow.” In philosophy, too, we find persihability at the center. Albert Camus wrote that the most important question in the history of philosophy is the question of suicide – in other words, is life worth living in light of the fact that we all die anyway. Jaques Derrida, in his “politics of friendship” places death in the middle of something as innocent as friendship – and writes that at the bottom of every friendship – whether we admit it or not – is the idea that one will die and the other will survive. This all gets quite personal for me here. As one with cancer, I have in me a constant reminder nibbling at the back of my mind at every moment – you are going to die. You are perishable, Greg. But my condition is no different than any of yours – we will all die. We are all perishable. And Christ himself – the word become flesh – took on perishability.

Now in the past 7 years, since being diagnosed with cancer, I have become rather consumed with learning what I can about death. I have read theology – across many traditions – that deals with suffering and death. I have become attracted to literature that delves deeply into suffering and death – from Weisel’s Night to Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Desonovich. From theater to film wrestling with perishability to memoirs of those who have come eye to eye death, I have tried to learn about this mysterious thing.

I have been simply doing what we can do with just about every other complex concept we come across. Life, or being, or time, or history. We can read up on the topic. We can do experimental tests, or do thought experiments, we can read books by people who have experienced the topic.

With other topics, this process seems to work. You can learn about anything you want.

But you know what I have concluded about perishability – about death – that we really don’t know anything about it. It is a mystery. And ultimately this is because there is no one with whom we can consult that has experienced it.

I have never been to Haiti, and probably never will. But I can read books about it, I can look at images taken by photo-journalists. I can talk to people who have traveled there. I can email my friend Ben who lives right there now and can ask him whatever I want about Haiti and he can probably shed some light on it.

But death is utterly different from every other idea we come across. It is so dark and unknowable. It is utterly mysterious.

Modern approaches to Perishability

So what do we do with this topic of death? Of perishability? As modern people, let me propose that there are two things we do with it. The first one is rather simple - we avoid thinking about it. We celebrate youth – the human state where we are far from death. We fill our lives with as many distractions as possible that would in no way remind us about our death. We sanitize hospitals and funeral homes and put people approaching death away in nursing homes or somewhere. To be honest with you, I don’t know what we do with death, but we’ve done such a good job of avoiding it that aside from having cancer, and having my grandparents die, I haven’t really noticed it.

Now the second thing we as moderns do – if we get so far as to admit our perishability - is that we “reconcile” ourselves to it. Wisdom, you will hear, is “coming to terms” with you own death. It is natural, we convince ourselves. Part of the cycle of life.

Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, writes famously of five stages that we go through as we grieve about our perishability. And everyone, it seems, recognizes that this is the proper steps that we take – or that we help others take – in this process. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally – what <> acceptance. That last stage – and ultimately the best attitude we can have towards death is to accept it. That is the best we can do. These stages were satirized in an episode of the Simpsons – as homer concluded in the fifth stage, “Well, we all gotta die sometime.” Since we’re not at Crosspointe where we can show the video, I’ll put up the Youtube clip up on our Facebook page. Anyway, this idea of “accepting” death, of “reconciling to death”, is actually a modern-era idea. It’s the best we have come up with except of course avoiding it.

I find interesting that modern age criticisms of Christianity, such as those of Marx and Freud, like to say that Christianity – and religion in general – is an opiate is a psychological attempt to reconciling ourselves with the necessity of death. That religion allows us to sort of skip over death and look forward to this made up concept of an afterlife. One way in which these criticisms miss the mark is that classic Christianity, and even ancient religions in general – look no further than the OT, do not focus on heaven or an afterlife, and does not find comfort in an afterlife. Ancient religions for the most part have a murky view of the afterlife and are focused on the reality and enemy nature of death. And Christianity focuses not on heaven, it focuses not on coming to terms with death that is somehow ok, but on the conquering of death as an enemy at the resurrection of Jesus.

Christianity does not teach us to “come to terms with” our death. Death is not a natural thing to be reconciled with. Death is the enemy. Death must be conquered.

David Bentley Hart, a favorite writer of both Pastor Saji and mine, puts it this way. “The horizon of human consciousness is an openness to an indefinite future. We aim naturally into the future. We have projects, plan, expectations, ambitions, ideas, grand desires, imagination about the future.” Therefore, he continues, “Every death is an abrupt conclusion to the story whose potential was not necessarily limited except by accidental physical limitations we find that come up against us.” Death, then, is a great enemy of all that there is to being human.

This is implied in our passage here when we read that “in Him” – that is in the Word-become-Flesh – “In Him was life and the life was the light of men.” Or as Jesus put it later in the Gospel of John, “I am the way the truth and the Life.” The theologian Alexander Schmemann puts it this way, “Only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained.” (Schemann, FTLOTW, 99-100)

Or as the apostle Paul wrote, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Been there, done that – and conquered

So death is a great mystery. And beyond that, it is our great enemy. And we have no tools as moderns to deal with it, except to avoid it, or “come to terms with it.”

This is where this all important phrase before us comes into play - The Word became flesh. God became man. And because Jesus was human – because he was weak and could and did suffer - because he could and did die -and most importantly, because God raised him again from the dead, we now have someone who has indeed been there and done that. Because God became flesh – because the Word became perishable - death is no longer a mystery. Jesus himself experienced it. And God raised him from the dead. If you want to know what you need to about death, consult Jesus, if you will. Jesus went there. And he survived the experience. He could explain the mystery of death and indeed he did so to his followers and they in turn have borne witness to us in the pages of the New Testament.

But Jesus wasn’t just someone who experienced death and can tell us about it. He isn’t just a super-spiritual Neil Armstrong who was a pioneer who can report back what he learned about the unknowable. No he is far more than that. Jesus actually conquered death. Death is no longer the enemy of mankind. Not only is death now a knowable mystery, but it is a conquered enemy. It is defeated.

As the Apostle Paul puts it in his first letter to the Corinthian church, “death is swallowed up in victory.” And then, almost mockingly as a sort of cosmic trash talk, he writes “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

So what

So what do we have so far? The Word became flesh, became human, became perishable. And in this, death is no longer a mystery and is conquered as an enemy.

So I will conclude my observations here by considering the question “so where does that leave us?” What is our response to this good news. What is our response to the incarnation? Allow me this morning to commend to you two good responses, surely among many, but at least two responses that I believe Scripture urges you should consider making.

The first has to do with your personal response to this word-become-flesh. In our passage, we read that He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

In short, this passage calls us to receive Jesus and to believe in his name. Some people of the world will recognize the word-become-flesh and some will not. Some will receive and believe him, Some will follow him, and some will not. You have the witness here before you of one human in history who has been there and done that. You have one person who has conquered death. I would recommend that you listen to this person, and that you follow him. Or as John here puts it, that you “receive him” and “believe in his name,” even while there may be many who do not.

A second good response to this passage is that we as a church, should bear witness to the persihability of the Word-become-flesh. We should bear witness to the death – and to the resurrection of – the word-become-flesh. And this is what we try to do in our worship here at St. Thomas the Doubter Church.

For one example, you will notice that at St. Thomas, we always respond to the reading and preaching of the Word by confessing together the Nicene Creed. A Christian creed is not so much a set of doctrinal beliefs or ideas as it is a witness to an account of an amazing thing that happened. The gospel itself is not so much a philosophy or even a formula for being saved, as it is a declaration about history, as Paul wrote “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve”, and so on” Or, as the Apostle’s Creed puts it, that Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, ” and so on. In our creed we are declaring that the word became flesh. That in Jesus the world has beheld the glory of God. And that we identifying ourselves as those who have received him and believed in his name.

Also, the Lord’s Table, which we observe every Sunday, is a declaration of the truth that Jesus became incarnate – that he became flesh. Pastor Saji always quotes this passage from the NT – “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” You will notice also that Pastor Saji physically declares this by breaking the bread and pouring out the wine. This is Jesus in his perishability, experiencing the ultimate in being human – dying. And as a feast that we share together, we are celebrating the resurrection. This feast is a picture of that time when we will all be resurrected enjoying together nothing less than a victory feast – the victory over the last enemy - death.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.

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