So we come to the central declaration, more central for Christian faith than even “The Word became flesh;” for that depends for its inexhaustible wealth of meaning on the actual mode of the Incarnate Life. But here is the whole great truth. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone that believeth on him may not perish, but have eternal Life.” This is the heart of the Gospel. Not “God is Love”–a precious truth but affirming no divine act for our redemption. “God so loved that he gave”; of course the words indicate cost to the Father’s heart. “He gave”; it was an act, not only a continuing mood of generosity; it was an act at a particular time and place.
William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, commenting on John 3:16.
There’s a way of opposing theologies of the Incarnation, or the Word-made-flesh, to theologies of the Cross that has always struck me as rather wrong-headed. One should not assume that John and Paul are doing exactly the same thing with the Cross, but this lovely passage from William Temple shows what is wrong with an overly abstract version of the “religion of the Incarnation.” Temple qualifies the Incarnational optimism, a caricature of liberal Catholic Anglicanism with an occasional grain of truth, and begins to develop a more thorough theology of the Cross in a distinctly Anglican key.
The Incarnation is not just the Word becoming flesh, but this particular flesh. And, at its heart it is about the First Person (aka the Father) sending and giving the Son. It is about a redemptive act of self-dispossession, in which “to redeem a slave, you [God] gave a Son.”
As we hear this text preached on Sunday, preachers will struggle with how best to proclaim the “heart of the Gospel” in a way that refuses to domesticate this very familiar text.
The heart of the matter is that all is gift–abundant mercy poured out in the gift of this particular Son, given in a world where sin and violence abound.
It is helpful to reread the whole of John’s Prologue in light of texts like John 3:16 and especially the story of the Lord’s passion, wherein he is “lifted up” to draw all people to himself. For it is here especially that the Word takes on flesh and unites himself with all flesh.