Sermon for Sunday, June 3, 2012

Romans 8:12-17

“Does Living By The Spirit Mean Killing Off The Body?”

This summer’s sermons will explore evangelism through the lens of basic Christian theology.  Today: Incarnation

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear this sermon Podcast, click here:   120603SermonPodcast

Does God hate our bodies?  Does God dislike, disparage, denigrate, and hate our bodies?  A quick look at the history of Christian theology (including the Apostle Paul’s little tirade in today’s Bible reading) seems to support just such an idea.  Not to mention the screaming matches in our news media and halls of government!   Our bodies, and everything associated with them, appear to be as ungodly as Satan himself.

In the news this very week we hear of the official chastisement of nuns for not speaking out enough against abortion and homosexuality, two very body-centered debates.  Gay marriage is in the news constantly these days, and at the heart of that discussion is the image, unspoken or not, of two bodies being together.  Whether it was condemnation of witches or prostitutes, female ministers, masturbation, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, single mothers, or homosexuality, at the heart of so many of the great “controversies” of the Christian faith, the body comes off looking pretty bad.  Sinful, actually.

I know this struggle personally.  As a young boy going through puberty, a bit earlier than my other male friends, I might add, I grew to hate my body pretty quickly.  As it began to develop, and, especially, as I began to grow body hair, I began to despise my body.  On one occasion I remember going into the bathroom, locking the doors, stripping down nude, and very carefully, painstakingly, drawing a picture of my body on a piece of paper.  I held onto that picture for months.  And then one day, in a fit of rage, I found a big coffee can, went out to the alley behind our house, and burned that self portrait.  There is no question in my heart and mind today that my drawing of myself nude was a desperate act to try to find redemption in this thing that I did not understand, and that my burning of the drawing was an act of hatred.  I had decided that what I was was sinful, evil, and a thing to despised.

This makes me very sad, not to mention extremely angry.  If the church, which I was very much a part of at the time taught me that about my simple adolescent body, I can’t imagine what such teachings might mean for someone who has never entered a religious sanctuary or read the Bible!  If I had once shred of respect for the human body, I would turn and head the other direction if someone that appeared “religious” ever approached me.

My beloved congregation, I wish I could stand up here and say definitively, “The Bible never speaks negatively against our bodies!” but I cannot.  There are examples throughout the Bible, but today’s scripture reading is one of the toughest assaults on the body.  In it the Apostle Paul pits head-to-head “the flesh” and the “spirit.”  You know the old saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Paul tells us outright to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

Quite frankly, I don’t understand this direct attack on the body.  In Genesis 1 we are reminded that humankind was created in God’s image, and human beings, male and female, were blessed and given authority over all living things upon the earth.  Our bodies were created as GOOD!  In the Gospels we learn of an extraordinary merging of humanity and divinity in Christ Jesus, who was both flesh and blood and one with God.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth,” (John 1:14.)  This is the doctrine, or church teaching, we call “incarnation.”  It’s about God’s embodiment in Jesus.  Why then, would these two ways of being, the physical and the spiritual, be pitted against each other in mortal combat?  I just don’t know.  It is one of the most difficult dilemma’s in biblical interpretation and in Christian theology.

One moment of grace in this unfair competition between our bodies and our spirits comes at one of the great ecumenical councils, early church meetings that tried to deal with the emerging theologies that wanted to explain this mind/body, spirit/flesh split.  At the First Council of Nicea, in 325 CE, they would eventually declared that Jesus was homoousios with God the Creator or Father, that is, they are of the “same substance” and are equally God.  The council came down on the side of paradox, a “both/and” theology.  Jesus wasn’t split between good spirit and bad body.  Jesus, our Lord and Savior, at least, was fully human and fully divine.  Apparently the folks at Nicea decided not to pay attention to Romans 8!

One of the heresies, which were official declarations about bad theologies, with which the Council of Nicea was dealing, was that of Gnosticism.  The Gnostics believed, to put it simply, that God was too awesome, too great, too pure to really become one with a human body.  And so instead God really only filled a human body with the divine Word, or Spirit.  Let me show you how this might be illustrated: (Pastor Allen blows a balloon with air.)  The Spirit, which conveniently is the same word for breath in Hebrew, filled Jesus while he walked the earth and then, when he was crucified and buried, the Spirit left the body (the balloon is let loose) and Jesus “shuffled off this mortal coil.”  He left the body behind and became one with God again.

Pieta, Pietro Perugino, 1494-95

Nicea, and other Councils reaffirmed, that this is heresy.  Now, there is a lot in the history of Christian Theology that I take issue with, but this was one of the better decisions, in my humble estimation.  The church decided that in Jesus, at least, there was no pitting of flesh and spirit, body and soul, against each other.  They were, in some mystical and paradoxical way, one.  And if it’s good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.

Now, I can only hope that what the Apostle Paul was trying to do was to help us understand that the what we do with our bodies, and the why we do things with our bodies, and the how we do things with are bodies is as important as the fact that we do things with our bodies.  In verse 23 Paul, in a beautiful allegory about creation being like a woman giving birth (which, I might note, is the quintessential act of flesh and body), does indeed say that our bodies will be redeemed.  In my mind’s eye I understand here that Paul was really struggling with making sure that everything he did with his body was to the glory of God, and not that everything he did with his body was necessarily evil, sinful, or bad.

This might be appealing to those who have never darkened the door of a church building.  If we can truly embrace Jesus as being both fully human – that is, at peace with his body – and fully divine – that is, at peace with his spirit, then we might be able to convince ourselves, and those considering us from outside these church walls, that our bodies are good and worthy creations of God.  The challenge is to use our bodies in such a way as to give glory to God through both flesh and spirit.