This is the sermon podcast which came out of the draft below. (My thanks to Alan Forbes.).
We live in the intersection of the material and the spiritual. We are physical beings— we are made of meat. But we are also spiritual beings. We think, we dream, we love. There are strong hints of a collective unconscious, what you might call a spiritual water table beneath us and within us, we've all got wet feet it. This is recognised by every culture but our own western peculiarity.
When we live life, and when we read our scriptures and listen to the ancient stories of faith we have to live and listen within this intersection of the material and spiritual, or we are not being true to ourselves, and we will misread the stories of faith. They assume the intersection of the material and the spiritual.
Everything is not explained by the material. There is a philosophy called physicalism that believes "everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties, and that the only existing substance is physical." (Wikipedia) But we are more than just meat machines. Thinking, dreaming, and loving go beyond being a mere meat machine.
But everything is not explained by the spiritual. We are not pure spirit somehow trapped in the material. The material is not just an illusion. That's called gnosticism.
We are spiritual beings who live in the material and belong in it. We live in the intersection of the material and the spiritual.
Therefore: the centralities of the Christian faith, which are
one: that God loves us and wants good for us, and
two: that we see that love of God in Jesus,
needs to be understood in the intersection of the material and the spiritual realm.
Why am I hammering the philosophy?
Well, as material human beings, living in a materialist culture, it is easy to see that church is not Christian if there is not somewhere in its thinking, a future of radical justice where the rich and powerful and the rulers of this present age are cast down.
Indeed, it is not hard for us to see that human life on earth has no future…
if the lowly are not lifted up— that's justice,
and if the biosphere we call Earth is not respected and cherished— which is sustainable justice which honours God.
We must learn justice, and live with all earth and all people, or there is no future for us. Unless we do this we will be like any other species which over runs its environment; we will become extinct.
The kingdom of God must happen in the material world, or we won't be here.
But the thing is… if we look for the Kingdom of God entirely in the material,
if we sing the Magnificat entirely in the material, it does not make sense.
The literal material reading of Luke's gospel says we can trust Mary's… and Luke's vision… for God's justice because Jesus is born of a virgin. That's what it says. If you read Luke entirely in the physical/material/literal matrix then it says the key vision of the Christian faith is based upon a material impossibility.
People are not ever— they are… never— born without two parents. It is a biological impossibility. Jesus could not be a human being who did not have a human father. God cannot make it happen. God can't skip that bit, because if God did, then half the foundational architecture that let Jesus physically exist would be missing.
Does it make sense to believe in a vision of the fulfilment of humanity which is based upon a physical impossibility? —
— I don't think it does! —
But we can't just leave this bit out!!! …
because Luke makes it central to the story! In fact, he has two births caused by God which lead up to the Magnifcat— two of them, Jesus and John. It is foundational to Luke's whole vision that God injects Godself into the realm we call the material.
When a biblical story makes no sense in the material realm— and anyway, but especially when the story makes no sense in the material realm— we need to look at what it might mean in the spiritual reality in which we live. This is the point where we get uncomfortable, because we are comparatively spiritually illiterate in our culture. We should ask, how did— how do— the cultures who are still comfortable in the spiritual read this story? (It's only in the west that we have this problem!)
God getting involved in causing human birth is a universal human story. Literature and religion is full of virgin births and god-caused births.
It signifies that something of God needs to be born in us. We are… creatures out-of-the-ordinary, creatures who need to be twice-born. That's what John chapter 3 is about: 'no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.'… 'no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.' (They say the virgin birth is only in two gospels— Matthew and Luke. I reckon it's in John, too.)
There needs to be something of God in us for us to be fully born and fully human— even an in-semination of God.
The spiritual reading of Jesus' life would say he was twice born, fully human, and so able to live like someone who was shaped by the kingdom of God. He lived, in the stories, like one born and raised in a reality defined by the radical justice and peace of the Magnificat, "where the wolf lives with the lamb… and the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." (Isa 11)
How can Jesus do that? How can he be that sort of person?
Simple says Luke: He is a child of God. He is born of spirit. He lives properly in the intersection of the material and the spiritual: he is child of God and child of Mary. He is… spiritual and material.
In the literal historical language of our blinkered culture this is incomprehensible, and nonsense. In a more fully human cultural context it is obvious. We struggle to get our heads around it, while African and Asian and ancient peoples would look at us and say, "How come you are only just getting all this!!???"
Here's the last bit of the sermon: "If anyone wants to be my disciple, they should take up their cross and follow me." A central saying of Jesus in the synoptic gospels.
If we are thinking about the virgin birth, how do we follow Jesus?
We let ourselves be reborn. We say, like Mary, "Let it be with me according to your word."
The virgin birth is the universal story of the birth of any person. Born of a woman, we are also called to be born of God, that mysterious, uncontrollable something from outside— or maybe it's deep inside us— that brings us into the intersection of the material and the spiritual; that opens our eyes to the materialism of the West.
We can begin this living in the intersection of the material and the spiritual even if we don't understand it, or even "believe in it" so to speak. Following Jesus, radical giving to the poor so that we really do love our neighbour as ourselves— discipleship — that all begins in the physical—
all that opens us like the heart of Mary
and allows the child of God to be born and to grow in us.
It brings us to spiritual life.
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