Text: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:5-25; Mark 4:3-8; John 3:1-17
The church sign can be easily read by anyone driving by: “You can’t be a devoted follower of Jesus unless you are part of a local church.” Does the church that posts this sign not trust the people with Jesus’s message? What is the meaning of “incarnation” if not “embodiment” by individual persons of the spirit of the Christ? Is the “Body of Christ” for members only?
The Apostle Paul created the metaphor of the “Body of Christ” as the community of followers. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he explains the meaning of the ritually-shared meal: “The cup of God’s gracious benefits that we consecrate means that we are involved in the blood of the Anointed, doesn’t it? The bread that we break means that we are involved in the body of the Anointed, doesn’t it? That there is one loaf means that we who are many constitute one body, because we all partake of the one loaf.” In Romans 12:5 he says, “Just as each of us has one body with many parts that do not all have the same function, so although there are many of us, we are the Anointed’s body, interrelated with one another.”
Paul’s letters might seem obsessed with how individual bodies are used and abused in the ongoing struggle between “sin” as conventional society defines it and ushering in the reign of God. But when “sin” means the “corrupting seduction of power” as in The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010) we move beyond individual bodily wrongdoing. Paul writes:
For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by seductive corruption and death. For by sending God’s own “son” – a participant like us, in an earthly life attended by seductive corruption – to deal with that corrupting power . . . [we] live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to God’s purposes and power. . . . Romans 8:2-6
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is not particularly concerned about bodies. In the story of Jesus’s last supper with his disciples he does say “Take some [bread]; this is my body!” But these words likely were a liturgy of remembrance practiced among the early followers of the Way, and not specifically said by Jesus on any particular occasion. Talk in Matthew and Luke about how it’s better to lose one of your “members” than your whole body; or how the eye is the lamp of the body and when it is clear, “your whole body will be flooded with light” were conventional wisdom, not unique to Jesus. What was unique to Jesus was the certainty that we don’t need to worry about our bodies, what we eat, or drink, or wear.
Jesus’s conversation with the pharisee Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is best understood as commentary on who Jesus was, not a pronouncement by Jesus about himself. Those beloved words in 3:16-17 are a testimony to the profound experience of the people in John’s community. In the face of opposition from the prevailing culture around him, the writer stands up and lobs his grenade: “This is how God loved the world:” he begins, “God gave up an only son, so that every one who believes in him will not be lost but have real life.” Then he warms up: “After all, God sent this son into the world not to condemn the world but to rescue the world through him.” Finally the bomb explodes: “This is the verdict: Light came into the world but people loved darkness instead of light. Their actions were evil, weren’t they? All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed. But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God.” Nicodemus came in the dark of night to encounter the light offered by Jesus. By the time John gets done with him, the pharisee is pretty well discredited, whether the words are attributed to Jesus or not. Nicodemus seems to be deliberately dense. When he doesn’t get the double meaning of the Jewish word, ruach (spirit, wind), Jesus’s mocking question is devastating: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” This story is a set-up for a continuing polemic between the writer of John’s gospel and diaspora Jews in second-century Syria. Rome had destroyed the Temple and changed the Jewish religion forever, and then along came the followers of Jesus’s Way, wanting to overturn Torah. This was not an esoteric debate about the nature of the Godhead.
Fifty years earlier, the Apostle Paul had written to the community in Rome (Romans 8:9b-17): “If anyone does not have the spirit that was in the Anointed, that one is not one of his. . . For all who are led by the power and purpose of God are the children of God . . . and if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with the Anointed. . . .” Paul was talking about Covenant. Whenever anyone (Paul’s “all”) joins Jesus in the relationship with God that is so close as to be the same as a father, we are then children of God, and heirs of God. What do we inherit? Not a strip of real estate in the Middle East; the heirs of God, brothers and sisters of the Christ, inherit the realm/kingdom of God, where distributive justice rules.
The caveat is that we “suffer” with Jesus, but not the “suffering” of persecution for religious belief, as conventionally understood. Paul is saying, suffering is what happens when we participate with the spirit of Christ in restoring/reclaiming God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion; when we attempt to live in radical abandonment of self-interest and fail. Mark’s Jesus agrees: Like the seed that falls on good soil or poor soil or hostile soil, sometimes what happens is that even if by extraordinary commitment we succeed in achieving that radical abandonment of self-interest, the systems of retribution inherent in Empire – “the seductive corruption of power” – intervene.
Nicodemus should have understood that the spirit of the Christ is like the wind. It blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or upon whom it will descend. The “children of God” are not some superior race, attending churches on Sunday. They are whoever joins the program – Christian or non-Christian; people “of the book” or not. Does God’s rule of non-violent, distributive justice-compassion hold sway? No. “But if we are hoping for what we do not see, then we are eagerly looking forward to it through our own perseverance” (Romans 8:25)
“Very truly, I tell you,” John’s Jesus says, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” These words apply to the Church today, not to those who decline to believe the story, or who dismiss as irrelevant the intellectual theological debate. Jesus’s authority and inclusiveness are in sharp contrast to the belief system the “body of Christ” has offered through those churches that find the language on that sign to be necessary. Instead of a sustainable way of life and the restoration of nonviolent, distributive justice-compassion in Covenant with God’s rule, the Church too often has complied with the violent, retributive injustice that seems to be the norm for organized civilizations.
Eco-theologian Michael Dowd speaks of the Body of Life – an interdependent web that includes all life forms – and calls for “an entirely new role within the body of Life” (Thank God for Evolution, New York, Viking, 2008). The Dalai Lama teaches that “phenomena depend on other factors for their existence, they are not independent. This . . . emptiness of inherent existence is their own ultimate truth.” (How to Practice – the Way to a Meaningful Life, Atria Books, 2002). The embodiment of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – the incarnation, the personification of God’s kingdom – is anyone who participates in the struggle to actualize it here and now.
Creating and supporting unjust systems is far easier than ushering in the kingdom of God. The fig tree cannot give fruit out of season; the leaders of the Temple collaborate with the oppressors; the eyes and ears of the people are closed. Still the call is there for those who can hear it and have the courage to respond. The Holy Spirit is the seed that is left in the ground after the tree has been uprooted and burned. That same spirit falls on all varieties of ground, takes root where it can, rides on the wind, blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or where it will go next.
The best kept secret is the identity of the body of Christ.
Sources for quotations:
The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010)
The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010)