What does Christ think of your body?
A sermon on Galatians 5: 1, 13-25 by Nathan Nettleton, 28 June 1998
Our bodies are integral to who we are and are destined for resurrection and glorification, but the fracturing of the integrity of creation affects us too in ways that mean we often find our bodies at war with our spirits. The pathway to sanctification involves a reintegration of body and spirit, and sometimes that means denial and disciplining of physical desires.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.
Different translation, but part of the same reading we just heard. And Id reckon that a number of you are cringing already. Maybe youre not, because you know me, but if youd walked into a strange church and heard that those words were about to be preached on, youd be looking for the exit signs, or at least bracing yourself to endure some pompous drivel on the evils of masturbation or something.
Well I am going to preach from that passage, but no I havent turned into one of those tele-evangelists who delivers sermon after sermon calling down fire from heaven on fornicators and homosexuals when you know perfectly well that some of them are that repetitive because they cant fit much preparation in between appointments at the local brothel!
The first thing I need to say by way of background to this is that I like human bodies. I admit I like some of them more than others, but thats OK, I like some music more than other music too. I believe that human bodies were created by God and declared by God to be good. I do not believe that human flesh is inherently evil and that the goal of our salvation is to liberate our pure spirits from our impure bodies. And I dont believe that the Apostle Paul thought that either. I need to say that because Christian theology has been seen that way for so long that when we hear a passage like this, thats what we tend to hear.
To make sense of this passage you need to start from a healthy Christian view of the human body. God didnt just create bodies. When God wanted to reach out to us, to be reconciled to us, what did God do? John 1: the Word became what...? Flesh. God became one of us complete with a human body, not to mention a human mind, a human spirit, human desires etc. If God considered human bodies to be inherently evil then God would have done without one. Not only that, but what happened after Jesus had been killed, after his body had been rendered lifeless? What happened??? God raised him back to life - body and all. If God didnt like bodies, then God could have skipped straight from crucifixion to Pentecost and done without a body. But Jesus wasnt just sending us the Spirit, he was also blazing the trail that we are to take. We too are to be resurrected. I dont imagine that will be some kind of reconvening of the molecules that made up our bodies the first time, but it is quite clear that we will have bodies in the resurrection. Vastly improved bodies, but still recognizably us. Our bodies, resurrected and glorified. Made perfect. The image of God fulfilled in our bodies. That is our ancient destiny, and on that destiny rests our dignity as human beings.
Now it is against that background that you need to read this passage. Paul says our flesh, our human nature, wants what is opposed to the Spirit and what the Spirit wants is opposed to our fleshly desires. Sure that sounds like Paul doesnt like human flesh, human nature, but I dont think Paul is making a generalized claim about the essential nature of humans as created by God here, hes talking about the situation we find ourselves in now. Paul is talking about the experience of living in a world that is tearing apart at the seams. A world where the central harmony and integrity of Gods creation is fractured. Instead of a unified harmonious system, creation has fragmented and is destroying itself. At the macro level you find that the species that was supposed to be the crown of creation, us, is poisoning the air we ourselves have to breathe and pumping toxic chemicals into the plants we have to eat. And at the micro level you find exactly what Paul is talking about here. You find that the fragmentation is even expressed within individual people so that they are at war with themselves. As Paul puts it elsewhere, I cant even do what I want to do. There is a war within me.
And as any of you who have ever tried to drive a faulty car or operate a faulty computer will know, once some of the parts start to become fragmented or distorted, the system doesnt work properly and the longer you run it like that the worse it gets. You can have the best carburettor or microprocessor in the world, but if it is not properly integrated with the rest of the machine you wont get much value from it and therell be nothing but trouble. Its the same with your body. Theres nothing inherently wrong with the human body, but you could have the best body in the world, and if its not properly integrated with your mind, your spirit, your emotions, your values, it is just as likely to run out of synch with them and even war against them.
C.S.Lewis once said that there is no such thing as a pure evil. All evils are just distortions of things that are good. Hatred is a distortion of love. Lust is a distortion of passionate desire. Pride is a distortion of self-esteem. etc. There is nothing wrong with bodily desires until they become distorted or fragmented off from their proper relationship with other aspects of you.
Now well use sex as our illustration here for a minute. Not because sex is the only bodily desire or because it matters more than the others, but because I know that when we talk about bodily desires or the desires of the flesh, thats the one you all think of isnt it? Come on, yes it is! I know it is because its the one I think of and Im normal! I think.
Sex is good. Sexual desire is good. Sexual intimacy is good. They must be, God made them and God said they were good. But if they get distorted or fragmented off from the place they are designed to occupy in your life then they wont function healthily, they mutate and become like cancers that start corrupting other parts of your life.
Sexual desire is good, sacred even, and like anything sacred, handle it wrongly and its sacred power becomes destructive instead of life-giving. Just think about your own experience of the expression of sexual desire, even at simple preliminary levels with your clothes on. Seductive talk, suggestive gestures, sexy innuendo, intimate touches. When they come from someone with whom you share a secure, committed and mutual loving relationship they feel exciting, affirming, wholesome, sacred. But from someone whos offering you nothing, who seems to be driven by unspoken agendas, who doesnt respect your boundaries or wishes, and especially if their words and actions dont match - they say theyre just a friend but their behaviour doesnt fit within normal friendship bounds - it doesnt feel sacred at all does it? It feels sleazy, cheap, threatening. Degrading even. It mutates into something deceptive, manipulative, selfish and almost inevitably poisonous. If you want to cause maximum damage to a person with minimum effort, you hurt them sexually.
Now I know as well as anybody that a pang of sexual desire can hit you anytime, anyplace and with anybody. And theres nothing you can do about that because thats what our bodies do. The problem comes in if your bodily desires are ruling your actions on their own and are not integrated with your mind, your spirit, your emotions, your values. If they are integrated and mature youll have no trouble knowing which ones to express and which ones hold in check till they pass, and no trouble carrying it through.
But the trouble is that none of us have our bodies and spirits fully integrated. All of us lack integrity in some areas because all of us live in and are part of the dis-integration of creation. Our spirits, minds and bodies do not always work well together and it affects us all in different ways. The world wide craze for Viagra is evidence that for many men the dis-integration expresses itself the other way round - their minds say yes and their bodies say no. Fortunately that variation is not such a threat to others around them, although it may sometimes underlie other destructive behaviours.
I suspect that the image of God within us means that it is not possible to eliminate all aspirations to goodness from our hearts and minds, so you cant achieve a negative integrity by becoming consistently evil in both thought and deed. So the path to integration is in fact the pathway of sanctification. They are one and the same. Becoming good, fulfilling the God-given potential that is in you, becoming holy is basically about a reintegration of all that was created good in you in the first place. A reconciliation of body, mind, spirit, emotions, values. A reintegration of all that is you.
And the good news, the gospel, is that you are now free to make that journey. If it were not for what Jesus Christ has done for you, for the power of Gods Holy Spirit poured into your heart, you would not be free to do that because there is no way you could overcome the forces of fragmentation all around you. There is no way you would not succumb to the tidal waves of selfish ambition, of competitive greed, of self-centred hedonism that sweep through our world, our society, our hearts.
But in Jesus Christ you are free, free to grow into love and maturity and integrity. You will occasionally find idiot Christians who claim that their freedom in Christ means they can do as they please without any concern for the moral and relational outcomes. Thats not the freedom of the gospel. You were already free to be stupid. You were already free to be immoral. You were already free to be unloving and disrespectful and callous. The freedom of the gospel is the freedom to start dismantling those things and reconstructing the integrity of your soul.
And between here and the fulfilment of that reconciliation, that sanctification, you will need to develop the disciplines that enable you to live with the war inside without letting it get the upper hand again. You will need to practice some discipline and denial to prevent your unintegrated impulses from bursting out into behaviours that violate the bounds of love and peace and goodness. Sometimes that will mean saying no to something just because you know its wrong even though every other part of you is screaming go for it. And you will need to practice some discipline and denial because they also help make you strong, because they are actually techniques that aid the reintegration of your component parts.
Thats why nearly every major religion in the world practices physical disciplines of some form. They are most obvious in things like yoga and tai chi, but kneeling and meditating and fasting have long Christian heritages too. Every ancient wisdom tradition knows that discipline in one area of your life has spill over benefits in others because all your parts are interconnected, even if some of the interconnections are faulty. These disciplines are techniques for building spiritual strength and wholistic integrity. They might sound masochistic and lifeless on their own, but as an integrated part of the whole journey of sanctification they become part of the toolkit by which the Spirit produces in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control. They become aspects of the movement into wholeness and fullness of life. You can choose not to do any of them, sure. But then you were always free to stay in slavery instead of taking the hard road through the wilderness to the promised land.
God has created us good. If everything had stayed good, it wouldnt even make sense to us to think of bodies, spirits and minds as separate things - we would just think of whole people. But with our essential integrity fractured, we think of those things separately because so often they operate separately and even make war within us. But the good news is that Jesus has freed us to undertake the journey of sanctification, the journey that involves reconciling or reintegrating our warring parts back into whole people. The good news is that, if we are willing to respond to his call, Jesus Christ will lead us all the way to resurrection, and in resurrection there will be no more war within. Our destiny fulfilled, our beauty renewed, our integrity restored, we will be distinguishable from Christ only by the physical features of our bodies. Our resurrected, glorified bodies. Thanks be to God!