John I: 1-14
December 2, 2018
Union University Church
Rev. Laurie DeMott
How important is the physical person that is you to the you who you have become? Would you be the same person you are today if you had arrived on this earth in a different body? How has the shape of your body, the tenor of your voice, the chemistry of your brain affected the choices you have made in your life or conversely, the opportunities that have been offered to you?
Some of the older members here may remember an actor named William Conrad who came of age during the era of radio. He had a rich deep voice that radio producers loved and he was cast for thousands of parts over the course of his radio career, the most famous being the role of the sheriff Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke.” Unfortunately for Conrad, he was also a roundish sort of fellow of middling height, and when radio gave way to television and CBS decided to move “Gunsmoke” to the new visual medium, the producers refused to move Conrad with it. He didn’t fit their concept of a manly gun-toting sheriff and so after nine years of playing the voice of Matt Dillon, Conrad was replaced by a man with a taller more strapping physical appearance, James Arness. Conrad did eventually build a career in television but never enjoyed the same reputation he had had when his voice was the only aspect of his physical self that mattered.
The physical givens of our bodies may shape who we become simply because certain careers and activities will be enhanced or hampered by the attributes of our physical selves. A man with a swimmer’s body will probably never make it into the NFL as an offensive lineman and I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who has poor hand-eye coordination. There are obvious times when the nature of our physical body creates parameters for who we can become but the problem is that society doesn’t always agree on what is “obvious.” For centuries, for example, most people believed that it was “obvious” that being born a woman limited your career choices: women could grow up to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries, but certainly should not expect to become CEOs, firefighters, or ministers preaching to the men of a congregation. Nevertheless, what was obvious to our grandparents is not obvious to us today and will seem downright antiquated to our children’s children. Likewise, until 1990, Americans thought it was obvious that a person in a wheelchair could not contribute meaningfully to society and should not expect the same rights nor be given the same responsibilities as a whole bodied person. That changed when the late President George H Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act opening doors – literally as well as figuratively – to those we now think of as “differently abled,” people whose humanity is no longer defined by the limitations of their bodies. And for generations, it was thought “obvious” that if you were born with male reproductive organs, you were a man and should act and dress accordingly throughout your life. Today’s young people, however, are challenging that assumption and neuroscience is backing them up, telling us that the physical bodies in which we were born are not for all people the definition of the gender they sense themselves to be. What seemed obvious to our grandparents is not at all as obvious today.
I would argue that if you look at the cultural battles of the last half century, most of them center on the question of how much our physical selves — the color of our skin, our ethnic heritage, our gender, our sexual orientation — how much our physical selves should and should not define our identities both as individuals and as members of society. While we can all agree that the physical body into which we are born will have some impact on our choices throughout our lives, there is less agreement over how much impact our physical selves should have on those choices, and over the value judgments we place on one another because of the nature of those physical selves.
Which makes the scripture for today a crucial one. The opening poem of the gospel of John is more than a sentimental reading to be intoned at Christmas and then put away with the decorations after the holidays are over when we get back to “real life.” Rather, the first chapter of John is a radical statement that speaks directly to our times. In the first chapter of his gospel, John uses poetry to try to describe a concept that Christians have come to know as the doctrine of the incarnation: namely, the belief that God chose to do God’s saving work through the physical body of a Jewish man in first century Palestine.
“In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. and the Word become flesh and dwelt among us.”
In first century Judaism, the Word, the Greek “logos,” was shorthand for God’s life-creating activity seen in the beginning of time when God brought light out of darkness, and life out of chaos; and when Christians looked at the ministry of Jesus, they saw that same life-creating Word at work in him. And so they came to believe that God’s compassionate creative force was manifested in completeness in the person of Jesus. That belief is the doctrine of the incarnation, and the idea that the holy sacred God might choose to willingly enter and work through the imperfect flesh of our human bodies was appalling to the Greeks and Romans of the first century. The only person they believed worthy of embodying the holiness of God was the emperor himself, the top guy, the most perfect of human beings, but the son of a carpenter from the backwaters of Galilee? Preposterous! they said. Even blasphemous,
Unfortunately, after 2000 years of living with this doctrine, the radical nature of it that so appalled the first century Greeks and Romans, has lost its impact. We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing Jesus depicted with halos and a glowing face that we don’t really think of Jesus as an ordinary person like you and me. In fact, I can guarantee you that I could make some Christians really uncomfortable if I were to say in a sermon, “One day, when Jesus was walking down a road in Galilee, he stepped aside to relieve himself.” I’m probably making some of you uncomfortable right now and I am doing it deliberately because this was the same discomfort people in the first century felt when they heard Christians proclaiming that the life-giving creative power of the most holy and sacred God had chosen to be manifested in human flesh. Like those first century people, we don’t think of our bodies as perfect enough to be appropriate vessels for the holiness of God, and yet the Bible declares that God chose to work through Jesus, a human being who got hungry, whose feet got dirty, who enjoyed a good meal and a glass of wine with friends, who laughed and cried, and who could feel despair and the excruciating pain of the cross.
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,” the gospel writers remember, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” 1
The most holy God chose to be manifest to the world in the imperfect homely body of a Jewish man in first century Palestine, and through that frail earthen vessel brought salvation to the world.
And the radical nature of the doctrine of the incarnation does not stop there. The Bible proclaims that God continues to become manifest in the lives of all of us, less perfectly in us than God was in Christ, but still present in these earthen vessels through the power of the Spirit, bringing light to the darkness through us. We are the body of Christ for the world today, and God makes no distinctions over the nature of these bodies through which God chooses to work. While society attaches value judgements based on race, or sexual orientation, or any number of other physical attributes, God enters the life of any person willing to be a vessel for God’s grace, and so God’s grace can become incarnate in any human life. Maybe you don’t have all of your limbs; God can still be incarnate in you and you will be a sacred vessel of the holy. Maybe you can no longer see, but God’s grace can still shine through you in the compassionate words you speak to those around you. Maybe, you grapple with a brain chemistry that leaves you struggling with chronic anxiety or depression, but God can still be incarnate in your generosity of heart and spirit for the sake of others. We focus on the limitations of our physical selves, but God constantly sees only the possibilities and willingly takes on our limitations in order to be manifest in the world through us believing that every single one of us, no matter what we look like, no matter the restrictions of our bodies, or the ravages of time on these physical vessels — that every single one of us is capable of being a vessel of God’s saving grace if we open our hearts and allow God to work through us.
Jan Scheurmann is a woman who more than any of us knows what it means to live in an imperfect earthen vessel. In the midst of a career, living a happy ordinary life with her husband and two children, she suddenly began to experience weakness and mobility issues and was diagnosed with a rare disease that ravages the lines of communication between brain and muscles. The disease progressed quickly and for the last 18 years, she has been confined to a motorized wheelchair which she controls by moving a joystick with her chin. In 2011, Scheurmann joined a research project run by neuroscientist Andrew Schwartz to see whether robotics could be controlled through thought processes alone. Schwartz implanted electrodes in Scheurmann’s brain that were wirelessly connected to a robotic arm and after years of practice and work, Scheurmann learned to control the arm through her thoughts alone enough to feed herself a piece of chocolate. Unfortunately, the electrodes began to cause an infection and had to be removed, but Scheurmann says that “Her life as a lab rat had altered her view of herself. She watched footage of herself in the lab and wondering how that diminished frail person in the wheelchair could really be her, and yet, she said, “[As I watched], I began to accept a bit more the fact that this woman was, in fact, me. I looked past the broken body and saw the shine in my eyes, heard the joy in my voice, and listened to my own enthusiasm… [And even now, after its over,] I get to talk about [the fact that we made technological history.] I get to share with people the excitement of our study, the thrill that I experienced, and the advances that we made. How lucky – how blessed — can one girl get?” 2
I said earlier that I would argue that our cultural battles of the last half century center on the question of how much our physical selves should and should not define our identities. Well, the doctrine of the incarnation claims that our physical selves should never define our identities and never will in the eyes of God. In God’s eyes, each and every one of us is capable of being a sacred vessel of God’s grace. Each and every person, no matter the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their age, their brain chemistry, or their physical wholeness, is capable of being the means of God’s grace and the incarnation of God’s love and mercy for others. May we embrace the radical message of the incarnation for ourselves and for all people, and so come to know the blessing of this, God’s greatest gift to us.
1. They applied this quote from Isaiah to Jesus for theological reasons, but the quote would not have been appropriate if he had had a reputation as a uniquely handsome man.
2. “Degrees of Freedom,” by Raffi Khatchadourian. The New Yorker, Nov 26, 2018, pp 56-71