(adapted from a sermon given at HFASS the 1st Sunday of Christmas)
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I didn’t get what I wanted this year for my birthday. No, not an ipad or world peace. What I really wanted is a new back because my is wrecked. At the age of 42 I have a disk in my back that is so degenerated that I can’t stand for more than about 15 minutes without being in pain. I mention this because in our Gospel reading for today we hear that In the beginning was the Word and The Word was with God and the Word was God And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Which is basically a way of saying that God decided to have …of all things…a human body.
We Christians have a long history of finding this idea disturbing. There was an early Christian heresy called Docetism and I’m not totally convinced that I myself would not have been a docetist given the opportunity. You see, they were so certain that spirit and flesh could not exist as One that they convinced themselves that Jesus didn’t really have a human body…it just seemed that way. Docetists claimed that Jesus only appeared to be a physical being. And I get the impulse behind docetism because really, no self-respecting God would become a human when being human means being irretrievably fragile. What can it mean that God would slip into the vulnerability of skin and be made flesh? Seems a lousy idea in a way, given the very sloppy and broken reality of our physical lives as humans. Our bodies bruise and decay and disappoint us, and sag insistently toward the earth so why in the world would God not spare God’s self the indignity of having things like sweat glands and the hiccups?
The Psalmist reminds us that God knit us together in our mother’s womb and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course I see at least 2 barriers to really really believing this. Firstly there is the fact that as a middle aged woman my body seems to be deteriorating right before my eyes. How wonderfully and fearfully made is a body which ages, or grows fat, or develops cancer or no longer produces insulin? What am I supposed to do with a body that’s going to die ?? The other barrier to believing our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made is that we are quite bombarded by messages otherwise. Messages from every billboard we see or commercial we hear. Convincing you that a) your body is bad and b) your body can be “perfect” if you buy a certain product…and let there be no mistake, this is a billion dollar industry.
Our youth-obsessed body-improvement culture in which we find ourselves tells us that we can actually avoid any appearance of our own mortality through the right combination of elective surgery and Pilates. IN the end this is nothing but a simple fear of death itself. But what God tells us in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ is that we need not fear our mortality in the first place because it simply is not the final word. Death has no sting when it cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ. So we need not fear it. nor deny it.
So this week as you leave here I invite you to take notice every time you see or hear a message about body improvement. Every pill, or exercise machine, or special gym membership, or tanning bed… every liposuction clinic and celebrity endorsed diet plan. All of it. Notice the obsession our culture has with stretching and tanning and increasing and decreasing our flesh into submission to some sort of bizarre ideal. Then in contrast, notice every time this week that you see or hear this: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, in this we have seen God’s glory, full of grace and truth…you have received the power to be Children of God. Through the fullness of God’s Word made flesh you have received grace upon grace.
That is a different message entirely.
We may want a “spirituality” of pure transcendence which rises above our broken physical reality. But in Jesus we see that a physical life is a spiritual life…
John’s gospel bears witness not to an ethereal disembodied deity but to a sensual God - The Word became flesh and washed human feet, and smelled luxurious perfume, and tasted abundant wine. When Jesus wanted to heal the blind man he didn’t use good vibes or send positive energy, he used spit and dirt. Very real tears of salt ran down Jesus face, as he smelled the stink of death on Lazarus the one he called friend. Jesus’ very own flesh tore when he was beaten and crucified - and even in his resurrection he had a real body - when he rose from the dead he told Thomas to touch his wounded side, one that bore the scars of having lived. Then, as one of his final acts on Earth the guy ate grilled fish on a beach with his friends.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God came and made God’s home with us and in a real body. I think when we as people of faith hear the term Dreams of Home we tend to think of heaven and an ethereal disembodied reality after our bodies die but the thing is, this text in John says that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us but the Greek for dwelt is also tabernacled…the Word was made flesh and made a sacred home with us. God is at home in our bodies, as imperfect as they may be.
So I wonder if maybe in the incarnation God has done nothing less than blessed all human flesh. Blessed it, not made it into our version of perfect. Perfection as we picture it and as it relates to human bodies is impossible. And perhaps the striving for an impossible perfection is a profound distraction from the way in which we are children born of God. Because as we know, the perfect is so often the enemy of the good. And even God, having finished creating the physical world, including the human form, called it good. not perfect mind you, but good. so, let us remember that our good and imperfect bodies are born of God and so we have no business calling what God pronounced good anything but good. Because if the Word became flesh and lived among us ~ then despite our botoxic quest for the illusion of perfection, your body is beautiful to God.
Because Jesus came and in his almost disturbingly physical existence showed us what God looks like, not in some ethereal alternate spiritual plane but right here in the midst of our physical, embodied earthy reality. Jesus said here’s what being born of God looks like… it looks like not worrying about what we're to eat or drink; it looks like loving the bodies of other people who, like us, will die; it looks like touching human flesh as if it's holy instead of worrying that it's unclean, and it looks like what we are about to do: it for sure looks like breaking bread and drinking wine with all the wrong people.
This is a religion of God revealed in the vulnerability of newborn flesh in a cradle and in heartbreak of broken flesh on a cross. So if God saw fit to wear our native garb should we not bless and care for our own flesh? as well as for the other bodies that God loves? Should we not have concern for any violation or starvation or trafficking of any human bodies?
As we leave Greenbelt full of optimism and resolution let us remember that there is a reality beyond our individual self-improvement, beyond our attempts to deny our mortality, beyond our attempts to pretend we are not flesh and blood. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we were given grace upon grace to become children of God and in doing so you, dear people of God, You are now flesh become Word. You in your embodied fragile glory are God’s healing Word for a hurt and broken and beautiful word. You as Christ’s body are no longer about the fear of death or the denial of death but about life and life abundant. You as Christ’s body are becoming flesh made Word, being made into God’s beautiful and loving intention for the world God created and called good. In the name of Jesus, Amen.