John 6. 56-69
It’s god’s love – not our energy and effort – that changes the world!
We seem so surprised, nowadays! Shocked, actually! At what a divided country we’ve become! Two groups, constantly at odds with each other. Speaking only to hurl insults and accusations, back and forth. And we act as if it’s the exception rather than the rule. Red v. Blue. Conservatives v. Liberals. Us v. Them. But it’s been that way, as long as I can remember. Maybe we called a truce, for a few decades. Maybe we declared a cease-fire, for a generation or two. To fight WW2. To make it through the Cold Way. To get to the moon and back. But I think, we’ve always looked at life more from the ends, more from the extremes, than from the middle. It’s being what’s called ‘dualistic.’ We have a way of looking at everything in blacks-or-whites. Life’s made up of two options, of two possibilities. Each a polar opposites of the other. Either/or; never both/and. Mutually exclusive. No middle ground. No compromise. And it’s been our default position, right from the start. We do fine when the enemy’s from outside our borders. But when all is right with the world … well, we become our own worst enemies. We weigh one another. We measure one another. And everyone’s, always, found wanting.
And to tell you the truth, I can’t figure out which came first. Did our religion influence our politics? Or was it the other way around? Because here among god’s people, dualism’s on steroids! It’s all or it’s nothing! Everything has it’s equal and opposite! There’s good and there’s evil! There’s darkness and there’s light! God and Satan! Jesus and the devil! Believers and unbelievers! Saints and sinners! Saved and damned! Heaven and hell! Angels and demons! And that’s not half of it! The list goes on and on! Two ends! Two extremes! With nothing – nothing and no one – in between! And John’s gospel is dualism par excellence! We’ve been reading through chapter six for the past five weeks, now. And just think about all the extremes, all the thises and that’s, we’ve encountered. One side of the sea and the other side of the sea! Scarcity and abundance! Hunger and satisfaction! Heaven and earth! Death and life! Contrasts and comparisons are everywhere!
But there was one pair, in particular … one couple, specifically, that caught my attention. John 6. 63 …
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.
We read those words and we take one meaning from them … Spirit is good! Flesh is bad! Spirit counts for everything! Flesh – what we can see and hear and touch – counts for nothing! But contrary to popular dualism, that’s not what John – what John and John’s Jesus – means! You see, creator and creation are not polar opposites in the fourth gospel. Creator and creature are not mutually exclusive. Never were. Never are. Creator and creature and forever bound together. So, in good Lutheran fashion, we ask what does this mean? First of all, spirit and flesh don’t mean spirit and flesh. Not in the literal sense of the words. It means, more, the way spirit and flesh function. The way they make their way in the world.
Flesh is all about self-interest. Flesh does nothing unless and until it sees what’s in it for flesh. Flesh is transactional. A this-for-that. That’s why popular religion – especially here in the U.S. – is so much like big business! Quid pro quo! Something-for-something! It doesn’t believe free meals exist. Even if that meal happens to be a sacrament. It doesn’t believe you get something for nothing. Even if that something is salvation. You have to knock before the door opens. You have to ask before you receive. You have to seek before you find.
Now, spirit, on the other hand, is the opposite of flesh. Instead of self-interest, it’s concerned with what’s in the best interest of others. Spirit – and if you noticed, it’s not spelled with a capital-S – spirit is all about love! Unearned! Undeserved! Generous! Free! Where flesh is a purchase, spirit is a gift! Spirit has nothing to do with immortal souls or divine sparks! It isn’t about disembodied voices or apparitions. It’s how we live our life! It’s how god lives god’s life! And as church, it’s what we have confidence in! It’s what we stake our life on! It’s the spirit that gives life! It’s the spirit that makes alive! Spirit is the grace! The charity! The love! And the flesh? The effort? The desire … to accomplish? To achieve? To purchase? To possess? Well, it’s useless! All that – all this – changes nothing!
In fact, it reveals a lot about us. When we’re suspicious … When we’re apprehensive and disturbed … when people get something they don’t deserve! When they get something they didn’t work for! Something they didn’t earn! The reality is that here, among god’s people, that’s the only way we get anything! It’s a gift! It’s all a gift! No strings attached!
But that’s the dualism. The either/or. Between spirit and flesh. It’s just not the dualism we’ve come to expect. We’re not talking about material versus immaterial. About for-now versus forever. We’re talking about love. Love versus not-love. Gift versus purchase. Offering versus reward. “It’s the spirit,” says Jesus, “It’s the spirit that gives life! It’s the gift! It’s the love! And it’s the spirit that changes the world! The gift that makes all things new!” And the flesh? The purchase? The transaction? Well, it accomplishes absolutely nothing. “It,” says Jesus, “is useless.”
Unfortunately, as people, as flesh-and-blood – as you can see – it’s the flesh we trust. With all our heart! With all our mind! With all our being! Too often than we can count, it’s the flesh on which we stake our lives. Believing there’s no free lunches. Believing things too-good-to-be-true aren’t. Believing that everything comes with a price. The only thing flesh believes in is bootstraps. Bootstraps and the strength of its own arm. To grab hold and to hang on. And that’s why nothing ever changes. Why we do better maintaining the status quo than making anything new.
You see, my friends, in order to do that – to make all things new, to make anything new – we have to believe in love. And to do that, we have to believe we are loved. And to do that, we have to stand at the foot of the cross. What we can accomplish, what we can achieve, is useless. But what we are given … given out of the goodness and the greatness of god’s heart … that is what creates worlds! That is what creates universes!