Grandfather Paul

A sermon on Paulos Mar Gregorios

A Sermon Preached at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church on December 30, 2001

By the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, III, Ph.D.

Texts: Genesis 1: 1-5 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. Isaiah 63: 7-9 I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel which he has granted them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, Surely they are my people, sons who will not deal falsely; and he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. John 1: 1-5, 14-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . .And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of who I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. ……………………

In this first Sunday of Christmastime it seemed appropriate for us to ponder the meaning of God’s gift to us, Jesus of Nazareth. The birth story says that Mary, remembering the birth of her son, “took all these things and pondered them in her heart.” To ponder, says Webster’s Dictionary, is “to weigh in the mind with thoroughness and care.” Pondering, in other words, is usually thought of as a cerebral activity. But scripture says that Mary pondered the events of her son’s birth in her heart. This morning, as we ponder the meaning of God’s gift of Jesus, let’s try, as Mary did, to use our hearts as well as our heads. We shall not succeed in understanding the incarnation, the enfleshment of God, unless we use our hearts, perhaps even more than our heads.

Let me begin this sermon with a story of the heart, a true story, which as you shall see, bears upon the subject of incarnation. About fifteen years ago I got intrigued about the subject of faith and science, and I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I chanced upon several books written by an Indian Orthodox bishop by the name of Paulos Mar Gregorios. The bio on one of those books said that he was a current president of the World Council of Churches. His address was on the book jacket too, so I wrote to him to ask some questions about the book. In my letter I mentioned that I was teaching at a seminary in Miami, Florida. Several weeks later he replied to my inquiries and wrote in his p.s. that he was soon coming to Miami on business; could I arrange for him to speak to my presbytery about the World Council of Churches? Well, I was overjoyed, because my presbytery sorely needed to be stretched by a person of his background and caliber. But I didn’t know whether the presbytery—always it seemed, financially strapped—would spring for lodging him, so I wrote back that I would be very pleased if he would stay at my place. Soon came his reply: Yes, he would be delighted. So, I was to have a president of the World Council of Churches as my house guest! Glory, hallelujah!

When I went to pick him up at the airport—you know how your imagination works up a picture of a person you have never met?—I expected a distinguished, tall man in flowing robe, with cowl, of course. Instead, I was greeted by an unimposing person of my stature, in western clothes, with twinkling dark eyes, and wearing—of all things in the heat of Miami!— a knitted wool cap. He quickly explained that his ecclesiastical duties in India usually did require wearing a robe, but that when he traveled he liked to get free of all that. Nevertheless, a monastic vow taken long ago still required some head covering; and so, the watch cap.

He offered at once that we dispense with formalities. Matthew and Adam, along for the ride to the airport, must call him “Grandfather Paul,” he insisted. And so, “Grandfather Paul” it was. I could see that Grandfather Paul would make himself right at home with us, I and my sons, for Alice was away on business. And he did. He didn’t mind my cooking. He didn’t mind sleeping on our pull-out couch. A complete stranger, this self-proclaimed grandfather, and yet, he spoke with us as if he had known us all our lives. And could he spin yarns! In his younger days he had served as a personal secretary to King Haile Selassie, of Ethiopia. Oh, the exotic tales he told! Funny thing is, I don’t remember a one of them. Don’t remember anything he said to presbytery either. I remember only him, feeling immediately attracted to this earthy, impish and yet wise and unfathomable man, but not just in terms of friendship. There was something deeper than that, something soulful. Remember that passage in scripture where Jesus is walking on the beach and he says to the fishermen, James and John, “Follow me!”, and they do? Well, I dig what they must have felt, for I felt it with Grandfather Paul, a mystical attraction, a feeling which I, denizen of a secular society, had never felt before. Grandfather Paul was with us scarcely twenty four hours. And yet, when the time came to put him on a plane for his next stop, I didn’t want to let him go. Some mysterious electricity of his had got hold of me. I recalled Mary of Magdalene’s clinging to the risen Jesus in the garden, not wanting to let him go, either. My goodness, I thought: How glorious, to have known Jesus! (Grace upon grace, as John says.) I’ve been blessed with just a wee taste in Grandfather Paul. If God shines through him so, how much more must God have shined through that person who, scripture says, was in the bosom of God, but still chose to pitch his tent with human kind for a while.

That’s when it first struck me: Incarnation is not a one time thing, nor an all-or-nothing thing. Incarnation, the manifestation of holy spirit in human beings, happens by degrees, to the extent that people are open to that spirit, and invite it to dwell in them instead of resisting it. In fact, incarnation is a rather common occurrence. Were it not so, what sense would it make for the Apostle Paul to speak of the church as Christ’s continuing body? Paul is not just speaking wishfully and poetically there. He’s saying that the church really is capable of being a continuing incarnation of Jesus, by virtue of the fact that the spirit that was in him continues to dwell in his disciples, if they let it. So, they too may become incarnations of holy spirit individually, although no one so far has become so as comprehensively and intensely as Jesus. So you see, Jesus was different than you and I not in substance, but simply to the degree that he was open to God’s spirit, and therefore enfleshed it. Jesus taught his disciples: “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48) This teaching illustrates that he did not see himself as having a unique human constitution, nor a unique relationship with God, but rather, one that could and should be emulated. In other words, we too can be incarnations of God’s spirit. This is what I had sensed in Grandfather Paul.

Were I preaching early in the third century instead of the twenty-first, I’d surely be cast out for what I’ve just told you. A man named Arius was, in fact. He was declared a heretic for teaching just such an idea, that Jesus was no different in substance than you or I. But you see, the church was then coming to grips with its faith in the context of Greek philosophy, which made a big to do about the difference between substance and its qualities. The church also was competing against pagan religions, which taught that certain very special human beings do become divine, like Augustus Caesar, for instance. Well, what do you know—the Roman Emperor, how convenient that the people should consider him a god! Therefore, in its first great confession of faith, the Nicene Creed of 325, the church circumnavigated the perils of pagan philosophy and state propaganda by declaring that the incarnation of Jesus was absolutely unique. He was begotten, not made, the creed said. He was “of one substance with the Father.” He was “very God of very God.” One hears in this creed the voice of a church which just a decade before had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and now, accordingly, was issuing a dogma about Jesus that was immistakably imperial. Through this supremely monarchical interpretation of incarnation the church out-Caesared Caesar. Jesus would have choked on all this. He taught that we are all children of the same heavenly parent, and that we are all gifted by spirit. When he healed people he was wont to say, “Your faith has made you well.” As a good Jew, he would have torn his clothes to hear people equate him with God. That was blasphemy. But the idea of incarnation of spirit is not. That is an ancient idea which we have inherited from our Jewish ancestors. Greater and lesser degrees of the enfleshment of spirit? No problem. This idea is implicit in the whole history of the prophets. The idea that God would take his law and put it within his people, writing it upon their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), what is that but incarnation, incarnation within a multitude, not just one?

Jesus would not have stomached a monarchical, once-and-only once idea of incarnation. If he thought of himself as the Son of God, so did he think of all the people whom he ministered to and with, both friends and enemies, as God’s children. The idea that Jesus might be looking at me through the impish eyes of Grandfather Paul, or through the mournful eyes of a beggar, this is not blasphemy. This is—if I understand anything that Jesus taught—in accordance with his understanding of how the spirit lives and works in people. As I ponder the meaning of his birth this Christmastime, with both my head and my heart, that’s one conclusion I reach: that incarnation is an ongoing gift, not once and for all. Thanks be to God!