“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. I receive not honour from men. But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not…” John 5: 31 – 47
A gospel is by definition the life-story of Jesus the Messiah. A life-story, a biography, is a certain kind of narrative. You cannot have a narrative without characters, details, as well as time, place and movement. The best narratives pull you into the story, which is to say they pull you into another time and another place. A story takes place and it has to take place somewhere in particular and it has to take place at some point in time.
“Now there is in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, a pool… called Bethesda…”
Jesus healed a crippled man at that place. And it happened when Jesus was ministering in his flesh in Jerusalem when Caiaphas was the High Priest. Some of you may have been to Jerusalem and you may have seen this pool yourself. We can all go to that place. But the only way we can passover to that time, around 32 BC, is through this narrative.
A narrative of the Gospel then is an opportunity to passover to another standpoint, thus, it is an opportunity to passover to another horizon. If you work at reading these stories you will learn to step into an unfamiliar sometimes exotic horizon and while there you may even look back over your shoulder at your own horizon and discover that it is wanting. When you return to your own horizon you returned enriched and wiser. If you read the Fourth Gospel in such an imaginative way you will step into the horizon of the Beloved Disciple who was an eye-witness to these events.
A narrative may have profound meaning and that meaning may be expressed in some language other than a narrative. The Nicene Creed expresses some of the most important meaning of the Gospel with precision but it does not tell a story. There is a temptation to treat the narratives of the Gospels as examples or illustrations or sets of symbols of ideas or doctrines. But a narrative is not reducible to symbols, or ideas or even doctrines albeit Christian doctrine, ideas, and symbols would not exist without narratives. Much less is a narrative generally speaking a riddle with a hidden meaning that the preacher decodes. We do not get to the great meaning of the Life of Christ by pealing away time and place, details and characters, as though the truth, like a sweet, juicy orange, is encased in the bitter rind of a narrative. Space and time, details and characters are not the chaff, the husk, the rind that stands between us and the meaning of the Life of Christ, they are rather the hosts, the medium by which certain kinds of truth are guarded, treasured, and dispensed to Holy Mother Church and her children. Thus the narratives of the Gospels are in a manner of speaking, guardians and gatekeepers of the Truth that sets you free. Let me show you what I mean. I have made a statement several times — “the flesh of Jesus is the place of judgment.” The flesh of Jesus is the place of judgment. That may sound abstract but it is not. And you may ask, rightly, “how is the flesh of Jesus the place of judgment?” What you will see is that the flesh of Jesus is about substance, time, place, and conflict. The text for today in John 5 is an instantiation of what it means to say, “The flesh of Jesus is the place of judgment.” Jesus is literally, historically standing in the Temple addressing the Masters of Israel in the body of his flesh and in that event judgment is passed:
“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.”
This is the narrative. When Jesus says, “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life,” he means just what he says. He stood right there before the Masters of Israel and they would not come to him. But it is the case that others did come to Jesus. Jesus stood before John the Baptist as a man of flesh and John very reluctantly baptized him because Jesus was without sin. When he baptized Jesus, John saw heaven open up and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove came down and remained upon Jesus. Thus God the Father passed judgement on Jesus visibly at a specific time and in a specific place as the Holy Spirit lite upon his body. Jesus stood before the Masters of Israel and declared that his body was the finality of the Temple of God. The people of God may come face-to-face with God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the flesh of Jesus. Nicodemus, another Master of Israel, came to Jesus but as an unbeliever though Christ disclosed not only his divinity to him, but also that his flesh nailed to the cross would draw the whole world to himself. Nicodemus passed the judgment of unbelief upon Jesus. Weary in his body, Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water to slake his thirst. Her belief in the man of flesh is her judgment and scores, maybe hundreds of her fellow Samaritans came to Jesus. Jesus was loved and cherished by Mary who washed his feet of flesh with her tears and wiped them clean with her hair establishing his flesh as the place of her judgment. Jesus was scourged and his torn flesh is the place of God’s judgment against the Masters of Israel and against the pomp of Caesar. When he was nailed to the cross his flesh was the place of final judgment against all sin and unbelief. And when he was raised bodily from the dead his flesh became the place of final judgement against death itself:
“Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
The flesh of Jesus is everything. But not to everyone. Every lasting narrative has conflict and the same is the case for the Gospel of John. In the waining years of the Beloved Disciple’s life there was a movement of Progressives, super-spiritual priests and probably bishops (that is the way they thought of themselves) who had brought into the Church a destructive and viral teaching. This is likely the Beloved Disciple’s motivation for writing the Fourth Gospel as well as the three Epistles of John. John described these new teachers as false prophets and anti-Christs — plural. These progressive priests were scandalized by the older teaching of the Apostles and their fixation on Jesus Christ as a concrete, historical man of flesh. The super-spiritual party believed in the Logos and something like a “Christ-principle” as long as the Church was free from history. Human flesh was not merely embarrassing or meaningless to the Progressives, flesh clogged up, occluded the free movement of the Spirit of God. So John lays it on the Progressives from the very start:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
The flesh of Jesus is everything. It is the concrete human flesh of Jesus Christ our God requires from then on that God’s story be a narrative of time and place, detail and activity. His flesh forces a narrative upon our understanding of not only creation, but the Creator as well. And his flesh, the place of judgment and decision and thus it is required of his disciples that our flesh becomes the place of Christ’s judgment as well as benediction. How?
There was a bishop around the year 100 AD named Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch. When he was 84 years-old he was arrested and condemned to die in the colosseum in Rome as a demonstration of Caesar’s universal lordship. Though Caesar thought he has summoned Ignatius to Rome to die by wild beasts, Ignatius interpreted his situation differently. Ignatius believed he had been summoned to become the place, that his flesh would become the place, where the beauty and glory of the Church of Jesus Christ would be made visible at the center of all earthly and satanic power. If his peace and poise was disturbed it was over his concern that he would not have the courage to live up to Christ’s love and example. Or that some well-meaning and ell-positioned Christians in Rome might get him set free. He wrote to the Romans:
“It is as a prisoner of Christ that I hope to meet you and we are off to a good start! May I have the good fortune to meet my end without interference! What I fear most is your generosity which may prove detrimental to me. If you let me alone people will see in me the Word of God. But if you are enamored by my flesh, it will result only in noise.”
Ignatius stood “within the orbit of biblical, historical theology” — and this is important: he is not standing in Palestine or Jerusalem, but in Asia and eventually in Rome where he dies in the colosseum. Here is the point: wherever he is standing Ignatius takes his impending martyrdom to be a theological, Christian event, a visible revelation of the Logos that virtually throbs with eternal significance for himself and the whole Church of God. His flesh becomes the place of judgement not merely against Caesar, but his flesh is the place of judgment for and in the love of Jesus Christ and his Bride. And here is the point I wish to make: what is true for Ignatius’ flesh is true for your flesh and my flesh as well.
In a few minutes I will pray the words of the mass:
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and our bodies , to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee, that we and all others… may be made one body…” with thy Son Jesus Christ.”
If Jesus’ flesh is the place of judgment, then Ignatius, the Bishop of Syria — his flesh is also the place of judgment — therefore all who are baptized into Jesus — your flesh, my flesh, the flesh of every Christian becomes the place of judgment as well as the place of benediction. Certainly that is true in martyrdom in our day. Today when Syrian Christians, the living heritage of Ignatius of Antioch, are captured by ISIS, and kneel to say the rosary or the Lord’s Prayer as they are decapitated, their flesh is the place of judgement as well as the place of benediction — judgment upon this world of the will to power and a benediction upon the truth of the Church. But it is not only in the unthinkable horror of martyrdom that our flesh brings judgment. Our flesh is the place of judgment when we knell to receive the Blessed Sacrament. Our children’s flesh is the place of judgment and benediction when we baptize them. And this is important for the way we live: Whenever we resist treating our flesh as though it has a life and purpose of its own apart from God, then we are consciously and intentionally making our flesh the place of true judgment and true benediction. Our God Jesus Christ has become flesh so that now God’s life-story involves time and place, character, details, and eternity. God has included us in his biography. The Son of the Father, by taking our human nature for his own, has renewed our human nature as well as enabling those who come to him to become partakers of his divine nature.