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, and we have seen his glory. John 1.1 & 14
You may have wondered whether I have slipped a season or two – those are words which we often hear at Christmas, the final reading at traditional carol services, the reading which opens Midnight Mass, as a tiny light is brought into the darkened church.
They’re the opening words of John’s Gospel. Like all the best opening words they give us a clue about what the rest of the book will be about. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” You don’t need to know the plot of Pride and Prejudice to know that we are in for a story about a rich young man’s journey towards the married state. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution starts with a clear signal that we are in for a roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy.
John’s Gospel begins with words that tell us equally clearly what we are going to be hearing about – the key themes he wants us to keep in mind. This is going to be a story about the Word, about God speaking to us. But this word won’t be written on a page; it is going to be expressed through flesh, and in that flesh we will see God’s glory. God is going to speak through a human being, through the whole of his life, all the physical stuff that all human people go through – being born, growing, eating, sleeping, rejoicing, suffering, dying.
We will see Jesus sharing a wedding feast at Cana, thirsty at a well in Samaria, asking a woman for a drink because he hasn’t got a bucket, being anointed just before his death. We will see Jesus caring for the flesh of others too, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing feet. And, ultimately we will see Jesus’ flesh beaten and crucified, Jesus’ flesh, the flesh of the Word made flesh, dying and being laid in a stone cold tomb, while his disciples, afraid for their own flesh, hide away.
Today’s Gospel reading comes from what was originally the very end of John’s Gospel – another chapter, a sort of extended P.S. was added very early on – but it was meant to end here, with Jesus, standing among this disciples, God’s Word having the last word, a glorious word, stronger than death, but a word which is still very definitely flesh, the same flesh as they had seen crucified. Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and the wound of the spear in his side. He isn’t some incorporeal ghost, a wispy spirit, or a figment of their imagination. He is a body, a flesh and blood body. I can’t explain that, but it is what the story insists on. His wounds haven’t been airbrushed away. So his resurrection isn’t about transcending the limitations of the flesh. It is a glorification of that flesh, a declaration that - just as it is - wounded and battered, flesh that has literally been to hell and back, this is flesh which is full of God’s glory.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. That doesn’t just refer to the baby lying in the manger, shining in the darkness of Christmas nigh – in fact John doesn’t tell any birth stories of Jesus, so it probably doesn’t refer to that at all. It is really about this moment, when a wounded Jesus stands before his friends , in flesh which has suffered and died, and been raised from death.
Whatever else we might draw from the story of the resurrection we are meant to draw the message that bodies are blessed, that God, in his glory, chose to dwell in them, just as they are, wounded, beaten, scarred. Our bodies are not prisons for our spirits – however much they may sometimes feel like that. They aren’t a second best, from which death will set us free. Our flesh, our day to day bodily existence, just as it is, can be a message of God’s glory, of God’s love.
But to be that, our flesh, like Jesus’, needs to be filled with God’s life. Jesus breathes on the frightened disciples in that locked room. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says – there’s no waiting for the Day of Pentecost for the coming of the Spirit in John’s story. The Spirit is given right now, to this bunch of stunned disciples , who aren’t ready for it in any sense, who are conscious at this moment only of their own failure and misery. Fine friends they turned out to be, deserting Jesus just when he needed them most. But it is into their frail flesh that God’s Spirit is breathed.
The Gospel writer surely means us to remember the story from the book of Genesis of the creation of Adam. God makes a creature out of mud. It’s fine. It’s God’s handiwork, but it’s lifeless. So God leans over and breathes into it his own breath – his Spirit – the words are interchangeable in Hebrew - and the creature stirs and sits up and lives. Adam becomes a living being, a “nephesh” in Hebrew, the living being that God intends him to be, a combination of God-created flesh and God-breathed Spirit. Both are essential, both are blessed - and both are holy.
The story of Jesus isn’t the story of a comic book superhero, who swoops down with his special powers to save the day. It is a story of a flesh and blood person, who shows us how much God loves our flesh and blood, in all its wonder and its woundedness, in all the joy and sorrow that comes to it as we are born, grow, grow old and die.
That’s a vital message for us to take in, for ourselves and for others.
The ancient Greeks, whose thought world shaped the thinking of John’s first readers, still shapes our world. In Greek, the word for beautiful – kalos – is the same as the word for good. To be beautiful was to be good; to be good was to be beautiful. We have never really moved on from that; heroes and heroines in films are still rarely ugly. Young people obsessively post selfies online, trying to produce the best version of themselves, anxiously watching for their peers to “like” the pictures they’ve posted. Older people fight the signs of aging. Many of us really don’t much like our bodies. “Keep young and beautiful; it’s your duty to be beautiful . Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved,” says the old song. Well, no, not in God’s eyes. The resurrection shows us that God loves us, wounds and all, warts and all. God uses us wounds and all, warts and all. God’s glory can shine from us, wounds and all, warts and all. In fact, it is the wounds and the warts which are the most powerful testimony of his life at work in us, the times of failure and weakness in which his glory is most powerfully seen.
The Easter story isn’t just about the resurrection of Jesus’ lifeless body from the grave; it is also about the resurrection that comes to his disciples when he appears to them. Jesus isn’t the only one in this story who has known death. His disciples are stuck in the death of hope, so fearful of what might happen next that they daren’t even stir from the room where they are hiding. Jesus may have been held fast in the tomb by the stone across its entrance, but they have locked themselves in a tomb of their own, in a sort of living death. They need the breath of life to be breathed into them just as much as Jesus did if they are going to get up and go out into the world to become living Words themselves, ways in which God can speak to others and tell them that God loves them.
We often need the same, as we huddle in our own locked rooms – the locked rooms of depression or anxiety or hopelessness. And we pray today especially, of course, for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, whose church services have been cancelled, and who have been told to worship at home instead, literally shut in their rooms for fear of those who might harm them. We pray that they will feel the breath of God giving peace to their wounded souls and bodies as they read this story today.
An ancient Christian writer called Irenaeus famously said “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just show us God’s glory in him; it shows us the glory that can shine from all our frail and battered flesh if we will let him breathe his life into us and raise us from our deaths.
I started with the beginning of John’s Gospel. I will finish with its original end, the words that end today’s reading, John’s prayer that we may know, and show, the glorious life of God.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Amen