“The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” St Iranaeus of Lyons wrote that bold statement in the second century after Jesus’ birth. He was writing against the theology of various other groups, lumped together today as Gnostics. A common feature of Gnostic teaching was that material creation – all the stuff that makes up our world, and our bodies too - was at best a sort of after-thought from a lesser divinity than God, or at worst, an evil delusion. The body was a prison, they thought, and our real aim was for our souls to escape it for some higher, purer, spiritual realm. It is easy to see why people might have thought like that – and it is a way of thinking which has re-emerged in the church over and over again through the ages. Sometimes this world can seem like a grim and cruel place. Bodies let us down; they creak, sag and eventually fail completely. It is easy, when things seem bleak, to wish ourselves anywhere than here, where we actually are, dealing with the reality we are actually in. Irenaeus knew that. He lived in a world in many ways more brutal and precarious than our own, but he still maintained that the life we have, with all its imperfections and troubles, is a gift to be treasured and used well. What mattered, he said, was that we were fully alive, fully human.
So what are we to make of the words we heard in the Gospel just now, apparently spoken by Jesus, according to John? “It is the spirit that gives life: the flesh is useless”. Some commentators have argued that John was himself influenced by Gnostic thinking – there was a lot of it about. But if that is true, then its influence can’t have gone very deep, because the Gospel as a whole very definitely celebrates the physical world and the physical bodies of those who inhabit it. This is the Gospel which tells us that “the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” This is the Gospel which tells the story of doubting Thomas being encouraged to touch the wounds of the resurrected Jesus so he can be sure that he really is flesh once again. Many of the miracles, as in the other Gospels, have to do with the healing of broken and maimed bodies – a man born blind, another paralysed, and Lazarus even raised from the dead. John tells us too of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding – hardly the act of someone who thinks the flesh is evil. And the passage we’ve just heard follows the very physical, tangible, edible miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. John’s Jesus is a man who treasures and loves this world and all those who live in it so much that he is prepared to be completely part of it, suffering and dying for it.
So Jesus isn’t saying that there is anything bad about this physical stuff that we and everything around us is made from. It is good and we are meant to cherish and enjoy it.
The point he is making, though, is that physical stuff isn’t all there is or all that matters. Being alive, truly alive, fully alive, is more than breathing or the circulation of the blood, more than eating and drinking, more than being able to move and speak. That’s something I suspect we all feel instinctively. Real life is more than just the physical processes that happen in our bodies. Whether we call it a soul or a spirit or a consciousness, or just our “self”, we know there is something about us which truly makes us “us”. That awareness of ourselves isn’t just a matter of fleeting emotions; it has to do with our sense of identity, our sense of purpose, our sense of worth, and if we lose that, or never discover it, we can feel that we aren’t really alive at all.
“You have the words of eternal life” says Peter to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Many of those who had followed Jesus had begun to turn away from him, we are told. His way was harder than they thought it would be, but this didn’t seem to be an option for Peter any more. “Lord, to whom can we go?” he asks. Being with Jesus, listening to him, watching him, has so deeply changed him that he can’t just walk away. He is alive in a sense that he knows he hasn’t been before, really alive, and even if he did leave, nothing would ever be the same again. He can’t just go back to the life he had known, the life of a fisherman concerned with nothing more than the next catch. He tries to do that when Jesus is arrested and crucified, denying he knows him and hiding away, but it doesn’t work. The life he has seen and known, true life, has taken root in him, and he finds he can’t cast it aside as easily as he hopes.
This is the kind of life that the Bible means when it talks of eternal life. It’s not just life that goes on forever– and frankly, if it was, it would probably feel more like hell than heaven. It’s life which is rich, satisfying, and deep. It is about quality not quantity, and it is as much to do with the life we live now as it is about life after death. It brings with it a strong sense that we matter and that our lives mean something, no matter what the outer circumstances are like, and I think it is something we all hunger for – living bread. If we find it, we don’t let go of it lightly.
So how do we come by this precious gift, the thing that brings our souls to life? People look in many different places. They try to find it through material possessions, through status, through celebrity, that fifteen minutes of fame, but the buzz of acquisition or recognition is just temporary, and it never quite fills the hole. I think we often hope that going on holiday, escaping the routine of work or home will do the trick, helping us to “be ourselves” somehow. There’s nothing wrong with holidays- I’m all for them – but the truth is that they aren’t magic, and that they can be bitter disappointments if we expect too much of them. We won’t automatically find the meaning we crave in work either. It can be boring, pointless, frustrating and stressful, making us feel like cogs in a machine rather than human beings. Sometimes people try to find the life they long for through obsessive religious observance, nervously piling up attendances at church activities or nit-picking over minor personal shortcomings to try to attain some impossible moral purity. They become spiritual junkies, always looking for the next fix.
But self-obsession, whether it comes through religion, work, play or chasing fame and fortune, isn’t what the way the Bible suggests we will find the life we long for. In fact it suggests a path which is quite the opposite. Paradoxically the Bible says that the real life we long for only develops when we reach beyond ourselves. Love God and love your neighbour, we are told. It’s all about being connected; connected to God and connected to others. This is what nourishes us with the food we really need, and that is what Peter has discovered.
Peter has connected with God through Jesus. He has seen in him something which he knows is of God, a glimpse of divinity, even if he can’t understand or explain it. “You are the Holy One of God” he says. Being around Jesus has taught him to lift his eyes above the limited horizons of his previous life. He thought he had it all sussed, all under control, but God is up to something beyond Peter’s imagination. There are more possibilities than he had ever thought of, even for an ordinary fisherman like him. He is part of a much greater story. Classical Christian theology calls this awareness “transcendence” – that sense of mystery, of a whole universe beyond us. It’s not all about us, and what is happening in our lives, good or bad, isn’t the last word, the whole story. Sometimes people are reminded of this through prayer and worship, but people can equally find it through nature and through scientific discovery, or through commitment to some important cause. However we find it, though, it helps us to get our own struggles into perspective, enriching our lives and beckoning us out into a bigger, broader world, with a bigger, broader vision of what we can be and do too.
Peter finds a life-giving connection to God, but he also finds life in a new connection to those around him. As well as transcendence, Christian theology has always also talked about “immanence”, about God who is present where we are, woven into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, known in our relationships with others, and our service of those in need. As he follows Jesus Peter is forced to live and work alongside people very different from himself, people he would once have done anything to avoid. His fellow disciples are a motley crew, from different background and with different attitudes to his. The people who come to Jesus for help are often demanding too – noisy children, distraught women, the poor and sick, foreigners – not the kind of people he would normally want to hang out with. Sometimes he tries to send them away, but Jesus refuses to let him off the hook. As he learns to accept and to love these people he discovers God in them, a God who comes to him in the things he can’t change and the realities he can’t avoid. To Peter’s surprise, their lives enrich his life in ways he could never have predicted.
“The glory of God is a human being, fully alive”, said Irenaeus, and I think Peter would have said Amen to that. When we open ourselves up to God and to one another, when we open ourselves up to wonder and to love, wherever we find it and whatever form it takes, we open ourselves up to the life that is really life, eternal life, which nothing can destroy, life that we will not want to walk away from even if we could.