Sunday, June 21, 2015

Phil Kniss: The Word is still flesh

Debugging the Faith: Disembodied Christianity
John 1:1-4, 14-18; Revelation 21:1-5

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So this is the second of three Sundays,
    where we look at pervasive and invasive viruses,
    that infect our Christian faith.
        These aren’t new viruses.
        They’ve been around since the early centuries of the church.

Last Sunday we looked at one I called “domesticated Christianity,”
    a corruption of our faith that makes Jesus into our image,
        tames him,
        makes him manageable and predictable,
            and eliminates the possibility he might want to confront us,
            like he confronted the religious people of his day.

Today we examine another virus that has attacked the faith,
    and disfigured it, made it ill.
    But again, this infection is so widespread
        that is looks normal to the untrained eye.
    So my aim today is to diagnose the infection,
        help us realize the damage it can do,
        and suggest a course of treatment.
    Another 20-minute appointment with Dr. Phil.

Thing is, I’m a carrier of this virus myself,
    and it’s not something I can fight off by myself.
    It will take a village, a collective body,
        working together to keep it from spreading.
    We must engage in communal anti-viral practices,
        to stay healthy.

I’m speaking of the virus called “disembodied Christianity.”
    Maybe it sounds odd to say our faith is disembodied,
        since we’re all here together, fully embodied,
        engaging in Christian worship, in our bodies?
    In fact, this kind of activity, this corporate worship,
        is one of the most important anti-viral
            communal practices we can do.
        Whatever else we may or may not do,
            one of the best treatments for this virus,
            is to keep bringing our bodies to worship.

But bringing our bodies to worship
    is a little more complicated than it seems.
    See, we’re not used to thinking of our bodies
        as a good and necessary part of what we bring to God.
    We are here to offer our mind, and heart, and spirit,
        are we not?
    Isn’t that what God really wants?
        God wants us to meditate on God’s goodness.
        God wants us to contemplate on theological truth and beauty.
        God wants us to yield our will to God’s will.
        God wants us to invite the Holy Spirit
            to indwell our spirit and emotions.

    The body is just a necessary evil, isn’t it?—
        just a container, a temporary shell
            that holds our real eternal spiritual self,
            but is not, fundamentally, part of our spiritual life.
    When we die,
        we can finally rid ourselves of this evil body,
        and leave it behind in this evil world,
        and fly away up to heaven
            in all the purity of our eternal souls.
    At least, this kind of thinking that downplays our bodies
        has deep roots in Christian history.

We’ve come to accept as truth,
    that when someone dies,
        their body ceases to have any spiritual relevance.
    As soon as their breath leaves their body,
        we look at what remains,
        and say, almost casually, that it’s not really them lying there.
    It’s just an empty shell.
    The real, eternal, disembodied self
        just flew away, and left behind nothing that really matters.

    Just looking at a dead body seems to reinforce that.
        We often sense a profound absence of the person’s spirit.
        Sometimes, there is a palpable sense of vacancy, emptiness.

    Despite that, however,
        many of our funeral rituals point to another reality.
    Whether we admit it or not,
        something in us continues to value that lifeless body.
        We treat it reverently, even in death.
            As if it were still sacred.
        Any funeral director will tell you,
            people care about the body after death—
                how it looks,
                how it is dressed,
                how it is handled.
        Even in cremation,
            we have an assumption that these physical remains matter,
                in some deep way,
            and we treat them as such.

And I’m glad we do.
    Because I think our actions and rituals speak to a deeper truth,
        one we don’t fully understand or articulate.
    I think this reverence we give the body is not just emotional,
        it’s more than deep nostalgia for what used to be.
    I think this physical, tangible, enfleshed body,
        even in death,
        has profound spiritual value.
    Our bodies were created good, by God,
        and are loved by God, in life and in death.
    Yes. Let me say it again. God loves our bodies.

    And not only that,
        our bodies are part of the work God is still doing
            in making a new creation.
        God has an end-goal for the universe.
            It is to be made new.
            New heavens, and a new earth.
                And everything in them.
        Revelation 21 makes that agenda clear.
        The end times portrayed in Revelation 21,
            is not disembodied souls being whisked away to heaven,
                forever separated from this evil physical realm.
        No, it’s the reverse.
            Heaven comes to earth.

        John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem,
            coming down out of heaven from God . . .
        And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!
            God’s dwelling place is now among the people,
                and he will dwell with them.
            They will be his people,
                and God himself will be with them and be their God.
                 . . . the old order of things has passed away.
        He who was seated on the throne said,
            “I am making everything new!”
        Then, as if to put an exclamation point on it, the voice said,
            “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

    This is a vitally important biblical truth.
        God, the Creator of our physical realm,
            is not finished with the earth,
            or finished with us.
        There is a new creation.
            And that’s not just a spiritual thing.
            It includes the physicality of the earth,
                and of our bodies.

    If we believe this to be true,
        it leads us toward a more deeply embodied faith,
        a faith that values and honors our physical beings,
            does not consider them to be either separate from,
                or inferior to, our spiritual beings.
        In God, in Christ, we are whole beings.
            Our bodies have spiritual and eternal significance.
            Because our bodies, along with this earth,
                are moving toward new creation.

        Now . . . I am not making any claim whatsoever
            about the physics or chemistry or biology
                of the new creation.
            About that, we know nothing.
            I have no idea what our embodiment will look like,
                or feel like, or act like,
                in the new creation.
        “New Creation” is not a material or scientific claim.
            It’s a theological claim,
                that God loves us, bodies and all,
                and is working to make us whole,
                is working toward the glorification of our bodies,
                    and the restoration of all creation.

        Jesus of Nazareth is the one who showed us what
            true and full humanity looks like.
            He was the one who went before us,
                to demonstrate what being truly human looks like.
        The Romans 6 reading this morning told us
            we follow Jesus not only by emulating his deeds.
        We follow him in his death and resurrection.
            We die with Christ, so we may live with Christ,
                in our bodies,
                in this life, and the next.
            That’s our motivation not to live in sin,
                because it dishonors our bodies
                    that are now devoted to a resurrection life—
                    a resurrection that conquered sin.

This morning we also heard a text we usually get during Advent—
    “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
        We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son,
            who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
    The incarnation, contrary to what we may think,
        was not God reluctantly coming to live inside our evil flesh.
    In scripture we don’t find a God who had to muster up the courage
        to take this terrible and terrifying leap downward
            into the awful mess that is humanity.
    No, humanity was, and is, God’s good creation.
        Not only that, but humanity was, and is, uniquely created
            to be the image-bearers of God.
        God was pleased to create each of us in God’s own image.
        And, I believe, God was equally pleased, in Jesus,
            to “become flesh, and make his dwelling with us.”
        That’s the miracle of incarnation.
            Not that God was actually able to pull it off.
                But that God would want to.
                That God, out of deep love, wanted to be embodied,
                    and dwell with us humans.

    Or as Eugene Peterson put it, almost whimsically, in The Message,
        “The Word became flesh and blood,
            and moved into the neighborhood.”
    I like to think it wasn’t a matter of God having to live with us.
        It was God getting to live with us.
        That’s how much God loves us and delights in us.
            God’s crowning act of love was to “dwell with us.”

So, what will it mean to embrace the radical goodness of embodiment?
    What are the implications,
        if we say the incarnation was not a terrible sacrifice for God,
        but something he longed to do,
            and that Jesus ascended, still embodied, Word still flesh,
            going ahead of us toward the new creation,
                and promising to return in the same way,
                in a glorified body,
                    whatever we might imagine that to be.
    What are the implications,
        if we stop thinking of our bodies as temporary corrupt containers
        but rather, as God’s sacred image-bearers,
            now and into eternity?

    It think it might change the way we worship,
        change the way we talk about sexuality,
        change the way we do ethics,
        change the concept of stewardship of our health,
        change the way we think about brokenness in our bodies.
    It might change everything about being Christian.

Respecting and reverencing our bodies,
    won’t mean we’ll suddenly agree
        on the ethics of how we live in our bodies—
        we will still have to work out our differences—
    but it will shape how we talk about these things together.
    And it will provide us with a common starting point—
        we are all—all—God’s holy image-bearers.

We may think, as Mennonites, we’re a step ahead of some Christians,
    in embodying our faith.
    We put our bodies into the action all the time.
        MCC, Mennonite Disaster Service, CPS, PAX, and more.
    And for crying out loud, we’re one of few Christian groups
        that have held on to a foot-washing ritual.
    Doesn’t get much more bodily than that.

But I would argue that as we have engaged culture more deeply,
    and interacted more with other Christian groups—
        which I am completely in favor of, and committed to—
    we have also been drinking more
        from some theological waters tainted by Gnosticism,
            that is, a de-valuing of the physical, material realm.
    A Christianity that de-values the body still exists, powerfully,
        in Western culture,
        and is still doing destructive things.

It is destructive, in the same way that a low view of the earth,
    is destructive to our stewardship of creation.
    If the earth is not our home, we’re only passing through, etc, etc—
        we don’t take seriously God’s call
        to be good stewards of the earth.
Same thing with the body.
    If we don’t believe deeply in the eternal goodness
        and sacredness and divine love for the body.
        We end up mistreating our own,
            and disrespecting others’.
    This viral infection of our faith—
        that separates spirit from body,
        that considers the body to be evil,
            or at least inferior to the spirit—
        has all kinds of disastrous results,
            when taken to its logical end.

    It feeds the pornography industry,
        and leads to Christians being porn users
            at alarmingly high rates.
    It permits people to justify warfare against other human bodies,
        including drone warfare,
            because it’s only their bodies being destroyed, after all.
            Their spirit is still in God’s hands.
    It permits us to make the bodies of the other
        into objects for our selfish gratification,
            whether that’s sexualized violence,
                in our homes and communities and churches,
            or ethnic violence like we see all around the world,
            or race-related violence,
                like we’ve seen erupting in our cities
                    across the country these past couple years.

    And even though we don’t know the whole story
        of the Charleston shooter,
            and all that formed him in life,
        in some way, this devaluing of the human body,
            this disembodiment of the faith,
            this separation of body and spirit,
            lies somewhere nearby the roots of
            what shaped Dylann Roof into a violent young racist,
                capable of mowing down nine people with a gun,
                people who had welcomed him, bodily,
                    into their midst, in a church service.

Our hearts, and minds, and bodies, grieve with our sisters and brothers
    from Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
    They are right now, together,
        engaging in communal practices that fight against this virus.
    They are giving voice to the deep pain they are carrying,
        in their bodies.
    They are gathering to openly weep, kneel, cling, pray, sing,         and do all kinds of other things with their bodies, together.
    Friday, in the courtroom,
        some of these families, with their bodies and voices,
        stood to face the killer of their loved ones,
            and told him, honestly, how much he had hurt them,
                and how deep was their pain.
    Felecia Sanders, a survivor of the shooting,
        whose son Tywanza was killed, said directly to Dylann,
        “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same.”
    And then she said to him, “I forgive you.”
        No, she did not mean,
            “I don’t want you to face the consequences.”
        She meant,
            “I have no intention of carrying hate around, in my body,
                and letting that hate destroy my body and spirit.”
        She was demonstrating a holistic respect for her body and soul.
            And for the killer’s, as well.

    That is deeply embodied faith.
    That is the anti-virus at work.

I call on us to find ways, together, as a community,
    to respect and celebrate the goodness of our bodies,
    to bring our whole beings with us, when we come to worship,
    to accept God’s deep love for our bodies—all of our bodies—
        of all shapes and sizes and colors and ages and genders—
    to realize that God will gladly accept our bodies
        as a beautiful and suitable sacrifice to bring in worship—
        and that God looks to us humans, now and into eternity,
            to be God’s own holy image-bearers.

I invite us to engage actively in the anti-viral
    bodily practices of the faith,
        bringing our bodies here to occupy the same space,
        partaking of the Lord’s Supper,
        singing together,
        looking into each other’s eyes,
        eating together at the table,
        washing each other’s feet,
        physically caring for each other.

The reason for not neglecting the practice of gathering together,
    is not only to remind us of what we believe,
    it is to remind us of who we are, in our bodies, together.

Sure, we believe.
    Part of faith is contemplation, thinking rightly.
        But we are more than a group of believers.
        We are more than a collection of souls.
    We are disciples who follow Jesus in this present physical world,
        and into the next.
    We offer ourselves, wholly, bodily,
        to the worship of God.

Let’s use our bodies now to sing together of the new creation,
    HWB 299 - New earth, heavens new.

—Phil Kniss, June 21, 2015

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