John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
(Luke 24. 36b-48)
Do you believe in ghosts?
Well that’s a rabbit hole we could do well to avoid.
I only ask because we heard in the gospel that the disciples in the Upper Room
‘thought that they were seeing a ghost’.
Luke’s account of this appearance of Jesus makes it clear
that it was as problematic for the disciples then
as it is for many today in our rationalist and sceptical age.
But there’s something for them, and for us, in the invitation to touch.
It brings us back to the fact
– whatever we make of that Upper Room story –
that Jesus was a real flesh and blood human being.
Jesus was embodied.
As we’ve chosen Embodying Hope as our overarching theme for this year,
I thought it would be useful to think about embodiment.
Trouble is, there are so many directions in which we could go in this reflection.
Some of them are fraught with difficulty,
especially for a man speaking in the wake of #MeToo,
as sadly in the Christian tradition
‘women have constantly been symbolised as bodily human nature,
but … a bodiliness negatively constructed and imaged’. 1.
And yet something that #MeToo does, is to remind us that people do not have bodies,
something that can be objectified, vilified, abused.
We all, whatever our gender, are bodies.
It's very odd, given God's self-identification with humanity in Jesus,
that Christianity has developed such a body-denying streak.
Much – though not all of it – is down to Augustine,
as he struggled with his own past amid the collapse of civilisation all around him. Nevertheless, despite the shadow of Augustine’s negativity,
the fact that we are bodies should not come as any surprise to Christians:
for at the very heart of what forms us as Christians
is an allegiance to the one who supremely embodied God.
Jesus embodies God.
Not everyone finds the word Incarnation helpful in understanding who Jesus is.
So sometimes I use the word Instantiation instead.
Let’s explore that a little more.
Throughout Christian history,
particularly in the early centuries when thought categories
and the surrounding culture were quite different from ours,
it was important to make the case that only a divine saviour can save.
For that to work, Christians in the first four centuries of our era struggled
with how a human being can also be a divine saviour,
how Jesus was both fully God and fully human,
despite the New Testament’s apparent preference for the idea
that God called and adopted Jesus.
But the New Testament is equally insistent that God was in Christ.
This is at the heart of Paul’s good news:
‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself’. 2.
Or as John says,
picking up a theme of some contemporary Stoic and Platonist philosophy,
Jesus was the logos of God made flesh. 3.
So, whatever the exact truth of the matter
- and for me Incarnation is the inescapable foundation of Christian thinking and believing –
the fact is that in Jesus we see
– as never before or since –
both God’s self-identification with humanity,
and a human person’s perfect alignment with God.
That’s what I mean when I say that Jesus is the Instantiation of God.
Does it in the end amount to the same thing?
Robert MacFarlane says in a fascinating book on language and landscape, 4.
that the body ‘incarnates’ (his word) our subjectivity
and that we are therefore,
as the French philosopher and phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty proposed,
‘embedded’ in the flesh of the world.
This embodied experience is ‘knowledge in the hands’,
our body ‘grips’ the world for us and is ‘our general medium for having a world.’
All this God experienced in Jesus.
But not just in Jesus.
As the American eco-feminist theologian Sally McFague insists,
divine embodiment makes sacred all embodiment,
something St Francis understood when, for instance,
in the Canticle of the Sun
he affirms that all created things are good,
sharing the goodness of God’s incarnation in Christ.
That thought could take us in a whole different direction as well,
one it would be important to explore sometime.
But for the moment I want to concentrate on another image of embodying
that is crucial for understanding and defining who we are.
And that is the image of the Body of Christ.
St Teresa of Avila famously and influentially tells us
(well, at least the words are attributed to her):
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
This idea of the Body of Christ is, of course, a metaphor,
an idea which is illuminated by transferring to it some of the associations of another idea. We are embodied people who find our deepest identity in Christ.
So you could say we are metaphors of Christ just as Christ is a metaphor of God.
To that extent we are his body now.
This is both metaphor, and yet it has a reality going beyond the metaphorical.
The bread and wine that we shall soon take, bless, break and share is real bread and wine,
but it goes beyond being bread and wine
because as we take part in this Eucharistic ritual
we are put in touch with Jesus in the Upper Room
and with all that God in Jesus achieved on the cross
– however we choose to interpret that.
There’s a technical term for this: anamnesis,
the making present now the effect of something that happened in the past,
so that it is continuous, just as the body of Christ is continuous.
And I have always found it central to why and how we are church,
that we, the Body of Christ, are fed by the Body of Christ
to be the Body of Christ in the world.
This word Anamnesis is usually translated as remembrance or remembering,
which doesn’t quite capture the sense of the active present in all this.
But what it does tells us is that as we remember Christ,
we are Christ, re-membered (thank you Sue, for that one).
For us this is embodiment at its most personal, its most thrilling, its most awesome.
And every day I know I fail to live up to what this means.
But every day, in every moment, God uses our past and lures us on towards our future,
to the potential of what we can become,
so that we really do become this re-membered instantiation of Jesus.
Our goal, as Eastern Christian theology has never lost sight of,
is ‘to become living images of Christ, or to become identical with him’. 5.
And if we are bearers of Christ, then we are bearers of hope, too.
God is the source and ground and purpose of all Being.
Therefore all creation shares in that Being.
And the universe itself is, in this sense, the body of God.
Each of us shares in the Being of God.
Is that not a ground of hope for the world?
What we do about that is an entirely different matter.
As I see it, the point of the embodiment of Incarnation is twofold:
- first, to give us, who are made in the image and likeness of God,
a pattern of how we should display, embody, that Being;
- second, to embody in Jesus the loving, merciful nature of Being.
Being and Love bear the pain of our failure to emulate that pattern,
yet carry on loving us, reaching out with the aching arms
and nail-pierced hands of love.
‘the incarnation is God’s presence in our world - not an event of the past.
The incarnation is still going on in our lives.
And our vocation is to join God’s dynamic, incarnate energy in the world
and to be that presence wherever we find ourselves.’ 6.
That’s what we are called on to embody every day, in every relationship.
In doing so we will become signs, embodiments of hope in God,
God whose power is presence-in-relationship.
And so we will become signs and embodiments of hope and love,
because we are signs and embodiments of God.
1. Mary Grey, Introduction to Feminist Images of God
2. 2 Corinthians 5. 19
3. John 1. 14
4. Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks
5. Maximus the Confessor, 580-662
6. Mary Beth Ingram, quoted by Richard Rohr in a Daily Meditation, March 2018