Resurrecting the Body in the Church
First Congregational Church of Berkeley; Scripture: 1 Cor 15: 35-58
Yesterday, I cut my grass for the third time this year. Three grass-cuttings inevitably means that Easter must be near.As our beautiful hills turn from Fall's brown into Winter's fresh new green, my grass begins to stir and grow for a new season. By Easter it is overgrown, lush and rampant, demanding my attention almost weekly to keep my father's reproving voice from echoing in my head about the proper way to keep up a yard. It is usually the harmony between the earth's new growth and the Easter story's promise of re-birth that focuses the church's attention at this time of year on the resurrection of Christ, the last part of the Easter story.
In that lovely synchronicity of season and story, we sometimes forget that the first part of the Easter story is filled with betrayal, disappointment, despair, and death. This year, however, with the TV spewing non-stop images of battle and destruction, the new green garments of the earth seem a bit paler to me than in other years, and my thoughts go more readily to the suffering of Jesus and then the unnecessary suffering of so many innocent people through the ages and up to this very minute.
It seems odd to me to so memorialize and glorify the death of one man two thousand years ago in our church liturgies and confessions, while at the same time willingly dismissing and trivializing the deaths of hundreds today as simply the necessary "collateral damage" of war—regrettable but unavoidable. Since Christians in this country are some of the most ardent supporters of this war and our president's decision to wage it—granted they also make up some of its most vociferous opponents as well—I wonder what it is in so much contemporary Christianity that permits such a callous disregard for human life that dead fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children can simply be lumped together as the sad, but necessary, toll of war.
How many lives must be expended to remove one man and his two sons from power? When did human bodies become so disposable? So objectified? So disconnected from feeling? Has Jesus' resurrection in our faith now become such a spiritualized event that its connection to the reality of bodies—other bodies and even our own bodies—been completely lost? Is the body just a commodity to be used and then discarded for the greater gain of the spirit or, in this case the oil companies? Many Christians seem to think that way, with chilling repercussions for the state of the world.
But the Apostle Paul, at least, would never have assented to such heresy: the body, the real flesh and blood body, was for Paul at the center of this present life and the next, the life of the resurrection.
1 Corinthians chapter 15, the last section of which you heard read earlier, is Paul's most elegant defense of resurrection and his most thorough explanation of its "mystery." Now, some of you may be just a bit surprised that I would choose to talk about Paul in a service dedicated to celebrating your eight years of commitment to the reconciliation of all of God's children, gay or straight, dedicated to your open welcome to all of your members, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Paul is, after all, the one responsible for the negativity of what very little there is in the New Testament about same-sex love; the author, indeed, of the only verse in the entire Bible to deal with female homoeroticism (if that is, indeed, what it deals with). If any of those early Christians were in any way to blame for the disgraceful manner in which lesbians and gay men are treated today in many churches throughout the world, the vote would certainly fall on Paul, and, really, on Paul alone.
Yet, it is precisely because of Paul's often well-deserved reputation for moral rigidity and sexual up-tightness that the fullness of what he has to say about resurrection is so remarkable and important to hear. Because, you see, much to the dismay of at least some people within the Corinthian Christian community, Paul insisted that the resurrection of the dead, that ultimate hope of life in Christ of which Christ himself was the first fruit, was not to be an immaterial, vaporous rising of essences at the final trumpet but instead the arousing of bodies.
Indeed, the very language Paul uses to describe the event, docilely translated in most English versions as "resurrection of the dead," in the Greek is literally much more graphic and shocking, "arousing the corpses." "How are corpses [nekroi] to be aroused?" Paul asks in 1 Cor 15:35, emphasizing the physicality and materiality of what he has in mind. His answer in the end, of course, is that it is a mystery (1 Cor 15:51), but the proof of this mystery is that Christ himself was so raised in bodily form.
It was, I believe, inconceivable to Paul that resurrection, that most important promise of Christian faith, should be anything but fully embodied. That same body, descended from the dusty earth of 'adam, will put on the incorruptibility of its heavenly progenitor, the Christ, in the resurrection. The old mortal body of dust and flesh and blood for Paul will be aroused or changed (since not all will die) in the twinkling of an eye at the final trumpet into a new/old body of immortality and glory, bearing now, not only the stamp of the man of dust but also the image of the man of heaven. Granted, for Paul that transformation would lighten the body from the grasps of earth and flesh, but it would never obliterate its materiality, its substance, its unique body-ness. While he would clearly not have gone as far as some second-century Christians, like Tertullian or Cyprian, who argued, for example, that women should not wear make-up because God might not recognize them at the resurrection, nevertheless for Paul, too, it is the material body, this very body, in some form that will be aroused at the resurrection.
Why is this aspect of Paul's belief in resurrection so important? You see, even up-tight Paul understood that the body is at the center of Christian belief. This real, material body, indeed, is the very site of God's coming. Isn't that actually what we mean by incarnation—God coming in the flesh of a real body to dwell on this dusty earth? Think about it: it is the body, not a building or a book or an image or a cloud or a pillar, but this fleshly, blood-filled, throbbing body, Christians claim, that is the location of God's presence with humanity, the site of God's dwelling in Jesus. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
No wonder Paul asserts elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that the body is a temple; it literally is, for it is the dwelling place of God; God is glorified or not in our bodies (1 Cor 6: 19-20). The body, with all its messy imperfections, odd noises, embarrassing needs—and wondrous senses and passionate emotions—this body is where God chose to come in the flesh. And for Paul, it is this blessed old body made new that will be aroused at the final trumpet.
And yet for all that, we latter day Christians, like some among our predecessors in the Corinthian Christian community of Paul's time, prefer to disdain, ignore, or trivialize our bodies, convinced I fear that the more we reject our bodies and their inconvenient needs and wants, the more truly spiritual and Christ-like we will become. For Paul, nothing could be farther from the truth. To reject the body is to reject the holy spirit that permeates its core. But Paul's witness on this point is nearly drowned out by the noises of a culture like ours which is deeply hostile to bodies, repelled by their needs, their physicality, their vulnerability.
We, for example, praise the thinnest body, the most body-less body, as the cultural ideal of beauty; many of us refuse to tell our children anything about the sexual nature of their bodies out of fear or out of ignorance or more often, I'm afraid, just out of embarrassment; we cannot imagine, if we even allow ourselves to think of it, how our parents possibly conceived us (this, I hold, continues to provide our internal inclination to believe in a virgin birth); we cannot bear to think of growing older where the vulnerability and frailty of this dusty breath of life that is our body becomes impossible to ignore; and in church, perhaps especially in church, we do not talk about bodies even in whispers, for, like our Puritan forebears, it seems somehow irreligious to speak of the material world of bodies, laughter, and bright colors in a supposedly holy setting. We co-operate in our culture's view of the body as an expendable commodity—with desperately sad results. I think Paul, as morally conservative as he surely was, would be shocked and dismayed at our aversion to the body.
And there is more. I believe that this aversion to the body plays a large roll in the discomfort and rejection many Christians seem to express about lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people. A couple of years ago, my partner Lynn and I were talking with a friend from childhood whom we see only rarely. For some reason, we had been recounting all the things Lynn and I enjoy doing together, hiking, camping, birding, hopping, golfing or just talking, and then Lynn jokingly said, "It's really hard to believe anyone could find us threatening." Our friend suddenly turned quite serious and replied, "But it's the sex, the physical thing, that upsets people."
"Sex," that's what it comes down to; all the richness of our relationship judged and rejected on the basis of "sex, the physical thing," as though it isn't all physical, all embodied. To be a lesbian or a gay man is to be faced over and over again with the reality of the body, its sexuality, physicality, and materiality, because it's that body and what we do with it in one delightful expression of the fullness of our relationships that makes us the target of disdain, revulsion, and even violence—sometimes in the very name of the God who became flesh.
Whether we like it or not, lesbians and gay men have to a great extent become the living symbols of our society's and our churches' "dis-ease" with the body. Our very existence as sexually embodied beings forces people to think about bodies and their messy, wonderful ways, forces the very conversation many find so embarrassing and so shameful to have in public—or, heaven forbid, in church. Consequently, the enduring presence of lesbians and gay men at the very center of church communions and church debates serves continually to "rub the church's nose" in the reality of the body, this blessed body in which God chose to dwell among us, this living, breathing combination of Holiness and dust. If I say now that the Christian church in this country, at this time desperately needs lesbians and gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people, for its own sake and the sake of its understanding of the gospel—far more than, I suspect, lesbians and gay men need the church—you, perhaps will understand why.
All of us, straight and gay, need to come out of the closet about the body, to cast off our shame, fear, and denial of its earthy substance and passionate needs, and if we do that, we are likely to understand much more fully than we now can why Paul so vehemently held the resurrection of the body to be the ultimate (end) telos, the final goal of Christian life. That final glorious transformation of the bodies of the faithful into the likeness of the body of Christ is, for Paul, the heart of the good news.
Like Paul, I believe that the resurrection of the body is the final goal of Christian life, but unlike Paul, I also believe that resurrection equally describes the process of Christian discipleship and the primary hope for Christian community in the present. To live as a Christian is to be constantly in the process of regeneration, immersed in the fluidity of the old body becoming new again and again. New life in freedom, joy, love, glory and power occurs not only at the moment of the final trumpet's blast, as Paul contended, but also, I believe, in our daily walking, as fully embodied beings, courageously and humbly with our God. Rejecting again and again the tombs of shame and fear which our society and our church have built around our bodies and embracing, despite the danger, fully embodied lives of respect and dignity, justice and mercy—these may be the constant challenges facing lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered folks, but they are equally, I contend, the pressing and constant challenges of daily Christian living in light of resurrection.
And the challenge is enormous, as the gospel stories of Jesus' resurrection remind us. Those tombs often have massive rocks blocking their doors, solid rocks of hatred, prejudice, ignorance, and fear, rocks that sometimes it seems only divine intervention could hope to shift. Then, when we finally manage to burst out into new life and begin to tell our friends the incredibly good news of transformation, many will refuse to believe us and others, blinded so thoroughly by their own fright, will see us now only as strangers.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Christians know these experiences so very well. Such experiences sometimes seem to be the curse of our lives; yet, I believe they are really more often our greatest blessing. You see, we are often forced to recognize that the cost of resurrection is always the death of the life that we have known in the past, but we also realize that that cost, while never without sorrow, is amply rewarded by the joy, freedom, and love that living as regenerated and transformed bodies in faith and hope brings with it. In the present day the lives of faithful lesbians, gay men, bisexual, and transgendered people stand as a cloud of witnesses to the power of the body and to the power of resurrection.
Now, Paul hoped the Corinthian church would come to understand the "mystery" of resurrection by learning from his faith and journey; perhaps today the modern American church can re-discover the costs and joys of resurrection best by learning the lessons of discipleship found so fully embodied in the faith journeys of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people.
Resurrecting the body in the church and in the daily life of Christianity is neither easy nor simple, but—mark my words—it is the really good news Christianity has to offer to a world of disposable, trivialized bodies. It is the song of hope at the heart of renewed community, steadfast love, faithful discipleship, and reunion in glory. It is our present and our future.
Wake up you corpses! The time to embrace is now. Glorify the Creator in your earthy old bodies made new again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Benediction: May the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be embodied in each and every one of you as you go from this place in newness of life. Amen.