January 27, 2019
1 Cor. 12
All Saints’ Church
January is usually the month when I force myself to think about my body. The reason why January is pretty simple: it’s the month after December, when the round of holiday meals and other forms of indulgences makes turns my body into something that’s not a whole lot more than a receptacle for food and drink. By the time January rolls around, I realize that if I don’t start paying more attention to my body, it’s probably going to do something to force me to pay it attention.
I’m sure may of you have similar experiences and struggles. We all know what a sick and disordered standard our culture sets for our relationship with our bodies. On top of that, there is no way to get through life without at some point facing health issues or disability or just the inevitable changes that our bodies go through over time. One thing that ten years in ministry has taught me is that if you are struggling with some issue having to do with your body at any given moment, even if you think you’re the only one, your actually probably in the majority of people.
And yet, what would this life be without these bodies of ours? Each one different, each one designed with such complexity and attention to detail. These bodies that carry us through life–when it comes down to it, they are the only thing we have that occupies space in this world. It our bodies that remember our joys and our sorrows. It is our bodies that let us reach out in love or defend ourselves from harm. We only truly understand pain and woundedness, comfort and pleasure because of our bodies.
For these reasons and more, our relationship with our bodies is a profoundly spiritual matter. For some, that will sound like common sense. For others, it may be something you’ve never thought about before. But there’s no way around it, especially for Christians, who worship a Savior who understood precisely what it meant to live in one of these human bodies of ours—and whose body we are now a part of.
This is precisely what Paul writes about in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He says, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now YOU are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”
Now you are the body of Christ. All those things that bodies do—that’s what we are now. Jesus was one person, and we are many, but each of us together now make up his body—because his body is no longer in this physical realm of ours. His body on this earth…is us.
Even if you’ve heard this passage from First Corinthians a thousand times, meditate on it again this morning. Now you are the body of Christ.
The growth of this body is his growth.
The wounds of this body are his wounds.
Where these feet stand, he stands.
The hands that reach out from here are his hands.
Where we smile, he smiles. Where we cry, he cries.
You have nothing to occupy space in this world but your body. In the same way, there is nothing to be Jesus’ real presence in the world—but us. We are his cells and sinews the bones. We are his soft tissue, the kind that is so easily hurt. We are his strong arms, the kind that can hold a person in despair. We are his gathering embrace, large enough to enfold all humankind.
Now we are the body of Christ. When Paul was writing, that body was a relatively young body. But since then, that body has been crucified and has resurrected countless times. Jesus Christ suffered on the cross and died. So too must this body die, so that on the third day it may rise again, wounded, but alive so that it may proclaim the deep mystery of God’s eternal and unshakable love. This proclamation happens not so much in words as in the simple miracle of the existence of the body—Christ’s body—which, now, is us.
All this may sound kind of poetic. And it is. When Paul says now we are the Body of Christ, he is using a metaphor. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some truths are so beautiful that they can only be expressed in metaphor. That’s why so much of faith is expressed in poetry.
Aside from paying attention to my body, my other new year’s resolution for 2019 is to read more poetry. Like any resolution, I feared this one. Will I actually do it? Is it too weird or unrealistic? A month in, it turns out that getting more poetry in my life has been much easier than paying attention to my body. My body I have mixed feelings about. Poetry I don’t. I love it and I always have. So resolving to read poetry every day for me has been like committing to eating a big slice of delicious chocolate cake. Pretty easy.
And it turns out that one of the best ways to get more poetry in your life is to hang out in church. There is never a Sunday when we don’t indulge ourselves in several beautiful poems, from the ancient couplets of the Psalms to the Greek verse that pops up so often in the New Testament to the devotional poems set to music in our extraordinary hymnals. We worship in poetry because sometimes it’s only poetic language that has the power to express the inexpressible, to give words to the eternal truths and mysteries that we enter into when we worship God.
Now you are the body of Christ. It’s a brilliant line of poetry. Believe me, I’ve read a lot of poetry. It’s really the only way Paul had to explain what he saw: a group of believers in Jesus who needed to be told of the spiritual power of their body. I am beating heart, you are the keen eyes; she is the strong legs, he is the knowing mind. All of it true. All of it poetry. All of it a shocking message for us: that Jesus Christ is right here, right in our midst, occupying space—the shocking message that NOW we are the body of Christ.
Last week, the poet Mary Oliver died. When I first read her in high school, I thought her metaphors and images were too simple, to kind. I preferred the kind of poetry that was more rough and tumble. But over the years, I came to see how so much of what she was saying sounded, well, like the poetry of Scripture. Intense, shocking messages that can change your life. Messages like: Now you are the body of Christ. Incidentally, Mary Oliver was a lifelong, devout Episcopalian.
When I saw that she had died, I felt like an old friend I had never met was now gone. I even cried. But the amazing thing about spiritual leaders like her is that even when they are no longer here in body, a part of their body continues on in us.
Here’s what Mary Oliver had to say about the body. This is an excerpt from her poem, “Evidence”:
As for the body, it is solid and strong and curious
and full of detail; it wants to polish itself; it
wants to love another body; it is the only vessel in
the world that can hold, in a mix of power and
sweetness: words, song, gesture, passion, ideas,
ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue.
Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.
Now we are this body, the one full of detail, the one that wants to polish itself and to love other bodies. Now we are this sacred vessel in the world that can hold treasures in a mix of power and sweetness. Now we are this body.
Now we are the body of Christ.