Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Scripture: John 1:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' ") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
Text: The claim was a scandalous one from the start, but John made it boldly—and I think brilliantly. Actually, in John’s gospel, it’s the initiating idea: that Jesus is the word of God made flesh.
Well, perhaps not to us, but almost definitely to the two major social groups of the Ancient Near East among whom this gospel narrative would have landed. Both Jews and Greeks: neither would have been open to such a claim; neither would have found such a thing even conceivable.
Among the Greeks, Logos was understood as “Word,” as in “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” This, Logos, was understood to be the logic of the universe, the divine reason implicit in the cosmos. And it was a disembodied notion: Logos was an insistently disembodied notion. Indeed, it had to be disembodied because it had to be in every body. It could not be somewhere because it had to be everywhere. Activated in the beginning, it would continue throughout time to give all that is form and meaning. Permeating all reality, Logos was referred to also as providence, nature, god, and the soul of the universe.
Among Jews, this Logos was a new term for the ancient one known as Wisdom or Sophia or Ruah, which is to say spirit or breath. The wind that blew over the darkened deep at the beginning, God’s companion and consort before time began, Logos, wisdom, word, law, was also God’s co-creator in the beginning and God’s continuing delight as a child is to her parent. The intermediary between God and the cosmos, she or he or it or this was both the agent of creation and the agent by which the human mind can imagine God and the human heart can relate to God. But, as with the Greek notion of Logos, this was a stubbornly disembodied notion. Indeed, to claim it might be embodied is to violate its nature, is to claim something blasphemous.
It’s also to violate the nature of being, this project that—to be embodied—is to be met by some pretty stubborn limits, to be not transcendent by very much bound.
But that’s what our witness this evening did. John in his gospel, which was an appeal both to Jews and to Greeks, claimed this right at the start: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh…” That which is limitless took on limits, that which is unbound took on boundedness.
But that’s just it. Part of what made this so scandalous is that whole worlds once thought to be wildly at odds with one another now must be considered reconciled with one another, or at least reconcilable. Time and eternity; matter and spirit; mind and flesh: these were all now suggested as interconnected, interwoven.
But how could this be? Everyone knows that such things are separate, must be kept separate. Some of our most persistent spiritualities insist that, while the flesh is fallen, the soul takes flight, while the material world is dirty and shameful, the spiritual realm is pure and good. Some Christianities will even slip into such thinking. Paul’s letters to the various churches, much of what he had to say in them, often seems to reify this separation, this duality—that there are essential matters of the spirit and sinful matters of the flesh.
But, no. Christianity rightly read says no. The incarnation of God in Jesus, this doctrine, insists that matter and spirit cohere. The resurrection of the body, this doctrine (which is different from the classical doctrine of the immortality of the soul): the resurrection of the body, this faith-claim, insists that the flesh isn’t fallen while the soul soars, but rather that flesh and spirit are conjoined, interrelated.
For what it’s worth, a lot recent science suggests the same. The study of genetics tells us that we’re thoroughly embodied. So much of who we are is written into our genetic code. Nothing of who we are could be separated out from our embodied selves. Likewise, neurology tells us that much of our felt life can be observed in the working of our brains. Really, according to contemporary science as to ancient Christian wisdom, our physical reality is our emotional, psychological, spiritual reality.
I taught a class at Gould Farm on the spirituality of the body. We spent a lot time together playing with the question, do you have a body or are you a body?
This passage from John would have us feel we are our bodies, we are embodied.
And maybe it’s not that scandalous anymore, even if it’s still quite easy to slip into dualism. Yes, spiritualism aside, maybe we’re comfortable, or at least familiar, with the assertion that the transcendent becomes immanent and dwells among us.
Moreover, maybe we’re comfortable, or at least familiar, with the claim that the transcendent became most immanent in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus who dwelt among us. That Jesus is God-with-us in some way that is particular and profound; that Jesus, who preached with conviction, and healed with compassion, and moved with grace poured out amidst people who needed him and desired him, moved also with courage uncowed amidst the powers and principalities who were out to get him: that this Jesus, who suffered but who himself caused no suffering, and who attracted wrath but sought for himself no revenge: that he is a revelation of God truer than all other claims of God’s truth revealed: maybe the “what” of it isn’t our puzzle these days, maybe the “why” of it is.
Why would God come to live among us?
Compassion, it’s often said; empathy. God’s coming to live among us is about God’s compassion for our experience in the world, about God living as we live so God might know all the more immediately what it’s like to be us. There’s nothing we could possibly suffer that God didn’t also suffer, and by this we might be encouraged and made unafraid at what life holds for us and what judgment God might exercise as regards each of us and all of us. There’s just something strengthening about knowing someone else has faced what you face and can empathize with your experience. How much more, then, is this case when that “someone else” is God?
Certainly the facts as we know them about Jesus’ life support this claim that by living among us God would feel compassion for us. After all, God certainly suffered in living among us—and right from the start. Not months into Jesus’ life, Herod decided to kill all the infants born in and around Bethlehem in order to extinguish the possibility that there had been born a true king for all the people, one who was good and just and powerful and kind. This is to say, not months into God as living among us did God suffer physical dislocation and the threat of a violent end—which would of course come, just not yet.
The problem I have with this explanation as to why, though—why God came to live among us—is its focus on suffering, its focus on pain, as if suffering and pain are what life in the world is all about. It’s not though. So why should such things be so central in our Christology? What of pleasure and delight and love in the world?
Cynthia Bourgeault, in a book we might choose to read together, The Wisdom Jesus, takes us deeper. On Wednesday of this week, I’ll be offering the first of our weekly gatherings for study, be it Bible study or some other text or texts. The Wisdom Jesus is one we should consider considering. In it Bourgeault contemplates the laws established when the creation came to be, and the limits and limitations they press upon all creatures including each of us, and then she writes, “Life presents us with a series of seemingly irrevocable choices. To do one thing means that we have to give up something else… Our confused agendas clash both inwardly and outwardly, and we cause each other pain. Our bodies age; we diminish physically; loved ones fall out of our lives. And the force of gravity is tenacious, nailing our feet to the ground and usually our souls as well…”
But, “…could it be,” she wonders, “that this earthly realm, not in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way?” Could it be, in other words, that the world as it is, is exactly as it needs to be in order for certain aspects of love to be given expression and made real—aspects such as persistence and faithfulness, compassion and patience, creativity and connection, full engagement and fine response. “These mature and subtle flavors of love,” Bourgeault notes, “have no real context in a realm where there are no edges or boundaries [or limitations,]… where all just flows... But when you run up against the hard edge [or the fixed limit] what emerges is a most a precious taste of pure divine love…”
Could it be, indeed, that those hard edges and fixed limits are precisely the vessel for a most special sort of love?
I’m struck sometimes at how widely it’s accepted that what limitations we face in life are to be overcome. It’s striking, how unquestioningly it is accepted in our culture that what limits there are in life even felt as wrong, an affront to our freedom and our self-actualization. How widely our culture has deified limitlessness and un-boundedness! “You can be anything you want to be,” we tell our children. “You can have anything you want to have,” we communicate, though usually less directly than that.
The thing is, though, that they can’t. We can’t. Much more bound and determined than that, much more bound and determined than we care to admit, we can’t have anything and be anything we want to have or be. I’ll never be a Peruvian soldier. I’ll never be a builder of Roman aqueducts. But even in my own historical context, at some point, time catches up to me, to us. At some point, we encounter some boundary beyond which we cannot go. At some point the day will end and we’ll need to go to sleep. At some point, the money will run out and we’ll need to go back to work and answer to a boss and punch in at a given hour. At some point, our strength will wane and our abilities will contract or our priorities will assert themselves and some things will fall away.
I’m struck by how widely such self-evident truths are denied—because to my mind here is where life gets interesting. Here, amidst limits and boundaries, is where real creativity is demanded, and where real faithfulness gets tried and tested, and where real hope is the needed and truly valuable currency, and real love is the most powerful force there is.
So, that God might want to come and give this bound and determined life a try: this wouldn’t surprise me at all. This hard-pressed opportunity and imperative to love: of course God wants in on that!
Artists limit themselves to some certain sized canvas, from which they can create even masterpieces. Poets limit themselves to some form, however fixed or free, and from this might speak to the ages. Athletes submit themselves to the field of play and rules of the given game, and within these givens might move with astonishing power and grace. But no one manages such creative wonder without the discipline of limitation, even self-limitation. And that God would want in on this action scandalizes me not at all.
To think of God as taking on human flesh and form in order to unleash God’s compassion is to recognize what will cause pain and suffering in this life. To think of God as taking on human flesh and form in order to feel what it’s like to feel is to widen our focus that we might attend to the pleasures of life as well. They are manifold, and they are minute. Don’t ever dismiss them.
As I write, our littlest dog, Daisy, jumps into my lap and curls up, nosing my hands that instead of taping away at the keys on the keyboard I might and should instead pet her.
So I do.
Thanks be to God.