Fleshly thoughts… scary and intriguing for most who come from a Christian background. For many the word ‘flesh’ is almost synonymous with “sinful.” It is mainly through the interpretation of Paul’s writings, that flesh has come to symbolize uncontrolled passions and twisted desires. (Paul’s thoughts are obviously more nuanced than such a shallow reading would suggest.)

But it is the gospel of John that gives us a very different perspective on the concept of flesh. The gospel begins with a recognition of an underlying logic that weaves through all of existence.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

John 1:1-4

It is this ever present source of all that is, that John calls God. This God is no separate entity that creates from a distance, but rather a God entangled in creation, for it is through this Word that all things are made and without him nothing exists. John continues to describe this God, not only as Word, but as light, life and grace.

This has special significance when we come to verse 14 – one of the most memorable of all scriptures: “… and the Word became flesh.”

Of what value is a word unless it is heard?
Of what significance is grace unless it is given?
Does light have any meaning if it is never seen?
And so grace is given, the invisible becomes tangible and the word becomes flesh.

Flesh is the manifestation of this underlying potentiality called God. If we could restate this using the language of modern science and philosophy, we might say something like this: In the field of quantum possibilities, it is the act of conscious observation that realizes a specific possibility. Potential becomes actual in a specific instantiation.  And so the God of infinite possibility manifests Him/Herself in all of creation. Our act of observation is therefore part of the creative process.

John clearly wants to focus on the unique revelation that came through Jesus, but we often jump to that conclusion too quickly and in so doing lose the depth and significance of what is communicated.

“The word became flesh” is then simply translated to mean “God became human.”

But flesh is more elemental than body, just as water is more elemental than any particular river. It weaves far beyond any individual identity, connecting life with its source.

Yes, in Jesus there is a unique event of word-becoming-flesh, but not unique in that it does not happen anywhere else. The event of Jesus is not the first time that God experiences what it means to be human. Rather, it is the first time that we know, that God knows what it is like to be human. Jesus is a unique incarnation in that we recognize in him the divine manifestation of what is possible everywhere.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among/in us, and we gazed on his glory – glory as of the only/unique Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The same Word that sustains all of creation, the grace that gives itself in the reality of all things, – yet, although this light was in the world, we did not recognize it as such (vs 10) – it is this same word that has always been present that becomes uniquely visible, audible and recognizable in the event of Jesus.

In other words, Jesus did not come to show us what we could never be, but rather what we have always been but did not recognize. The grace of our own existence, the reality/truth of God’s self-giving into our creation, our flesh, is revealed through the message of Jesus. And so “of his fulness have we all received” – verse 16.

It is easy to justify a dualistic view of flesh and spirit – a view that sees flesh and spirit as opposed and irreconcilable – with verses such as “what is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6) or “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (6:63). But such interpretations ignore the overwhelming sense of the transformation of flesh portrayed in John’s gospel.

Flesh does not remain a physical lump of meat, but is transformed as it is given. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (6:54) In this instance flesh has the same benefit as spirit.

Flesh becomes bread and water and wine. It is continually transformed as it is given to be consumed. Suddenly the whole social context in which our labors and relationships produce bread, wine and commerce, becomes part of the flesh of our existence. Here too the Word, the logic of God wants to manifest in a way that will make our societies just and our sustenance satisfying.

It is exactly those who are born of flesh who can be transformed into spirit. Yes, if flesh simply remains flesh, if it is not given for the benefit of others, it is of no benefit at all. But Jesus opens up a new possibility, one in which it is our very fleshly existence that gives us an opportunity to transform what is limited and earthly into heavenly bliss as we follow his example of giving ourselves away. And so the Word that has so freely given itself into our fleshly fabric, comes full circle as flesh is transformed into word.

The visible and invisible
present at once –
the word made flesh.

Flesh,
tissue,
the elemental fabric.
Folding, flowing, this body forms,
the necessary construct,
in which consciousness erupts

Flesh,
inescapable.
Its gravity grounds us,
reminds us,
draws our transcendent thoughts
back into clay
the reality of decay.

Flesh
connects
in intimate touch
and ordinary exchange.
Vulnerable,
penetrable,
its fabric flows
also beyond boundaries of body,
it unfolds

Feed on my flesh and drink my blood,
Christ invites.
Flesh transform and intertwine
into bread and wine
into stories of labor and laughter.
The narrative entangles
all into one.

The mesh of flesh does not separate
but integrates
for reality’s ground
not in some otherworldly realm, found
But in the midst of all this mess,
the truest God is found in flesh.

Its gravity – not a prison
but the drawing of love.
Its decay – not punishment
but promise
that these tissues will
yet be transformed.
And even as it is consumed,
into a larger body it will be assumed.

This flesh is part of a larger story
the tissue of divine glory.
Each sinew a sentence
each Word finds entrance.

Flesh becomes Word.

.


 

The ‘word made flesh’ has been part of my meditation and conversation for decades and so there are far too many books and people who have influenced my thinking to even mention. What I can do, however, is acknowledge and recommend some of the latest books I’ve read on the subject:

Poetics of the Flesh

Heavenly Bodies

The Entangled God: Divine Relationality and Quantum Physics

Reforming Theological Anthropology

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15 Responses to “Fleshly Thoughts… Exploring John's perspective on the concept of flesh

  1. Vicki long on

    Yes!!!!! Thank you for your words of truth!!! We are made in the image and likeness of God “love”!!! We are one with Love❤️ Which is all of creation!! God, Love is all that really exists. The rest is just an illusion.

    Reply
  2. Bruce on

    I think that we have been taught that the body is nothing but in fact when Christ comes back – He is going to redeem our bodies. I think like you – we do seem to have a dualistic approach to the body. The body itself is not evil.

    However scripture uses the term “flesh” in a few ways.

    1) It is used to talk about our physical bodies – as in flesh itself.

    2) It is used to talk about our own self-effort as in Abraham and Paul in his Judaism

    3) It is used in relation to the ways and old habits of the way we think in our un-renewed minds and have been programmed to find life outside of relying on Christ Himself. The way we react with our brains to certain things – much like we did when we were still in the old man. This is where the renewing of the mind ( brain ) comes in because we do have the mind of Christ.

    Context usually defines which one is be8ing used. Anyway I loved your thoughts here on the “flesh'” in the context you were using it.

    Reply
  3. wayne rogers on

    “You pick a flower on earth and you move the farthest star” said Paul Dirac. A contemporary of Einstein, Dirac was an unabashed atheist. His work was instrumental in the earliest days of quantum physics. And for many of the early pioneers of quantum physics it was very unsettling to see that the universe was not behaving in an orderly, mechanistic way. Weird, strange things were being forecast by this new theory. At the end of the 20th century as technology advanced so that these theories could be put to the test, the results were earth shaking (chuckle, chuckle). What I find most enjoyable and fascinating is how much the language and analogies science uses to explain these findings sounds so much like the mystics and even Jesus himself. It’s all quite biblical. Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience . We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” It is not an “either or” situation; they are one and the same. When we deny or dis believe our divinity we find ourselves in a dark closet of our own making. Science, if you need it, is showing us that we ARE co-creators of this vast universe. As we keep trying to shine up the outside the cup,we become too obsessed and distracted to enjoy the beautiful beverage inside the cup. Whether the cup is squeaky clean or needs a few cycles through the dishwasher it still functions as the chosen container for the living water. Let’s all take a deep drink.

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Such rich thoughts Wayne. What an overwhelming awareness that the fabric of our existence stretches throughout this universe … and finds consciousness in us!

      Reply
  4. susan rowe on

    yes like the alabaster jar that was broken, so the fragrance spread throughout the room, and all present experienced its aroma. Last week i was cooking lamb and brought some rosemary in from the garden, i just felt to wave the rosemary before the lord to say thankyou for this lambs life, and giving us sustenance, and suddenly the scent was distilled, so strong beyond what would be normal, i was just intoxicated.

    Reply
  5. Chuck Wright on

    I love these word pictures. They resonate with love and life. I find myself personally engaged in a realm where there is such tremendous resistance to the absolutely beautiful picture of incarnation and flesh in particular. Trauma and resulting fear appear as the significant source and not being alone in this situation has opened up conversation and understanding. Trauma most often affects the self image; unconsciously, at the core of personhood and the results are never good. This means the whole of being and the body; flesh, are targeted as “bad”. Take rape victims for example and the still practiced blaming of the victim for looking provocative. I believe Gnosticism may have its roots in this dynamic for trauma has been with us since the fall and is universal across all humanity. Religion unknowingly picked up the banner with embracing a concept of depravity of the person from original sin and has paved the road to an unbalanced spirituality, a new Gnosticism. l see a powerful emergence of understanding of how God has always viewed creation and the consequences of this view of absolute love toward all He has made is fearful to the trauma victim for it is in direct contradiction to their experience. Because the trauma roots are hidden due to the entire being suppressing the event or events; survival reactions never safely processed, at this point in time it appears lengthy healing therapy is the only answer and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people trained in this field nor is it taken seriously by our culture. To not appear to be entirely problematic in regards to trauma and treatment, it is timely that so much clear and powerfully attractive; like Jesus, understanding is flowing to broken hearts in humble relationships where incarnation, in us, towards the other, is subverting the survival based mindset of flesh. I find this so hopeful in my life and can see it only expanding.

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      How significant then the words of the ancient scholar: He saves what he becomes; He heals what He assumes. The intuition that it is exactly God’s presence within the fragile and broken fabric of creation, that is its beauty and hope … that God is more persistent than evil and possibility more real than certainty; that the future can transform the past.
      (PS might be near you end of June – lets chat)

      Reply
  6. Ted Hubbard on

    Beautiful, Andre! The actualization of the life of God; creating, sustaining, loving, expanding never was not……It cannot be pursued, but is realized in Hope. Christ in me, the Hope of glory. Hope remains in the barrage of limitation, degradation; sin if you will, indefatigable, as a quiet pool. Our still waters are our base essence. We let go, fall into the pool, child-like trust somehow releasing us into His image mirrored on the surface of that pool, at least from our perspective. But this is not narcissism, because the image we fall into, the length, depth width and breadth of it, is Infinitesimal. The observer and the observed baptized into the conscious experience of union. To know the Love of Christ, which surpasses all knowledge, that we might filled with the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:19)

    Reply
    • Andre Rabe on

      Ted, so good to hear from you my friend. What a beautiful picture – the observer and the observed intertwined. Seeing that observation is part of this creative act, how it enriches our understanding of 2 Cor 3:18, where our gaze is inverted and we see ourselves as we truly are – loved!

      Reply
  7. Patricia Pollock on

    What you write Andre gives me hope, even when I do not understand exactly what you are saying. There is something about it that brings hope to my heart every time I re-read it. Understanding comes slowly but it comes. Hope is what springs up in my heart straight away.

    Reply
  8. bill napoleone on

    I really love your statement that Jesus did not come to show us what we could never be but to show us what we have always been but did not recognize it. So often we hear that we are not like Christ because we are fleshly implying that we are forever flawed. The Father, Son and Spirit accounted for that from creation and aligned us to Christ for eternity. Now our flesh is not our biggest problem, but our greatest representation of His beauty.

    Reply

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