By Clint Wilson
My wife grew up in Panama from the time she was three until she was 17 years old, and this experience shaped her in profound ways — two in particular.
First, she has an incredible Panamanian accent when she speaks Spanish, despite the fact that her blond hair and blue eyes could land her a role in The Sound of Music.
Second, and more importantly, as a result of spending her childhood in a remote part of Panama, she missed out on a lot of really great movies. Obviously, this means that part of my job, nay, even, my sacred duty as a husband and a God-fearing Christian, has been to lead her into paths of 80’s and 90’s righteousness, by introducing her to the canon of movies I experienced as a child and teenager. From the Back to the Future series, to Indiana Jones, to the classic Sandlot and The Goonies, I’ve discipled her quite well.
Now Christmas season always provides an opportunity to catechize her even further, and where else to start than with the greatest of all Christmas movies, A Christmas Story? (Christmas Vacation is a close second.)
Who doesn’t like this movie? I’ve yet to find anyone. There are so many quotable lines and hilarious scenes, but only one is needed for the sake of this post: the famous playground flagpole scene.
It all begins with a group of kids on recess, huddled around two characters. Their names are Flick and Schwartz and they are arguing about whether or not a tongue, when pressed onto a freezing cold flagpole, will stick to it or not. Flick’s dad has told him it will freeze to the pole, and I suspect Schwartz is worried Flick might be right, but he is too proud to say otherwise and has come too far to just back down. The entire scene escalates quickly as the narrator provides commentary—it moves from Flick double-daring to double-dog-daring Schwartz to stick his tongue to the pole, and then with a breach of playground etiquette, he moves directly beyond the triple-dare straight to the triple-dog-dare. All the kids know this is serious business now; a hushed silence ensues, and Schwartz has no other choice but to heed the Words that have been spoken. Schwartz has been called out in front of everyone… what will he do?
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“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:12–14a)
In the Gospel of John, chapter 9, we see a blind man — one who encounters Jesus, whom John calls the “Word,” the Word that has been spoken and speaks across the playground of the entire cosmos. This Word speaks, a miracle happens, and we hear the blind man say, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (Jn 9:32-3). This encapsulates what is going on throughout the entirety of the book and Jesus’s ministry on earth. This Word spoken by the Father, who takes on flesh and dwells among men, is healing the world by recreating the world.
The beginning of John’s prologue in chapter 1 points to this in its hearkening back to the Genesis narrative when it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There are many ways in which Jesus re-creates, but one way is through opening eyes that have been shut to surrounding realities; in the Gospel accounts he does this both literally and metaphorically. And this is why Jesus’ miracles are not even called miracles in John, they are called signs — because signs are made for being seen and being followed.
This is why John writes, “No one has ever seen God,” and then goes on to say that “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (1:18). Jesus is the sign par excellence, the embodied Word, whose words can heal the deaf.
Yet, throughout the rest of the Gospel it becomes clear that it is not enough just to see and to hear this Word. It is not enough, if you will excuse this colloquialism, to just say, “Word up,” a kind of playground greeting. “Word up,” as defined by the Urban Dictionary, means: “I comprehend what you are saying and verify that your statement is true, my good brother.” No, it is not enough just to see and hear the Word. The Word that was spoken requires more. It calls the Church out like one kid calls out another on the playground. That is, in fact, what the word Church means — ekklesia: the called out ones.
The Church historically has called this “conversion” and it is our daily call. It is a call to become who we are, to become those who have been adopted by God in Christ, and whose inheritance awaits. To be clear, this “calling out” is not a kind of divine equivalent of the movie Bring It On. More properly, it is like God’s Word speaking — when he calls out Adam from the dirt, or Lazarus from the tomb.
We must remember: this Word is truly an act of God. It’s not as if we do God a favor by condescending to embrace his message. No, the entire point of the Word becoming flesh is that he has condescended to us. John writes, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4) He goes onto say, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of (1) blood (2) nor of the will of the flesh (3) nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:12).
God descends into the messiness of our lives so that we might ascend to participate and share in his glory, a glory that does not result from our genetics, or bloodline, or our own self-determination, but from the sheer grace of God. In other words, we come to share in who Christ is. This has been recognized since the earliest days of the Church, such as when St. Augustine instructed new baptized Christians under his care in the theology of the Eucharist, saying.
So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s Table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true…Be what you can see, and receive what you are. (Sermon 272)
We are called out by God’s Word to be his continuing body on earth, to enter into the broken situations of our own lives and the lives of those around us. It is in this humbled place where God dwells — like one who comes to dwell in a manger, or in the desert, or on a cross. Yet the Word must be received by open ears… it must be heard, and it must be heeded. The Word must become our Word (or we must become his, rather). Christ took on our flesh (and our sins), so that we could become his hands and feet for a world in need. And just as his flesh which he bore is no metaphor, neither is our call to embodied mission, to speak his Word and to embody his Word in the world.
We recall this whenever the Gospel procession bears the Word into our midst each Sunday, and we are reminded of this when we mark ourselves with the cross at the Gospel reading, as if to say, “Lord, may your Word be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.” If this same Word likewise dwells in our hearts (as we cry ‘Abba, Father’), then we must not remain silent about this Word when faced with those who do not know him, those who suffer marginalization, or those who are treated inequitably.
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Walter Kaiser was known to say that “the law is the school bus that takes us to Christ.” Having finally arrived on the playground of the Gospel, we are called out by the Word of the Gospel. The Word spoken by the Father and received through the Spirit calls us out like a cosmic divine triple-dog dare. You see, the Gospel ultimately is not about managing the externals of our lives, nor is it a self-help project. This is the problem of the Law — it could not deal with matters of the heart the way that Christ, the Word can. Words penetrate our hearts and minds in ways that external behavior modification can never do — and they heal and change us.
Can you imagine how beautiful a local Church might be that hears this Word, and speaks this Word into the void? What does it look like when the Word becomes flesh through the local church with issues of human trafficking, or poor public education, or affordable housing, racial inequity, or with our lonely neighbor, or in our business dealings? May this Word, Jesus Christ, be the word upon our lips when we rise and when we fall. May this be the Word our children hear, and pass on to their children. May we truly be the called-out people of God. I triple-dog-dare you.
Fr. Clint Wilson is associate rector for Christian faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, and serves as the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.