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Body Matters: Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany
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One of the normal things that happen in the first weeks of the new year is that people tend to pay more attention to their bodies than at other times of the year. This is the season in which people make new year’s resolutions to lose weight, or eat better, or exercise more. Normally that means the gyms are packed and that’s still true this year, even in a pandemic. With the YMCA limiting the number of people on the main wellness floor, they’ve had to open up other parts of the building for exercise, including the lonely north gym where they scattered a few token exercise machines for overflow. I call it the purgatory gym—the place you work out while waiting to go to the place where you really want to work out.


Of course, we’re all a little more body-conscious because of the pandemic—conscious of space, touch, immune systems, viral loads—all stuff that most of us didn’t think too much about before. Indeed, for the first time in most of our lifetimes, the bodies of other people being in close proximity to us might make us feel threatened. Our year of separation has made us anxious about what the bodies of people can do to one another.


And that’s not to mention the fact that there is an ongoing state of confusion about the human body that began even before the pandemic. Identity politics, gender issues, fluid understandings of sexuality, and the abortion debate are just some of the results of the culture’s wrestling with the nature of the human body, with the predominating worldview being, “It’s my body to do with what I please.” 


Such a worldview isn’t new—it’s the worldview of Platonism that has deep roots in Western culture. It’s the view that the body is really nothing more than a husk or a shell, not part of the “real me” which is soul and spirit. The body is something to be overcome, something utilitarian, a malleable and moldable entity to be shaped and used to suit the desires of the “real me” within. It’s the worldview at the heart of so much of the assumptions of our culture about bodies, sexuality, health, and human flourishing. 


And it’s a worldview that many Christians have defaulted to as well. Some have bought into the ethic that one’s body and what one does with it is less important than one’s feelings, using guiding slogans like “My body, my choice,” and “Love is love.” Others have the same problem being more concerned about people’s souls than about bodily issues like racism, health care, food insecurity, and gun violence. Plato would be proud that his ideological offspring has taken root in every aspect of Western culture, including the Church. 


But Plato’s dualistic worldview of the separation of body, soul, and personhood is not the classical, biblical Christian worldview—a worldview in which the body matters from the womb to the tomb and even beyond the tomb. As we say in the Creed, we believe “in the resurrection of the body” and not the “immortality of the soul.” The body matters and today’s lectionary texts, coming as they do near the beginning of the year, remind us that we not only need to pay attention to our bodies but also see them as a gift of God and an integrated part of our personhood. 


To understand these texts, of course, we need to go back to the beginning of Creation, where Genesis tells us in chapter one that God created humans, male and female, with bodies as part of what it means to be made in the image of God. The human body and our creation as males and females was not an accident, a mistake, or a problem, as modern Western culture would have us believe. Notice how the psalmist in today’s reading expresses this powerful truth—that human beings are “knit together” by God in the womb and are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Each human being, each human body, from the very beginning, is a wonder work of God. 


God created humans in his image, male and female, and called that creation “very good.” It wasn’t that the male OR the female only carried the image of God individually, but they did so together as a complimentary set of equal but different persons. They were designed to come together as “one flesh” in lifelong union for the purpose of filling and stewarding God’s good creation—embodied people together representing God in the physical world. Their bodies are integral to their personhood, which is why death is such a threat to them and, when sin brings death into the picture, it is such a serious  problem that it has to be dealt with by God with extreme measures. 


Our culture continually tries to erase this design of God by subverting God’s creative intent—saying that male and female are just categories that no longer matter, that the “one flesh” monogamous union of male and female is outdated and that sexual desire and sexual conduct are more a matter of feeling and consent. The body is not “fearfully and wonderfully made” and “knit together” by God intentionally, but is often seen as a mistake subservient to one’s desires. When the choice is between the body and human desire, human desire always wins in this culture, and a generation of young people are being taught that their current feelings are what matter most, and that it’s perfectly acceptable, even expected, to alter the body to match those feelings. The culture celebrates this confusion, but God is not the author of confusion—he is the one who made each of us fearfully, wonderfully, intentionally in his image. And he does not make mistakes. 


Of course, the confusion of our culture around the body is nothing new, nor is it a new issue in the Church. Paul was dealing with it when he wrote to the church at Corinth—a city in which sexual freedom and objectification of the body was part of every day life. Paul’s letter, however, comes to them as a wake up call to recognize the biblical and creational intention of God for the body. 


Like postmodern people, many of the Corinthians were touting their freedom to do what they wanted with their inconsequential bodies. “All things are lawful for me,” Paul quotes them, but goes on to say that “not all things are beneficial.” The body isn’t meant for self-gratification, for food, for fornication (defined as any sexual conduct outside of God’s design)—it is meant “for the Lord and the Lord for the body” (v. 13). The same body with which we are born is the same body that the Lord will raise from the dead by his power, as God raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead in his body (v. 14). Therefore, says Paul, our bodies are “members of Christ”—they belong to him—and what we do with our bodies thus matters as much as anything we might think we’re doing with our spirits.


Paul uses the example of prostitution, but he could have used any number of examples to demonstrate the ways in which our bodies can be used for purposes other than the “one flesh” union God intended.


Indeed, Paul goes on to say, our bodies are not our own but belong to the one who created them. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (v. 19). That’s a radical statement in the midst of a world in which people loudly proclaim, “My body, my choice.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made for a purpose, God’s purpose, and not your own. Your body is not something separate, less important than the rest of you. You are not merely the sum of your desires, as Freud said. You do not create your own reality apart from your body, as Immanuel Kant philosophized. Those are lies that carry us away from the good purposes for which God created us from the beginning. 


“For you were bought with a price,” says Paul. “Therefore, glorify God in your body.” Our bodies were made to glorify God, to live out his creational purpose whether in marriage or in singleness. When we fail to live with our bodies in the way God intended, there will be consequences, and we don’t have to go far to see them. 


This is the kind of message that’s hard to preach because it runs hard against the grain of everything, and I mean everything, we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It’s so much easier to give in, to be like people whose new year’s resolutions last only a couple of weeks before caving into old and established habits that don’t rock the boat. The Christian worldview about the body is one that this culture expends a great deal of energy to try to cancel because it’s restrictive of the bodily and sexual freedom the culture takes for granted. Paul had the same problem when he wrote to Corinth, which is why his relationship with that church was pretty rocky—old habits die hard, particularly when changing those habits involves embracing a completely different worldview. 


But I am convinced that until the Church of Jesus Christ stakes out its claim on a biblical and Christian understanding of the body we will be compromised and we will not be fruitful. We cannot serve two masters—the cultural and a holy God. We have to choose whom we’re going to serve, and that means choosing whether we will honor God’s intention for our bodies. If we don’t do that, it doesn’t matter what happens to our souls because those things are intertwined and inseparable, biblically speaking. This is one area where we must be bold and courageous in declaring what we believe, while also being deeply compassionate and caring for those who have become victims of the culture’s lies about the body, sexuality, and personhood. No matter what we have done with our bodies in the past, God is able to forgive, restore, and heal and that’s also a big part of what the church must proclaim.  It also requires a deep amount of humility to recognize the ways in which we ourselves have been compromised in sinning against the body. As I have said often, all of our orientations are disoriented by sin and need the forgiveness and restoration of God. 


You may have made a new year’s resolution to be better to your body, and that’s a good thing. But I think today’s texts call us to go a step further— to resolve to treat your body and the bodies of others as if they belong to God—because they do. Part of our Methodist General Rules are to do do good the bodies and souls of people; to recognize that we are all integrated wholes and not the sum of our parts. 


Examine yourselves—are you using your body in ways that honor God? Do your habits reflect a mindset that you are not the owner of your body but that you are stewarding your body for God’s purposes? Do your desires conform to glorifying God or are they focused on gratifying yourself? Does your sexual conduct reflect God’s purposes for his good creation? Are you treating your body well with exercise, good nutrition, and healthy habits so that you can more effectively use your body for God’s good purposes? 


And how are you treating the bodies of others? Our culture’s denigration of the body has led to our problems with racism, seeing some bodies as more valuable than others.  In today’s Gospel lesson, Nathanael’s prejudice showed through when confronted with Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But when he met Jesus in person, his life was altered. He saw God’s own image in the man from Nazareth. The Christian worldview of the body extends to people of all races—all are valued, worthy, equal, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” 


Racism is just one way the bodies of human beings become devalued, but there are many others. The exploitation of female bodies in the media, the shaming bodies that don’t meet particular cultural standards of beauty, the mistreatment of bodies through our failure to care for the poor, policies that value profits over the health of a nation’s citizens—those are just a few. Incredible damage is done when people’s bodies are used by others in ways that don’t honor God. 


The issues raised by the Scriptures today are vitally important, especially given that God himself elevated the human body by becoming incarnate in one in Jesus Christ. We just celebrated that incarnation at Christmas time and we see in Jesus one who disciplined his body and used it for God’s ultimate purposes, even offering that body on the cross for us. He called his disciples to a similar way of life and notice that his invitation to them, as in today’s Gospel lesson, wasn’t merely a philosophical one—not, “Consider the ideas I’m offering you,” or “Let’s have a spiritual experience together.” The call instead was to “Follow me”—to use one’s body, to change locations, to conform to a different way of life, to develop new habits of body, soul, and mind, to “come and see” what God is up to by walking a narrow path. 


Walking that path, walking this way of the body we were created for, will make us weird in this culture—it may even cause our cancelation. But this is the way that leads to the abundant life God intends for our souls and our bodies—a life lived fully in the body in life, death, and resurrection. 


“You are not your own. You were bought with a price. Therefore, honor God with your body.” May we do so in this new year and beyond. Amen.

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