The Greek philosopher Plato taught that the soul was immortal and existed before the body. Human existence as we know it takes place because the soul has fallen into this material world from a higher order of existence. It’s not surprising to learn that Plato sharply contrasted the body and the soul. He said that the soul has been bound to the body against its will, and that the body is a harsh prison. If the soul is to achieve its true destiny, it must escape the body and return to that higher existence from which it came. On this view, death is not something bad, but instead good because it means the soul escapes the prison of the body.
This dualistic view of the world in which the spiritual or intelligible world is “above” and the physical or material world is “below” dominated thought in the Greco-Roman world of the first century A.D. People were encouraged by philosophers to think of death as something to be welcomed because it meant the escape of the soul from the prison of the body. The soul needed to escape, and according to some it needed to return to the astral regions from which it came.
Faced with a world that believed this, if you wanted to win over people to a new religion, the words of our Gospel lesson are about the dumbest thing you could devise. They are in fact expressing the exact opposite of what the Greco-Roman culture believed. Yet the apostle John wrote it, and the early Church believed it, because it is true. The Church believed and taught this because on Christmas the baby in the manger was true God and true man at the same time. He was the Word become flesh – the incarnate One.
Our Gospel lesson begins with words that evoke the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The apostle is going to talk about creation, but he wants to us know that while there is only one God, there is more to God than just oneness. Instead he says that in the beginning was the Word. John is talking about the second person of the Trinity, the Son, and he declares that not only was Word with God in the beginning, he was God.
Before we have even gotten to the second verse, John has plunged us into the mystery of the Trinity. The language about the Spirit later in the Gospel simply reinforces what find here. There is only one God, and yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct from each other and relate to one another.
John asserts that the Word is God. He goes on to express one of the ways we see that this is true: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” The Word, the Son of God, made the creation. As God he carried out the action described in Genesis chapters one and two.
The phrase “in the beginning” and our text’s reference to the Word’s act of creation prompts us to consider what we find in Genesis. There, God makes a material, physical world and he continues to judge that it is good. We are told, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” This includes how God makes man, for in Genesis chapter two we get a “close up” of this. We learn that, “God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” In the unity of the body and what we call the soul God created human life as it intended to be lived. Our bodily existence is not just good, but it is very good, and very necessary.
In our text we hear that from the start, John sets light in opposition to darkness. The darkness exists in our world because the devil succeeded in tempting Adam and Eve. He told them that God was holding out on them. He told them that they could be so much more. He told them that they could be gods.
You know the result. They sinned and profound darkness entered into the world. It is the darkness that John describes in our text. It is the darkness that continues to tempt us. John writes in chapter three, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” Even though we are now in the light, the darkness still trips us up. John knew this. That is why he wrote in his epistle the words that we spoke at the beginning of the service: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Sin entered God’s creation because of man. Yet God did not abandon man. Instead, to overcome the darkness and enlighten man, God himself entered into his creation. John says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In one brief and simple phrase John expresses what we are celebrating at Christmas. He summarizes a mystery of the faith. He says that the “Word became flesh.” God became man, without ceasing to be God.
The term “flesh” was one that the Greco-Roman world viewed in a pejorative fashion. It was the exact opposite of all that was good and spiritual and “above.” Precisely for that reason, John says the Word became flesh. God’s participation in human existence was complete and total.
This was not something the world wanted to accept. In time the world also made its presence felt in the Church. A denial of the incarnation was a cancer that threatened to spread. John warned in his first letter, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
Jesus Christ took on human flesh – he took on a human nature – in order to redeem it. Because of sin, flesh now means death. The Son of God himself became flesh in the incarnation in order to free flesh – our flesh - from death. He passed through death in his flesh in order to give us life. Our Lord said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus Christ’s flesh was nailed to the cross. He became flesh as a baby in a manger for that very reason. He cried out “It is finished” and gasped his final breath. To ensure that he was dead a spear was thrust into his flesh, and blood and water poured out. And then his dead flesh was buried in a tomb.
But his flesh did not remain dead. On the third day he rose from the dead. He appeared to the disciples on the Sunday of the first Easter and showed them his flesh – he showed them the marks in his hand and side. He sent the disciples to deliver what he has won through the cross. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
On the next Sunday Jesus showed Thomas his risen flesh, and the apostle confessed, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus Christ who was the Word become flesh, is still the Word become flesh. He was true God and true man on the first Christmas morning. He was true God and true man on Good Friday as he hung on the cross. And he is now still true God and true man as the risen and ascended Lord.
By his resurrection he has redeemed human flesh so that it is once again fully and completely very good. He has redeemed it so that we can again possess it on the Last Day when Jesus returns in glory and raises the dead. On that day he will transform our flesh to be like his.
Jesus Chris is now the risen and ascended Lord. Yet he continues to come to us in the flesh. And in doing so he assures us that we too will share in his resurrection. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The Son of God became flesh in the humility of a baby lying in a manger. In the Sacrament of the Altar, the same incarnate Lord comes to us and gives to us what he won by his death and resurrection.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us as baby in a manger. The Word continues to be present and give his saving flesh in the Sacrament of Altar. And the Word become flesh will return in glory on the Last Day to transform our flesh so that we can live with him forever in the new creation.