Today’s meditation reflects on the fifth of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. All seven passages are from the Gospels, and they often serve as the focus of the church’s prayers on Good Friday. Given the length of each mediation, I have chosen to offer one a day, ending on Good Friday. This is the second of eight meditations.
In over two thousand years of church history, the controversial heresy is the one that denies the divinity of Jesus. But the more common heresy that the church itself commits is the tendency to deny the humanity of Jesus.
John knew this, even before that error repeated itself over and over again in the last two millennia. The so-called Gnostics of his day believed that the spirit was good and the flesh was evil. So, the notion that God had taken flesh in the person of Jesus was anathema to them. As a result, when the Gnostics became Christians, they offered elaborate ways of explaining how Jesus might have appeared to share in our humanity but didn’t. The best known effort is the Gospel of Thomas, and there are those who argue that it represents a lost version of the Christian faith.
But this is the common heresy that the church herself commits, holding the humanity of Jesus at arm’s length. John knew this and then, as now, John emphasizes the physical nature of God’s suffering, remembering Jesus said, “I thirst.” The mystery here is the mystery of embodiment. We like to think of ourselves as bodiless entities, spirits that potentially know no boundaries. Even for Christians it is common to hear people talk about both the Christian life and resurrection as if we are really disembodied spirits — more like Tinkerbell, than as people we know and love, who have died, like Dave, Pauline, Marie or Jake.
But, in truth, we would not know our spiritual lives and journeys without thinking of ourselves as men and women, bodies and bodily experiences, as well as minds and souls. The struggles we have faced would not make sense without an inventory of our physical strengths and weaknesses. We know ourselves to be a part of certain families, tribes, and races thanks to our skin and features.
When we worship, what we do with our bodies also matters. If we kneel, sit, stand, fold our hands, or close our eyes, the nature of our prayers changes. When we fast, we fast to signal that even that which is essential to our existence is something we are prepared to set aside for a season in the name of being available to God.
And if God had come into our world as a disembodied spirit that gave us directives and told us how to live in our world, we would have protested that God could not possibly understand how demanding, taxing, and limiting it is to live in a body. “How can you ask me to love my enemy? What if he insults me or strikes me?” “How can you ask me to resist temptation? Don’t you understand how strong the longing is?”
Our bumper stickers declare, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I know what it is meant to say. “Wake up, there is more to life than eating, drinking, buying, and selling. Don’t dither your way to the grave collecting a bunch of stuff that you can’t take with you.” But when you examine the logic of that message more closely, when you consider the wisdom of that bumper sticker with a careful, critical eye — it’s, well, to be technical, stupid.
Just exactly what is the human experience if it is not spiritual and what is a spiritual experience if it is not human? Think about it: Are the choices you make about what you do with your body really empty of spiritual significance? Is the way you raise your children without spiritual consequences? Are the ways in which you spend money a guide to what you really value? Are you really untouched by being a man or by being a woman? Have all the experiences you have had, growing up, winning, losing, loving, grieving, left you spiritually untouched?
And if you took all of that human behavior out of the equation, what would be left? What is spiritual experience, if it isn’t grounded in life? And what on earth — or anywhere else, for that matter — are we talking about when we talk about spiritual beings that aren’t human? The lives of bees?
The truth is, we are both human and spiritual and to fail to acknowledge that we are both closes us off to important truths: The truth that our lives are an integrated whole; the truth that we can be fully healed, body, mind, and soul; the truth that our bodies are not less important than our spirits; the truth that our minds need not be at war with our souls; the truth that our emotions can serve us as spiritual guides.
And that, at least in part, is what John is trying to tell us when he remembers that Jesus said, “I thirst.” This embrace of death, this active confrontation with the grave reminds us that everything has changed. God in human form, experiences life, ploughs the way through hell, in a human body, and pronounces that which was always good, the object of God’s love.
It is not something nice to know. It is something that we all need to know.
The mother or father who loses a child needs to know that their child is loved, cradled and embraced by a God who doesn’t know children generically, but loves their Christie, Bobby, or Myak. The person who loses a job wants to know that God loves him or her, values her, and that his self-worth did not evaporate along with the job. The person who struggles with a critical diagnosis wants to know that he or she is still Robert or Martha and not the cancer patient or heart attack in room in 316. And even when things go well, we all need to know that the decisions we make in our homes, on the job, and in our communities have spiritual consequences and bless the lives of others. Human life is spiritual and spiritual life is human.
So, is God just accommodating us, knowing that we will complain? No. What is at stake at the end of salvation history is what was at stake at the beginning: The claim that God is God. That creation is good. That humankind, male and female, was made to reflect the image of God.
In Jesus, those claims are vindicated. He thirsts, because he will not leave his creation behind. He thirsts, because he will not leave us behind. Our suffering is comprehended in his suffering. Our healing is made real in his suffering. He thirsts that we might have living water.
And with those words
Your embrace of our nature
You who offered living water,
To quench your own thirst.