Sunday, October 21, 2012

Respect for the Body

1 Corinthians 6:19, 20
Preached at Newberg Friends Church, October 21, 2012

When a person dies, we can tell that something crucial is gone that we had counted on being there.  The body looks just like the person we know but the animating spirit is gone.  In physical terms, all the electrical energy that circulated through the nerves and brain and kept the lungs breathing and kept the heart pumping simply stops. Though the body is not equal to the person, yet without the body, we would never know each other.  Our bodies are not all we are, but through them we relate to each other and to God and it matters to God what we do in and with our bodies.

Our mind and spirit, we are pretty sure, depend on our bodies for their beginnings.  One of my daughters asked me when she was 2 or 3 where she had been before she was born.  I wasn’t sure which answer to give, so I gave the philosophical Idealist answer: “You were in the mind of God,” I said.  She took that in and then some time later came up with this comment about the dog: “When Dusty was in the minda God…” (I will have to add that my other daughter told me that when she was in heaven before she was born, she picked our family out as the one she wanted to come to.  This is sweet, but it creates more questions than it answers.)

Though God has known us from before time, we have not known ourselves without our bodies. But we do start to know our bodies very early, and one of the joys of grandparenting and parenting is watching babies learn to live into their bodies and their minds. And somewhere, we watch babies act in ways contrary to their best interest and contrary to what their parents tell them to do, and they learn they have their own separate will.

I may be making this too simple, but the entire rest of human life is learning to use that separate will.  And we exercise our will in how we use our bodies.

The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being….Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” …So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man….And the man and the woman were both naked, and were not ashamed.

The story of sin’s entry into human experience is in part a story of becoming ashamed of being human, and particularly ashamed of the body.  The exact form of the temptation to disobey was to become like God.  Adam and Eve rejected their status and limitations as human beings. After Adam and Eve disobeyed the one rule God gave them, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked,  They knew as God knows just how far from being godlike they were.  Therefore, they covered themselves with clothing made of leaves because they were ashamed and afraid of being human.

However, Jesus never depicts the body as despicable or its vulnerabilities or imperfections as shameful. Remember the many times Jesus touched the sick and disabled, the lepers and the other unclean.  Remember that Jesus said that the man born blind was not born that way because of sin, either his own (from before birth!) or his parents’ sin.  Instead, he was born blind so that the glory of God could show up in him. I think the glory of God is not the healing, but the condition of his heart which was ready to meet Jesus. His good heart is revealed by the healing and he stands up for Jesus the son of God.  (In contrast, the man by the pool turns Jesus in to the religious leaders after he figures out who he is.)

God wants us to live fully into our humanity. And Jesus came to show us how to live fully into our humanity: namely, to live in mindful listening and consistent obedience to God.

Personally, I have persisted in a course of action that in my gut (note the body’s usefulness) I knew was unwise or downright wrong.  I ignored the warning signs from my body—the physical symptoms of heartburn, stomach ache, tight muscles, headache, and so on.  Our bodies are one of the ways God talks to us:  you’re putting yourself in danger, our stomachs tell us; you’re still angry, insomnia tells us; you’re making your job too important, our ulcers remark. One way we misuse our will is to ignore the truth we can learn from our bodies.

The body has its own wisdom, instinctive, intuitive.  We need to listen to what it says.  The listening is done with our minds, of course, our imaginations, but the attitude we preserve is one of respect.  Otherwise, we can pervert our common sense, logic, all kinds of useful thinking skills to justify a course of action that our intuition, based more than we like to admit on the body, rebels against.

Jesus calls us to account for our tendency to blame our sin on the body in Matthew 5:29-30. Jesus knows that the source of sin is the will, not the body.  People sin because they choose to. To those who blame the body because they lust, Jesus said, “Cut off whatever causes you to sin.” Just how much of the body will one have to remove in order to quit lusting after what God does not will for us to have? My opinion is that cutting off parts of my body to prevent my sinning will work only if I cut off my head.

C. S. Lewis said in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy that his body never led him very far astray by itself.  It was his imagination that got him into serious trouble.  By imagination, he meant the whole human capability of imagining circumstances different from reality and choosing to prefer that illusion.  The first illusion depicted in Genesis is imagining being like God, or being God.  When we place our will in the place of God’s will, what we want is more important than what God wants.  This, put simply, is idolatry. 

Matthew 15:10-20
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles….Do you not see that whatever a person eats enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what a person says arises from the mind, the will, the character of that person, and this is what pollutes a person. As a result, out of the inner self come evil or distorted thoughts and arguments, murder, adultery, illicit sexual intercourse, theft, false witness, speech that destroys another’s reputation or misrepresents God. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” The sin that pollutes us starts in the will, not in the body.

Jesus said to Nicodemus that a human must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God.  That new birth includes both spirit (the same word as breath) and body.  We may be entirely wrong to think that spirit exists separate from body.

In a letter to an early church, Paul calls the body “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19-20).  Christians talk about God living in their hearts, which is clearly a metaphor; but what if this temple phrase is literally true?  What if God dwells in our bodies?  That makes them holy places, inside and outside.  We can’t put God out of our minds and do irresponsible or wicked things with our bodies or with the bodies of other people.  I think of this when I worry about how workers in other countries or even in our own are treated.  I don’t want my wardrobe to be made by mistreated factory workers.  I think about the body’s holiness when I evaluate addictions.  I don’t want to destroy my body by using food, exercise, or chemicals that excite or soothe my mind at the expense of my body.  I think about the body’s holiness when I am confronted with abusiveness.  Violating another person’s body is violating a holy dwelling where God lives. (As an acquaintance once said about the practice of female circumcision, “I can’t make moral space for that.”) God comes with us wherever we go and whatever we do, and God inhabits those we meet as well. 

Romans 12 helps us recognize that because of what Jesus has already accomplished through identifying with our humanity, our sin, and our death, and through prefiguring the resurrection we all hope for, we are free to offer our whole selves, body and spirit, to the service of God. We don’t have to be pawns of the forces that dominate our social world. As we obey God with our bodies, we worship God in spirit and in truth. God renews our minds so we can see clearly the good, acceptable, complete actions that are the will of God for us.

Jesus consistently locates sin in the will and diagnoses a sinful will by looking at what people do with their bodies.  Matthew 25:31-46
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me. My Father blesses you. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Just as you did not do it unto one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment. In John 5:28, 29, Jesus adds that when the dead hear his voice they will come out and those who have done good will be resurrected into life.  So it really does matter how we treat other people, how we treat other people’s bodies.

Jesus rewards kindness to other human beings in their bodies. Kindness has in its heart the recognition that others are the same kind as we; and the Golden Rule and the law of love pertain.  How do we want to be treated when we are hungry, thirsty, homeless, defenseless against the elements, sick, imprisoned?  What can we do by means of our own bodies to make another’s life more bearable?

So if I were to modify the Northwest Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice statement about respect for the body in any way, I would add to it the emphasis that we respect the bodies of others as temples of God, also.

In Genesis, God breathed into human bodies the breath of life. When Jesus appeared to the disciples in his resurrected body, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit of God now lives inside our bodies, as intimately as the air we breathe.  

Christians live in a mystery; we do not earn the grace of God by being good or by doing good deeds.  Rather, by believing what Jesus has taught us about God by Jesus’s own life, death, and resurrection, and by trusting that Jesus has brought us through death into new life, we are free to live as Jesus did, in complete confidence that God is good and loving toward us.  The Holy Spirit breathes in us and guides us daily into knowing and doing good. 

Paul teaches what Jesus teaches:  food is for the belly, the belly is for food, both will come to an end in death; however, the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body.  We are the limbs of Jesus, the members of His body.  Therefore, what we do with our bodies makes a difference.  In John 9, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And in Matthew 5, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world; let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” 

Paul refers to the body as a tent (II Cor. 4:18-5:1, 4). Thinking of it as a tent, we recognize its temporary status.  We are always camping out in it. We can repair it, we can take good care of it, but we can’t keep it from wearing out, blowing away in a storm, or collapsing.  Gravity holds it on the earth, but it also drags it down, given enough time. Practically, this means that we have to do maintenance—reasonable exercise, healthy diet, occasional patching (I heard a woman once say that after forty, it’s patch, patch, patch), but it also means we don’t expect it to look new forever.  Christians believe that the tent is not finally transcended in death; instead, it is replaced by a more permanent house, a new body.

We need to pay the right kind of attention to the body, our own and others’. We neither worship the body nor dismiss it.  We recognize that the body is how we stay connected with this planet and other people. God’s presence in each human being gives each body eternal value. We take appropriate care of the body, both our own and others’, preserving the body’s wholeness and holiness, and we listen to the body when it helps us recognize truth.   We use our bodies now to obey the Holy Spirit of God who lives in us, and we look forward to joining Jesus in the resurrection.

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