Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-28; Hebrews 1:1-3a; Colossians 1:15-20; 2:8-12
About one hundred years after the time of Jesus, in the early second century, the Christian movement was still a tiny, insignificant presence in the Roman Empire. According to the literature that survives from those decades, the leaders of Christian congregations were concerned about the church’s future. For the most part, their fears were less about persecution or the temptations brought by immorality in the surrounding culture, and more about internal divisions. What did it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? When different segments of the church are articulating Christian faith in different ways, which differences are worth fighting about? Which theological claims need to be rejected, either as wrong or as dangerous—as bad for our neighbors?
One theological issue that concerned many was the unresolved question of Jesus’s humanity. Most Christians at that time believed that Jesus was divine in some way, but the open question was: just how divine is he? If Jesus was “the Son of God” and “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” as our scripture reading from Hebrews says, could he still have been human at all?
It might seem like an arcane or maybe a pointless question.
But one of the church’s leaders in the early second century, named Ignatius, had an insight into this debate. To him, the question was far from pointless because it had implications beyond just deciding doctrine. It would affect how Christians would conduct themselves. Ignatius was a leader of Christian congregations in Syria, in a city called Antioch. He urged fellow Christians to reject other leaders who taught that Jesus was not a human being in the flesh in the same way you and I are. Ignatius claimed that the people who were repulsed by the notion of a Christ who meets us as body and blood had problems that went far beyond bad thinking. He wrote this about them:
They [these other teachers] have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty.”[i]
In other words, if you think that God is too great, too holy, too removed to take part in embodied life—or if you think that embodied, human living is too insignificant—then beware. Before long you’ll be tempted to pay little attention to embodied living. You’ll overlook human suffering. If the only thing that matters is arriving at otherworldly bliss with a God who is too splendid to enter into the messiness of human existence, you’ll dismiss the importance of embodied life. In that case, why care about anything concerning your neighbors, except for their souls?
Ignatius knew that a little exaggeration helps to win an argument. Like politicians on the campaign trail he knew the trick of not simply disagreeing with your opponents’ ideas, but also painting your rivals as cruel people whose polices reveal that, deep down, they hate things like rainbows, puppies, and apple pie. But even beyond the hyperbole, Ignatius was onto something: theology matters. Theology—what we say is true about God—has consequences for our behavior. Bad theology kills.
What Ignatius and several biblical authors don’t want us to miss is the stunning reality that in Jesus of Nazareth God encounters us in a human body. There’s no easy way to explain that, let alone prove that. But… why should it be easy? In the scripture readings today we encounter various ways of extolling God’s desire to participate with and influence the world through human ways of being, living, knowing, and working. The authors of these texts draw on philosophical currents that were common in their time to give expression to something that defies simple explanation: God is entirely, and willfully, intwined within human experience. We aren’t talking about a God who lives somewhere else and checks in on humanity from time to time. We’re talking about a God with a body.
On the whole, the Christian church has repeatedly failed to reckon well with human bodies. We’ve treated them with suspicion. We act as if bodies are things we need to set aside or control if we want real religious stuff to happen. We’ve blamed bodies for temptations and weaknesses. We have hidden bodies beneath bulky robes. We have bought into religious lies about prosperity and wellness—ideas that made us either despise the shapes and conditions of our own bodies or turn away from others who live with physical ailments. We’ve made the quest for body positivity unattainable for many, and then stigmatized it as idolatry for those who arrive there. We’ve banished embodied forms of artistic expressions from our churches by labeling them distractions from what allows us to meditate on the holy.
Even worse, the Christian church’s resistance to embracing the potential for holiness within humanity’s embodied presence in the world has clear links to some of the church’s worst theological legacies—the ideas that sanction violence against bodies. Anti-Blackness, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia—the Christian church can’t fully repair these damages unless we understand that human beings enjoy communion with God in embodied ways—literally within our wildly diverse and sometimes non-conforming bodies. We in the church won’t bring about real change simply by resolving to be nicer to everyone. Together we have to examine some of our core beliefs and assumptions about our faith to see how they may have encouraged and validated such hatred.
Theology matters. Bad theology kills.
Today’s sermon is about more than exploring how dance and movement can be a form of praise to God, although that’s part of the message this morning. Rather, this is about a present and critical challenge we face right now: to articulate a Christian faith that will be a justice-promoting and life-giving alternative to other contemporary expressions of Christian religion.
Following the lead of our scripture readings, the first thing we should notice is that God has called us to honor human bodies, because God honors embodied existence. Indeed, God shares in that existence.
You won’t find the Wisdom of Solomon, which Carol just read, in the pew Bibles here at Westminster, but this writing from a Jewish author during the decades prior to Jesus’s birth describes Divine Wisdom in ways similar to some books in the Protestant Bible, and it rings familiar to how several New Testament authors describe Jesus.
Using feminine language, the book personifies God’s life-giving Wisdom as a woman circulating in the world, creating and nurturing wherever she goes. She’s not less than God but is a gendered manifestation of divine glory. This characterization of Wisdom is a way of saying that it is God’s good pleasure to imbue all things. It should put an end to old images we’ve inherited of God as an old man residing in the sky or as a celestial, invisible power that keeps aloof from humanity, our struggles, and the ways we express ourselves. Instead, God is as close to the human experience as each of us is close to our own skin.
The Letter to the Colossians describes Jesus in similar ways, also siphoning evocative language from of the philosophical groundwater of the time. In the letter’s descriptions of the fullness of God dwelling bodily, we discover that in Jesus Christ God is doing more than just trying on a body as an experiment, to see how it feels. God takes on the human experience, taking what it means to be human into God’s own existence.
Indeed, we ourselves take on aspects of God’s own identity, as seen when Colossians speaks about the changes that occur in the union we share with Christ through baptism—which is a full-bodied and sensory ritual if there ever was one.
God enters into solidarity with humanity. Judging from Jesus’s activity in the Gospels, that solidarity is shared especially with suffering, ailing, disabled, ostracized, and dying bodies. In Jesus’s interactions with other bodies, he (or, God) experiences their experiences—their joys and their disappointments, their creative power, and their infirmity. He does not come to save us from our bodies. He saves us in our bodies. God does not hoard divine glory solely within God’s own self. God spreads it around, from human body to human body.[ii]
Any religion that has incarnation at its center has to be interested in bodies.
If indeed God honors embodied existence through our encounters with Divine Wisdom and Jesus Christ, then a second point deserves our attention: Our existence as embodied creatures matters.
The life of faith is not about escaping to some higher consciousness or transcendence if we want to meet God. It’s in our bodies where we experience what God is like and where we communicate our experiences—sometimes in dance and other art forms, but for most of us in speech, emotion, effort, and simply being present. Our whole bodies participate in, respond to, and create these experiences. We are places where theology receives expression—where interaction with God and testimony about God happen.
It is in our bodies, whether through pleasant or painful experiences, where we learn how refreshing grace feels. Our bodies experience the power and the struggle of hope. If we’re fortunate, we learn how to love and to be loved with our bodies. Some bodies are sites of creation, birthing new life into the world even at great risk to themselves. In faith we insist that even broken minds and uncommunicative bodies may have the capacity for these things, and to show forth the glory of God, in life and even in death. All of these experiences are sacred, for all of them can be opportunities for communion with God.
This isn’t to say that our bodies are entirely reliable spiritual barometers or that our connections with God depend on health. Of course our bodies break down and experience hopelessness, grief, illness, violence, infertility, psychological torment, and exploitation. But don’t presume that God honors human existence despite that frailty. A better way of thinking about it is that God honors and becomes known through human existence precisely through our frailty. The God who suffered humiliation in Jesus Christ reaffirms the inherent dignity of our fragile and disintegrating selves. Even greater, the God who was put to death in Jesus Christ knows what it means to reclaim those experiences, always turning over the soil to foster opportunities for new life.
None of our bodies ventures into these divine encounters alone. None of us exists alone. None of us belongs solely to ourself. That’s the third point about embodied faith: in Christ, our bodies and our identities are interconnected.
In ancient Greek culture, bodies were considered permeable or porous things, not closed or autonomous systems but always open to the world, influencing and being influenced by the environments around them. According to that view, we share, you and I, the same stuff, physically and spiritually speaking. We are always in a dynamic, shared existence with all that is around us.
Of course the Covid pandemic has made the case for a similar, less glamorous, point of view: My body affects your body. My health influences your health. Public health is also personal health. None of us is a fully independent, self-contained being. We understand now in new ways that the breath of either a stranger or a loved one could end up killing a person.
Even as all of us have recently inhaled particulates from burning forests out west and integrated them into our bodies, we know that our bodily connections aren’t only with the wider natural world. Our bodies consist of connections in how we’re wired internally, as neuroscientists know. Elite athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have called fresh attention to the links between the things a body can do and mental health. Queer and Black bodies and voices are shining new light on the chronic physiological effects of persistent and generational trauma.
Appreciating the sacredness of embodied living cannot isolate us and turn us inward. It must take us into community, where we consider how we think, given the connections we share. What we feel as a community. How we act. What we value. How we experience the world. Christian community isn’t an idea hatched up to make sure no one gets left out or that congregations don’t wither and die. Christian community is the consequence of encounters with a God whose divine goodness pervades all of us, forming us, collectively, to learn from one another’s experiences and to return praise to God with all our creativity, with all aspects of our living—indeed, with the fullness of our bodies, whether you dance or sit, sing or remain quiet.
This connected aspect of our existence is what makes God’s solidarity with humanity so striking, because a Christian view of the full humanity of Jesus allows us to discover that God becomes permeable, affected by us. All of us—we all participate in nothing less than the life of God. And we cannot speak of God, the God we meet in Jesus Christ, without speaking of God’s own embodiment—God’s humanity.[iii]
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Once again, theology matters. Why are the presence of Divine Wisdom and the humanity of Jesus so important? Why is it vital to insist on an incarnate God, sometimes in contrast to other Christian groups that describe a Jesus who is so removed from human vulnerability that his feet seem barely to touch the ground? Because this way of understanding the Christian message urges us to honor and cherish our embodied existence, to protect the inherent worth and dignity of all bodies, and to recognize that the fullness of God dwells in the bodies we encounter all around us.
Theology matters, finally, not because we reduce our spiritual lives to definitions and fancy terms. Theology matters to the extent that it helps us express what each of us experiences in our encounters with God.
Those divine encounters are not all the same, but our scriptures and traditions invite us to see their similarities in the ways they are life-giving. They promote vitality and wellbeing even in our bodies that remain subject to suffering and decline.
Find comfort in the solidarity God expresses toward you in the humanity of Jesus. Find your calling, your purpose, in the solidarity God expresses toward those whom society asks us to treat as expendable—the people whose misery seems unavoidable.[iv]
How do we develop compassion for people who arouse contempt in us? How do we learn to accept and love ourselves? How do we grow in generosity? How do we participate more deeply in community and draw life from that experience? Begin by taking this one thing seriously: God is revealed to us in human bodies.
That realization should fill us with awe, and then it returns us to where we began, with Ignatius of Antioch and his claim that our outlook on God will have consequences for how we treat one another and our neighbors.
Friends, together each of us bears the image of God. Together we participate in the life of God. Feel the love. Express joy. Affirm the dignity of the heavenly bodies seated and living all around you.
And say it after I say it… Thanks be to God.
[i] Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrnaeans 6.2 (The Apostolic Fathers; 3d ed.; trans. Michael Holmes; Baker Academic, 2007).
[ii] On this paragraph, see David E. Fredrickson, “What Difference Does Jesus Make for God?” Dialog 37 (1998): 104–10.
[iii] See further, Karl Barth, “The Humanity of God,” pages 37-65 in The Humanity of God (John Knox, 1960).
[iv] See further, M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Fortress, 2010), 99–101.