‘The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us’. I love that translation of John 1:1 from the Message Bible – it gets it in a nutshell. The incarnation is not about God working into an area, it’s about him jumping right in and living there.
When we moved onto the Whyke Estate nineteen years ago, we didn’t do so out of a sophisticated theology of the incarnation, we simply wanted to live somewhere where we hoped we might be able to do something positive, but now I see that the incarnation provides us with a model that sums up what we have (unwittingly for sure) been doing.
Too many churches and organisations try to work into particular areas. But there is no substitute for actually being in an area: living there, being present, not just turning up for a few hours and then going home again (and yes, my Anglican friends, I do hear you telling me that that is just what the parish system is designed to do!).
And there is a strange thing that happens when you do that. Your whole attitude to the place changes: you become a part of it, and it becomes a part of you. I used to see myself as someone from my church, living on this particular estate, kind of like a missionary. Now I don’t – I simply see myself as an estate resident with a Christian faith, and what I do comes inevitably from that faith. This place has shaped me, as much as it has been shaped by me.
I wonder if Jesus experienced something along those lines too, as he took up residence on this earth? How did it change him, I wonder?
We occupy a transient time, where we live in places, use things, and engage in activities ‘until further notice’ (to use sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s memorable phrase). When those places, things and activities (and people?) are no longer needed, we discard them and move onto something else. It need hardly be said that is no way to build sustainable communities!
The first thing I think the Church has to offer, then, when it comes to building local sustainable communities is something rooted in a model of the incarnation. That means we won’t flit in and out of our communities (wherever and whatever they may be), but we will stick with them and invest into them.
So let’s take what the incarnation shows us and offer it to others as a model for how to live, always seeking at the same time to find ways to develop it in ourselves.