I try to avoid Pauline texts as much as possible. In addition to what in my estimation is a very non-systematic approach, Pauline texts have the unfortunate honor of establishing the language we use to talk about our faith. I say unfortunate because it is impossible to hear these texts without the weight of the entire history of interpretation of the text. When we read Paul, we read him with Augustine and Martin Luther and Rene Descartes and Karl Barth looking over our shoulders, whispering in our ears. And so, one would not normally think a simple word like “bodies” would be an action-packed exegetical summer blockbuster, but, oh-em-gee, one would be so wrong.
First, let’s deal with a little baggage. Western culture has a radical ambivalence toward the body, simultaneously body-obsessed and body-hating. Philosophically and theologically the body is often seen as a burdensome shell to be resisted in life and finally, gloriously, shucked in death. Culturally it is the means by which we judge and are judged. If we pay attention to our bodies, we are vain; if we don’t, we are slovenly or slothful. No matter what we do, our bodies can turn on us when we least expect it and will inevitably wither and die. It is no wonder we want to distance ourselves from our bodies, to hope that, whatever we are, it is not our fickle flesh.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are our bodies. Don’t worry. It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s quite beautiful. To be embodied is to exist in a particular time and place. Our bodies are a unique point of reference that cannot possibly be duplicated and from which we construct the world around us. As such, our bodies are located in a web of relationships with other bodies. Our “selves” are constructed by those relationships. This is the dance of existence: always constructing and being constructed. Thus our bodies are spiritual, being the locus of transformation through the mind and heart and will. As embodied beings, we press against one another leaving impressions like pieces of soft clay.
It is part of the peculiar beauty of our faith that we are deeply concerned with bodies. Despite the diversity of views in Christendom, past and present, we all agree that there was something so important about bodies that God had to get one. When we speak of the Incarnation, we are talking about the embodiment of God in the world. That embodiment continues in the Church, which, at Paul’s suggestion, we refer to as the Body of Christ. And here, Paul exhorts us to make our bodies a living sacrifice, to be transformed, to be impressed by and impress ourselves on the soft clay of the Body of God.
Join us this Sunday as we try to redeem our attitudes toward bodies, to see them as God does: good and acceptable and perfect.
Grace and Peace,