Be Refreshed by the Word Made Flesh

Readings for Christmas Day:

Isaiah 52:7-10

Psalm 98

John 1:1-14

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on December 25, 2016.

Merry Christmas! Not only is today the first day of the twelve days of Christmas, it is also as the first day of Hanukkah. And tomorrow is the first day of Kwanzaa. And the day after that (Dec 27) is the Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist, who is traditionally considered the author of the Fourth Gospel, including the poetic prologue we just heard.[1] Those who have birthdays around Christmas time can perhaps sympathize with St. John, whose special day of the year is often overshadowed by Christmas and sometimes forgotten completely. But as a Johannine scholar, I invite us to contemplate and consider the invitations of St. John and his text on this feast day of the Incarnation, which is a central theme in John’s Gospel.

Some readers and scholars have described the portrayal of Jesus in John as Gnostic and Docetic, meaning that they think he is a pure Spirit that only appears to have a physical body. One German scholar Ernst Käsemann described John’s Jesus as a detached “god who seems to glide across the face of the earth,”[2] almost like a ghost. However, after studying John in depth for several years, I personally began to see how much the Gospel actually affirms the flesh. Although I wasn’t looking for it, I kept noticing how much John’s Jesus seems to take great delight in earthly pleasures. He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding in which the guests are already sufficiently drunk (2:10). 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 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.

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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

On this Christmas day as 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 today? 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.”[6] 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 pulsing through 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. 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.[7] How will you listen to heartbeat of God in your own flesh this Christmas day and 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. The poem reads:

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?”[8]

St. John and his Gospel have been stretching me for years; however, this Christmas morning, the Gospel of the Incarnation invites me and us to relax, to abide in Christ, to rest and to be refreshed by the Word made flesh. And I pray we may all find ways this Christmas to slow down and listen to the heartbeat of God in our holy flesh as we let the soft animals of our bodies love what they love. Amen.

 

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] “[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.

[4] 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.

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

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

[7] 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.”

[8] 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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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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