In 1995, Joan Osborne asked us to consider, through one of her songs, “what if God was one of us”? Here are some of the lyrics:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
These words may make us cringe. Insinuating that God might be a “slob” just like sinful humanity gets our hackles up in a hurry. Osborne, to her credit, is at least willing to explore what the church has too often ignored. She seems willing to wrestle with the implications of the incarnation of God as one of us.
The truth is that God not only was one of us but, I believe, is one of us and one with us because of his incarnation in the flesh. There is, to this day, an embodied member of the Trinity who looks an awful lot like a first century Jew but with a glorified body. The incarnation not only cost the eternal Son something over 2000 years ago, as detailed in Philippians 2, but perhaps the incarnation of the Son as Jesus Christ has an ongoing cost. Whether or not you agree with my conviction about the ongoing cost of the incarnation, you will no doubt agree that incarnation is costly. God’s willingness to come “from heaven to earth to show the way” by becoming one of us and one with us cost him greatly. And, since we too are called to incarnational ministry, we ministers have a price to pay as well.
What does incarnational ministry entail? For Jesus Christ, it meant laying aside divine privilege to take upon himself all of the pain, angst, sorrow, temptations, and trials of the human condition (See Isaiah 53). He did ministry by getting close enough to the people he sought to serve that he became one of them and one with them. He served primarily through solidarity. Clearly, he gave up much of his privilege and power in order to elevate those without either to a new level of living. He went from heaven to earth, from Son to servant, from eternal King to peasant Jew. That’s incarnational ministry!
Thank God we will never have to travel as far south as the Son did, but we too are called to Jesus-style incarnational ministry. Christian ministers visit those in prison to incarnate good news. We are called to roll up our sleeves not only to serve the poor and homeless but to share life with them. We must be willing to resource under-resourced communities even if it means spending less money on important, but unnecessary, audio-visual worship service enhancements and fellowship hall renovations. We need the courage to be a voice for the voiceless even if it means putting our own reputation on the line. Pastoral leaders use our position and power not to build our ego but to build up the culturally undignified. Incarnational ministry is costly!
There were two internal questions that surfaced in me often during my 15 years as a pastor no matter the context. First, how can my ministry incarnate the realities of Christ and his kingdom? And the second question was, am I willing to pay the price necessitated by incarnational ministry? To be perfectly honest, there were days when I chose to play it safe in the confines of my ivory professional tower. I regret those missed opportunities to incarnate good news. But on my better days, I got it! The more I got it, the more the people I served as pastor began to get it (though some of them “got it” long before I did), and once we got it together there was no turning back. The pendulum had swung and we became a church that existed to make Christ known through incarnational ministry that cost us time, energy, money, personnel, blood, sweat and tears.
Incarnational ministry is costly, but the ultimate price was paid by the God who became one of us.