The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, on Friday, 25 March 2022.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Life begins at conception.” Or does it? I’ve always had my doubts over whether that popular pro-life thesis is the strongest objection to the horror of abortion. After all, life comes in all shapes and sizes. The sperm and the egg that come together at conception are already alive. It’s not “life” that begins at conception but this particular life. In questioning that thesis I find myself uncomfortably in the company of the famous atheistic astronomer Carl Sagan, who raised the same objection in a well-known essay 25 years ago. Why, he asked, do we cry murder over killing a foetus when we don’t lament the monthly loss of a women’s egg or the millions of sperm that die before reaching their goal? After all, these building blocks of life are also alive. One might raise similar questions about the slogan, “Life is sacred”, which I proudly display around my licence plate. But if all life is sacred—by which we perhaps mean “untouchable”—then why do we slaughter animals for food … or even carrots?
I don’t mean to be flippant in the pulpit or in any way to damage the valiant pro-life fight. But we need to be much more precise in our thinking. The real question is not whether the foetus in the womb is alive but rather what kind of life it is. Is it human life? Yes. Is it distinct from its mother? Indisputably. Is it a person? That’s certainly the foundational legal question—but if it is not a person, what needs to be added before it becomes one? What we can and must say scientifically is that everything that new human being will be is already there at his or her conception. What comes together, the DNA and genes from the father and the mother, make up and define what the child is. The child isn’t created out of nothing, but is a uniquely precious combination of what has been brought together in order to make something new. And after conception nothing more comes to that child except nourishment and growth.
It’s tragic that such sensible biological logic, what is so obviously true, is so rarely persuasive to the other side. It’s no surprise that the great momentum in the pro-life movement comes from Christians. For we know something about the new child that goes beyond biology. We know that God has brought a critical third element to that tiny human being, a spiritual element, the human soul. That’s what makes human life different from all other life and therefore uniquely valuable. God taught us this when He chose a different way to bring Adam into His new creation, by forming him from the earth with His divine hands and breathing life into Him by the Spirit of His mouth. And then God declared man, both men and women, to be formed in His own image. And so to do violence to the child in the womb is to do violence to God Himself, to attack what is indeed sacred: an icon of the living God.
This day we celebrate the conception of the unique Icon of the living God. As with the formation of every human being, God didn’t create this Child out of nothing, but He brought together two living things to make something new. The One who was God of God and Light of Light from all eternity was joined to the seed of Adam and Eve in Mary’s womb. It’s those two living elements that made our Saviour what He is and therefore made our salvation what it uniquely is. He brought from His mother the whole people of Israel. Betrothed to Joseph of the house of Judah, and sharing herself the same lineage, Mary’s flesh and Joseph’s adoption gave her new child royal blood. Matthew’s genealogy painstakingly traces Jesus’ line back to Abraham, through whose seed all nations would be blessed, but even more importantly to King David, who was promised a son to reign on his throne for ever. The angel Gabriel announced the fulfilment of this promise to Mary, saying: “the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever” (Lk. 1:32-33). And we could add to this the genealogical logic of Luke’s Gospel, which finds embodied in Jesus the whole human race back to Adam, the father of all.
But the miracle of miracles is that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity entered Mary’s womb and knit Himself to human flesh. Through the angel’s words, “The Lord is with you”, Word coming to element in a sacramental way, the miracle occurred. By the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, that Child became the greater fulfilment of the old Tabernacle in which God’s presence would sometimes be seen in that cloudy but glorious way. Now He would be with us permanently. And because of this miracle, the Child would be called “holy, the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). All life is indeed “sacred” in the sense that it comes from God. But this Child would be holy with God’s very essence. Now, not entirely incidentally, God’s choice to dwell bodily in a woman’s womb forms the strongest of all arguments against abortion. For through the incarnation of God’s Son the womb became a perpetual sacred space, and to enter that sanctuary to kill the one taking refuge there is a veritable “murder in the cathedral”, an assault not just on humanity but on the God who declared that space His holy dwelling place.
But the incarnation of God’s Son affected not just that tiny sanctuary. The God of God and Light of Light on this day entered our world in a unique and revolutionary way. The Incarnation is the distinctive message of the Christian faith. Other religions have offered a way of life and even a message of forgiveness and hope. But only the true Faith delivers a God who is with us in the flesh. This is a mystery of monumental proportions. It defines Christianity. It means that we don’t just preach a philosophical message that draws together like-minded people to think deep thoughts. Despite our common sloppy language, the church doesn’t merely consist of a certain number of “souls”. As our faith proclaims a Messiah who comprises both God and man—and a man composed of both flesh and a rational soul—so also the Christian faith touches human beings who are made of flesh and blood that is made alive spiritually by the indwelling not only of a human soul but also of God’s Spirit. So we are a community whose members care for each other in both body and soul.
Although this shows itself in the love we extend to each other socially and charitably, it’s here in this place that the incarnational character of the Christian church is most fundamentally exercised. We gather together. We don’t just address the soul with living Words from God, but we wash bodies with water bearing that Word. We touch our hands to human heads and sign Christ’s cross on human breasts to mark the body as redeemed by Christ the crucified. We absolve and ordain with that human touch to call the human body into God’s holiness and service. We feed body and soul with bread and wine that has itself become a new living thing when Christ’s Word brought His Body and Blood into union with it. Yes, these central acts of the Christian life are a participation in the Incarnation of Christ and therefore find their origin in today’s miracle. And through them we become like Him. In Baptism we’re not just reborn but reconceived in His way, the divine and the human coming together into a new life. In the Lord’s Supper we are reconceived as our flesh and blood are comingled with His divine body. As the Son of God took up residence in the flesh of Mary, so also He enters us so that we are now in Him and He in us by the power of His Spirit. As St Peter wrote:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire, you may become partakers of the divine nature. (II Pet. 1:3-4)