Saints Honour Christ with Their Bodies
Text: Philippians 1:1-5, 19-27
Proper 20, A
Paul writes “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Talk about a radical idea! In Paul’s day, the human body was seen by many as nothing more than a hunk of evil matter to be disregarded. This type of reasoning assumed that all things spiritual are good, and all things physical were bad or unimportant. This of course left people with some very different alternatives when it came to treating their physical bodies. Some would beat the body and to deny it things like food, rest, and comfort. People who went this route were called ascetics. The other choice entailed doing whatever you wanted with your body. Since body matter didn’t really matter live it up and sin like there is no tomorrow. Paul often faced this attitude in the Greek and Roman cities he visited.
But lest we think we’ve come a long way from that ancient dualism of spirit and matter, consider how many people are still disheartened by the appearance of their body to the point of self-mutilation and suicide. Or the near constant barrage of our society’s message that “body matter doesn’t matter” as we consider, the all-to-common hook-up culture, abortion on demand (and with a new demand for no limits to it), and the callous disregard for the aged and the infirm! On the other hand, many try desperately to get their bodies into shape. Yoga, Pilates, and high priced gyms are temples of body worship. Make-up, clothing, and plastic surgery are all seen as worthy offerings to make one happy. Even surgery that goes so far as to erase the biological identity one was born with. Physical appearance has become a healthy concern for some, but the sick fetish of others. Bodies are seen as a vehicle for exalting ourselves. The physical body … either you seem to love it too much or hate it unfairly.
Christianity has much to say about the physical side of life, but many even within our ranks get caught up in this notion of “spiritual is better than the physical.” Some would prefer worship focused solely on heaven, prayers focused on spiritual blessings, and their Christianity itself to be a reality only in their heads and in their hearts. Some would go so far as to say that our faith can and should be something like an out of body experience where the physical is dissolved into the spiritual. After all, a strictly spiritualized faith keeps step with North American culture and its quest for things vaguely spiritual. No one can judge you on your thoughts or intentions, but they sure will judge you based on what you actually say or do! For many Christians, be it out of fear or apathy, the expression of their Faith has become so “bodiless”, so vaporous, that it’s no earthly good to anyone.
It is against just this sort of backdrop that St. Paul says that he will exalt Christ in his body. He is talking about his own physical presence here on earth. Being here for people and making a difference in the very physical reality of life in this world. He understood that His actual, physical presence mattered, just as the physical presence of the body of Christ, the Church, matters.
This all makes faith very practical. Christianity is a religion of the hands and feet, not just the heart and mind. Like Paul, it is necessary for us to bring Christ to others. But to do so we must be with others, and that means being faced with all the messy stuff of life in this broken world: marital conflict, sexual abuse, depression, grief, domestic violence, cancer, death and the long list of all the ‘stuff’ of this physical life in a fallen world. As St. Paul put it, to live for Christ is to 22go on living in the body ... doing fruitful labour. A religion of the hands and feet busily working for the good of our neighbours. No matter how lowly the task, or how off-putting the person. As St. James declared, Faith without works is dead. Paul said the same thing, but this way: 20Christ is exalted in my body.
All of this makes sense when we remember that God did not send a phantom for our Saviour, no disembodied spirit to bring us home. God sent his one and only Son, in the flesh. And as Jesus lived in a human body he knew hunger, thirst, fatigue, loneliness, pain, and sorrow. When God came redeeming the world, he came bodily! God got physical in the story of our salvation. He was physical in the birthing, in the living, in the dying, and in rising again. He did more than speak from a distant dream. He touched. He used the real stuff of the world around him to explain the workings of God and His kingdom. He went to weddings and funerals. He made the kingdom of God as real to us as a runaway son back home again, or a seed dying to live.
This is the Christ of the Gospels; real, so real that you can almost hear the rustle of his robe some twenty centuries later. This Jesus saved us – his body impaled on a cross, his body raised again to life after three days! This Jesus gives us his real physical body and his real physical blood in the supper he told us to eat in remembrance of him. As Martin Luther said “Therefore our body will live eternally because it has partaken of an eternal food, which will not let it remain in the grave, or in the dust, rotted and decayed.” Because this Jesus rose bodily from the dead, so too will each of us!
If there are people in your life on the edge of faith, still not believing; whether family, or neighbours, or co-workers, or friends; your presence “in the body” is necessary for them. You are necessary and not just for the prayers you can offer at a safe distance. You are necessary to them physically, right here, right now, in the real world. Especially in these lonely and isolating days of this pandemic. We are the Church, the body of Christ here on earth. We are the ones who present Christ’s love with real tears, real joy, real service, real sacrifice. We bear Jesus to others through our physical presence in their lives.
As St. Paul wrote, we are partners in the Gospel. As Christians we have joyously been called to serve as Christ’s physical agents of love and compassion in this hurting world. Ours is a faith that involves the whole of our being; head, heart, hands and feet. It is a faith that destroys the barriers between ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’. It is a faith that makes a difference in this world. It is a faith that leads to life in the next. My prayer for you this morning is that of Paul himself: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”