Good is the Flesh

Below is my sermon from March 4, 2018. It is centered on the Gospel text from John 2, of Jesus cleansing the temple. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A friend of mine, a fellow pastor, shared a hymn on Facebook this week that our Gospel reading made them think of. I read it, and was so struck by it, that I wanted to share part of it with you. It’s written by Brian Wren, and titled, “Good is the Flesh.”

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,

good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,

sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,

growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,

longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

I had never heard the truth of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, portrayed so vividly before. I grew up in the church, and learned at some point, about the Incarnation. I learned that God became human in Jesus, and how important that was. But I suppose I never thought through what it meant that God took on our flesh.

Flesh isn’t a word we say too often. It might even make us a little bit squeamish. A lot of that hymn might make us a little bit squeamish, honestly. But what this hymn does, as what I didn’t do growing up in the church, is make the connection between the Incarnation of God and actual bodies, actual flesh. I didn’t learn in church how to honor the sacred found in our bodies, our muscles, our arms and legs, our hair.

But that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in this week’s Gospel. He’s clearing out the temple of all the money-changers, the buyers and sellers there for the sacrificial system. Jesus says to those who would destroy the temple of God that he will raise it again in three days. But the people misunderstand—of course they do—he’s not being very clear. They think he means the temple built by Herod the Great, that they are standing in.

But no, the writer of John explains, Jesus is not speaking about wood or bricks or stone. The home of the transcendent God is not found in a courtyard, or an altar, or a sanctuary. God resides in a different kind of temple: the temple of Jesus’ own body.

What does it mean to honor human bodies—mine, yours, everyone’s—as holy places? As homes for God? It’s not easy to do. We often get the sense in religious culture that bodies are bad, that they’re inherently sinful or shameful. Or, at the very least, that they hold us back. That’s part of why we fast during Lent. Fasting has the goal of controlling our bodies, of subduing our bodies, so that we might be more spiritually aware. Bodies aren’t spiritual.

And, in the secular culture, bodies might not be shamed—although many are—but they are all commodified. Used for the sake of a profit. I have to admit, I buy into this thinking. I often see my own body as something that I need to regulate, or master, or minimize. It’s always easier to see its flaws than its God-given dignity and worth. I don’t know when I’ve ever thought of my body as holy.

It’s hard in other ways, too. Sometimes our bodies feel more like curses than gifts. They get sick. They get worn down. Sometimes they are so wracked by illness that they no longer seem to work at all anymore.

And yet we are people of the incarnation. We are people who are called to cherish and to use our whole bodies by Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension tells us, to look, to see, to break bread and eat together, to wash one another’s feet. To literally embody God’s love and carry it forth with us.

Can we let go of the squeamishness, of the contempt that surrounds talk of bodies, and offer to God our whole selves? We say that the church is the body of Christ in the world. In the Lutheran church, our motto is: God’s work. Our hands. This morning, we welcome new members into that body. At the first service, new members joining our congregation, our expression of God’s presence. And at the second service, Owen DeLar, baptized into the great universal and eternal body of Christ. God has no body in this world but us.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he wasn’t condemning Judaism, or even temple worship, but he was protesting the system it had become. A way of blocking access to the divine. It literally kept bodies, especially of the poor, the marginalized, away from God. That’s not something that is unique to first-century Judaism, by the way.

And it makes Jesus angry. It makes Jesus angry, because we cannot value our bodies as holy, we cannot cherish God’s love for our bodies, without also recognizing that God loves all bodies everywhere. All bodies. The bodies of hungry children and indentured women. The bodies of slave laborers half a world away and desperate refugees at our door. The bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking business people. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.”

To value our own bodies as God’s temple, as places of God’s presence, we cannot stand by while other bodies suffer. Jesus got angry. Anger isn’t something we talk about much in churches either, except to say we shouldn’t be angry. But sometimes, anger is what’s called for. Jesus, it says, burned with zeal. With a righteous, holy anger. Sometimes meekness and politeness doesn’t get the job done.

Jesus allowed a holy anger to move him to action on behalf of the helpless and the voiceless. If human bodies are truly temples—holy places where heaven and earth meet, then we must work, as Jesus did, to preserve and protect these holy places from every form of disrespect and desecration.

“Good is the body,” says Brian Wren’s hymn, “for good and for God.” Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God has no body in this world but ours. It is both a fantastic gift and a great responsibility. And thanks be to God that we are honored with both. Amen.

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One thought on “Good is the Flesh

  1. In this time of so much glorifying the body in unholy ways and of the awful body-shaming that goes on, I think it’s great that you emphasized the holiness of the body. It helps me, every time I want to eat unhealthy food or do something unhealthy to my body, to remind myself that my body is a temple given to me by God that should be treated with respect. (That doesn’t mean that I never go ahead and have that second piece of cake anyway!) I also liked the way you tied Jesus’ anger in the temple to respect for the body.

    Like

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