The Verb of God Made Flesh: Jesus, Love and Learning in a Post-Covid Church

Bishop Edward King Chapel

Some decades ago, I was engaged in ordination training for the Church of England. I still am, of course. Our training never ends. Like conversion to Christianity, it is not a date marked in the past, but rather perpetual work-in-progress: for we never finish being converted. Ever. As part of my ordination training, I was despatched on placement to a remote rural parish, where one day I found myself being assessed on my skills leading a Bible Study. I recall a group of curious and engaged laity, trying to grapple with the text I had set them, and the discussion I was leading – at the same time as marking me for my effort and expertise, and also trying to find the whole exercise vaguely educational and devotional.

What I especially remember about the Bible Study was the passage I chose: John 13 – Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, in which he elects to serve them, and so humbles himself. And I asked individuals to talk about a time when they had humbled themselves. They told moving stories about service, costly sacrifice, and of putting others before themselves. As we edged round the room, we came to the Vicar. But he had clearly missed the point of this exercise, and instead told a long story about a time when he had been humiliated. The room went silent, unable to process the Vicar’s story about his pride and self-worth somehow being devalued, and his perceived loss of status. After what seemed like an age us all (except the Vicar), the discussion moved on, and no-one mentioned the elephant in the room. Ever. Sometimes silences say everything.

The difference between humility and humiliation is obvious. It is one thing to humble yourself. It is another thing to be humiliated by others. Humility is something done by us for others. Humiliation is something done to us by others. So, when Paul, writing in Philippians 2, says “Jesus humbled himself”, this is for others. When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in John 13, this is for others. Examples of his humility pepper the gospels: conversations on the level with people who his critics say should be beneath him, or any decent discerning teacher of the faith.

Yet this humility means Jesus will walk and talk with women who are alleged to be unclean, or unsavoury; or be fraternal and maternal with gentiles, the poor, the set-aside, the downtrodden. The decision of Jesus to “humble himself” is one he takes, and that leads to the extraordinary consistency in his actions and teachings. It becomes the basis for his love to extend to all those around him, as he consistently refuses to count himself above others. He is amongst us a servant and born in our form and likeness. He often chides those who “get above themselves,” or look down on others – because of their faith, morality, or apparent status.

So, in one sense, Jesus is the ‘Verb of God.’ Yes, the ‘Word Made Flesh’ (John 1); but as the Verb of God, Jesus ‘does’ God. Jesus is “the body language of God,” but more than that, is the actual expression of God – in words, deeds, actions, silences, walking, being – of what God is doing. By understanding Jesus as the Verb of God, I invite us to remember that our language is broken down into nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections. Jesus as the ‘Verb of God’ expresses what God is doing. When we read the scriptures, we often get hung up on the nouns (where is Jesus, who is he with?). We often encounter pronouns in the gospels too. For example, we almost never learn the names of the people Jesus heals. They are just he or she, or described by their condition (e.g., lame, blind, leper, etc.). Sometimes the gospels give us adjectives (e.g., poor, rich, etc.) that help us to colour in the narrative picture the writer gives us. We might get the hint of an adverb too (e.g., ‘she rose slowly,’ or ‘he ran, quickly…’).

Jesus, as the Verb of God, sees and acts beyond the dominate nouns and pronouns of his day. Because a verb is a word that describes actions or a state of being, we can learn to ‘read’ Jesus as he walks, talks, moves, speaks, is silent or angry; and yes, heals. As the ‘Verb of God,’ Jesus is frequently an interjection. Sometimes, literally, he is God’s exclamation mark(!) in a situation. His actions and words demand and command the attention of those in the script or the drama, and interrupt the flow of what went before, and what is to come.

Yet this is not a tutorial about grammar. True, our worship is a “grammar of ascent” in Saint John Henry Newman’s memorable phrase. But I do mean that all our worship and ministry is a response to the grammar and reality of God’s descent: “he dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1). Christ’s lowliness – the stooping and coming amongst us – is the Verb of God coming to us, raising us up – as though we were Lazarus (John 11).

Or for that matter, as any one of the countless people Jesus bends down towards, kneels besides, scoops up, carries, and raises up. Jesus’ verbalising of God means that in all manner of parables, actions, and healings, he is saying to us what he says to an unnamed young girl, whom he took by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cumi!” (which in Aramaic means “little girl, I say to you, rise!” – Mark 5: 41).

For the earliest churches, shared meals and feeding those who could not feed themselves extended from the very heart of the Eucharist. Just as Jesus, the Living Bread, is for all, so was the church to be a community that fed and nurtured the widows, orphans and those who could no longer care for themselves, or whom society (or religion) had discarded. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, means “the House of Bread” in Aramaic. So, from the crib to the last supper, to Emmaus, and to our altars today, the bread we share is banal – common food, symbolic of spiritual and inward nourishment, that binds us together as one equal body.

Common food and common eating is the hallmark of fellowship. When training for ordination, Emma and I spent a year on placement at Consett in County Durham. This once proud steel town had been decimated by the economic ravages of Thatcherism, and rates of unemployment were high, with the other accompanying indices of health, obesity, smoking and long-term depression. Yet working with the Curate and community there was a source of endless, utter joy. The congregation and parish were terrific company and moving exemplars of resilience and hope.

It is the leaven of the communal suppers and lunches that Emma and I often recall, over thirty years on. For, the menu was always the same: corned-beef pie. It was sometimes served cold, in ‘slabs,’ or hot, with a side of boiled potatoes. We never quite got the hang of the recipe, but it was essentially corned-beef mashed with potato and filling an ‘envelope’ of short-crust pastry. It was filling. I sometimes wondered with the winds whipping off the moors, if the food was partly mean as ballast. The top layer of pastry was not latticed, and it came as it came, hot or cold.

The appreciation for this local Consett fare lay in its commonality. We all ate of one social meal, and it therefore bound us together, so there was no enmity or any kind of competition in the provision of food, of cooking skills, and so of class, taste or other particularities that might divide us. Corned-beef pie meant something: this is us – we share our social life, lot, and fellowship together. There is one body.

Years later, when Emma became Vicar of a parish in Sheffield the common meal for the congregation was meat and potato pie, and minted mushy peas. Again, you might think, more ballast than nutrition? Perhaps. This is how we expressed our life together socially, not just liturgically. Like bread and wine each day, this common meal expressed our unity and our equality. Just as Swiss hamlets still remember the community bread oven located in the centre of most hamlets, with the loaves apportioned to each household for the long winters. This work was regulated in each community by a ‘Banal’ – our word for ‘common,’ but the Swiss term for the village council that looked after everyone, so fostering the common good).

Our word ‘omble’ or ‘umble’ is from the old French word for the offal of deer, and over time, ‘omble’ or ‘umble’ have been conflated with ‘humble.’ It is no accident that the fictional furry creatures created by Elisabeth Beresford in her books, and subsequently re-created for television – Wombles – draw on this word. The Wombles (“common are we,” they sing), live on Wimbledon Common. They live in burrows, where they help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish in creative ways: “making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folk leave behind”, is how Mike Batt’s theme song puts it.

To ‘womble’ (verb) is to forage – to hunt around for the unseen, the hidden, neglected and discarded. Jesus himself was an advocate of this kind of foraging: “when you host a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbours. Otherwise, they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid… so when you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,…” (Luke 14: 13). In other words, don’t go picking the plump low-hanging fruit. Instead, go to the highways and byways, the edges of society and beyond – and as Jesus does, delve for those who are lost, neglected and overlooked.

This is not an easy lesson, but we must surely know that we can only revitalise the church through recovering what it means to be the Body of Christ; being, like Jesus, the Verb of God: being a humble body, grounded and earthen; a servant community and leaving behind our self-importance and self-regard. Our very notion of humility comes from roots meaning lowly, grounded, earthen, and low-born. Burrows are below ground; it is hard to live lower.

The humble person is lowly, modest, self-effacing, unpretentious, simple, unambitious, ordinary, gentle, modest, respectful, and looking out for others to serve. The humble person will set aside self-regard: nothing and no-one will be above them. So, a god who chooses to become humble – even unto death, as Philippians 2 puts it – is a scandal to the mind-set of two thousand years ago. Jesus, amongst is, is as common as bread. A humble birth was not for the gods. But it was for our God, who in emptying himself, chose humility. So, the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is a sheltered burrow, and the site of his grave in Jerusalem a burrowed-out rock.

Perhaps like me, you are puzzled by a church collecting strategies and tactics for growth and management from the secular world of corporate business. But then being completely deaf to how those same corporate businesses promote equality, diversity, learning and development – and practise proper employment and human resources. In fact, they are practised so well by many of our top business corporations, they do not need to be preached.

The church, in contrast, preaches what it does not practise. Instead of trying to constantly present a Church Triumphant, what about the receptive, learning, humble church?  This is the church of monologue, not dialogue; a church stuck in broadcast mode, incapable of reception..

In our calling, like Jesus, to become the Verb of God, we cannot do this alone, or in our strength. Through his flesh, his sensate incarnation, preaching and practices, the body of Christ both communicates and receives love. Jesus is like this, and lives like this, because the pattern that God seeks to restore in Christ is relational – one of friendship, in which grace, love and mercy are abundant. Jesus can, in his incarnation, be party to mutual relationships. This is evident in his encounters with gentiles, where he is willing to listen, learn, and to change.

When truth speaks to power – on areas of gender-justice, sexuality, equality, domestic, spiritual and sexual abuse – the church forgets its humility, and puts on the armour of pride and denial. Reputation is cited, yet the more the church lacks humility and truth, the more the armour rusts and corrodes from the inside.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York is the iconic figure of liberty towers above, holding the flame of freedom, enlightening the world, but also as a beacon of welcome and hope to the immigrants that had been, for centuries, pouring into America because of religious and political persecution in Europe, or because of economic hardship and famine. At the base of the statue is a bronze plaque, with a sonnet by the American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887). The poem is called ‘The New Colossus,’ and Lazarus wrote her poem in 1883 to raise money for the construction of that pedestal:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Lehman, 2006.)

This is a call to the core of America’s soul: a place of welcome for all, because together, we find enrichment. But it could just as easily be some Beatitudes for the church in the 21st century. In giving, we gain; in receiving, we are renewed and replenished, not diminished.

So the church needs to listen to and receive from the voices and live – spoken truths to power – that come from individuals and groups committed to gender justice; from those marginalised and stigmatised because of their sexuality; those silenced and shunned because of the shame of the church through the abuse it has permitted individuals to suffer and endure, but cannot face or bear to engage with; from current and future generations of younger people, who now no longer trust the church, or believe it to be good and true. We need to listen – and learn. Without humility, the church will be lost to its own self-regard.

The late twentieth century revivalist, John Wimber, was a deft preacher with an easy style of communication.  He defined Christianity as “doin’ the stuff”, and in many respects, he was right.  I recall him once chiding a conference for the seemingly endless parade of bathetic “prophetic words” which kept hogging the limelight and interrupting the worship, and were only memorable for being so forgettable. He said, “OK, enough of this. I have a prophecy for the church. Two words: ‘Wake Up!’” Quite so. Wimber – controversially for his time – took the view that people who were persuaded into Christianity by reasoned arguments were always at the mercy of better ones.  That said, he was right in this: churches doing things is usually much better than churches saying things.

On this, I could not agree more. Yet our current ecclesial culture thinks that if we could only just “do” church better (i.e., whether ‘messy’, ‘fresh’, ‘traditional’ or ‘alternative’, etc.), many more would flood through the doors.  I have a retort: “Don’t Do Church – Do God!” 

To contradict the words of Alastair Campbell, who butted into an interview for Vanity Fair Tony Blair when the Prime Minister asked about his Christian faith, with “I’m sorry, we don’t do God” (Daily Telegraph 5 May 2003), Christians are actually meant to “do God”. That is the point of being a Christian. There is nothing else to do.

Our problem is we think that by attending to the abstract – the church in this case – we fix the problem.  So better management and professionalization is often proffered, ushering in more ecclesiocracy.  Others prefer to pay attention to techniques for numerical church growth, and place faith in the ‘science’ of ecclesionomics.  Others still, say that we can’t fix the church anymore, so better try something entirely new like a boutique gathering that targets niche markets, and so, leave ‘inherited’ church for some vague gestating ‘shape’ – but this is a form of ecclesianarchy.  None of these solutions deal with the fundamental problem: us.  We need to “do God”; be like Jesus.

In saying “do God”, it is crucial to remember that Christianity can easily collapse into niceness and politeness, with true charity being substituted for mere civility.  Too often, Christians are happy to be witnesses, but not activists.  We watch and comment as bystanders, but we do not get involved.  Churches develop, all too easily, a kind of institutional muteness, selective blindness and partial deafness.  Jesus was different and keenly sensate towards pain and injustice, as well as apathy and indifference.  We are called to be the body of Christ. Courage and wisdom to act is what is needed. This is what being a Christian means: doing God.

I been continually struck by the deep connections between humility and reciprocity, and the authentic, grounded life to which we are called.  More personally, I have found myself accompanied by and cared for individuals and groups severely damaged in their lives by the church. Many of these people have suffered sexual abuse from clergy and church leaders, which has been covered up for years. Others have been falsely accused, and treated as though guilty. They have much in common, for in their cries to be heard by the church – listened to and cared for – they have been denied truth and justice, and instead marginalised and stigmatised.

One might have thought that people brought this low – reduced to rubble and ruin, often – would have nothing left but their anger. But it is not so. In their enduring humanity, they have behaved with integrity, modelled fortitude and tenacious morality, and have shown no sign of relinquishing their courage, compassion and concern to put the wrongs right. In my friendships and work with them, I have often been reminded of Anna Akhmatova’s poem:

If all who have begged help

From me in this world,

All the holy innocents,

Broken wives, and cripples,

The imprisoned, the suicidal —

If they had sent me one kopeck

I should have become “richer

Than all Egypt…”

But they did not send me kopecks,

Instead they shared with me their strength,

And so nothing in the world

Is stronger than I,

And I can bear anything, even this.

(Akhmatova, 2006, p. 173)

God’s love can be fierce; just as the passion is a wilful act of determination, not resignation. Moreover, this love can manifest itself in righteous anger, and even make space for disruptive acts of prophetic leadership. It must make space for peace, joy, hope, patience, and kindness too – and so be formed by God’s grace. Humility is often a determined act of moral, social, and political resistance. In not clinging to status, situations are changed; religion and society are disrupted. The standard ways of living are interrogated. Jesus’ humility was often disruptive, and at times, constructively destructive. This intriguing poem from Piers Plowright contrasts Jesus Christ with some of the fickle alternatives:

Considering the other Gods

Would you really want them round your place?

Thor banging about in the hall

Kali destroying the kitchen

Aphrodite coming on strong

In the bedroom – then turning nasty.

All tricksy, changeable – to hell with right and wrong.

I think I’ll stick with Jesus:

His half-smile, fierce love,

Amazing Grace.

Mind you, he too could send the plates flying,

Turn things upside down,

The maddened swine stampeding

Into the wine-dark sea,

The wrong pardoned,

And all that crying.

Still he’s the one for me

As the world darkens

And drunk captains run the ship.

He’s there, in the eye of the storm,

On the cruel tree, facing it down,

Throwing across time and space,

Beyond ambition, pride, the dip of Fate,

A thin line of light

That we can grab before we drown. (Plowright, 2019)

The “drunk captains run the ship” tells us that we often have the wrong leaders in politics and religion. They are often inebriated with their own propaganda, and obsessed with their reputation and legacy. Jesus is not interested. He is humiliated on the cross in the eyes of the world. But in the being of God, this is humility: “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Or, as Plowright has it, “on the cruel tree, facing it down” turns out be our true lifeline – that “thin line of light” we can now clutch lest we drown in our own hubris.

But it is costly to go against the grain, and swim against the current. One of my theological heroes is the Irish Dominican Fr. Herbert McCabe (1926-2001). I only heard him lecture a couple of times, but it was electrifying. As editor of New Blackfriars, he called for nuclear disarmament, inveighed against the US involvement in Vietnam, and as a friend of John Hume took a constructive and passionate interest in solving the Northern Troubles. The Vatican edged him out of the editorship of New Blackfriars for some years, but he regained the editorial chair in 1970, and predictably picked up his second stint as editor with the words: “As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted…”.

McCabe was a radical precisely because of his loyalty to orthodoxy and tradition, not in spite of it. He saw that the tradition we followed was deeply subversive of the prevailing powers and forces at work in our world. His theological writing resounds with pithy aphorisms. “Jesus died of being human” is one; “Christ is present in the Eucharist as the meaning is present in a word” is another. And perhaps most tellingly of all for us, he wrote that “if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do love they’ll kill you.”

So at the centre of his faith, and of ours, was this figure of Jesus, who in one sense could be seen as a failed, reviled, humiliated political criminal from Palestine, and whose execution was a grim warning-sign of how far the powers of this world are prepared to go when their interests are threatened. For McCabe, as for me, God was and is a matter of weakness rather than power. Jesus’ humility is a willed-way-of-being. The subversive power of Jesus comes through the incarnation and the cross. Power made perfect in weakness is what kenosis is ultimately about: humble and obedient “unto death.” Then, and only then, can there be resurrection. Do not cling to what you think will keep you going. Let go; let God.

In the last days of his life, Helmuth James von Moltke – who had led the German resistance to Hitler – and now faced execution at the hands of his Nazi captors, wrote from jail to his wife:

My life is finished and I can say of myself: he died in the fullness of years and of life’s experience. The task for which God made me is done. I end by saying to you by virtue of the treasure that spoke from me and filled this humble earthen vessel: ‘The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.’ (Von Moltke, 1991)

The church sometimes clings to life because it over-imagines the indignity of death. It conflates death with failure and humiliation with humility. It keeps on talking (and talking) about life and growth, forgetting that it is God alone who gives these. In one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons, he writes:

“…it is not we who are to build, but God. No human being builds the church, but Christ alone. Anyone who proposes to build the church is certainly already on the way to destroying it, because it will turn out to be a temple of idolatry, though the builder does not intend that or know it. We are to confess, while God builds. We are to preach, while God builds. We are to pray to God, while God builds. We do not know God’s plan. We cannot see whether God is building up or taking down. It could be that the times that human beings judge to be times for knocking down structures would be, for God, times to do a lot of building, or that the great moments of the church from a human viewpoint are, for God, times for pulling it down.

It is a great comfort that Christ gives to the church: “You confess, preach, bear witness to me, but I alone will do the building, wherever I am pleased to do so. Don’t interfere with my orders. Church, if you do your own part right, then that is enough. But make sure you do it right. Don’t look for anyone’s opinion; don’t ask them what they think. Don’t keep calculating; don’t look around for support from others. Not only must church remain church, but you, my church, confess, confess, confess” … Christ alone is your Lord; by his grace alone you live, just as you are. Christ is building…”.

Ultimately a humble church is a free church. A church that divests itself of its peripheral concerns and core anxieties, and is rooted in humility and service, and not devoted to its own exaltation, and is prepared even to let go into death, is the same life of kenosis of Jesus calls into.