By Josh Butler
At Christmas, we celebrate that God’s got “skin in the game.” Literally. The Creator entered his creation in a unique way, as “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), and divinity and humanity were fused forever in the person of Christ. This means God is all in: fully invested and engaged, with us and for us, and not going anywhere. This is the power of the Incarnation: God became flesh. We don’t need to go out into the universe to find God; God has already come in Christ to find us.
In light of this, what does it mean for us to “live incarnationally”? If you’ve been around Christian circles, you’ve probably heard this phrase. Some people use it a lot, to describe things like pursuing justice, being hospitable, and helping people out. It’s a good and beautiful phrase, but I’ve also found there are two unhealthy ways it’s often misunderstood.
So, I want to first look here at two dubious descriptions, then contrast these with a powerful vision for how we can embody the life of Jesus today.
You Already Are Incarnate
When we talk about incarnational living, the first danger is that we can minimize the monumental significance of what’s actually happening in the birth of Christ. To ask, “are you living incarnationally?” is (if we’re taking it literally) asking: Are you a deity taking on flesh? The Creator entering your creation? An Eternal Being stepping into time? Leaving your heavenly zip code for an earthly one? Unless there’s a big secret you’ve been hiding, the answer is no.
So you and I are unable to incarnate, from this angle, simply because we’re not God.
Incarnation comes from a fancy Latin word, which basically means “becoming meat.” You see that root carne in there? It’s the same word in carne asada, which simply means, “grilled meat” (I’m a big taco fan, and carne asada is my favorite). While Jesus didn’t become “grilled” (asada), he did become “meat” (carne). The power of the incarnation is that the eternal Son of God became flesh and bone, took on soul and skin, and united his divinity with our humanity. The One through whom the world was made entered to remake the world anew.
You and I, in contrast, don’t need to take on flesh and bone; we already are flesh and bone. From this angle, you already are incarnate! You can’t help but be. You are already “in meat,” so to speak, wrapped up in flesh and bone as an embodied human. So, living incarnationally is not something you need to do, so much as something you can’t help but do, by sheer virtue of being a human.
The power of the gospel is that Jesus has joined you and me in our condition.
More Than an Example
On the other side, sometimes we bandy about incarnational living as if it’s a new lifestyle choice, like minimalism or going paleo, that we can simply go out and do on our own strength. The danger here is that Jesus is reduced to just an inspiring example for a modern style adjustment.
Many emphasize living incarnationally here with downward mobility, themes of descent, relocating from a wealthy area to live with the poor, inspired by Jesus who left the glory of heaven to enter the war-zone of earth. This kind of life can be powerful. Many friends are followers of Jesus who have been called to the slums, and I’m blown away by their faithful love.
But if this is how we frame things, it raises some important questions: Does this mean the poor can’t live incarnationally? If you’re already on the bottom-rung of society, and have nowhere lower to go, are you barred from fully following Jesus? Also, can this create a “hero complex,” where people think they’re moving in as savior to a low-income community, rather than as people who have encountered Jesus at the bottom-rung of their own lives, joining to lift up the One who is Savior?
And what about those who are “higher up” on the ladder of status and influence in society, like Daniel and Joseph in Scripture, or the wealthy and CEOs today? Are they able to live incarnationally without leaving their position and instead stewarding it for the glory of God?
These questions don’t mean there’s no such thing as embodying the life of Jesus, but they simply reveal we need a bigger vision for what incarnational means. Let’s turn to that now.
Taking on Flesh Today
The power of incarnational living is this: Jesus is still “taking on flesh” today. The Son of God didn’t just take a body for himself; rather, he did so ultimately to unite us with himself, that we might become the Body of Christ. Jesus took on a body to make us a body.
God still has “skin in the game,” through us. Paul describes the Church as Jesus’ flesh and bone, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:23). Jesus unites us with himself, fills us with his Spirit, and continues to embody his redemptive love and kingdom presence into our neighborhoods and beyond, through his people.
This blows up the categories, and means living incarnationally can look like a lot of things. It can show up in bold ways, like Jesus’ ministry: preaching the kingdom, healing the sick, and casting out demons. But wouldn’t that require supernatural power? you might ask. Exactly! If you can do it without Jesus’ presence, then it’s not really incarnational.
It can also show up in more mundane ways, like generosity, hospitality, and obedience. We see this in Jesus’ loving obedience to the Father, which shapes our loving obedience, by which we submit our lives from the inside-out to the kingdom of God. And it is seen in Jesus’ sacrificial self-giving taking root in us, empowering us to lay our lives down generously for others, and open our lives to others with the hospitality of God.
And at its core, Jesus’ presence turns our hearts to God, from a self-centered existence to a God-centered existence, as our affections and desires are enflamed with the love of God by the Spirit of God. We are able to bear in our bodies Jesus’ love for the Father, and embody in our lives God’s love for the world.
This means “incarnational living,” rightly understood, is not so much us trying to do what Jesus did on our own strength, but rather Jesus doing what he does through us. Jesus moves from being simply an inspiring example for how to live our life, to being the active agent living his life in us and through us. Jesus is not simply someone we watch from afar and mimic, but rather is Someone who draws close and fills us with his presence, who unites himself to us and pours himself through us.
The Christmas story continues, as Jesus embodies his presence into the world through his people today.