Spiritual Body Image

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

When I was a teenager, I had major body issues. In fact, I actually quit a leading role in a high school production of ‘A Chorus Line’ because there was no way I was going to a) attempt to dance, and b) wear tights on stage. The rehearsals reduced me to tears, as did many occasions of shopping for jeans or bathing suits. The pressure of “perfection” through my warped and immature eyes was just a little too much. While I don’t think Paul’s metaphor of “the Body” is referring to body image EXACTLY as we might understand it today, I still find it quite relatable in light of my own experience; preferring certain parts of me, and being embarrassed by others; wanting to modify this part or that, and hide another away completely. Whatever views we have about the physical body today, it remains a useful analogy in representing the Church and its respective members.

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The 1 Corinthians letter is brilliantly laid out, addressing issues facing the Church at Corinth. It was a community growing in the midst of a culture of new wealth – one that placed high importance on image and popularity. Think “Hollywood meets Vegas with a dash of New York”, and you’ll get a bit of a picture of Corinth at the time. One of the ways this was translating for the Church was a “haves and have-nots” division concerning certain spiritual gifts and outward evidence of spirituality. But while it might seem easy to pass judgment on their elitism and the way they may have been allowing some of the shallow, image-conscious aspects of their culture to impact church life, it’s also important to examine ourselves and the way our own humanity impacts how we function in the Body of Christ today. When it comes to humanity, 1 Corinthians ‘has is in spades’. In fact, when I was in Bible School, it was the study of this letter that made me ‘see’ the Bible in a whole new way – it was written by and for real people, just like us. It’s also kind of humorous when one notes the sarcasm and irony woven into Paul’s words, clever devices in getting his point across. The 1 Corinthians 12 passage, and its artful reference to the Body, has evoked a few thoughts that I hope might be helpful.

First, if we, the community of believers, are the Body of Christ, we are part of a creation of God that “is what it is”. It exists outside of our will and beyond our preferences and desires. While yes, on the one hand, there’s a call for a certain kind of judgment within the Body – something Paul addresses elsewhere in the letter – it’s worth noting that the Body is the church that is formed by Christ, and while we proclaim the Gospel and encourage the saints, membership of the Church in the spiritual sense is no more in our hands than the creation of our physical bodies that bear our spirits into the world. It’s the grace and judgment of God that determines the make-up of the Body of Christ. Care for the Body, yes, as God leads us; challenge it, discipline it, comfort it, be invested in its health and seek to serve it with our respective gifts. But determine who or what comprises it? No.

Furthermore, the Body of Christ is also referred to as “the Bride” who will be presented by Christ and to Christ as spotless; “as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph. 5:25-27) This Bride – the Body – is made ready by what John Wesley called “sanctifying grace”, and to God and God alone be the glory. There is no plastic surgery or spiritual ‘botox’ for us to perform here, and any attempt to qualify members of the body – in other words, to say so-and-so or this-or-that has more or less value than another (or would have more value if only they towed the line, ditched the habit, knew a little more, spoke a little better, were easier to deal with etc) misses the bigger picture. We also don’t get to say, “We’ll keep you, but we’ll cut them off”, because all who are part of the Body of Christ are a part of the whole, each one necessary and important. Therefore, when one suffers, the whole suffers, and when one is honoured, the whole enjoys the honor (v26). The entire Body is the Lord’s, and any spiritual surgery to be performed remains in the hands of the Great Physician. To qualify members as more or less important than others – or to qualify our selves as more or less important – is to not be aligned with God’s view of the Church. The physical body has many and varied members, each a designated part of the God-breathed ‘package’; so too does the Body of Christ, functioning with varied designs and purposes in order to give life to the whole and glory to God. (See also Romans 12:4-5)

But, isn’t Paul himself qualifying Spiritual gifts? He writes, “But earnestly desire and zealously cultivate the greatest and best gifts and graces” (v30 Amplified Bible) One can imagine the “best” of the Corinthian Christians, the ones touting certain gifts as better than others, crying “Here, here, Paul! Preach it!” But Paul doesn’t stop there, and one has to wonder if this isn’t, on some level, a smart, grace-giving but very humbling “set-up” for Paul’s real challenge, which comes at the end of the chapter and into the well-known 1 Corinthians 13. He writes (v31 Amplified Bible): “And yet I will show you a still more excellent way” (Can you see them all leaning in a bit more closely – after all, the pursuit of excellence is important if one wants to matter and be noticed in Corinth) He continues, “…one that is better by far and the highest of them all” (Now they’re on the edge of their seats!)

Love”.

“Huh?”

It’s almost comical to picture the reaction.

Paul reminds them of the truth that is the heart of it all, and why we’re a Body in the first place. Love. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) We can have the best gifts, the most important position, and more knowledge and education than everyone else…but do we have love, the greatest of all, that, paradoxically, isn’t self-seeking, but prefers others; that isn’t envious, or touchy and resentful, or conceited, or boastful, but kind? (1 Corinthians 13)

I have a spiritual counselor in my life that radiates love. He once told me that in College he used to debate theology at length with his educated and well-spoken friends. He’d come home and buffet his mother with questions, challenging her and vexed by her inability to speak to deep and complex matters of faith. One day, when this little ritual was going on, she turned to him with tears in her eyes and said, “I don’t know how to answer your questions, but I will say that I know that Jesus loves me and He has never let me down.” This silenced my friend, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him that day. He found himself distancing his walk from those who would merely pursue a “knowledge that puffs up”, and he sought to know this God of love, who would never let him down. Indeed, the biggest spiritual giant I know is a tiny woman with a middle school education, who exudes the love of Christ and whose private prayers for me have done mighty things in my life.

The call to love the Body of Christ, even the parts we’re not thrilled about, is still our call today, but honestly, I have a long way to go. I’m sometimes annoyed with the Church (and I’m referring to the Church in the broad sense, not to this wonderful community of saint benedict’s table!) I admit that once I laughed out loud when I heard someone say, “I love Jesus, it’s His wife I can’t stand.” I cringe when I hear proclamations made by some Christians – how they’re saying what they’re saying! It’s that weird guy on some reality TV show shouting some crazy thing while boldly bearing Jesus’ name, and I’m thinking, “Please stop talking.” And I’ve never had much use for elitists in the Church either, probably because I’ve never really felt like I was part of the “cool kids club”. In fact, without Jamie’s encouragement, being a minister of God’s love to me when I needed it, I might never have participated in a formal church community again.

But as I grow in the Love of God – sanctifying grace – my heart is stretched, and I find myself hurting over some of my attitudes. I find that I’m a bit more sensitive to the way I hear believers talk about other believers, and churches put down this or that denomination or the big, bad mega-Church on the highway. And when it comes to the way we (again, in the broad sense of the word “we”) often talk about some Christians South of the border, I have to wonder if it doesn’t hurt God’s heart, and if sometimes we’re not unlike the Corinthians who saw themselves as being more “in the know” than others. Politics and cultural views aside, we are all a part of the Body of Christ as the grace of God permits us to be. We may live in a society that allows us to worship the way we prefer to, and to start this or that “customized” church; some may quit on church altogether, but the Body exists undivided in the eyes of God. One day this Body – this Bride – will be presented to Him, perfected in love – God’s love. Best of all, that believer or community of believers that we presently keep at an arm’s length, or even see as a little “beneath us”, will be right beside us in eternity.

So, in light of our value in God’s eyes, as diverse and beloved members of the Body of Christ, may we encourage one another to LOVE all of our parts – that guy, that woman, that politician, that preacher, that odd church that worships in ways that make us feel awkward…even that embarrassing reality TV star. After all, maybe somewhere in this vast Body, someone is preaching the very same thing about loving us.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Lyrics from “They’ll Know We are Christians by our Love”
©1968 Peter Scholtes

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