August 16, 2015
I’ve been thinking about words again. I like to do that. I’ve been thinking about one word, in particular. That word is carnal. Just saying the word, carnal, especially saying it in church, makes me a little uncomfortable. Since the Middle Ages, the word carnal has borne the connotations of lustful and sensual. I hear carnal, I think of carnal knowledge or carnal desires. The first definition listed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary matches this understanding. It is “relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites.” From there it goes on to define it as “bodily, corporeal, temporal, and worldly.” Carnal isn’t necessarily a bad word. But my first and foremost association with it is one that relates to lust or fleshly pleasures. I was taught from an early age, overtly and subtly, that if something makes you happy in the flesh, it’s either not good for you or it’s a sin. So imagine my surprise this week when I read the blog of one of my favorite preaching heroes, David Lose, that was entitled, “Our Carnal God.”
What?! Our carnal God?! I just felt the earth move. Was that an earthquake, or was it the sound of generations of my deeply devout, Protestant ancestors spinning in their graves? Our carnal God? Maybe Dr. Lose used this language knowing that it might generate that kind of shocked response; or he knew it would be titillating and grab people’s attention. But the truth is, whatever our connotations are of the word carnal, his use of it was spot on. Our God is a carnal God. Why do I say that? Because there’s another word that has carnal at its root; incarnation. Obviously, as a church of believers in Jesus Christ, incarnation holds a vastly different meaning for us than carnal. Jesus was God incarnate, not carnal. Jesus was the incarnation of God into the world. To my ears, incarnation is far more spiritual, ethereal and godly in tone. Jesus was the incarnation of God into the world. It sounds almost lyrical. But what it really means is that Jesus became God in the flesh. You’re probably thinking, “Of course he did, Amy. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why we’re here?” But think about what we’re really saying when we speak of Jesus as God incarnate. Think about that reality. Jesus was the flesh of God. But it wasn’t some super-powered flesh. It wasn’t flesh that looked like ours, but it was actually just an illusion or protected by a supernatural force field. It was our flesh. The same flesh that I wear, that you wear. Jesus was the flesh of God.
The word that is translated as flesh is from the Greek word sarx.” This is also the word that John uses in Chapter 1. “The Word became flesh…” Sarx is an earthier, grittier word than soma, which is translated body. And when Jesus speaks of eating, this isn’t some sort of gentle nibble. This is about chewing, crunching; some translators use the word, gnawing.
John’s gospel has such a poetic quality. His use of metaphor and layers of meaning is incredible. But these verses are about as hardcore, raw and explicit as any I’ve read. Jesus is speaking to a deeper meaning of what true bread, living bread really is. But the language he uses to describe what it means to partake of this living bread is vivid and graphic.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will lift them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
In other words, if you want Life, you have to chew on my flesh and drink my blood. Now what would happen if someone were to come in here right now who had never heard of Jesus or John? Would this person think that John’s gospel was ahead of its time in the Zombie/Vampire craze of our culture? Or, would this person assume that Jesus was promoting cannibalism?
When he speaks these words to the crowd around him, it’s not difficult to imagine them taking a step back and saying a collective, “Well, would you look at the time? It’s been nice talking to you, Jesus, but we have to go now.” Although we don’t read on to verse 60, the disciples sum all of this up quite neatly when they say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” That’s the understatement of the millennium. Yes, this teaching is difficult. It’s challenging. I have to be honest, I have never preached on this passage from John before, because every three years when it rolls around in the lectionary my first response is always an unequivocal, “Ick!”
These words of Jesus sound icky. I can’t help it. That is my gut reaction. And yet for the next three weeks we will celebrate communion together. Our liturgy for communion comes from Luke and from Paul, but when I hold up the bread what do I say? “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” And the cup? “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Do I say those words literally? No. In our denomination, we don’t believe in transubstantiation, which is that the common bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We believe that the spiritual presence of Christ is with us, but not the literal. However, other denominations do believe this. Years ago when I attended a Catholic Junior College, a friend of mine who was Catholic said that whenever he took communion he just shut his mind off to what he was doing. He was raised to believe that it was the body and blood of Christ, but he didn’t want to think about that while he ate it.
It would be very easy to turn this sermon into a discussion on communion, and the different ways different denominations perceive and observe it. That kind of discussion is important, but as much as I see communion in this passage, I think the crux of it goes back to David Lose’ “carnal God.”
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God took on our flesh, our skin, our bones. God became incarnate in the very tissue and sinew, arteries and blood that make up each of us. God became our flesh. The Law forbade the eating of any kind of meat with blood in it, because blood was the life source. To take in something else’s blood was to become like that creature. The blood was the essence and the life of every living creature and human. It seems to me that when Jesus tells the people that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he was trying to get them to understand that in clinging to him, in recognizing God in him, they would take on the life source of God. They would become like the One who sent him.
Whether or not, we think of communion as a literal changing of the elements into body and blood, as a sign of the spiritual presence of Christ, or as a remembrance of Jesus and his life and death, I believe that communion is a way for us to take in God. It not only helps us to remember that Jesus’ flesh was tortured and killed for the sake of the world, it also reminds us that God put on our flesh. God became incarnate, in the flesh, in our flesh so that we might become more like God.
Brent told me a story a few months ago about the astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Neal Armstrong may have been the first man to walk on the moon, but Buzz Aldrin took communion on the moon. As I understand it, he had the elements blessed by his minister and smuggled them on board. And on the moon he took communion. I’m not sure what his motivation was for wanting to do this, but it is powerful to think about a man standing on a whole other planet, in our mindboggling big galaxy, in our even more mindboggling big universe and partaking of the ritual that reminds us that Jesus was God in the flesh. In the enormity of space, in that moment when our technology was expanding far beyond anyone’s imagination, Aldrin ate the bread and drank the cup and remembered that Jesus was God in the flesh.
God, our carnal God, our incarnate God took on our flesh with its flaws and frailties so we could take in God. God became like us so we could become like God: compassionate, creative, merciful, loving. God became incarnate out of love so that we could learn how to love. God became like us, in the flesh, so we could become like God.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.