This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/26/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, Ephesians 6:10-20, & John 6:56-69. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
“The flesh is useless.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” This is what the en-fleshed Word of God says to us. “The flesh is useless.”
At first glance, it’s hard for me to make sense of this. After all, Jesus is the Word become flesh. Jesus is the one through whom we know just how much God loves this world of flesh and bone. By Jesus’ presence, we know that God embraces the whole creation – humans, plants, animals – so much that he is willing to become part of us.
Jesus says that the flesh is useless – but clearly God loves this created world very much! Earlier in John’s Gospel, it says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. He’s also a human being, just like any of us. He was born. He grew from a tiny baby to a full-grown man. He had friends and enemies. He experienced joy and suffering. In his life on earth, Jesus didn’t know everything all from the start. He learned and grew, just like we do. (If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.)
Jesus is fully human, even as he is fully divine. That’s a basic statement of faith that we receive from the early church, but it’s still so profound that I have a tough time wrapping my head around it. Jesus is man and God. He is spirit and flesh. He is life itself, and yet he experienced death.
In our passage from John this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that “the flesh is useless.” And yet at the same time, what is his command to the disciples? What does he tell them is the way to encounter the Spirit? “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus says that this is the true manna from heaven. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This is the way to life.
So, clearly Jesus’ flesh is not useless. On the contrary, his flesh and blood are the key that opens up everything, that makes the Spirit’s work in the world possible. So why does Jesus say that the flesh is useless, when his flesh and blood are clearly so useful?
It seems like Jesus is talking about two distinct things: there’s the kind of flesh that is useless, and then there’s his flesh which brings life and connection to the Spirit of God.
And this makes sense. Because, though I’ve been saying this whole time that Jesus is a man just like us, he’s also a little different. He’s different, because he came into this world with an open heart. All the rest of us, when we’re born into this world, are immediately sucked into the confusion and brokenness of our society. From the very beginning, we’re baptized into the patterns of alienation that define fallen human society. We are children of Adam and Eve, children of the fall, children of the serpent who has deceived us.
Jesus’ life is different, because he has always been a child of God. He was never a child of the fall, a child of the serpent. Jesus never rejected his Father’s love. He never gave into fear and hatred. Jesus is God’s answer to the fall. He is the good flesh that God created in the beginning. In Jesus, the created order is redeemed. The Spirit is present and moves unimpeded. The curse of the fall is broken. The fissure between earth and heaven is healed.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Gattaca. It’s a dystopian movie about a near future in which everyone who can afford it genetically modifies their children to be smarter, stronger, healthier. Of course, not everyone is super excited about this, and some decide to have children the old fashioned way. So there’s a scene where a doctor is convincing some parents to have their child produced through genetic enhancement. He tells the couple, “your child will still be you, only the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never achieve such a result.”
Now this is a dystopian movie, so I admit that the comparison is rather strange, but I think that Jesus is kind of like this. He’s still us. He’s a real human being, with all our hopes, fears, and limitations. But he’s the best of us. He’s what we look like when we have been enhanced by God’s love – freed from the crippling disease of sin, that has plagued our human family for so long.
When Jesus says that “the flesh is useless,” he’s not saying that the creation is bad. He’s saying that the creation is broken and needs to be healed. Jesus is pointing to the fact that the body is meaningless when cut off from the spirit.
This past week, a good family friend died. His name was Dan Patterson, and he was like an adoptive uncle to me. I remember how he encouraged my love of reading, buying my brother and me the best books throughout our childhood. I remember traveling as a family with him to New York City. I remember his love of Opera and theater. I remember his fierce cynicism about our fallen human nature and his passionate critique of injustice wherever he saw it.
And now, he’s gone. That is to say, all that’s left is flesh. A dead body. The breath is gone, and all that’s left is a corpse. And when I think about all that we’ve lost, I want to say with Jesus, “the flesh is useless!” Without the spirit, the life, the presence of my friend Dan, what’s left? “It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” I want my friend back.
The message of Jesus to us this morning, is that real life is only possible when we are filled with the breath and spirit of God. The spirit, the breath, gives life. I can’t just be a body. I’ve got to breathe. I’ve got to be filled with the breath of God, the spirit. I can’t just go through the motions. Without the presence and love of the spirit, all that exists is death and decay. I’m just a corpse, breaking down.
This is what Paul was talking about in our reading this morning from Ephesians. He tells us, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” If we’re going to be more than just a corpse, we have to be clothed by the Spirit.
King Solomon understood this, too. For everything that he did wrong, God gave Solomon wisdom to understand what a vital and amazing thing was the presence of God in the midst of Israel. When the Spirit of God descended on the Temple, it says that God filled the sanctuary like a cloud. The power of his presence was so intense that the priests couldn’t even stand to minister there. The power was so heavy, all they could do was bow in awe and worship. “For the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”
The house of the Lord. The dwelling place of God on earth. Solomon understood how crazy this entire concept was. How could the creator of the entire cosmos, a being who is deeper and wider than anything the human mind can comprehend – how could God come to dwell in a house made with human hands? Solomon was bowed down in awe and astonishment together with the priests, and he said, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”
The Temple in Israel was an important teaching tool for God. Like the desert tabernacle before it, it was a place where the flesh of this world could be touched and redeemed. A place where the Spirit breathed and gave life. In the old covenant, this was the place where the effects of the fall were overcome. Reconciliation between people and God was possible where the Spirit breathed into flesh.
In the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, we no longer need a building to serve as God’s dwelling place. The church itself – the people of God gathered here, and in hundreds of thousands of other places this morning – is the temple of God. Our bodies are the dwelling place of the most high. Our lungs are filled by his Spirit. The spirit gives life. Together we feed on the body and blood of Jesus, and our own flesh is transformed.
Without the spirit, we’re just a corpse. We’re no good for anything but burial. But we don’t have to worry about that, because the Spirit is present here with us, ready to breathe into our lives. This temple, this gathering of Jesus followers, is ready to be filled by the glory of the Lord.
Are we ready to be filled? Are we ready to truly come alive? Are we ready to become the redeemed flesh and blood of Jesus in the world? Are we ready to become children of God, together with Jesus?
I would like to invite us into a time of open worship, in which we wait on the Spirit of God to come and fill us, inspire us, guide us into greater truth and faithfulness. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Breathe life into this body that longs to live in you.