Sermon by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist, Holland Road for Easter 3, Annunciation 15 April 2018

Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian faith is not so much concerned with souls, as with bodies.

I happen to be preaching twice today, this morning continuing the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, this evening for the feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel visits Mary to announce her conception of Jesus.

If there is a common theme, it is the body. God is to find an earthly home firstly in the womb of a young woman. God will be born into the world through the visceral pain of childbirth. And having lived in human flesh for thirty years, as the events of Holy Week so graphically portray, God is tortured, and killed.

Yet incredibly this is not the end of Jesus’ physical existence. The gospel reading for the third Sunday of Easter recounts the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in which his bodily nature is the key contention.  Touch me and see, he urges them, then eats a piece of fish as further proof of his earthly form. He is no ghost, but flesh and bones.

And at the centre of our worship today – his body and blood, given for us. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’, says Jesus in John’s gospel. At that last supper, when he first commanded us to do this in remembrance of him, he also commended to us not the reading of Scriptures or the recital of prayers, but the washing of one another’s feet, a further sign of our corporal, bodily nature.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to hear that Christianity is obsessed with bodies. Most media coverage of the Church consists of reports of the bodily misdemeanours of powerful men, or arguments over the proper place of sexual intimacy. But to focus on this aspect of our fleshliness, its sexual nature and our society’s obsession with sins of the flesh, is contrary to the message of Scripture, which draws attention to our bodily nature as good and holy.

None of the other great faith traditions make this bold claim – that God takes on human flesh in the womb of Mary, and dies in human form. In the resurrection of Jesus, it is not his soul which rises to new life, but his body. And in our worship, our body is united with his in the Eucharist.

Elsewhere in Scripture the apostle Paul explores the nature of the human body in relation to the divine assumption of our fleshly nature. ‘We are the body of Christ’ is one key metaphor, and, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul says this ‘do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?’ Here Paul’s thought resonates with the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God creates human beings and breathes his Spirit into them. Paul is making the point that the body is not an autonomous unit, to do with as we will, but a sacred vessel, created and enlivened by God, and incorporated into Christ.

Sadly, much of this was lost in the centuries following Christ. Greek thought preferred a dualism in which the body was a disposable vehicle in which resided the soul, which was eternal. The body would die, but the soul live on. The body was sinful, but the soul capable of release and redemption. St Augustine of Hippo, in many ways one of the greatest Christian thinkers, also sadly infected our tradition with a disdain for the body, and sex in particular, as inherently sinful. And so a tradition which had begun as a celebration of bodily creation, and was crowned by God becoming human, was tuned on its head into a religion where the soul needed to resist bodily allures, and in death escape to a spiritual world of bliss.

How then do we reclaim the body, and make it central once more to human life and religion?

My first suggestion is that we need to reclaim a theology of the body which dignifies it as God’s good creation. In a world of idealised bodies, whether your preference is for Kim Kardashian or Tom Daley, God loves every body, from the helpless body of the infant, to the sick and struggling body of the patient on their deathbed. The body of Christ is not given only to already perfectly toned bodies, but to broken bodies, weak bodies. The elderly homeless woman is as much a temple of the Holy Spirit as the muscular Commonwealth athlete.

Secondly, we need to reclaim our love of the body, whether in everyday life or in our worship. We are beginning slowly to lose our Victorian prudishness, but the continentals still do it better than us, and learning an easy relationship with our own bodies and those of others needs work. In catholic worship, we use our bodies in bowing, kneeling and making the sign of the cross, and the growing charismatic movement uses the body more freely in expressive praise and dance. But we still need to move away from the idea of prayer as words or thoughts, and learn to pray with the body more fully.

Thirdly, can we better understand the interplay between the body’s autonomy, and its dependence? Our bodies are, in one sense, not our own, but God’s, and as part of the body of Christ, each other’s. Yet in creating the body and giving each human being freewill, each of us does have a responsibility. At the Annunciation, Mary is not the victim of an act of divine sexual assault, but freely assents to the gift and challenge of the Holy Spirit – let it be to me according to your will. At the heart of the debate about abortion in Ireland, or sexuality in the Church of England, lies this question of how bodies depend upon each other, and to what degree. Our discussions are better informed by such understanding.

And on this day of our annual parish meeting, consideration of the Church as a body can help us. What part of the body am I? How do I contribute to making the body as a whole function? Do I give due consideration and affection to other parts of the body? And how, together, will the body best function and thrive, not only for its own survival and growth, but to help others discover their dignity and worth within it?

At the incarnation of Jesus, flesh is hallowed and divinised by being caught up in God’s own nature. In his rising from death, the resurrection body is revealed by Jesus as the vessel of eternal life – there is no life if not an embodied one, he is saying to us as he invites the disciples to touch him and eat with him. So bodies matter, in this life and the next, in worship and in daily living.
You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

Bodies are where life and faith are born and grow. And the body of Jesus, present in this Eucharist, invites us to eternal life in Christ. Perhaps when we learn to love our bodies, we will learn to love God. Amen.

Holland Park Benefice