Opening Devotion by Very Rev. Patterson at the November 2015 Synod

The opening worship at this year’s November 2015 Synod was led by Very Rev. Ivan Patterson, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, who has been living and serving in Budapest over the last three months. He reflected on the following passage from John 1:14 – 18, presented here from the New International Version.

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ is, in one respect,  such an ordinary one – the government is involved through the census, people are travelling, a baby is born in squalid circumstances in a corner of a third world city to a young unmarried mother. It is all so normal. It is about life.

We will soon celebrate this seemingly ordinary story, just as it has been celebrated for generations, from Budapest to Belfast, from Tokyo to Timbuktu. It is a story that begins with the creation of all things and will end with the renewal of all things.  We have our part to play in that renewal story as we embody His likeness in our everyday lives and ministries.

As we look at the Gospel records, we see that Matthew locates the significance of Jesus’ birth right back in history – from Abraham to David; from David to the Exile; and from the Exile to the Messiah.  Matthew shows us God’s purpose throughout history.

The songs in Luke 1 – 2 have deep roots in the promises of old, celebrating God’s grace in bringing about the fulfilment of the covenant with Abraham. The birth of this child signifies the presence of God in mercy and the coming of the Kingdom.

John reaches back to the very dawn of all things:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … the Word became flesh… and dwelt among us”.

THE WORD BECAME FLESH.  The pivotal point in history – the history of the world, the story of creation, the history of human beings made in the image of their Creator; the story of salvation from the time of the Fall and right to the end of time.  All of this brings such implications for us as we minister in our own day and place. The Word, God, becoming flesh again and again, in and through us.

It’s a story of the intertwining of the mundane and the marvellous. We marvel at the accounts of this Man who is Saviour, Lord and King, yet a Man who understands what it is to be human – to feel vulnerable, to be weary, to know what pain is and even death itself.

We rejoice in all the promises of salvation, forgiveness, mercy and grace won for us through His death and resurrection and for the pattern he has left us. He reminded His disciples – “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you”.

He became flesh and He lived among us.  John tells us that it was because of love for humankind that God gave us His Son so that no one should perish but enjoy life right now and then for ever!   We have a story whose origin lies in the very heart of God – a relevant story for the people of today and offering great promise for their future.

Today we are privileged to be called to be part of that continuing story of Incarnation, of Good News, of God’s love, of forgiveness and new life, of God’s purpose for humankind, even creation itself.

Paul tries to explain the full impact of the story which is all embracing when he writes to the Christian Church in Colossae. He declares that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born over all creation, the Creator of all things, and he continues: For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities … in Him all things hold together.  That is the Word that came and lived among us and is concerned about all aspects of life.

Paul gives 2 reasons for Jesus’ interest in ‘all things’: He created them, and He created them for himself. If all was created by and for Jesus then we can assume He is interested in how we steward and shape all that he has given us.  Our world, our societies, our lives, our churches, our Synods, congregations and ministries. That surely means we need to take time to hear, again and again, what He is saying to us as we grapple with the challenges that confront all our churches in a growing secular age. 

The trouble for us, at least for us in Western Europe, is that this amazing story of God among us is not impacting the lives of people as it once did.  Evidence of that is the fact that fewer and fewer people are attending church. The Bible has ceased to be a core text for everyday life and is seen by so many as irrelevant to contemporary living.  So people attempt to create their own story.  In the light of all our scientific and other advances people feel they are able to be their own saviours and secure their own futures. 

It is here, incarnate in our societies, that the community of the Church is called to be a sign, a foretaste and a servant of the Kingdom of God proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. The organization of the Church, her structures, congregations and missions all must be a tool and a medium through which an alternative world view is expressed.  Our church communities must be Christ centered before anything else and communities where our culture is characterized by grace, love, forgiveness and acceptance.

A generation ago, the Rev John Stott spoke and wrote much about authentic Biblical Christianity being 'counter cultural'. His call is as relevant and challenging today as it was then – maybe even more so.

How are we to be Christ Incarnate in our day?

Francis Schaeffer gave us one clue when he said famously, “Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful – Christian community is the final apologetic.”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “We possess Christ’s truth only by imitating Him, not by speculating about Him.” Jesus must be central to our communities.  Other things must necessarily be done and administered and managed, but Church must first of all be about Him – not about our institutions or committees or even Synods, important as they all are.

Where does that leave us, living as we are between Jesus’ resurrection and His final triumph? It surely calls us as His followers to the primary role of proclaiming the kingdom’s good news of salvation and to live out kingdom values as the ‘salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’.

We are privileged to be heralds of a very ordinary story, but one with amazing life changing Good News for our people and our world. May we all increasingly become the Word ‘made flesh’ dwelling among our people full of grace and truth.

Very Rev. Ivan Patterson

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