God-in-the-flesh is God in the messiness of our animal bodies and lives, and in this Incarnation God will save and restore all things.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 20 B
Text: John 6:51-58
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
There’s something shocking about hearing Jesus say this. Not because it’s a new idea. Every week at Eucharist I retell the story of the meal. Jesus said, “Take and eat, this is my body.” “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” But maybe we’ve heard that formula so often it doesn’t strike us as strongly as Jesus’ words here.
Because Jesus here isn’t just shocking. He’s almost disgusting. It’s even more so in Greek. Instead of using one of two very common, very frequently used words for eating, three times here John uses a third word, a word that’s only found once in the New Testament outside of John. Instead of “eat,” a better translation is “gnaw, chew, devour.” It usually describes how animals eat. So Jesus really says, “Those who gnaw my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
What kind of decent God talks about faith and life like that?
Well, in Scripture, God gets into far greater indecency.
On Christmas Eve in the late 1970s a friend of mine read the Christmas Gospel from Today’s English Version, a new translation speaking in everyday language. He read aloud that Mary was “pregnant.” After the service, a furious parishioner made it clear that sort of language didn’t ever belong in church.
Hold back from laughing too quickly. When did you last consider that the manger scene was full of blood and water, sweat and smells? That’s what happens when a baby is born. God-with-us in the middle of lots of things decent people don’t talk about publicly.
And what of the crucifixion? Do you ever envision what it really was like? The smell of bodies transfixed in fear, covered in sweat. People who are executed often soil themselves as they die. Blood is everywhere. This is where you see the Son of God.
Incarnation isn’t a polite theology. God-in-the-flesh means God in the mess, bodily fluids, smells, human life. Flesh and blood for real. Jesus evacuated his bowels and bladder every day. There wasn’t a portable shower following him around. This is what God Incarnate means.
What kind of decent God would permit this? What kind of decent pastor would preach about this?
It’s not just God. Our culture is squeamish about the reality and mess of our own animal bodies.
Funerals have changed from families carefully washing and preparing their loved ones to professionals sweeping them out of our sight. Anything that happens behind the bathroom door with the fan on is off limits to talk about. We won’t admit that we age, embarrassed to say we need hearing aids, or to be seen with a cane. What would people think?
Polite conversation is fine. Talking about our smells and fluids and dying bodies isn’t conducive to a dinner conversation. But if we’re so squeamish about the very real bodies we have, we’re separated from the gift of God our lives can be, the gift to us of God’s Incarnation. And our lives are deeply diminished.
That’s because intimacy and love live in the reality and mess of our bodies.
The one who has to deal with flesh and blood, with bodily fluids and smells of another, is the one most intimate to them. You like holding someone else’s baby because someone else has to change the diaper.
But when a child is sick in the night, has found a way to vomit between the mattresses and in other impossible places, the one who loves that child, who has already smelled and wiped that child countless times, is the one who washes sheets at two a.m., finds clean pajamas, wipes the walls, tucks the child in.
Near the end of my beloved uncle’s life, several times I needed to help him with some very intimate issues, something neither he nor I ever imagined would happen. Most of us dread the time when someone has to do this for us in our aging. But in those moments I realized the holiness of our broken, messy, fluid-producing bodies, how in these moments of truth we really understand what love can be.
Flesh and blood, all those things decent people don’t talk about: they’re where we experience true love. And where the Holy and Triune God enters into our bodies.
God’s Word took on our human flesh, not a sanitized version of humanity.
The Word became flesh and lived among us. Mary, a real woman, experienced the Son of God sitting on her bladder during her ninth month and making her very uncomfortable. God’s Word had all our aches and pains and smells and fluids and embarrassing noises. Was truly human.
Becoming one of us, God says, “Did you not believe me in Genesis 1 when I declared all this – everything about your fleshliness – good? Did you not believe that I still thought it good when in John 1 you learned that I took this flesh on myself, for your life? Did you not hear what Peter was told in Acts, that you may not call something unclean that I have called clean?”
God takes on every aspect of our humanity, and redeems it all as decent, good. Even the parts we call ugly. And now we can hear what Jesus says that means for the whole creation.
Jesus says that if God can enter our human reality, God can enter the very stuff of creation.
Flesh and blood are no different from bread and wine. Gnaw on that bread. Guzzle that wine. Take it in you and understand, but don’t try too hard to reason this out, Jesus says. Just chew. Drink. Feel how this is God’s life for you.
Saying that the eternal and Triune God can be present in such basic things as bread and wine is just as shocking as the rest of what Jesus says today. We try to deflect that shock with doctrine. We mumble things like “transubstantiation; consubstantiation; real presence; in, with, and under.” As if we can explain this.
But if we simply trust Jesus’ word while we gnaw on the bread, and drink the wine, trust that God is not only in Jesus’ messy body but in these lovely, tasty things, a new truth begins to emerge.
That God can also be in you, and me.
If God can be present in Jesus’ human, unsanitary body, and if Jesus says God is also present in simple bread and wine, then God can be in you.
Not a sanitized version of you. You after a shower, with your favorite clothes on and your hair the way you like it. As if you don’t own a toilet, don’t ever soil your clothes. As if you’ve never had a bad thought, or guilt and shame in your heart.
No. You are Christ, God is incarnate in you as you are, messy, smelly, broken, foolish inside and out.
No decent God would ever want to be embodied in you or in me. But who said God was decent?
And now God sends you out as witness in your body.
You go out with God in you, messy and flawed, and witness by your very body, your vulnerability, that God is in all things and in you. That love is incarnate. So that those who meet you might also find this wonder for themselves.
You have gifts, too. Blessings. Strengths you are uniquely prepared to offer the world as Christ. But today remember that all the things you’re not thrilled about seeing in yourself are holy gift, too. I give you my flesh and blood, messy as that is, for your eternal life, Jesus says. I give you as my flesh and blood, messy as you are, for the life of the world.
Do you see why you are so needed? God’s love can only be known in the flesh. Not through books or institutions. Through the flesh and blood and life of a child of God witnessing by their messy presence to the love of the eternal God for the whole creation.
Do you understand how this can change the world?
It’s indecent, really, how joyfully God enters into the depths of creation, into you and me. But this is a holy indecency that will save all things.
In the name of Jesus. Amen