III Epiphany Year C Psalm 19
24 January 2016 I Corinthians 12:12-31a
Ashland UCC Luke 4:14-21
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett
In the name of the Holy One: Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of the inside of a human body? I don’t remember exactly when I did, but I have memory of being in 3rd or 4th grade and looking at a diagram in a book, in full color, of an outline of a human body showing the circulatory system, the veins in blue and the arteries in red (or was it the other way around?).
There weren’t any medical people in my immediate or extended family. We were a family of words, not so much of flesh and blood — lots of talkers – lawyers, teachers, preachers – but no doctors or nurses or physical therapists or medical technicians.
So when I came across my first depiction of the insides of a human body, I was dumbstruck. Wow. So much activity going on inside of me that I didn’t know about.
Later on, in biology and health classes, my woeful ignorance was ameliorated, to a degree. I had assignments where I had to draw my own diagrams of the human respiratory system, and reproductive systems, and digestive system. I don’t think we ever got around to the musculature. And I still had no idea how everything fit. How many feet of intestines are tucked away inside?!
Do you remember the first model you ever saw of a human skeleton? Huge femur bones that no doubt worked well as clubs (if we were still Neanderthals), and those remarkably intricate, tiny, tiny bones of the fingers and toes, the strange complexity of the elbow joint, to say nothing of the knee, or of the bowl-like, chalice-like shape of the pelvis, and the sacred sacrum.
I was middle-aged before I saw in a museum an actual human body (of some poor soul; I think it was of a man who had been a prisoner in some Asian country). His body had been plasticized or something in such a way that you could see all the systems, color-coded just that like that first diagram I remembered from my childhood. Honestly, I was overwhelmed. In my hospital chaplaincy training during seminary, I had had the opportunity to witness a surgery, but I declined. Wisely, I think. I am fairly certain I would have been one of those wimps who faints and lands on the floor.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more intrigued about our own incarnations in bodily forms. Talk about wonder! Talk about a mystery! Talk about elegant complexity and systems and regeneration and healing and interdependence and creation of new life out of nearly nothing.
As Christians, our unique claim to fame in the realm of the world religions is our understanding of, our belief in incarnation: we say that in our bodies – and not only ours, but in the entire body of creation itself – the divine inhabits the material. It’s not that we believe that oceans and rivers and trees and sparrows and stones and ground hogs and cattle and fish are God; but our belief in incarnation causes to claim that in all these life forms – including us! including us – that in all life forms is divine DNA. Or, as I like to say – (not everyone does, but I like to say): Christ is everywhere. The whole universe and everything in it is Christ-haunted. Including us. Including us…
Very early on in the Christian tradition, the church came to understand itself the Body of Christ. Which is not to say that the Holy Trinity is not present everywhere. But as Christians, we found the metaphor of the human body to be particularly applicable to the church. And why not? Makes perfect sense for people who find the face of God in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth; makes perfect sense to call a Christian congregation, by extension, the present form of the Body of Christ.
Saint Paul was saying exactly the same thing to that feisty and fractious congregation in Corinth so long ago about what it means to be the church. The Corinthians had significant diversity among their membership. They weren’t afraid to mix it up with each other, egg one another on, jockey for favored positions. They weren’t afraid to empower lay leadership (though those lay leaders did not always agree among themselves), and they were wide open to all kinds of spiritual experiences. The Corinthian congregation was neither docile nor compliant, but by God! they had energy, and creativity, and chutzpah: they were alive.
Feel free to make whatever connections come to mind…
Paul, their founding pastor, after he had gone on his missionary way wrote a series of letters to them, commenting on the state of their congregation. Some of those letters were quite firm in tone, even exasperated, especially when he was criticizing the cliques that had formed, each “in group” claiming to be the authoritative voice for the whole congregation.
In the section of Paul’s letter we heard this morning, Paul develops his theology of the church as Christ’s Body in the here and now. He uses the metaphor of the human body to talk about both the diversity of its parts and the unity of the whole: how each organic system is necessary to the overall functioning of the body, and how each member is due honor and respect, no matter how lowly. The ear therefore has no basis for assuming it has a more important role or function than the eye, nor does the foot get it lord it over the digestive tract. The eye cannot survive if it decides to separate itself from the rest of the body, nor does the nose need to take any flak from the brain. All parts of the body are necessary, the weaker as well as the stronger, the richer and the poorer, the gay and the straight, the theologically sophisticated and the newcomer who has never heard the Story, the kitchen cleaner and the settled pastor — all parts of the Body are necessary and due honor. And if one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
We’re all in this together, as inseparable parts of a human body – eyes and ears and feet and thyroids and throats and funny bones and arteries and cells beyond number, all honored, all needed, each with their own purpose and work to do, all a part of the living Body.
Here’s the inescapable truth that comes with this metaphor: we can’t be Christian alone. Much as we might like to have our own spiritual experiences on our own private mountaintops, picking and choosing what we like and with whom we might want to share our spirituality, and be accountable only to ourselves – well, the Christian life just doesn’t work that way.
It is a rigorous and demanding thing to be a member of the Body, make no mistake. We are expected to stay connected to each other, even when we’d rather not. We are expected to mature spiritually, even when we think we’re done with all of that. We are expected to give and receive support from one other when we get tired or when we wander or when we falter or when we fail – and we will do all those things, and more than once. We are expected to grow more and more, in love and compassion and service, as long as we have breath in our physical bodies. We’re expected — as persons and as a congregation — to grow into the full stature of Christ. Nothing less than that.
You know, one of the saddest and unnecessary things that happened in the western Christian tradition was the gradual drift away from the radical implications of the incarnation into the non-biblical backwaters of mistrusting our own human embodiment. St. Augustine usually gets most of the blame for that development, and he certainly had his share in it, but others did, too. In fact, the mistrust of our own incarnations in human flesh and blood and bone is one reason why many of the Gnostic gospels didn’t make the final cut into the Christian Scriptures. It’s good to remember that when we tend to think the gnostic gospels are somehow more preferable to the ones we’ve got. (Which isn’t to say I think the Gospel of Thomas isn’t brilliant and important, because I do think that!) But I digress.
One of the reasons for the resurgence of Celtic Christianity in recent years is that the Celts never bought into the false separation of spirit and matter. All of creation, they insisted, is holy and blessed and capable of breaking open into God’s grace at any moment. And that includes our own bodies. It’s about time the Christian tradition had a mid-course correction and re-alignment on this issue! And the good news is that it is happening.
We also need to remember that not all early or medieval Christian theologians denigrated the human body. Listen carefully to these glorious words that Symeon the New Theologian, Byzantine monk and poet, wrote way back in the 10th century:
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ. He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in his Godhood.)
I move my foot, and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him
And let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized as joy in Him,
and He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light.
We awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
My prayer for us this day – as individuals and as a congregation – is that more and more we be made utterly real as we joyfully awaken into and as the very Body of the Beloved.