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The Body Matters


  1st Timothy 4:1-5       Genesis 1:26-31         Luke 7:31-35      


I: — “All matter is evil”, said the Gnostics, a sect that disagreed with biblical conviction in the early days of the church. “Since all matter is evil”, they continued, “and since the body is material, the body has to be evil as well.” The Gnostics (“Gnostic” is the Greek word for “knower”) were those who thought they “knew better”, knew better than others, knew better than most. The Gnostics thought they had special knowledge, privileged knowledge, secret knowledge. One aspect of their secret knowledge was just this: all matter is evil; the body is matter; therefore the body is evil.

The Gnostics infiltrated the church in the church’s earliest days. They caused much trouble. They contradicted the Hebrew root, the Jewish root of the Christian faith. They foisted neurotic guilt on Christians concerning the body and everything pertaining to the body. They left people with tormented consciences concerning bodily necessities, such as food and drink. They left people with tormented consciences concerning bodily pleasures, all bodily pleasures, sex included. The Gnostics were a blight on the church. They had to be dealt with.

Two New Testament documents were written in order to overturn the Gnostic heresy. One such document is Paul’s letter to the congregation in Ephesus ; the other document is John’s first letter to the church at large. In addition to these two epistles, there are references to the Gnostic heresy throughout the New Testament. In his first letter to Timothy, for instance, Paul warns the young man against those who give “…heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. For then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1st Tim. 4:4)

As we read the passage we can sense the apostle’s vehemence, anger even. The Gnostics are deceitful people who spew doctrines of demons; their consciences are seared; they forbid marriage; they enjoin abstinence from certain foods. They think they know the truth. Plainly they don’t, says Paul, since those who really know the truth are aware that the Gnostics are spouting drivel, albeit highly damaging drivel.

How damaging? Look at what the Gnostics did with the body. One group of Gnostics maintained that since the body is evil, inherently evil, irrecoverably evil, the body should be repudiated. The body is disgusting and therefore should be disregarded, denounced. Another group of Gnostics argued that since the body is evil, inherently evil, irrecoverably evil, the body might as well be indulged. “Anything goes” where the body is concerned, since the body can’t be improved in any case. The Gnostic heresy gave rise to two anti-Hebraic attitudes to the body: harsh asceticism and its opposite, profligate indulgence.

I’m convinced that while Augustine is a notable Christian thinker and has brought blessing to the church, there are also aspects to Augustine that have brought anything but blessing. Augustine maintained, for instance, that if sexual intercourse could be enacted without so much as one tremor of pleasure, any child conceived through such utterly pleasureless intercourse would thereby be free from original sin. This is dreadful thinking. I’m convinced that such a notion, or at least the modern approximation of this notion, has put millions of dollars into the hands of psychotherapists.

Contrast Augustine’s anti-bodily notion with the approach of our Jewish friends. When mediaeval Christians were being warped by anti-body heresy, mediaeval Jewish folk were listening to their rabbis who said all married couples should have intercourse on the Sabbath evening, since the affirmation of marital delight was one way of praising God for the delights of the creation as a whole. In fact the mediaeval rabbis coined a phrase for Sabbath evening marital intercourse. The phrase? “Sabbath blessings.” In the Jewish community to this day “Sabbath blessings” means only one thing.

If we think that the ancient Gnostic heresy has nothing to do with us modern folk, then we should ask ourselves a question or two. Does our society encourage bodily renunciation, the severest bodily rejection? At the same time, does our society encourage shameless bodily indulgence?

Think of bodily indulgence. Everyone is aware that tobacco is injurious. Still, scientists are telling us that the damage done to humans through tobacco is slight compared to the damage that will be done through the rising epidemic of obesity. The rising tide of sexually transmitted disease, not to mention specifically the rising tide of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease; such promiscuity says it all about bodily indulgence today.

What about bodily renunciation? I have to be careful here. I like to exercise and need to exercise in order to stay mentally healthy. I have to be careful about what I say next. I’m convinced that many of the exercise programmes and exercise clubs and food supplements and wonder-working pills for restoring shapeliness; I’m convinced that much of this is rooted in people’s disgust at their body-image. Many people can’t seem to come to terms with their body-image. No amount of exercise will ever make me look like Arnold Schwarznegger. No amount of exercise, dieting, pill-taking will ever make my wife look like Jennifer Lopez.   The only person who will ever look like an 18-year old in a bikini is the 18-year old. The 48-year old has already succumbed to gravy and gravity. Anyone who can’t come to terms with this tortures herself with our century’s form of bodily rejection born of bodily disgust. In other words, the Gnostic heresy is alive and well in 2005.

The pendulum swings: bodily rejection, bodily indulgence, back and forth. Does the Christian community have a word to speak here inasmuch as we know what word God has spoken to us? What has God spoken to us, anyway, and what does he continue to say?


II: (i) –God declares, first of all, that bodily existence is good, good without qualification. Bodily existence is good just because God created it.

The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis has a liturgical “ring” to it, a rhythm, a cadence. As each item in the creation is mentioned in this matchless parable there reverberates the refrain “And God saw that it was good.” The planets are created, vegetation, animals, and finally humankind. When humankind is created, in God’s image to be sure, yet created bodily as surely as the animals, created on the same “day”, are created bodily, the pronouncement shifts from “And God saw that it was good” to “And God saw that it was very good. We are not created disembodied spirits. We aren’t created ghosts. God is said to make us from the dust of the earth. We are of the earth earthy. Our existence is inescapably bodily existence.

This point is bedrock for Christian understanding. We are embodied creatures by God’s ordination. We don’t honour him by denying our bodiliness either overtly or subtly. Neither do we honour him by indulging our bodies and thereby ruining them. The body is good because God-made; the body is good and is to be kept good.

(ii)– If the truth of the creation weren’t enough to confirm the goodness of our bodiliness, the truth of the incarnation certainly would be. In the incarnation God has come among us not in the form of the human; God has come among us as human. The difference is crucial. If God were to come among us merely in the form of the human God would be human in appearance, human in appearance only, but never actually human. In other words, if God came among us in the form of the human he’d be disguising himself as human, masquerading as human, all the while deceiving us. When God comes among us as human, however, there is no disguise or masquerade. He is human, even as he remains God transcendent. What greater affirmation of our bodiliness can there be than the incarnation, the truth that God has come among us as human, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh?

As a Jew Paul will never forget the truth of the creation; as a Christian he will never forget the truth of the incarnation. Little wonder, then that he urges the Christians in Corinth , “Glorify God in your body.” (1st Cor. 6:20) The Gnostics, both ancient and modern, can’t glorify God in their body. Insofar as they reject the body they pronounce evil what God has declared good. Or if they indulge the body, their indulgence humiliates the creator who never intended such indulgence and knows better than we what degradation entails.

As always, children can help us here. Recently a survey asked children what brought them their greatest delight. Here are some of the things the children mentioned: eating ice cream that has real ice chips in it; kicking through “crunchy” autumn leaves; stroking a pet cat; sleeping in a tent when it’s raining; smelling supper cooking; feeling flannelette sheets against your skin on a cold winter’s night. What do all these have in common? They are delights of our bodily senses. The delight that children find everywhere in God’s creation we older people should find as well.

Several years ago I watched a television interview featuring Eric Nesterenko, then a star with the Chicago Black Hawk hockey team. Earlier in the season he had been injured and was unable to play. As he was recovering he took his skates to an outdoor rink in Chicago , one afternoon, and began skating by himself. Soon he was lost in the sheer delight of the physical activity. He traced figure-eights, skated backwards, cut circles tighter and tighter, faster and faster. When he stopped he heard someone applauding ardently. Turning around he found clapping and grinning and shouting an 80-year old woman who had been sitting all the while on a nearby park bench. She had been thrilled at the physical prowess, the bodily expression, of a young man lost in his own bodiliness. There’s something here that God intends for all of us; namely, sheer, simple delight in our God-ordained bodiliness. This is one way of glorifying God in our body.

There are additional ways. Jean Vanier, the lanky fellow whose tall stature is dwarfed by his compassion for disadvantaged people of all sorts; Vanier insists, in his various homes for assorted sufferers, that meal times be happy occasions. He insists on good food and wine. He forbids anything “heavy” during meal time conversation. If someone has bad news to tell or a distressing situation to related, meal time isn’t the time for it.

I’ve long been intrigued by one accusation that our Lord’s enemies levelled against him: “drunkard and glutton”. Certainly he wasn’t a drunkard and glutton. The accusation says far more about his mean-spirited accusers than it says about him. Plainly they resented the rollicking good times he had. He had far more fun at his meals than they had at theirs. He ate with losers, misfits, ne’er-do-wells; the marginalized, the despised; the neglected; the least and the last. These people in turn found in him a welcome, an acceptance, a healing they had found nowhere else. Together they rejoiced in the love and truth and wonder of God their Father even as they relished all that God had provided them. Our Lord’s enemies, on the other hand, were hunkered down in their resentment, arrogance and misery as they planned and plotted how they might demonstrate their spiritual superiority (so-called) and gain public congratulation for it.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul speaks of those who forbid marriage and forbid certain foods, all of which God has created for our blessing, all of which is to be received with thanksgiving. This matter of forbidding food and forbidding marriage (as if non-marriage were a higher calling than marriage); this matter Paul speaks of most vehemently as “the pretension of liars, a doctrine of demons”. Why is the denial of legitimate bodily delight a pretension of liars and a doctrine of demons? Because to scorn the goodness of God’s gifts is to despise God himself.

(iii) —   There is another way Christians glorify God in our body: we esteem and uphold the work of healing. The most casual reading of the gospels surprises us with the space given over to accounts of healing. In view of the healing ministry of our Lord and the healing ministry of the apostolic church, it remains a puzzle to me how Christians today can speak so matter-of-factly, so confidently (I almost said so ridiculously) of sickness as “God’s will”. When Jesus comes upon the woman who’s been bent double for eighteen years (for eighteen years her view of the universe has consisted of dirty feet), Jesus doesn’t bend over to speak with her to make sure she gets the point: “You’ll just have to accept your infirmity since it’s plainly God’s will for you.” The text tells us he’s angry – not at her, but at the evil one’s molestation of her. “Satan has done this”, he hisses; and then he frees her. When Jesus comes upon sick people he heals them; he doesn’t tell them that sickness is God’s will for them.

Every day throughout his public ministry Jesus announces the kingdom. The kingdom of God is the creation of God healed. The forgiveness of sin is the healing of the estrangement between God and his people. Exorcism is healing people of the evil one’s oppression. Undoing paralysis is healing people of physical frustration and futility. Overcoming disease is healing people of debilitating affliction. For this reason a concern for healing of all sorts – spiritual, mental, physical – has always been at the forefront of the church’s mission. We modern folk tend to forget that in our Lord’s understanding, the forgiveness of sin and the undoing of paralysis are alike aspects of the kingdom of God and manifestations of it. After all, if Christ’s redemptive mission is ultimately powerless in the face of bodily ailment, his mission has to be ultimately powerless also in the face of   spiritual ailment, sin, since the kingdom of God is the one, indivisible creation of God healed.


III: — All of which brings us to our last point today. In his first letter Peter writes, “He [Jesus Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree.” (1st Peter 2:24) Throughout the sermon today we’ve underlined the goodness of the body, the God-ordained delights of the body, the relation of the body to the kingdom of God . The body is good. And just because it is good without qualification, the body offered up to God as sacrifice is effective without limit.

You and I are not reducible to our body. There’s more to me than my body, as there’s more to you than your body. Who we are is more than our body; but who we are is never less. While it’s true that I have a mental life and a spiritual life, both my mental life and my spiritual life presuppose my bodily life. My mind is more than my brain. But without my brain (a body part) I have no mind at all. My spiritual life isn’t the same as my body. But without my body there’s no “me” to have a spiritual life. To be sure we’re more than our body; but the “more” that we are is impossible without our body. In other words, our body undergirds and supports everything we are. Our body makes possible everything about us that’s more than our body.

When Peter says that Jesus Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree, Peter means that our Lord’s bodiliness gathered up everything he was; gathered it all up and offered it all up as atoning sacrifice for us whereby we are made “at one” with our Father. “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” means that the sacrifice he made for sin was a sacrifice of everything that he was. And the sacrifice of everything that he was grounds the redemption of everything that we are. The sacrifice of everything he was grounds the redemption of my spiritual life, my mental life, my physical life. “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” means that you and I can now glorify God in our body. We can step ahead in life knowing that everything God created good can be enjoyed without its corrupting us in this era of the Fall. “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” means that his sacrifice exposes the Gnostic heresy as dead wrong twice over. Since our Lord bore our sins, any Gnostic indulgence of the body slights our Lord’s sacrifice. And since he bore our sins in his body, any Gnostic rejection of the body can only be a rejection of Christ’s body, and therefore a rejection of his sacrifice.


At our communion service today our attention is directed to Christ’s body broken. His body broken (and resurrected) spells the restoration of our body and all that our body supports. Therefore his body broken (and resurrected) renders us able to love God with our mind; it enables us to rejoice in our own spirit; it enables us to glorify God in our body.

“He bore our sins – in his body – on the tree.” The body matters.

                                                                                          Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                        

May 2005