“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit."
“Flesh” and “Spirit”: these are simple words with big meanings.
There is a way of understanding these words that goes back before the time of Jesus. On the one hand you have the flesh, which is identified with the physical body. On the other you have “spirit,” which is thought of as an immaterial essence or soul. The flesh is the site of our passions—our suffering and desire—while the spirit is the source of our reason and understanding. Our flesh is mortal, our spirit is eternal. Our flesh is the lower part of our being, the spirit is the higher part. The flesh may not be bad, but it is just a vehicle or a house. The spirit may not always be good but it is always the driver, or the occupant of the house.
As I said, this understanding of flesh and spirit goes back before the time of Jesus and it has been influential within Christianity. But does that mean Christianity is a “spiritual” religion? Does it mean that the “flesh” is bad, as we might think from today’s Gospel?
In the Bible—here in John’s Gospel and especially in Paul’s letters, these two words have a somewhat different meaning. “Flesh” does not mean our physical body, but our worldly or rational mind. It is, so to say, our merely human understanding. It is human existence without illumination. The Spirit is the breath or wind that comes from God and animates not just our bodies but our minds. The Spirit is what makes us into a new creation.
So when we hear “flesh” and “spirit,” we should look beyond “body” and “soul.” A soul can be “fleshly,” and not just because it craves popcorn or an extra hour of sleep. Jesus is not using the term “spirit” in a way that excludes our bodily existence. Our bodies and souls are not like two Legos stuck together that can just be pulled apart. Each of us is one whole person, with our bodies and minds deeply intertwined.
And so our faith has to be embodied. The word of God is not downloaded into our brains; we hear it with our frail human ears.
Baptism is not only words of promise but a promise with water and oil touching our bodies.
We do all kinds of ritual physical actions: We shake hands, we reverence the altar, we dip our fingers in the baptismal font.
Somewhere along the way I picked up the habit of bowing my head slightly when the name of Jesus is spoken in prayers, not because I am so darn in love with Jesus and in awe of him but because I would like to have more love and more awe. Bodily acts shape our souls. They are the things that make us “spiritual.”
Nowhere is this more true than in the celebration of Holy Communion. In third week of our series on the question “What are we doing here?” we are thinking about this most powerful and intimate act of the church. Luther calls it the Sacrament of the Altar, the third “holy possession” of the church.
How we should understand this “holy possession” was a major point of dispute during the Reformation. Luther insisted that Christ was truly present, body and blood, under the bread and wine. The whole creation is transparent and permeable to Christ, like air. Everything is present to him all the time, and he simply makes himself available to us in a special way in the Sacrament.
He made this argument against the view of a guy named Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli thought it was impossible for Christ to be present in the Lord’s Supper because his human body had ascended into heaven. Luther actually quoted today’s Gospel on being born a second time, saying, in effect, “too bad, you big baby, try harder to have faith.” It was Zwingli’s view that the bread and wine could only symbolize an absent Christ.
I know this is a controversial and difficult topic but I have to say I have never really understood the view of the sacrament as a symbol. I don’t understand how coming together to eat pretend body and drink pretend blood is a more reasonable thing to do. And I don’t understand looking at the whole creation and saying “wherever Jesus Christ is, it’s not here, in the bread that he calls his body and the cup that he calls his blood.” Jesus appears to be absent from so much of life. It seems that we should try to humbly embrace him where he promies to meet us.
So it’s important that this is not just a story, not just a memory of a past event, not just an image of an absent Savior. It’s a real thing we do together. We really do bring our gifts to the altar and kneel together and eat the bread that is Christ’s body and share the cup that is his blood, under these simple and human forms. We step into the moment of Christ’s sacrifice and we unite our lives to his sacrifice.
Luther said that the benefits of this sacrament are forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. It shows us how our flesh and our spirit are deeply united. And it shows, as we do this thing together, how enmeshed we are with each other.
The Sacrament gives us the body of Christ and then makes us into the Body of Christ, together. The body is there on the altar, then it disappears as we eat it, and then when we turn around, here it is again in all of us, sent forth into the world.
We do this together. We bless and uphold each other by our presence. We help each other up. We serve each other. We weep together.
We can get each other sick.
This has always been part of the Sacrament. One of the reasons early Christian worship was so powerful was because it broke down barriers between people who would not normally have eaten together. We have always lived with the fear that eating with the wrong person would subject us to the risk of “catching” whatever social or religious or physical ailment they bring to the table with them. Long before we knew anything about germs, we knew that we could “catch” ritual impurity or social stigma from the people we eat with.
And now, because we know about germs, we have a new way to express that old fear. And that’s the problem: fear of a virus can become fear of each other. We can’t live without each other, we can’t even be Christians without each other. But being together, eating together, sometimes even breathing together involves risk. It involves leaving the imaginary shell of our individuality and encountering each other and everything we bring, good and bad.
It is difficult to withdraw from each other. It is hard to stop shaking hands. It is hard to refrain from the Sacrament. We crave it, body and soul, just like we crave each other. I feel so sad and ripped off when I sit through a whole church service and there’s no Sacrament.
But that’s what bearing each other’s burdens means: both accepting our own risks and making sacrifices to reduce the risks of others. Today we’re asking people to refrain if they live with a heightened risk or if they may pose a risk. As the current outbreak progresses, as now seems inevitable, we may have to take more drastic steps. I take the obligation to protect this community very seriously, and I would have no one suffer for being part of the worship of God.
But if the risk we share as human beings, as fleshy souls bumping into each other sharing space and microbes, requires that we refrain, I hope we will all refrain together. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that those who believe might be saved. God did not give us this most precious and powerful and holy Sacrament so that we might harm ourselves and each other, but so that our bodies may be fed and we may be lifted up, in flesh and spirit, to God. Amen.