A sermon given at Colonial Church on January 28, 2018.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
– I Corinthians 12:12-31 (NRSV)
Opening Prayer– God, oh Holy Spirit, on this morning as we gather as one body of many parts, we give you great thanks. God, whether we are eyes, or hands, or feet, we are all part of this body. So in our individuality and in our collective, meet us and invite us more fully into what it means to be this body. By your grace and strength and courage and love and life, we say YES. In your name we pray. Amen.
Well, hi again! If you weren’t here last week, just so you know, I’m Sara and I’m now a part of your ministerial staff, so hi. And for those of you who were here last week, welcome back. It’s good to be with you again this Sunday. Thank you, Daniel, for letting me preach twice in a row, which is very fun for me.
So there’s a sermon you might expect that I’m going to preach, which some of you have heard before about the body of Christ and about the different roles as apostles, teachers, etc. that we are all called to play. I think that’s a noble sermon; I like that sermon. But one thing about me is that I sometimes like to preach the other sermon. So today I wanted to bring another perspective and think a little bit about what this passage invites or evokes in terms of who we are as members of this body: Namely, I want to explore what it means if we’re all a part of the body of Christ, what does it mean that have bodies? What does it mean that we have human skin—that we ourselves have eyes and ears and livers and hands and feet? What about this diversity that we hold in our own bodies themselves? And what do we do with a faith that follows a God who put on human flesh and came in human skin, embodied as God with us? What does it mean that we live in bodies as a part of the body (of Christ)? That’s what I want to talk about today.
Now, some of the reason that I wanted to talk about faith embodied and our bodies is because of some of the lineage in our faith tradition that has been oppositional to bodies (as if bodies were the problem). And I want to suggest today that maybe they might not be something to be overcome in the life of faith. So where does this history and lineage of thinking against the body come from? Well, some of it arises from the New Testament teachings about “the flesh” and “the spirit” and how that in Christ we are called to reject the things of the flesh and instead live out the things of the Spirit. There are passages like Galatians 5:17 that say:
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”
And we have theologians such as early church Father, Saint Jerome, and the early desert fathers would go to the desert to the escape the things in the world and of the flesh. They would (some of them) literally beat their bodies so that they might then experience the Spirit of Christ. There are other theologians like Augustine, who is one of the church Fathers, and he wrote extensively about the dangers of the flesh (he also didn’t particularly like women’s bodies). And this lineage has passed down to us. We see similar sentiment in the writing of Abelard, a man who had been in love with a woman he shouldn’t have been who wrote about how the flesh tempts us and is of the devil. There are even prayers, such as in the Book of Common Prayer that we would be spared from all of the things of the flesh and the devil.1
But, and this is a big but, the Apostle’s Creed affirms that resurrection happens in our bodies! The resurrection of the flesh meant that the body itself is an essential part of resurrection. And contra other philosophies of the time, Christianity argued that bodies matter for the life of faith. And if we think more about this, let’s talk about how we are people who believe that humans are made in the image of God. So what does it mean to be the image bearers of God? Are our bodies a part of that image-bearing? And what do we do with this “Emmanuel” (God-with-us) who took on human form and became like one of us and lived in a body? So what if way to live out spirit and not flesh, isn’t about rejecting the fact that we are bodies with fingers and hands and toes and feet, but instead, it’s an invitation to live into our true created-ness in the image of God… in our bodies?
Okay, so I hear some of you saying, “Ok, Sara, but isn’t this dangerous? Does anything go then? Can I do whatever my body wants?” Well, I hear you and I know that there are some concerns, but I want us to think a little bit more about it. Because here’s one of the concerns I have: if we reject our bodies and our bodily existence, then how are we actually supposed to be the body of Christ? Furthermore, if the body is so dangerous, then why are we told in 1 Corinthians that are the liver and skin– we are the parts that we see and the parts that aren’t seen. What do we do with the Psalmist’s words in Psalm 139 that we have been perfectly and wonderfully made, formed together in our mothers’ wombs? Is there not a beauty of our embodied existence together? And so, if we are indeed made an image of God, then is not the rejection of our bodies tantamount to the rejection of part of the image of God in us? That we’re created in the image of this creator God and this matters…
And if God is love, what happens when we hate our bodies? How is self-hatred or hatred of our bodies a pathway to life and into the goodness of the gospel…for God is love and God has made us in bodies. So what if instead of our bodies being the problem, what if Christ being embodied as God-with-us is an invitation to throw off the things that kill and destroy—that the flesh, instead of it being our skin—“the flesh” is any moments where we destroy or ignore or harm each others’ bodies and the image of God in one another and in ourselves? What if Christ being made human then is an invitation back to the garden where humans got to walk with God? They walked in their bodies with God! What if part of the invitation is to us, in the beautiful profound diversity of how God is formed us–to be free? As John reminds us: the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy…but God has come in Christ to give us LIFE. So “spirit” (over against the flesh) is where we choose life, where we affirm the goodness of God’s image in one another and in ourselves, and together live out the promise of the gospel: of freedom for all of us, in our bodies, and in our skin.
Now I know that at times there can be a fear that if we focus on our bodies, or if I focus too much on myself, I’ll become a narcissist. And okay, to be fair, I’ll honor this concern, but I have a few thoughts about it. The first is this: when I know I’m actually loved, when I live from that place where I know I’m seen and created by this creator God, when I live from this space, and center of myself, I’m like the tree in Psalm 1 that’s deeply rooted and love overflows because love is at my center. So I think about my relationship with Andy, when I rooted in who I am and that I am loved by God, I can turn towards him and live love that overflows towards him. But when I am instead feeling insecure and like there’s something missing in me, that’s when I lash out or shut down or foreclose the pathways of love in my life with him. Said another way, if we think about humility as a virtue, and part of the invitation of the spiritual life, then humility is not found in thinking more highly or more lowly of ones’ self than we ought, but humility is about seeing ourselves rightly, and part of seeing ourselves rightly is to affirm that we are made in the image of God, called to be people of life and of good news and of promise in our bodies.
Let me give an example of this: some of you know about StrengthsFinder. It’s a personality assessment to help look at that themes that impact how you move in the world… it’s kind of like 1 Corinthians 12: some of us are prophets, some of us are teachers. So one of my themes is WOO (it stands for Winning Others Over). Here’s the deal: I’ve seen WOO function as a strength and as a beautiful thing in community AND I’ve seen what happens when my WOO is fed by the parts of myself that I believe are unlovable, namely this- if I don’t believe that I’m loved, then I’ll do anything to get you to love me just because I need that. That’s not really that affirming of the body of Christ because I’m using you!
But when I am rooted as knowing myself as made in the image of God and beloved by God, and I know who I am in Christ, then my desire to connect with you is about affirming that we are all part of this community and there’s an invitation for all of us. That’s humility: thinking rightly of ourselves. That’s the invitation of the Spirit.
Said another way, Martha Nussbaum, who is a political philosopher and ethicist, talks about the necessity of love for justice and how love animates compassion. She talks about compassion as a painful emotion that we experience when we see and witness suffering. She talks about how we can’t live with compassion if we are blocked because we’ve refused our vulnerability or knowledge that we dependent. And when we refuse this vulnerability and dependency that we have on God and one another, we live in shame and disgust, and we then refuse the other because I put off on you the things that I have rejected in myself. But when we do that inner work and healing, there’s more spaciousness for us to love and turn towards one another. In this way, said as a Christ-follower, it’s the ways that grace opens us up so that we can turn towards one another and celebrate the goodness of the diversity of this body of Christ, and together give witness to the good news of Jesus. We can then exclaim with our lives and words and bodies:
“God is love!”
“We are loved!”
“There is freedom- find it and live it!”
And as we know this love and freedom for ourselves, we can be people of the good news, people who are rooted and grounded in love of God in Christ.2
One of the pathways that I have found more of this life and the ability to say YES to the image of God in myself has been to the work of Brené Brown. Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston and she studies shame and the ways that shame prevents us from being able to live wholeheartedly. So if we people believe who believe as John 10:10 says, that Christ came to give us life and that the thief comes to steal and destroy, then we are called to be people who live wholeheartedly—we are called to be people of life and freedom and good news. But when we are living in shame or fear or hatred, this prevents us from being able to access the fullness of the love of God in Christ. And as we invite God’s love into our hearts and spirits and skin to celebrate the goodness of God’s Spirit that is within us and has formed us, then we become people who are able to embrace this freedom more wholeheartedly.3
Now here’s why I think this work of loving who we are and our bodies matters: First of all, I think that being a Christian is an invitation to life. We have a God who loved us so much that God’s gave the Christ to walk amongst us, to call and invite us home to freedom, and that freedom is for our lives even in the here and now. We pray this, do we not: “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, work, and diligently seek that the Spirit of God makes us free too. And I think that this freedom is important not only for our own lives, but also for our collective lives, and for the ways that we are church in the world.
We live in a time when there is the rise (as Pew talks about) of the NONES (people who are religiously unaffiliated), and in part they are because of us– because of the ways in which the church throughout history has forgotten its first and primary call to be the body of Christ, the promise of good news and the love of God in the world. So as we all individually live in our skin and be the beautiful diversity of the body of Christ, and become people who know love and freedom, we then live that out in the world and we aren’t moved by judgment or power politics or the things of “the flesh”—the desire for money, or to kill, or to destroy one another—no, instead, we are people who witness and bear testimony in our skin to the promise of God’s love… in our skin.4
Our bodies are imperfect, they are frail. We are all dying…but we are all also living. And in our skin we bear witness to God’s love and God’s image.
- So you might be a liver.
- You might be a knee cap.
- You might be a finger or a toe.
- You might be that foot that just taps to the music.
Whatever and whoever you are, may we all, in our bodies, invite the love of God to heal and to restore, to see, to transform, to set us free–to be bodies that are part of this body of Christ.
You are embodied, and in your body you give witness to the Spirit of God. So may this love of God heal and restore all of us.
Come home to your body and then, together, let’s be the body of God.
Closing Prayer Practice– As we close, I’m going to invite you to rise as you are able and I will have us end with a prayer—in our bodies.
(First I invite you to place your hands over your heart): Breathe in the love of God in Christ. May God’s Spirit hold your heart. May God’s Spirit transform us to know love. May we be a people of love and freedom.
(Now holding out your hands): We hold out our hands to receive with joy the goodness of the love of God in our bodies. May these hands which cook and clean and mend be hands that heal, hands that restore, hands that create.
(Now to our minds and heads): May our minds be filled with the goodness of the love of God. May we think and reason together. May we seek and pursue this goodness of God. We give you thanks for this.
(And to our lips): May laughter and kindness, may the celebration of ourselves as persons who speak words of life, be ours.
(And one last one—hug yourself with your arms): You are loved by God. In this body. Breathe in God’s Spirit. Celebrate and dance. Pray and serve…in your body. And may you be the body of God and the witness to Christ together.
In all thinks, oh good God, we give you thanks.
- To learn more about this history, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortification_of_the_flesh. For more on Abelard: The phrase definitely appears in the writings of Abelard, who writes that “there are three things that tempt us: the world, the flesh, and the devil.” See: Abelard, Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, sixth petition (“And lead us not in temptation.”). And for more on the Book of Common Prayer: The litany of the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer contains the petition: “From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Spare us, good Lord.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Common_Prayer.
- See; Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Boston: Harvard Press, 2013).
- Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010).
- Michael Lipka and Clair Gecewicz, “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious.” Pew Research (SEPTEMBER 6, 2017). Accessed online: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.