I preached a couple of weeks ago as part of our sermon series on ‘No other gods’, and was asked to think about the body.
The recording didn’t work, for some reason, so here, in case it’s helpful, is a slightly ‘edited for reading’ version of the sermon.
No other gods: the body.
Imagine being a Christian in first century Corinth.
Let me help you out.
Imagine yourself in a city which is dominated by one particular landmark. You can see it from anywhere in the city – there it is on a big hill. In first century Corinth, that one landmark was a magnificent temple – the temple of Aphrodite or Venus.
The Goddess of love. Her temple was served by 1000 temple prostitutes.
If you happened to miss the big temple on top of the hill, there were two others in Corinth, and her image also appeared on coins.
This was a society where sex was very visible and available– the female body in particular very much on show as an object of sex. There was a Greek verb korinthiazomai – translated “to act the Corinthian” – which meant to commit sexual immorality.
In this society, it was seen as implausible, even unhealthy, to live a life without sex so there was heavy societal pressure for people who were divorced – divorce was common – or widowed to be remarried.
The normal population was swelled by tourists coming to see athletes compete. At the Isthmian games, an international celebration held every two years nearby, the human body – this time, male – was cheered by crowds of thousands. A few men competed athletically – and could win enviable celebrity. And prizes. Including, notably, a crown of wild celery for the winner.
There was a church in Corinth. Even learning how to be a church was pretty new for this first century bunch of believers in Jesus – but none-the-less, there they were, trying to work it out. Paul wrote some letters to them to help them on their way.
In this society, where the body was sometimes idolised and sometimes cheapened, the Corinthian church reacted in one of two directions. One the one hand, they said – the body is evil. The mind and the soul can be pure, but they are attached to this unpleasant, unholy thing, the human body. The body is bad, so its cravings should be denied and should be pummelled into submission – so – no sex at all, not even in marriage, and radically restrict your food.
Or, on the other hand, the other view was – the body doesn’t matter. What you believe in your mind and your soul – that’s what it’s all about, so do with your body as you please. It doesn’t matter what you do with it, it doesn’t affect your inner life, your soul.
To this church, Paul writes…
Do you not know?
Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you – which you have from God
and that you are not your own.
You were bought at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.
(that’s 1 Corinthians 6.19-20)
Now to the present day. And we’re clearly going to have to work hard to find the relevance of this situation for ourselves…
It’s just as well that we’ve moved on from sexualised images of the female body being available and visible everywhere in our city. Just as well we’ve moved on from a society in which life without sex is seen as utterly implausible. Just as well we’ve moved on from a situation where men trained in particular athletic skills – let’s just say 22 men running around a field – are celebrated in front of crowds of thousands and afforded extraordinary celebrity, even god-like status. How can we even imagine such a society?
We can hear any of this and think – yes, it’s dreadful, just as well we’re safe from society here in church. But that’s not what we’re called to do. Here, instead, are some questions we might come with.
How do we live here?
In this place and time where we receive so many messages about the human body, about our own human bodies – what do we hold onto?
How does a church live as salt – preservative, flavoursome, life-enhancing salt – and light – revealing, making safe space – in such a society?
That’s what we’re going to think about today, with the help of Paul.
And Paul says – your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit .
What does that mean?
It means it has an architect, and it has a purpose.
Your body – as a temple – is made, built, created. Someone has been its architect and builder. The Psalmist says…. you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
When God makes human beings – what are we told about how he’s going about it?
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them. (Genesis 1.27)
God then sees what he’s created in these human bodies and says – it is very good.
And that good creation is made to last.
Paul – as he writes – has had the transformational experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of what is promised to all of us who participate in him. We will be raised from the dead, bodily – Paul faces death himself confident, because he’s seen it in Christ.
What this means is that the body will never cease to be important – and that aging, death, disease, disablement, decay, pain do not have the final word for our bodies – resurrection does. They will be raised transformed and glorified. Our bodies are the raw material of God’s new creation.
So, our bodies are created – built like a temple – made to last.
And they made for a purpose – to glorify God.
This is the remains of a temple of Apollos in Corinth.
Does anyone relate to the gasp when you go into, or even outside, a magnificent building? Take the Shard – what a beautiful building! I have a couple of nephews who live in a village in Suffolk, and once when they came to London, they just wanted to touch it – to stand underneath it and look up in awe.
Temples are made to glorify. They can be created to honour all sorts of things. “Your body is a temple” has been used to advertise gyms, often with a sort of ‘so look after it’ imperative. It’s a meaningless phrase on its own.
Back to the Shard – Renzo Piano is its architect– I looked to see if he had a grand vision for the building, what he might have been seeking to glorify with it. Here is the vision, off the website.
How incredibly bland! What a dull vision!
But what about us? Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Your body is created, designed, modelled, intended as a dwelling-place for the spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity. Woah. The same spirit which hovered over the waters at creation, which brought Jesus back from the dead – your body is made to be a temple of that same spirit.
This is huge.
Now, for a sermon in the series ‘no other gods’ it sounds as though I’m bigging up the body a lot.
Has the body become a god for our culture?
Here’s the thing – if we’re ‘worshipping’ anything as a culture, I don’t believe we are celebrating the good gift from God of the human body. If anything is worshipped on adverts and billboards – you don’t need me to tell you it’s not really real. God is not the architect – we are. I won’t even start on photoshop. And then there’s plastic surgery. Between 2008-10 the cosmetic surgery market in the UK grew by 17%.
But more than that. What we see tends to be one particular body type. Man or woman, Barbie or GI Joe. Often one body colour. One age group. Representing a tiny minority of the population.
God – by contrast – can’t get enough of variety. From the beginning to the end of the bible where people of every nation, tribe and tongue worship together – it’s repeated – he makes people DIFFERENT and he loves that.
34% of adolescent boys and 49% of girls – under 18s – in the UK have been on a diet to change their body shape or to lose weight. Centre for Appearance Research & Central YMCA 2011
An Ofsted survey of 150,000 children found that by the age of 10 a third of girls cited their bodies as their main source of worry. Body Image in the Primary School, 2011.
16% of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds have avoided going to school because they felt bad about their appearance and 20% have avoided giving an opinion in public because of it. Beyond Stereotypes, 2006.
In the past 15 years eating disorders have doubled in the UK. Centre for Appearance Research
Our culture is messed up about our bodies.
Have we made an idol of the human body? Well, I don’t know, but I do know that this unreal image of the perfected human body is – first of all – created by human beings. Second of all, it is very powerful – it has a really powerful impact on people. And I know – third of all – that it is based on a lie.
It is our own bodies – these ones – that God made and loves and designs as temples for the Holy Spirit – not some future, imagined, perfected bodies. Our bodies, today, which, according to Os Guinness “grow tired and wear out, which sweat, bleed and vomit, which grow pot-bellied and run out of breath”.
God loves your body.
It sounds a bit weird when I say it like that, but I am on rock-solid theological ground here, so I’ll say it again – God loves your body.
This might not feel like a big deal to you personally, but if it is affecting half of our girls, a third of our boys – when it’s affecting our society to such a marked degree, then I think we have to think about our call to be salt and light – to have a preservative, flavouring, enlightening effect.
Just think – wouldn’t it be amazing if the church had the effect of reining in some of these percentages? Fewer eating disorders. Less bullying. More young people confident to give their opinions in public.
God made the human body – he made it and loves it in tremendous, beautiful, brilliant variety, he has made the human body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit and to get involved in his good purposes in the world.
So what? How does this affect us, and how do we bring salt and light in to this context, our context. What does that look like?
I think it looks like hearing, and saying the bigger, better, truer story about our bodies MORE LOUDLY than the untrue stories around the place.
So the first thing I want to say is that if you have trouble believing this, if this is a struggle for you, or for someone close to you, please do take the opportunity to pray with someone about this. Some of you may be struggling with ill health of any kind. Your body may be a difficult subject for you.
Even where we feel complex about our bodies, God has made them for himself, and he’s made them for eternity where there will be no more suffering, pain, no more tears. I believe there are lies and bad stories told about our bodies in society – we don’t need to take that lying down. Let’s be assertive, together, about telling the truth. Stand alongside someone to pray with them. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s what your body is made for.
The second thing: – 1 Corinthians 6. 20: “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”
Faith – in biblical terms – isn’t an invisible switch in our minds which we turn from ‘I don’t believe in God’ to ‘I do’ – it’s expressed in our bodies. Let me give this illustration. Faith in this chair isn’t saying ‘I believe this chair will bear my weight’, it’s about doing this [sitting down].
‘It is our bodies’, Os Guinness says, ‘which are instruments either for evil or for good. It is our bodies that Paul urges us to present to God as a living sacrifice. Obedience or disobedience are expressed in our bodies or they are expressed nowhere. Obedience for the Christian is a body activity.’ So faith is expressed in actions of generosity, sacrificial, courageous love, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
If I talk about self-control, it sounds like I might be making that Corinthian error of saying the body is bad and it should be denied – but that’s not the image here. It’s that your body is valuable – but weak. Our bodies are created by God (built like a temple), but they are not God. Having this right view of our bodies helps us put their cravings in the right place, to order them. God is God, I am not. He made me, I didn’t make him.
Looking back a little in this chapter. Paul writes this“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.”
I will not be mastered by anything.
So, part of honouring God with our bodies is declaring that nothing else – nothing other than God – need be our slave master. John Piper says – “In other words, not only let your actions be guided by the law of love, but also let them be guided by the law of liberty. Don’t ask, “Am I permitted to do this as a Christian?” Instead ask, “Am I a slave to this act? Is this food or drink or sex or hobby or work becoming my master instead of my servant?”
Our bodies might have longings for food or drink or sex or hobbies or work. Those things are not bad in themselves, but our created, good but weak bodies can disorder our longings, can put these longings higher than they should be. But we don’t have to be slaves to those. There is a god other than our bodies,and that God promises to deny us nothing good. He promises to fill us with his Holy Spirit to guide us in moments of temptation. Maybe this is one of those verses to learn for moments when we need them – “I will not be mastered by anything”.
Moments of self control might be about NOT buying into these idealised images. NOT commenting on a person’s body – a celebrity in a magazine or a person on the street, or our own. Out of love for others, for our children – self-control in how we speak.
Be the guy to NOT comment. To say – come on, guys – enough now. Be the woman who hears a conversation and thinks – you know, I’m not going to join in with that.
And also, I just want to give a shout out for celibacy, which doesn’t get a tremendously positive press in this culture – even in today’s Christian culture, which is odd given that we follow Jesus who never married. Going back to our early picture of Corinth, the city where it was felt to be ludicrous to go without having sex… any parallels here…?
This leads me onto my third action – if it is true that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, that is also true of the person next to you. How can we help one another to live fully, honouring God, especially when our bodies have so many different issues at different stages of our lives?
How can we enable – for example – people to live a rich, full life, with intimate and generous friendships, with companionship, with support and security, if they are – by choice or by circumstance -celibate? This – my friends – is for all of us here to own as a question, whatever our life circumstance.
How can we live generously, hospitably, in community with one another?
Another example – how can we enable other people to know community, friendship, fullness of life– if their bodies are unwell, if they are housebound, if they find it difficult to get around? How can we care for those whose bodies aren’t doing too well at the moment, for any reason? How can we help hungry bodies to be filled? Lonely bodies to be hugged? Unwell bodies to be cared for? Expressing our faith bodily means getting involved with others, enabling them to live fully too.
Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
You have an architect who lovingly made you. You have a purpose, a glorious purpose, for which he created you.
The person next to you, the celebrity in the magazine, the person who is struggling with mobility – that is also true of them. This is the truth about our bodies. And we express it in our bodies.
To end, let’s claim back the truth about our bodies. Let’s say this together.
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.