In the body

This is the text of a sermon the third Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 5:6-10.

I wonder how many of you feel at home in your own skin?

Our bodies can be an endless source of angst for us; from bad hair days or extra weight and stretch marks to chronic pain, struggles with mobility or poorly regulated internal functions, our bodies can leave us debilitated, frustrated and alienated.

It can be easy, then, to hear the words from our epistle reading this morning, “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” and hear them as a promise that our bodies, with all of their frailties and vulnerabilities, won’t encumber us forever.

But this passage is part of a much larger section of Paul’s letter which is, frankly, confusing. Paul seems to contradict things he’s said elsewhere and even to be unclear in what he’s saying within this letter. In general, Paul’s vision of the hereafter for human beings is a bodily form of existence; that at the resurrection we will each receive a permanent, incorruptible body in which to live out eternal life. For Paul, fullness of life was unthinkable without a body.

So what is he saying in this passage, about being away from the body and at home with the Lord?

It seems likely (the commentators tell me) that Paul is quoting, and then responding to, arguments which have been put forward to him by the Corinthians, and that would account for the seemingly contradictory lines of his train of thought. So this line, about being at home in the body and away from the Lord, is likely not Paul’s words at all, but those of the members at Corinth with whose ideas he is taking issue.

It seems that some of the believers at Corinth (who considered themselves “spiritual”) had taken their views of the body from Pagan Greek philosophers: the body is there to be administered, to be resisted, so that the mind should not be subservient to the body, but the body should be trained to pursue the goals of the mind. Thus they had a sense of identity in which their fundamental self was the mind, which just happened to be trapped within a recalcitrant body for the time being.

In contrast, Paul reasserts a more Jewish (and Biblical) view of the person; the issue is not one of body versus mind, but one of the whole person, body and soul, standing together before the God who would judge the “heart” – a sense of self which includes aspects of body and mind. In this view, true peace would come to a person not when the soul slipped off the alien clay of the body, but when resistance to its maker had finally melted away within the heart. (So the Hebrew Scriptures resound with promises like, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”)

Therefore, Paul argues, being in the body is not, in and of itself, what determines whether we are close to or away from the Lord; since our existence is always in the body, and what changes is, if you like, the mode of our bodiliness. What we should be focusing on, Paul says, is making it our aim to please the Lord.

So where does that leave us, as we try to work through our own attitudes to our bodies?

Elsewhere, Paul reminds his hearers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, belonging to the Lord, totally infused with the presence of God. (So much so that Ignatius of Antioch, writing perhaps 50 or so years after this letter, instructed his flock that all marriages were to be arranged by the bishop with holiness in mind; a situation I suspect we would find intolerable today!)

But this idea of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit is one I personally find very encouraging. A couple of times I’ve been through bouts of debilitating depression; and one of the many difficult things about that for me was that it emptied my regular prayer life of any sense of meaning or connection with God. What I did find, though, was that in those times when I wasn’t able to put any sense of myself into words, my most honest prayers could be as simple as the gesture of lighting a candle; or of sitting in the presence of God and allowing myself to cry. Those were prayers of the body much more than of the mind, but they gave me some way to reach out beyond my own limitations.

In a different way, the truth of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit highlights for me the importance of the work we’re doing in Light Up!* That we can provide a space where people can explore and learn what it might mean to pray and to relate to God through movement, through dance, through creativity, rather than simply through words. It’s a way of affirming that relating to God in and through our bodies is real prayer, not inferior to doing so with our minds and in words. (Although perhaps we see the most vibrant fusion of both when we sing. Then our prayer reverberates through the singing body, music and words together, involving the whole person in their response to God).

Now, everyone will have his or her own comfort zone. The issue is not one of trying to force something unnatural, and I hardly expect that everyone’s going to want to take up liturgical dance. But it is forgetting or denying the body which can be dangerous and detrimental, leading to a disintegrated sense of self which impacts on our general well being and yes, even our prayers. Even very small things like paying attention to notice the way your body holds tension, fear or hope when praying can give us important sign posts in our relationships with God.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to make it their aim to please the Lord, not to get tangled up in philosophical concerns about the body. I would suggest that taking a healthy view of the body, and treating it with honour and care even while recognizing that it is provisional, is an important part of that seeking to please the Lord. It allows us to recognise that our bodies are an integral part of our identity, and ultimately the only instrument of worship we have; and encourages us to find the ways in which we can each worship best with integrity, whatever those are for each of us.

 

 

*Light Up! is a worship service designed for children with autism and related challenges, and which focusses on worship in modes other than verbal.

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