M. Jeanne Wirpsa
August 16, 2015
True confessions. I’ve haven’t been at All Saints much lately. In the late spring and summer months, my garden and the bike paths become my sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Stooping low to pull weeds, dripping sweat while mowing or digging holes to plant bushes, and savoring the sweet aroma of basil, thyme and arugula as I harvest the fruit of my labor—this is how I worship God. Pedaling hard and fast until my thighs burn, feeling the cool breeze caress my arms, reveling in the majestic calm of Lake Michigan, filling my ears with the breath of runners—this is how I worship God.
It is not merely being in nature that connects me so deeply with the holy. It is something more. It is something about the fleshiness, the embodiment, the engagement of all my senses that allows me to taste and see the holy so fully. It is the same experience I had as a martial artist, sinking into the earth in a low stance, breathing deep into my tanden and exhaling power with a loud shout, KIAI. It is the same experience I had when nursing my children, smelling their baby-ness, gazing upon their angelic, relaxed faces, feeling their warm flesh mashed up against mine almost dissolving the skin that created a boundary between us.
At first glance, both the writer of Ephesians and the Gospel of John seem to dismiss the importance of the flesh, of embodiment to our spiritual life. From Ephesians, “for our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly seats.” And from John, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” Useless! Hmm. Pretty strong words. Such passages—influenced by Greek and Gnostic world views—became the foundation for the other-worldly, body-negating, spiritualized Christianity promoted at various stages of history and still embraced by some churches today.
Thank goodness this is not the only understanding of the relationship between the flesh and spirit found in scripture or held by communities of faith – or I might not be a Christian today. If we look more closely at both the Ephesians and John readings for today, we catch glimpses of that form of Christianity that values, embraces, and upholds the material, incarnate, fleshly world as the dwelling place of the divine.
Back to Ephesians. Now don’t get tripped up on the armor and war imagery, as I sometimes do. Look deeper. Notice how the writer names just about every part of the human body as a locus of the divine – our waists, breasts, feet, arms, and heads -- all are to be clothed with the divine. Around our waist we are to fasten the belt of truth, our chests don the breastplate of righteousness, our feet receive shoes of peace, our heads the helmet of salvation, and our arms the shield of faith. God’s Spirit couldn’t get much closer or all enveloping, now could it?
Well maybe it could. Take a look at the opening lines of our passage from John. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Now while we may read these words as purely symbolic or metaphoric, the fact is we participate in a ritual where we really do eat and drink. We ingest the body and blood of Jesus, of God. We taste the holy with our lips, our tongues, our taste buds. We chew the bread, feel it pass through our esophagus, and land in our stomach. The heat from the wine burns ever so slightly as we swallow. This is REAL. That which seems remote, inaccessible, spiritual is not really so far off after all. We eat and drink so that God abides in us, and us in God.
Sara Miles, in her spiritual memoir, Take This Bread, writes about her transformative experience of stumbling into an Episcopal church and eating bread in the form of communion. This experience converts her from an atheist chef to an activist Christian, feeding the hungry. “It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of the incarnation in its grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected.” She goes on to make an extraordinary, graphic, connection between eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ with the bodily process of reproduction: “I grew inside my mother, the way Katie grew inside me. I came out of her and ate her, just as Katie ate my body, literally, to live. And it was the same with my father: He had helped make me. . . . Like Jesus, he had gone inside someone else’s body and then become part of me. The shape of my hands, the way I cleared my throat, the color of my eyes: My parents lived in me—body and soul, DNA and spirit. That was like the bread becoming God becoming me.”
Materiality. Physicality. Incarnation. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Around your waist fasten the belt of truth. Take. Eat. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. How much closer can we get to the holy?
When many of his disciples heard it they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Why do so many Christians prefer the spiritualized, other-worldly version of faith? Because the flesh is messy and costly. It is painful and grungy and stinky and limited and it dies. It is not all gardens of abundance and smooth bike paths laced with beautiful sights and sounds.
Last week I visited a patient I’d known for over six years, ever since she was first diagnosed with leukemia. As the oncology chaplain, I was blessed to walk beside Carolyn during chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant, and a year-long process of regaining strength and a purpose in serving others with cancer. I was blessed to be with her when she relapsed after 4 ½ years and had to “start the process all over again.” And, I was blessed to visit her when she returned hopeful and determined for her second transplant only to develop a major life-threatening infection.
The afternoon before Carolyn was transferred to the intensive care unit, I found this very faithful Christian woman alone in her room, feverish, her whole body achy beyond belief. When I asked about her spirits, she told me she was terrified. She told me she’d shared this with her husband of 30 some years, and he was so overwhelmed that he had just walked away, not even giving her a hug. My heart nearly broke. I paused for the briefest of moments then gestured for Carolyn to move over. Without further hesitation, I climbed into her hospital bed and gently took her in my arms, holding her while she sobbed. I had nothing to offer her by way of real reassurance that she would be well, beat the infection. She wound up on a ventilator in the ICU later that night. What I had to offer was me—my body, my flesh. Take, eat, this is my body given for you.
A radically material and incarnational Christian faith is messy and costly. The flesh is painful and grungy and stinky and limited and it dies. A radically material and incarnational Christian faith is not all gardens of abundance and smooth bike paths laced with beautiful sights and sounds. An otherworldly, disengaged, spiritualized Christianity would indeed be easier as Sara Miles admits:
“I began to understand why so many people chose to be “born-again” and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula—“accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, “—that kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the complicated flesh of others.
Before this glorious summer ends, I invite you to open all your senses to experience the holy in your body, in your flesh. (You don’t have to skip church on Sunday mornings to do that either!). Where and when do YOU experience the holy mostly fully? How do you experience holiness in your flesh? How do you experience God in the complicated flesh of others?