I Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
No – don’t answer. I’m just quoting a question which celebs are asked every Saturday in the Guardian. Here’s one answer – by musician James Bay: I have very knobbly elbows.
For a popstar of a different vintage, here’s Simon le Bon on 12 September last year, lead singer with still going 80s pop superstars Duran Duran, who writes: I’ve got this enormous great big red nose. It just seems to get bigger.
But even if we’re not A-list enough for the Guardian, many people seriously dislike their appearance, are unhappy with their body image. And so they spend hours in the gym, or pounding the cold streets of St Andrews; they count calories, or change their diet; they head to the tanning studio, or undergo a nip here, a tuck there.
I’m conscious of how many students worry about how they look, and how such worry may be connected to other aspects of their lives, like family or studies or friendship or feeling judged. Many come and talk to me; many more go to see Student Services for help. If you need help, please find it.
That sense of body image is very individual, but there’s another sense in which body has a social, multiple, broader meaning, such as the body politic, a body of water, a body of work. It’s in this sense that scripture speaks of the body of Christ. As we heard earlier, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And that you is the plural you. That metaphor for the church, the body of Christ, has rolled off the tongue of Christians for centuries now, so often that it’s rare to really think it through. But in an age when bodies are such a central feature of human experience, self-fulfilment and its attendant anxiety, it’s worth exploring what it really means to say the church is Christ’s body.
First, it points to the fact that Christ had a body. Jesus was a human being with head, torso, arms, legs and all the rest. Of course, you may say – but it can be overlooked how utterly fundamental this is for the Christian understanding of who God is. God is embodied, enfleshed; God takes created form. True, he only took the form of half the human race – he had no womb, no eggs formed in him. But the church has nearly always understood that God took human flesh in Jesus, and that while it was male and not female, both male and female humanity were incorporated in the word becoming flesh.
So when we say that the church is the body of Christ, we’re really saying that the church is part of this embodiment. As God became fleshly, and shared creation, feeling hunger, needing to sleep, experiencing cold and pain, so God’s people also share the nature of creation, and take part in God’s mission in and to his world.
I think this might be clearer if we consider a different view. Sometimes it seems as if people promote faith as an escape. An escape from the body, an evasion of the fleshly, a running away from the creaturely. To be a Christian, they might say, is to ascend a spiritual ladder leaving the muddy world behind. This approach, for example, sees almost every bodily action as dangerous barriers between us and God: eating, drinking, sleeping, talking and having sex. Salvation is leaving all this stuff behind – and replacing it with hunger, abstinence, silence, and getting up really early to pray.
But Christ had a body, and the church is the body of Christ. And so salvation comes to us in and as bodily creatures. This means that we do not denigrate food, sleep, friendships and sex as bodily lusts, but as part of God’s good gift, given out of love. Of course, we can be prone to gluttony with any gift; we can take what is not ours; we can be ungrateful; we can be hurtful. But fundamentally, our ethical lives as members of the body of Christ is not about finding ever more ways to wear a hair shirt, but to act justly and work for justice in the shared enjoyment of these gifts.
So Christ had a human body, and his church shares in this embodied mission to the world. And this leads to a third aspect: the public body. Bodies can be seen and heard, touched, smelt and tasted. It’s because others perceive bodies that we can be so anxious about how we seem. But it also means that bodies are social. Bodies interact, and do not exist alone or on their own. And in this interaction, we discover they are different shapes and sizes, colours and weights, scents and textures.
This informs the main thrust of Paul’s writing to the Corinthians in this chapter. There are differences in the human beings who belong to the body of Christ – their embodied experiences are vastly different but these differences cannot undermine their unity in Christ. In v. 13, Paul points out two such differences – between Jew and Greek (meaning non-Jew), and between slave and the free person – while in Galatians he adds a third, between male and female. These are clear distinctions and yet for Paul, in terms of our belonging to God, non-counting. You can’t not belong because you’re one and not the other. We might want to extend this list somewhat today, since churches have often been rather good at devising new ways of finding differences which count for the grace of God. Mentally healthy or mentally ill; capitalist or communist; nationalist or unionist; well-dressed or ragged; white or black or any other race; LGBT or something else; musical or tone deaf; science or arts; thinks Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most profound work of art of the 21st century so far, or thinks it a complete waste of artistic energy. These are real distinctions in our enfleshed life, and they matter for how we relate to each other, and who we are in our ongoing relationship with ourselves and with Christ. But they could not count us out of God’s grace; they cannot ultimately divide us in the church, because the unity of the church is the gift of Christ in his single body.
Moreover, it’s not just that we all belong, but that to some extent we belong because of the others. For Paul, a hand needs a foot, an eye needs an ear, or the body cannot be a body. The message is plain for us. Christ’s body is full of people who are both gifted and talentless depending on the attribute. And even those who may seem weak only seem so. There’s an old hymn about the human body which describes it this way: Strange that a harp of thousand strings
Should keep in tune so long. But it could also be talking of the body of Christ – and that harmony is the unity given by Christ to the church.
Recall that when Jesus spoke to the synagogue congregation in Nazareth, he was calling his body together. And who did he call? The rich, the free, the far-sighted, the liberated? That’s not what we heard – he said instead it is the poor, the captives, the blind and oppressed who are called to the favour of God. This is his body. And we all belong there. It’s been said that evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. That’s the body we beggars belong to. As Mother Teresa said of her work among the poor of Calcutta: I know I am touching the living body of Christ in the broken bodies of the hungry and the suffering.
At the beginning of this Candlemas Semester, people may well be struggling over their body image. It may seem that everyone else has come back so slim, so sleek, so buffed, so popular, so successful in recent exams. Or, for newcomers here, it may seem that your body will never fit inside this bubble. The truth is that there is room here for all shapes and sizes, and that there is a great deal to love about our appearance, our bodies, our minds and our souls, the gifts of God.
But many may also be wondering — how will I fit into the body of Christ here? Well, just as there is a great deal to love about physical body image, the same is true of who we are in the body of Christ. We all bring gifts; we all have a role to play in Christ’s mission of love. In practice, the Chapel is a community of the body of Christ. There are these Sunday services, communion, Evensongs, Compline, Morning Prayers and St Leonard’s Prayer, the Enquirers Group, the Ministry Discernment Group, trips for international students, the mailing list and so on. And all are welcome to as many or as few events as you want.
But of course, other churches are, well, more churchy – and you may be here today to taste the Chapel, do the Pier walk, and then find a home for your faith elsewhere in one of the churches in St Andrews. That’s fine – and you never need to feel embarrassed about it. But fundamentally, it is good not to be alone, to be part of Christ’s body, acknowledging our giftedness and our glaring absences with others, and to take part in Christ’s bodily mission of divine love in the world. There may well be plenty to dislike about the church’s appearance in the world – but there is much we can give simply by being the beloved people God is forming us to be.