“And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” John 5:16-18
Remember that last week I pointed out that the Son came from the Father with a mission and that mission was fulfilled in his Incarnation. His mission involved creating of a state of being that did not exist before his Incarnation and that state of being is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I also ended the sermon last week by saying,“Next week we will look at Jesus’ first public and irreversible conflict with the Jews over this very matter. The first occurrence of anything is important and this initial commencement of hostilities between Jesus and the Jews is no exception and for that reason we cannot rush through this event. But I must clarify some things.
When I referred to the “hostilities between Jesus and the Jews” just a minute ago I used the exact language the Beloved Disciple used in the Gospel. But what does he mean by the word “Jew?” Remember that there are key words in the New Testament that are frequently used, the same word with very different meanings. Knowing and understanding the life story of Jesus, which is a Gospel, is indispensable to following Jesus and grasping what the Beloved Disciple means when he uses the words “Jew” and “flesh” is essential to understanding life story of Jesus. Therefore we need to clarify the meaning of these words.
As you all well know, the Prologue to the Gospel of John announces that, the Logos, the Word which was in beginning with the Father has come forth, proceeding from the bosom of God the Father and as a matter of fact the Word is God. You already know that God the Word is also God the Son. Furthermore you already know that God the Word, the Son became flesh, which means he became a real human being, body and all and you know that Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate. The word used for “flesh” here in the Prologue is the word “sarx” and this means that God literally assumed true flesh and thus God truly affirms his love and commitment to flesh, to “sarx.” The whole created order is very good, the material world is very good, human flesh, human nature is very good and the Incarnation is an act of God that demonstrates just how good flesh is in God’s eyes.
But the Beloved Disciple uses the word “sarx” in another way when he quotes the words of Jesus in the Forth Gospel spoken to Nicodemus:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
Or again the Beloved Disciple recalls the words of Christ he heard once when Jesus was teaching a great company of Jews:
“It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh is nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
The Beloved Disciple uses the very same word, “sarx,” in these verses that he uses in the Prologue when he writes that the “Word was made flesh,” and yet the meanings of the word are radically different. Obviously the use of the word “flesh” in the Prologue means “flesh” is very good, while the use of the same word in the phrase “the flesh is nothing” utterly dismisses the value of flesh. What is going on? What is going on is that the Beloved Disciple means that in the beginning God created the material world very good, so good in fact that there was a second “in the beginning” when God himself became human flesh.
But the Beloved Disciple also knows that if one is in love with what we may call “mere flesh,” that is flesh in and of itself apart from God then it becomes bad because then we try to live with the material world, our flesh as though it has a life of its own apart from God. When we treat the material world as though it has a life of its own apart from God then we give our hearts to things that are in and of themselves brief, contingent, impermanent. Those who treat flesh as though it has a life in and of itself apart from God are what I have called before naive empiricists who believe that the empirical life is the only reality there is, the only heaven there is, right here, right now. But of course death will take it all sooner or later. Naive empiricism appears to be realistic because flesh is good, right here in our bodies, and right there in front of us, real, sensual, tangible, and substantial. If you know anything you know that. But life is short and its beauty is eaten up like a moth fretting a garment — all of it always withers, decays, dies and rots, and because of that people live in the fear of death their whole life. When Jesus says that, “the flesh is nothing,” or “that which is born of flesh is flesh,” or when we are warned about the “lust of the flesh,” this is what that use of the word flesh means.
So, as you very well know, God created flesh such that it is capable of participating in his life and when flesh participates in the divine life of the God who is God it is not transitory, but eternal, by the power of God. It never withers, it never dies. It is always maturing and ripening and blossoming, but flesh that is participating in God’s life never decays. We belong to Jesus not the worms. Flesh that tries to live in and of itself apart from God is already perishing, already crumbling to a remorseful finality.
Now what I have said about the word “flesh” has application to the way John uses the word “Jew” in the Fourth Gospel. I have already spoken of the hostility between Jesus and the Jews in the Gospel and the examples are abundant.
“And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.”
That is a sentiment that we will see over and over again in the Fourth Gospel.
“Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” John 4:18
“The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven.” John 6:41
“Then the Jews sought him at the feast, and said, Where is he? And there was much murmuring among the people concerning him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people. Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews.” John 7:11-13
Thus one use of the word “Jew” in the Gospel identifies a very powerful group of Jesus’ enemies, a center of power that Jesus himself identified as children of the devil. If that is all there is to it then one might conclude that Jews, as a people, were entirely an evil lot and of course that has been done over and over again in history, recently in Germany, and today in much of the world.
But there is much more to the use of the word “Jew” or “Israelite” in the Fourth Gospel. First of all “Jew” or “Israelite” refers to the children of Abraham and thus the heirs to the Promise that the God who is God made to him and his heirs. Jesus is the finality of the seed of Abraham and that would have been impossible if he himself were not a Jew. Furthermore, John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all of Jesus’ disciples and the Apostles are Jews. When Jesus cleansed the Temple and declared that he was the finality of the Temple he was standing in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem not in a temple of Mars or Athena. He came to fulfill the Temple in Israel, but he came to destroy the Temple of Mars. When he spoke to the Samaritan Woman by Jacob’s Well without skipping a beat said to her:
“Ye (you Samaritans) worship ye know not what: we (Jews) know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.”
“Salvation is of the Jew.” Furthermore when he raised Lazarus from the dead we are told:
“Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.”
Then on another occasion when Jesus was staying with Lazarus and his sisters after he had raised him from the dead we are told:
“Much people of the Jews therefore knew that he was there: and they came not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.”
And then when he healed a man who was born blind, an all out assault was made against Jesus. The Temple officials brought the parents of the man Jesus healed, the man who was born blind, into the Temple and placed them in a sort of star chamber where they tried to catch them contradicting their stories. Finally the man’s parents try to end the matter by placing the burden back upon their son:
“‘But by what means he now seeth (and he most certainly does see now), we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not: he is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself.’ These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.”
This is a case in the Gospel where we are told Jews fear the Jews because the Jew were about to make it impossible for Jews to be to be good practicing Jews.
What is my point?
Flesh is very good but the Beloved Disciple also knows that if one loves flesh as though it has a life of its own apart from God then we give our hearts to things that are in and of themselves brief, contingent, impermanent. And when we say, “apart from God” we mean apart from Jesus because he is God and because his Incarnation has brought the hour of judgement upon the world. Jesus is the whole matter. Israel is confronted with the end of all things in Jesus (just like everyone else in the world) and the place of Israel’s judgement is the flesh of Jesus. The flesh of Jesus is the judgement of God. There are two uses of the word “Jew” in the Fourth Gospel. There is the Jew who picks up stones to shatter Jesus’ body of flesh because he healed a man on the Sabbath and the place of their judgment is the flesh of Jesus. There is the Jew who plots to kill Lazarus because his resurrection has caused other Jews to believe in Jesus. The Jew who slapped Jesus in front of the High Priest has made Jesus’ flesh his place of judgement. And there is the Jew who finally makes common cause with Caesar to crucify Jesus and the flesh and blood of Jesus bring judgment down upon both the Jew and Caesar. The Jew who loves Israel and believes that Israel has a life of its own apart from Jesus Christ is living in darkness and separation from the God of Israel. On the other hand there is the Jew like Mary the sister of Lazarus who anointed Jesus’ feet with the sweet smelling ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. Jesus’ flesh is the place of judgment for Mary and in his flesh she found the truth and the light and the life and the God of Israel. After his crucifixion Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus removed his body from the cross and did their best to wrap him in clean linen and place his body of flesh in new tomb because his flesh is precious. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples and Apostles cannot keep their hands off Jesus on the day of his resurrection and his dazzling flesh bearing the five wounds becomes the place of the sweetest judgement — Jesus Christ has trampled down death once and for all.