Body and SoulPrinter-friendly version
Note: This sermon was presented on May 7, 2000, at Shalom Mennonite Church,
Newton, Kansas. Sermon text is Luke 24:28-35.
These are the opening lines to Walt Whitman’s “I Sing The Body Electric”. His is a joyful, celebratory song of the human body charged full with the charge of the soul. From the “sprawl and fullness of babes” to the most intimate and sacred details of the male and female forms, he sings the beauty of soulful embodiment without shame or embarrassment. I’ve often thought that it could be adapted into a good hymn, but I suppose it might do more than raise some folks’ eyebrows.
There is something quite beautiful about a creature that is fully at home in its own body. I have been noticing such beauty in my own home over the last several weeks since Yolanda and I added another warm body to our family. After a trip to the local humane society shelter a couple of months ago we returned with a very small, and very lively kitten. The kitten was a little worse for wear, with wild looking fur and a rather nasty looking scrape on its nose. But, like any kitten, it busied itself jumping around our house, pouncing on invisible mice, and delighting in any affectionate touches nearby humans had to offer.
We soon settled on the name “Merlin” for the magical way he seemed to disappear and the reappear right under our feet. Merlin has grown very quickly and is now more than twice the size he was on that first day he entered our home. Despite these rapid changes and growth spurts he has seemed very comfortable in his skin. Whether stretching into arched yoga-like postures, stalking flies in the house, or lounging on the lap of his choice, each move seems so natural and fluid. There are certainly exceptions. A recent issue of the Newton Kansan reported that some of Newton’s finest fire-fighters heroically rescued a cat from a tree at 319 S. Pine . . . that was Merlin. His body knows how to go up but not down.
There is a lot to be learned from observing animals and the sense of comfort they seem to have in their bodies. Sometimes we find human animals who teach us about this. There are the obvious folks, the skilled athletes whose bodies have been highly trained and sculpted and seem to move in ways that can only be described with the poet’s metaphors. I tend to prefer the so-called “ordinary” folks I encounter from time to time, folks of all ages and shapes and sizes who are at home in their physical bodies and who seem to pass through the world with a grace and ease that stands out in a crowd. Such folks have a soulful nature to their physical beings.
I think of the many hands of farmers I have shaken, with their thickened fingers that so skillfully work soil, handle machinery, and gently help deliver many newborn animals into the world. I think of the silky movements of my grandmother’s hands as she deftly passed the needle and thread through the surface of many quilts. I think of small children playing, running, and rolling down hillsides, relishing in touches, tastes, smells, and sights. I think of the people I have seen in crowds who have lost the sense of sight, but who move with assuredness and grace nonetheless, relying on their body’s knowledge in ways I may never understand. And I think of musicians whose bodies seem so at home in conversation with their instruments.
I believe such people stand out because we live in a culture where embodiment is not encouraged. There is little encouragement to be at home in our bodies, and even less encouragement to recognize the important link between body and spirit, or the embodiment of the human soul.
There is a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry reminding both women and men that the war against imperfections and aging must be waged each and every day if one is to be at one’s best. We willingly submit to a surgeon’s scalpel in a process of cutting and pasting (disguised in language like “augmentation” and “reduction”) that usually has little to do with health and more to do with trying to achieve narrowly defined norms we have established regarding physical beauty. We talk about “beating our bodies into shape,” revealing that even our exercise is motivated more by concerns for appearance than by concerns for our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. And if we cannot win the battle against these bodies, there is a host of chemicals out there that promise an escape from these fleshy confines — but only for awhile.
Our battles with our physical selves seem to create walls within our beings. We cordon off our physical, mental, and spiritual selves and become alienated people. It seems to me that there are a lot of souls in this world that are not at home in their bodies, souls in exile. And I am not sure our Christian faith has always helped us overcome this alienation within ourselves.
In the history of Christianity it is hard to find a more disparaging view of the human body and the physical world than what was expressed by the early Gnostics. Many Gnostics were followers of Christ but held a worldview that was quite different from the other Christians during the first centuries of the church. In their cosmology, human beings represented “sparks” or “divine seeds” that had fallen from the divine, transcendent realm and became entrapped in human bodies within the physical universe — a universe which they understood to be wholly evil. The individual human is able to escape the imprisonment of the body, they believed, only by attaining divine knowledge or “gnosis.”
The Gnostics were condemned as heretics in the fourth and fifth centuries, but I find it interesting that the Christian church throughout history has revealed certain similarities with the Gnostic worldview. The church has frequently been quick to point out the perils and evils of physical existence. Our bodies have been viewed as the seat of human sinfulness, and the body is understood as something against which the believer must guard the soul.
In many Christian churches today, including Mennonite churches, there is the unspoken understanding that, aside from singing and speaking, the body should be silent in worship. Clapping hands to the beat of a hymn is awkward and sometimes even frowned upon. When a worship leader or pastor says “Let us pray” we all assume the proper position: a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands. In the name of piety and modesty we have removed dancing almost entirely from our communal life as Christians (many of us were taught early on what it leads to!).
Aside from discussions of people’s ailments and injuries we so rarely even talk about our bodies in church. The church has often failed to help us realize the healing and wholeness that can be found when we understand our souls as embodied in this life, and understand this as a sacred gift, created and given by God.
One wonders if we have really read the scriptures we appeal to as foundational for our faith. While he was traveling and teaching Jesus touched, embraced, washed feet, spit, ate, drank, walked and, I suspect, even danced. In his wonderful stories he used concrete images that appealed to people’s senses and physical ways of knowing their world. In his death, Jesus experienced real physical agony, thirst, and hunger. Even in the stories of his resurrection we tell in the Easter season we do not find a spirit or ghost-like figure who has been released from physical bondage, we find another body, one that the disciples can touch, one that bears scars, and one that stands there before them and eats fish.
In this morning’s story from the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” [24:39]. Look, see, touch, flesh, bones, hands, feet . . . even in Christ’s death we find this clear affirmation of embodiment. We pronounce Christ as both human and divine, in our Mennonite Confession of Faith and in our worship, but we so rarely explore the fullness of what that means.
In Christ God’s Word is embodied — enfleshed — and reveals to us not only the hopeful message that there is life eternal (life beyond these earthly bodies) but also that these earthly bodies provide us with opportunities to grow closer to God and one another. Ours are the “good” bodies spoken of in Genesis, bodies molded from the soil. Our breath is the breath of God [Gen. 2:7].
It is not insignificant that after Christ reveals his resurrected body to the disciples in this story, he commissions them, as witnesses, to go out and proclaim the message of repentance and forgiveness to “all nations.” In essence he is saying to them in words and in presence: “you will now be my body here on earth.” It is an image that has been an important and more familiar one for Christians, and especially Mennonites: the church as the body of Christ in the world. Not only is the embodiment of the individual soul affirmed in Christ but the body created by the unity of many embodied souls is affirmed and desired by God as well.
In the resurrection of Christ we do not find dualistic pronouncements like: “Earth bad, Heaven good!,” or, “body bad, soul good!” Instead, there is an affirmation of soul and body together — a singing of the body charged with soul. Eternal life is promised, and our present lives as souls that are embodied on this earth is celebrated and blessed as well. None of us yet know the full meaning of eternal life, but we do know what it means to live these lives, in these unique bodies. Through these lives and these bodies, the risen Christ calls us to see, listen, speak, feel, taste, and even dance our way towards God. And as we gather here in worship we are reminded that this is best done not alone, but together, as one body. AMEN