|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Bodies and Souls – Epiphany 2
Have you ever read some rule somewhere and thought, now why do they think they need to tell me that? It usually happens for me in amusement parks or zoos, or else comes as part of the packaged instructions on toys or games. It’s stuff that seems so abundantly clear to everyone around you that you think it must be a waste of effort, ink, and energy for that company or park or whatever to put it up. “Don’t put your hand through the lion’s cage.” “Don’t consume the silicone packet.” Well, the hilariously sad truth is that normally those signs are put up because someone, at some point, did the ridiculous thing that is now cautioned. That rule has to be posted because for some people, the obvious does, in fact, need stating.
Stating or re-stating the obvious seems to be the driving principle of the section of Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth that we read just a moment ago. This reading reveals something about Paul and his take on the Christian life, something that I’ll explore in more detail in a moment. But it also shows us something about the Corinthians, because the fact that Paul has to take time to write this out to them means that some of the people of Corinth apparently needed to hear it.
The gist of the issue was this: there were some members of the Christian Church in Corinth who took the philosophical position that the gospel meant absolute and complete human freedom. The idea of grace—that through the death of Jesus Christ God’s forgiveness is absolute, no matter what—meant sin was no longer a problem. The Corinthians believed their freedom as Christians meant they could do whatever they wanted. Didn’t matter what. “All things are lawful for me,” they apparently went around saying, which essentially meant, “There are no longer any rules.” And because they believed in the doctrine of grace in that way, they didn’t have any problems with…say…heading down to the local Roman brothel and regularly visiting prostitutes.
Which is why Paul had to dedicate a whole section of his letter to telling the Corinthians that they had taken something true and perversely twisted it. He had to state what might seem obvious: don’t get together with prostitutes. But there is more in his explanation than just a man scolding some misbehaving followers, and it’s about far more than reminding us of the immorality of prostitution. Even if that particular wrongdoing is not something you’ve personally struggled with, what Paul says here is still profoundly important to reckon with.
To understand why requires a little more backstory. In Paul’s day, one of the central tenants of Greek philosophy was that the body and spirit were separate and distinct. Your spirit inhabited your body, but it wasn’t really connected to your body, because your body was just flawed, inferior, mortal stuff. What really mattered was the state and condition of your spirit. In Greek philosophy, you have to overcome your body in order to attain true spiritual enlightenment. It’s a sort of Dualism: body versus spirit; flesh versus soul.
This concept may have originated in ancient Greek philosophy, but the belief in a “body versus spirit conflict” is every bit as prominent today. America in 2018 is just as dualistic as Corinth in 45 or 50. Just think about our constant fixation with overcoming our aging bodies with creams and medications and treatments; we spend fortunes to conquer our disobedient bodies and force (or try to force) them to submit to the youthful spirit inside of us. Or how about the way we structure our week? Aren’t we dualistic when we come to church on Sunday to do “spiritual things,” but then return to our homes and routines and activities out there in the “real world”? We think of spiritual stuff as being somehow different from what we do in our offices or kitchens or schools, as though our spirits are somehow not really there or involved.
Even though I’m not worried that we have a prostitution problem at Transfiguration, I think we need to really hear what Paul has to say. Paul is not just warning us about the spiritual side of sex. He’s making a bigger point about the way our lives and our world are integrated. There are not separate realities, spiritual and physical. The spiritual and the physical are two sides of the same coin. The world is not separated into categories, as though what we do with our bodies has no meaning for the realm of the spiritual, or what we do during the week isn’t connected to what we do in church on Sundays. There is no body-versus-spirit divide; they blend together to constitute our reality.
The Book of Genesis tells a story about the origin of human beings, and in that story in Genesis 2, God breathed spirit into some dirt and it came alive. It’s an enormously important story, but it’s not really about the historical moment God made the first human in a garden in the Middle East roughly 6,000 years. It’s a story about the nature of life. The Bible is clear: we are not, nor have we ever been, spirits hovering without bodies or forms, and neither are we simply dust that lacks God’s spirit inside of it. Human life is the joining of bodies and souls.
So when we talk about the body and what we do with it, there are implications. Paul says that our bodies are the houses of God, places where the Holy Spirit actually dwells. And that means what we do with our bodies matters. How we use our bodies, and what we do with them has sacred meaning. Think about what you’ve done with your body in the last week and ask yourself if you were ever even aware of the spiritual nature of what you were doing. Because there is no such thing as a “spiritual part” of ourselves and a “physical part” of ourselves. We don’t do “spiritual things” apart from our physical self. It is all one and the same.
When we really wrestle with what this means, life begins to change, just as it did for the Christians in Corinth. Paul helped them realize they had to stop visiting the proverbial street corner, but we must also take stock of the dangerously casual way sex is experienced and consumed in our society. Because when we realize that body and spirit are joined, and when we understand that Christ really is present within our bodies, it presents us with a radically different way of seeing our sexual identities.
Paul also got the Corinthians to understand that the Eucharist was not the only spiritual meal we eat as Christians, and it’s a lesson we need to remember, too. The act of putting food into our bodies is a physical necessity, and occasionally we do it just because we have to, but every act of eating has a spiritual dimension. After all, if your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, then what you put into it should be worthy of that holiness, and that means we need to be more aware of where the food comes from, and who grew it or raised it or cooked it or set it in front of us. Eating is not just about fueling our bodies. It is feeding our souls, too.
The same is true for sleeping, and working, and all the other things we do with our bodies (just try driving your car in this state of mind, and see if anything changes!). Our whole selves, body and spirit, belongs to God. And all of it, body and spirit combine to give glory to the Lord our Maker.
I invite you to take time this coming week and pause before all those little actions you normally go about without much thought. Take a moment to ponder how your physical life is also the domain of God…because when your eyes are opened to this complete reality, you will begin to feel the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, and make your life worthy of such an honor.