Be Refreshed by the Word Made Flesh

WordMadeFlesh

Readings for the First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 61: 10 – 62:3

Psalm 147:13-21

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on the Feast Day of St. John: December 27, 2015.

Over the last few years, I have been studying, writing, teaching and presenting papers on the Gospel of John, which I have come to experience as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”[1] The symbol of John is the eagle and this eagle is elusive and cannot be caged and yet it can carry us to great spiritual heights, which can also be dangerous and dizzying. One of the great Anglican commentators on the Fourth Gospel, Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, said, “[You] will not be true to the book [you are] studying if, at the end, the gospel does not still remain strange, restless and unfamiliar.”[2] Another Anglican commentator Leon Morris said John’s Gospel is like “a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim.”[3] I would add that it is also like an ocean in which a doctoral student like myself can drown. The chair of my dissertation committee (Barbara Green) says if there is any book in the Bible in which one could get forever lost it is the Gospel of John. (So please pray that I do not drown or get lost in this mysterious Gospel, which has consumed me over the last few years).

I mention all of this because today is not only the third day of the twelve days of Christmas and the first Sunday after Christmas but because today (December 27) is the Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist, who is traditionally considered the author of the Fourth Gospel.[4] Those who have birthdays around Christmas time can perhaps sympathize with St. John, whose special day of the year is overshadowed by Christmas and sometimes forgotten completely. But as a student of the Fourth Gospel, I invite us today to contemplate and celebrate St. John and his text in all of their mystery and ambiguity.

One of the characteristics of John’s Gospel that many find off-putting (at first) is the apparently stark dualisms and dichotomies that the author constructs: dualisms of light vs. darkness (1:5; 3:19; 9:4-5; 12:35), belief vs. unbelief (1:11; 6:30; 7:5, 12:37-41; 14:17; 20:30-31), God vs. the world (8:23; 18:36; cf. 15:19; 17:14, 16) and spirit vs. flesh (1:12-13; 3:6; 6:63). This dualism is undeniable in John and seems to leave no room for subtlety, nuance and grey areas. However, John’s text also simultaneously subverts and topples the very dualisms he constructs. The God vs. world dichotomy topples in light of the famous John 3:16 verse, which declares the world as the object of God’s love; the belief vs. unbelief dichotomy topples in light of John 12:32 in which Jesus says “I will draw all people to myself” and other references to universal salvation (1:9); and the spirit vs. flesh dichotomy topples in light of what we just heard in the great prologue: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

It is this affirmation of the flesh that has surprised me most in studying and teaching John. Although I wasn’t looking for it, I kept noticing how much John’s Jesus seems to take great delight in sensual pleasures. He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding in which the guests are already sufficiently drunk (2:10). His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, according to most scholars, is sexually charged (4:1-42). He offends his listeners with a very bodily and fleshy description of the bread of life (6:60-61). It is only in John that he makes mud out of dirt and saliva to heal a blind man (9:6). He receives a voluptuous and very expensive foot anointing from a female friend (12:1-8). And he himself strips down to almost nothing as he washes his disciples’ feet (13:1-11). There is much more as well.

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John’s Jesus is not a detached “god who strides across the face of the earth,” as German scholar Ernst Käsemann once wrote.[5] John’s Jesus is a human who enjoys and celebrates the flesh, understanding and using sensuality as a vehicle for divine self-expression. One of my favorite Anglican commentators on John is the former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who said “The Word made flesh” is the most important phrase in all of Christianity.[6] He also said, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all great religions…. [‘materialistic’ not in the economic sense but ‘materialistic’ in its affirmation of matter] Based as it is on the Incarnation, [Christianity] regards matter as destined to be the vehicle and instrument of spirit, and spirit as fully actual so far as it controls and directs matter.”[7] God loves physical matter. He made it, he became it and he wants us to experience him through it.

Spiritual author Alexander Shaia also observes these “elements of earthiness and sensuality” in John and believes that the Gospel invites its readers to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the matter that is all around us and the matter that is us. He says the Gospel invites us to notice the “buzzing of the bees and the rustling of the wind through the leaves…[to] become aware of the remarkable artistry in the veining of every leaf and bird feather…[to] sense the musculature beneath our own thin skin that miraculously holds us at 98.6 degrees in both snow and blistering sun…[to] wiggle our toes and stretch our arms and enjoy the sun or perhaps the taste of a raindrop on our tongue. This,” he says, “is God’s gift of sensuality awakening—becoming more sensitive and appreciative.”[8]

On this feast day of St. John, during this Christmas season when we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation (the Word made flesh), John and his Gospel invite us to receive this gift of sensuality awakening, to practice appreciation of our bodies and to experience our flesh (and the earth!) as sacred vessels for divine life and expression.

What would receiving this gift of sensuality awakening look like for you now? Would it involve exercising more and eating less, as many of us try to do in the New Year, with our ambitious resolutions? Or would it involve perhaps exercising less and eating more, (and enjoying the decadence of holiday treats)? Maybe drinking less wine this New Year or maybe drinking more wine? As the poet Mary Oliver says, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[9] How will you let the soft animal of your body love what it loves this Christmas and this New Year and thereby experience the divine life in your flesh?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus invites his disciples and the readers to “Abide in me” and “Rest in me” (15:4, 7). One way that I plan to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves this Christmas is by resting, especially since my flesh has been fighting off a cold. I remember one of my seminary professors saying that for Lent one year he was going to relax more. St. John himself embodies this resting and abiding in Christ as he reclines next to Jesus during their last night together. Traditionally identified as the “Beloved Disciple” or the “Disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Fourth Gospel, St. John rests upon Jesus’ breasts and, according to the Celtic Christians, he was listening to the heartbeat of God.[10] How will you listen to heartbeat of God in your own flesh this Christmas season? How will you rest and abide in the incarnate Word?

The 18th century German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) wrote a poem about St. John, when the saint was supposedly living in solitude in his old age; a poem that exemplifies St. John’s resting and abiding in Christ.

Do you want to strive long,

Don’t strive all the time!

Otherwise, your faint soul will fail

Alternate rest and work so that the work

May be faithful to you and quicken your soul.

 

Saint John, now in old age,

Lived at Ephesus and rested

After and between the stresses of his office.

So he played with a tame partridge

To which he daily gave food and drink,

Which slept in his bosom. He stroked

Its feathers occasionally, spoke to it,

And it listened to him, chirped thanks to him cheerfully.

 

Once a stranger stepped out of the forest

Bloody of countenance. Over his shoulder

Hung his quiver, on his arm hung

The unstrung bow. For a long time he wanted

To see this holy man, and he saw him—

Playing with a partridge. Greatly surprised

He stood before him, called finally, exasperated:

“Blessed John! Having come far

To see a saintly man, I see

A man who fritters away the time.”

 

And the old man answered him in this way, gently:

“Kind stranger, why is it that your bow

Hangs there unstrung?” “Unstrung,” he answered,

“Because it serves if I now stretch it

Purposefully. Can the string of the bow

Always be stretched, so that it never relaxes?”

John answered, “Can the string of life

Always be stretched, so that it never relaxes?”[11]

St. John and his Gospel have been stretching me for years and they will continue to stretch me. However, this morning, the Gospel invites me and us to relax, to abide in Christ, to rest and to be refreshed by the Word made flesh.

st-john-and-christ-2014

 

[1] This phrase comes from Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in a radio broadcast in October 1939.

[2] Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, ed F. N. Davey (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1947), 20.

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971), 7. Paul N. Anderson writes, “Attributed both to Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great, who describe Scripture as “a stream in which the elephant may swim and the lamb may wade,” a recent application of this imagery to the Gospel of John is made by Paul F. Brackman, who said, “Someone has described the remarkable character of this Gospel by saying that it is a book in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim” (“The Gospel according to John,” Interpretation 6, 1952, 63) as cited in Paul N. Anderson, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 245.

[4] For a detailed analysis of this tradition and its skeptics, see R. Alan Culpepper, John Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000).

[5] Ernst Käsemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 9. Although C.H. Dodd also calls the Johannine Jesus “a stranger to the world” in Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 261, John Ashton says that Käsemann’s famous phrase “conveys fairly accurately the impression that an unbiased reader would get from a first reading of the Gospel.” John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 72.

[6] “[Christianity’s] own most central saying is: ‘The Word was made flesh,’ where the last term was, no doubt, chosen because if its specially materialistic associations” from Nature, Man and God: Gifford Lectures, Lecture XIX: ‘The Sacramental Universe” (London: Macmillan), p. 478 as cited in Christ In All Things: William Temple and His Writings, ed. Stephen Spencer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 130.

[7] William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1945), xx-xxi. Also in Lecture XIX of the Gifford Lectures, he says, “[Christianity] is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions” as cited in Christ In All Things: William Temple and His Writings, ed. Stephen Spencer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 130.

[8] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Preston Australia: Mosaic Press, 2013), 218.

[9] From Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” from Mary Oliver, Wild Geese: Selected Poems (Northumberland UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2004)

[10] See J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1997). Also see Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.25 in which “the blessed evangelist John” is described as “worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord.”

[11] Johann Gottfried Herder, Herder’s Werke, BDK (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1969), 1:54-55. My translation of Culpepper’s translation in Culpepper, John Son of Zebedee: Life of a Legend, 260. Culpepper explains, “The story of the partridge can be traced back to the fourth or fifth century, and was attached to the Acts of John by the eleventh century.” Culpepper, John Son of Zebedee, 260.

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