I Corinthians 12:12-31
by Sara Wilhelm Garbers
January 26, 2020
Breathe on us, breath of God that in these bodies and as this collective body we might see and know you. Amen.
One of my favorite poems is from the poet Mary Oliver. It’s entitled “Wild Geese.” As we begin, I invite you to listen to it.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile, the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
I love this poem. I love it because of how it resonates with the real of our lives for how many of us have spent lifetimes crawling on our knees for a hundred miles through deserts, repenting…forgetting, indeed, that we were meant to fly free; that we were meant to be a part of the body of Christ; that this is our place in the family of things? For sometimes we forget. And so, God calls to us again, inviting us to remember our place in the family of things…whether a hand, or an eye, or a foot—that each of us, in our bodies, make up this body gathered, and together we are God’s body. And this, the being bodies who make up the body, this is our calling.
Our current preaching series is “Love Moves into the Neighborhood.” It is based off of the Message translation of John 1:14: “The word became today FLESH and moved into the neighborhood.” As we journey through this verse, each week we are considering the different elements of which it speaks The Word/Became/Flesh/And Moved Into/The Neighborhood, while simultaneously reflecting on our core values. Today we’re talking about the word that has become FLESH while also considering how this intersects with our core value of IMMERSE, as in “To immerse in sacred spaces and rhythms”; to immerse in our skin, in our bodies, in the waters of the baptism of life which bring us to the place we were meant to live from as we rise into our bodies, as this body. Thus, the sermon title for today: “On bodies.”
Let me begin then by telling you a bit about the history of understanding related to bodies inside of our faith. Going way back to Genesis and the waters of creation, our collective story along with our Jewish siblings is that of a God who creates, and in so doing, creates not just men (which most Ancient Near Eastern texts depict), but one in which women get created too! And together in their bodies, this man and this woman together walk naked with God in the garden and they are unashamed. Fast forward (just a little bit) to Jesus who comes to earth in a body. God incarnate, Emmanuel, God-with-us, God with skin on in Jesus is what we claim as the central core of our faith, that the word became flesh through a young woman’s body to live here amongst us, as love moved into the neighborhood.
And yet this fleshiness, this humanness of Jesus has often been overlooked or resisted throughout the history of faith in the church. In the early church, indeed, they were influenced by the theories and philosophies of the time which included Gnosticism and Stoicism, both of which were fundamentally opposed to the body and didn’t believe that God could possibly ever take on human form. In fact, to their line of thinking, to be spiritual was to flee your body. So when people say to me that my thinking as a Christian is shaped by the times in which I live, I want to reflect back to them and say: “1) Well, that’s the point of theology, humans trying to make sense of God in their own time; and 2), you cannot tell me that Gnosticism and Stoicism did not influence the early church in their denial and wrestling with the fact that Jesus had a body!
What I’m trying to say is that there have been people throughout the history of our faith who have told us that not only do bodies not matter to the spiritual life, but in fact, they’re probably an evil impediment to true spirituality. And so, our Christian theology has long just kind of skipped over Jesus of Nazareth, of whom we talk about at Christmas as being Emmanuel, God-with-us, both because of the anti-body philosophy promulgated by theologians and because it’s just really hard to figure out how do you make sense of Jesus as God and human in one? I mean, come on, that’s really tough, right?! And so instead of sitting in the tension of God+ human in Jesus o instead of letting ourselves be confronted by the idea that God came in human form, we instead have oftentimes relied on philosophies that name God as ineffable and omnipotent and omnipresent and all sorts of other words that probably only three of us know, let alone what they mean.
And this anti-body thread inside of our faith matters, this refusal to deal with God as a flesh-and-blood human is important. It matters because where in our faith then is there room for the God who has become flesh? How does this good news actually has something to do with our actual bodies, our actual lives, our actual skin? Does it matter that the word became flesh or not?
Not only is there this anti-body history inside of philosophy that’s influenced our faith, but these philosophies have then impacted the way that we approach texts such as Galatians 5:17, where it says, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit and the spirit that which is contrary to the flesh.” Or Romans 6:19 where it says, “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.” Or 1 Peter 2:11 which reads, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts that wage war against the soul.”
Now maybe none of you have ever thought that the body was bad and, if so, hallelujah! Amen! Congratulations, that’s awesome. But I know that in hearing these passages and corollary sermons and teachings while I was growing up, I didn’t always know what to do with having a body. Like I knew there was something bad about the “flesh” and I reasoned: “I mean, I guess flesh is body and the bible says flesh is bad so then my body must be bad. And then—oh, by the way—I have a female body and I’m quite sure that those bodies are even more bad than guy bodies cuz like Eve sinned first and all I ever hear about at church is that women’s bodies tempt men’s bodies.” This is me trying to figure out faith and the world at like seven years old, FYI.
Throughout the history of the church, we have people who indeed have been encountered by Jesus and this has changed them. But like the perfecting love of which it is written in 1 John 4, it takes time for the Gospel to do its work of transforming us; it takes a lifetime for us to live more and more into being the free people we were meant to be in Christ. And so, we have people throughout our history who have taught us that in order to follow Christ we have to mortify or abuse our flesh because our flesh is sinful. And when I read these theologies I’m just like: what does Emmanuel, God in flesh, have to do with our bodies and our actual lives in our bodies? Is Jesus good news for the body or not?
For our histories are steeped in the legacies of well-meaning people like Augustine, who’s one of the major theologians of our tradition, who was really against the body. Out of his own story he came to faith. He had lived a life where he had slept with a lot of women, was not a great guy, and then he comes to faith Christ and he is like, “Okay, that was bad.” But the problem with this is that as he’s writing about faith, he thinks everything about bodies and particularly female bodies are sinful because he associates this all with his past and God’s healing work hasn’t yet helped him to see a redemptive view of women’s bodies, and that impacts us up until this day where women’s bodies throughout the history of Christianity have been written about as being some sort of special temptress designed to make men stay away from God.
And if you think that this historic anti-body and anti-women’s bodies thread doesn’t matter, let me tell you it does for it mattered for me at 17. It mattered to me if the good news of Jesus Christ mattered for my skin, for did God think somehow there was something less holy about me as a young woman who just wanted to love Jesus and her neighbors? We come from this history, where well-meaning people just like the rest of us are trying to understand what it means to follow God. And so you have Aquinas with the best scientific understanding of his time, who says women are deformed male bodies. Okay, that’s the best science of the time because technically like begets like, and they didn’t get that women had anything to do with procreation. So he’s not a bad dude, he’s doing the best he can.
And yet this stuff and these histories matter for all of our bodies. And of course, not only do we have messages from the history of a church that doesn’t always know what to do with Jesus having a body, let alone us having a body, but we live in a world where our having bodies is also fraught. We get images, whatever our genders, about what we’re supposed to be and look like in order to count in the world, right? Women, you probably know what you’re supposed to look like, right? Men, you do too. Our bodies are supposed to be young and fit and trim and ripped because otherwise we’re not worthy of love, right?
And today I want to challenge us to really consider: Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have anything to say about that? Is the gospel of Jesus good news for your body? Does it say anything about your worth in the world over and against forces that seek to destroy us in our bodies? I sure hope so.
We have these histories and these stories where we haven’t known what to do with God putting skin on, let alone with our own skin. And here in the midst of these stories and this history I do, indeed, believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has something to say about our bodies that is actually good news.
Remember last week in talking about this passage, we talked about God as the great I am. YHWH, the one who was and is and is to come. God who is the ground of our being, who called out to the people of Israel to remind them that it is not by power nor by might, but by God’s Spirit that we live. We’re not ruled by some king, but we are held by the great I am, the Ruach, the Spirit of life and of breath, and it is from this place then, living in alignment with this source of life, these waters of baptism, this is from whence we live, we move, we have our bodies, and our being.
So in the Bible when it talks about flesh opposed to spirit, it’s not saying get rid of your skin so you can be truly Christian. No! It’s saying: “In your skin remember that you are called to live by Spirit, not power or might, but by the love of God, the great I am.” That is our source, not the things of ego, the things where we’re selfish or care only for ourselves. No, the Spirit as opposed to flesh is that which reminds us that in our bodies, as the collective body, we were meant to walk with God and with one another. In this flesh and in these bodies the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls and invites us to indeed immerse ourselves in the waters of life, and it asks us this day a question: Is the Gospel of Jesus good news for your actual body? Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ actual good news in your actual skin of your actual life? Is it? What would it look like? What does it look like when we actually can say, “Maybe,” and then potentially eventually, “I think so,” and then eventually, potentially, “Yes.”
“Yes, the gospel of Jesus is good news for my body.”
My grandma Joey, who you’ve heard me talk about, is one of the loves my life. She was abused as a young woman and was sexually molested by her older brothers during her teenage years. She married my grandpa because she was pregnant. She had a terrible marriage and she hated her body my entire life. And even as a kid I knew this about her. Kids know that stuff, right? Constant diets, constant picking at things about herself, refusal to wear open-toed shoes lest anyone make fun of her feet. She didn’t smile in pictures because her teeth were ugly (she thought). But I thought she was beautiful. Because every kid thinks their grown-ups are larger than life, right? And I would tell her all the time that she was so pretty and wonderful and she always blew me off…until one day when I was about 28 years old, I’ll never forget being in the bathroom with my grandma (“G”, as I called her), and she looked in the mirror and said, “You know? I am kind of cute.” It took me 28 years of telling her, but finally that good news was starting to sink into her skin.
And I’ll never forget when my grandma was deep into dementia, what it was like when in her body for the first time that peace of Christ that she had longed for was truly hers and you could see it radiate from her being because for the first time her body knew that she was loved just as she was. And that my friends is the invitation of the Gospel, that in this skin, in these bodies, in our lifetimes, that we can look in the mirror and see ourselves rightly. Not that, “Oh, I’m the head, so therefore I’m more important than you, hand.” No. When we see ourselves rightly, we can love not only our individual bodies but the diversity of our collective body, for we know we are loved. And this indeed is good news that heals and transforms.
As I wrestled with my faith throughout the end of my teen years and into my early 20s, I didn’t know what to do with the Gospel I professed; I didn’t know if it was actually good news for my life or if God had put me in the wrong body because I wanted to lead and I wanted to preach and I wasn’t supposed to do that as a young woman. And as I wrestled with what to do with my body and my skin and the God who I believed had made it, the goodness and the grace of God found me.
One of the ways it found me was through some of the writings of my black brothers and sisters, particularly in the United States, for whom God, Emmanuel, here with us meant something profound and important. That God took on flesh demonstrated that God isn’t far removed from our daily lives, but the God who took on flesh and became one of us becomes the location from which we know God has suffered too and God sees us in the midst of our lives in this body. Therefore, we aren’t alone in this journey, for the Gospel of freedom and life is not just for eternity, no, it’s good news and freedom and life and an invitation to us in this skin. It’s through the words of these siblings in the faith who knew beyond what I had known that God with skin on meant something important for our lives in this skin and through their struggle and witness I began to believe again that maybe, just maybe, the Gospel of Jesus Christ had something to do with my actual life in my actual skin.
As I mentioned earlier this morning, these next weeks we’re going to be journeying with the work of Howard Thurman in our Wednesday night Meetinghouse class, and
I wanted to share a poem prayer of his called The Work of Christmas, which speaks to this good news.
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins. To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
For “you to not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” No. For the good news of Jesus Christ calls you to rise into your skin and to fly. To, in your own skin, say yes to the role in the part of the body of Christ that you are meant to be. That in your body and in your skin, this good news is that which saves, and it is in this saving you, in the letting the salvific work of Jesus actually heal us and do its work that we get to be the body of Christ, that we get to be good neighbors, and so indeed may the Gospel of the one who has taken on flesh to be in our midst be that which reigns in our hearts. May we sing and dance in these bodies, in rhythm with the great I AM who has become flesh, who moved into our neighborhood.
Indeed, may the music of Christ might fill our hearts and our bodies and our lives and our homes and our streets. Because as a people, we have not been just sprinkled or washed, but we’ve been immersed in the love of the great I am. And then as this body we’re going to party, not just like it’s 1999, but like love has actually moved into the neighborhood. So might the Gospel of Jesus, the good news of the Word, who has become FLESH— God with skin on—be that which saves us…here in our own bodies, in our own skin, might we let ourselves be encountered by Emmanuel who announces to each of us our place in this body of things.
 Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York: Penguin, 2017), 347.
 Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas,” in The Mood of Christmas and other Celebration (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1973), 23.
 This is a reference to a poem by Emilie Townes. Emilie Townes, “Untitled,” in Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, ed. Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie M. Townes, and Angela D. Sims (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 183-4.
 Referencing Prince’s Iconic Song “1999” from Prince, 1999 (Hollywood: Warner Brothers, 1982).