Worship: How a man dying of AIDS helped church members know God

He dwells among us

The year was 1994. Newly married, Jen and I joined a church in Birmingham, Ala. Shortly thereafter a woman in our church approached our pastor with a question. She said, “I’ve been getting to know a woman with a son who is HIV positive. He lives in California and is too sick to work, so he’s coming home to live with his mother. She doesn’t believe her church will accept him. Would our church take them?”

Our pastor said that he hoped our church would.

The mother visited one Sunday and joined the church. Weeks later her son, Kevin, moved to Birmingham. He was angry. He wanted to be in California. He wanted not to have AIDS. He knew he was dying.

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One Sunday Kevin came to worship, obviously very ill. As the AIDS epidemic raged across our nation, people were afraid. They didn’t know how the disease would spread and were fearful to even touch someone with AIDS. But here was Kevin, his body showing signs of the disease, wanting grace, wanting a family of faith.

He walked the aisle and joined the church and became a member of our Bible study. Months later, when he was not able to get out of bed, our group visited him and served him communion. It was the last food Kevin would take by mouth. He died the next day.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) That was the gospel writer John’s testimony about Jesus, also known as “the Word of God.” John begins his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Jesus is the eternal word of God, mysteriously speaking and also spoken at the beginning of creation. At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus as God’s “expression” of who God is and how the Word took on skin and bone. This isn’t a metaphor, John writes. It’s reality. God in flesh.

For centuries, people of faith have called this the “incarnation.”

Scholar Ben Witherington states that incarnation “refers to the choices and acts of a pre-existent divine being, namely the Son of God, that the Son took in order to become a human being. He took on flesh, and became fully, truly human without ceasing to be fully, truly divine.”

What does this divine/human interplay mean for us? It means that God was willing to take on the humility of human existence, with all of its frailty, disease and pain, in order to express a divine word of love. This is Jesus saying, No matter how bad life gets, I am with you. I am in your blood and bones, your ecstasies and temptations and failures.

But it also means this: God was declaring all flesh — yours and mine — sacred space. God dwells in all creation, in ordinary elements like bread and wine, even in the imperfect, broken and bruised lives of the world. Even in Kevin, to his last breath.

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Hallelujah.

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