Readings Exodus 16.2–4, 9–15; John 6.24–35
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
They are calling them the Twitter Olympics. They are also the multi-platform Games, for there have never been so many ways to follow the action. On Wednesday, I popped over the river to see the cycling time trial. In the happenstance group at that spot on Strawberry Vale I had a list of riders downloaded from the web, a woman beside me kept us up to date with a text feed from her phone, while in front of her someone’s tablet computer was showing TV coverage; and when Wiggins won, we knew within seconds, though we were some way down the course.
Of course, any of us could have got all this more conveniently back at home or in the office, but we wanted to be there. People do. If they can, they want to have an unmediated experience: to see for themselves, to hear direct, to be there ‘in the flesh’ and have that flesh tingle, to feel what a commentator has called ‘the fire in the noise’. Last night, Britain’s evening of golden wonder in the Olympic Stadium, one of our daughter’s friends texted her from there that the atmosphere was fantastic. What a wonderful thing to experience in your teenage years! I am ashamed to say that my first feeling was not that, but sheer, naked jealousy that she was there and I wasn’t.
We are embodied beings. It is through our bodies, our physical senses that we experience life. Flesh is our means of connection with the world, for good and ill. One of the nastiest sides of the web is the bile that gets posted, say about Tom Daley for not getting a medal, and it’s worse because it is disembodied bile: the writers are cowardly shadows, hiding behind made-up names, with no real presence, yet it is real flesh and blood that they hurt. We are embodied beings, and that can be a pain. There is so much you might want to do or be, but your body can get in the way, as in the Exodus reading: the Israelites have escaped from Egypt and are free; but they are also hungry, and you can’t eat freedom, so just now they’d swap liberty of heart and soul for a square meal in captivity.
Sometimes your body gets in the way. I was going to talk about this anyway. Then, on Thursday, mine did. I had got a last-minute ticket for handball, a sport to which I had been devoted ever since I’d heard the ticket was available. I set off, jogging to Richmond station to get an early train so I’d have time for a tour of the Olympic Park. I had it all planned. As I was about to cross the road (by Ted Baker) a bus approached. No problem, I just put on a spurt. And then in my leg something popped. I juddered to a halt. Early train missed, an hour on a later train holding a bag of Sainsbury’s ice to my calf, and I hobbled into the park, my plan for high-speed sightseeing crocked, suddenly realising what a wonderful thing it was to be able to walk properly, as everyone around me seemed able to do. I stopped two volunteers – sorry, Gamesmakers – with first-aid armbands and confessed that I had injured myself trying to become a spectator. ‘Right!’ said Fiona and Angela and led me off to the medical centre – it seemed I was the high point of a slow day – and I was put on a couch and my leg thoroughly prodded. ‘You haven’t ruptured it,’ said physiotherapist Angela. Was she disappointed? If she was, she didn’t let on. They were brilliant and I am now a proud wearer of an Olympic bandage. I shall treasure it always.
My point here is that your body can feel like an opponent. Through injury, illness, disability, or pain; through hunger or thirst (like the Israelites); through all those appetites that are so hard to control, it can feel as though your flesh and blood are stopping you from doing what you really want to do and being what you really want to be. You can see why the philosopher Plato said the body was the tomb of the soul.
You might expect something like that from John’s gospel, often called the ‘spiritual’ gospel. John begins by describing Jesus as the ‘word of God’ (John 1.1-2), which sounds like real head stuff, philosophy, religion for the mind; but then John says, ‘the word became flesh’ (1.14), and his book locates Jesus firmly in the world of flesh and blood: it gives us seven miracle stories that John calls ‘signs’, pointers to what Jesus cares about, and they are stories of food and drink and sickness and health; and it gives seven images to show who Jesus is, several of them pretty earthy too. Last Sunday we had the sign of Jesus feeding the hungry crowds with just a few loaves. Today we have the image which Jesus draws from that, when he says, ‘I am the bread of life.’
Two things flow from this. First, what we see in Jesus, what he shows us about God, matters fundamentally; it belong at that deep level where you feel hunger, that level of basic need – a thing to think about when tempted to give church a miss or when finding time to pray seems less important than other stuff, as it sometimes does. Secondly, if this world of the flesh, of the senses – not just the hearing we are using now, but touch, sight, smell, taste – if this bodily world can give us lively images of God, then it’s not bad, it’s not an embarrassment, it is an arena for meeting God.
We try to engage all these senses in worship, and our worship in here, while an end in itself, is also practice for the whole of life. The sight of a beautiful tree, a kind face, the scent of flowers, a piece of fruit that’s perfectly ripe, a gorgeous harmony, these are not in themselves experiences of God (that would be idolatry), but they can be windows into God, rather as a stained glass window gives shape and colour to the light from beyond that comes through it. And a life that has no space to notice, to savour, to be grateful for such things, is a life that will find it harder to know God, who is ‘the life of the life of every thing created’.
We are witnessing in these days what the human body is capable of, but we also see how vulnerable it is, how easily injured, how needy. For every Jessica Ennis there is a Paula Radcliffe, who was to have run today. Now of course, each of us is more than flesh and blood – and it’s important to say that, when health or age really limit you – but if we refuse to embrace ourselves as embodied creatures then we become less, not more. When we begin to watch the Paralympics we shall see the heroic faces of that ‘more’.
My particular bundle of flesh has its limitations – I get frustrated, for instance, that it needs more sleep than Margaret Thatcher’s used to – but it’s my home, it’s what I live in; it’s me. And since God has shared it with me in the bodily life of Jesus I dare not neglect it; rather I must respect it, and make it my friend; for the word was made flesh; and, as Job said out of his own body of affliction, ‘in my flesh I shall see God.’
This sermon owes much to Rowan Williams’ sermon ‘Hearts of Flesh’ in Open to Judgement, DLT, 2002, pages 42-44.
The life of the life of every thing created Hildegard of Bingen, Hymn to the Holy Spirit.