Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Vile Bodies: Sermon for Lent II, 2013
May I speak to you in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
Greek is a very tricky language to translate. I should know. I’m really, really terrible at it. It’s complicated for a number of reasons. First off, it doesn’t have a well defined syntax. For example a sentence we would translate as “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” when translated word for word comes out “Firstly I thank the God of me through Jesus Christ concerning all you, because the faith of you is being announced in all the world.”
The second reason it’s tough is because there are about a million different ways to conjugate and decline everything. I know that seems a bit absurd to complain about that when speaking a language as complex as English, but still. It’s not easy to figure it out. It’s not exactly made any easier by the fact that all of the letters look funny.
The toughest part however, is that Greek has a fairly limited vocabulary. One word can have several different meanings, and can be translated various ways. When that is combined with the sometimes ambiguous syntax, it can be translated any number of ways, many of them unhelpful, unproductive and inaccurate.
One of the more grievous offenders is the King James Bible. I’m going to confess that I’m a little relieved I didn’t just catch a lightning bolt to the face for saying that. I love the King James Bible. Its language is beautiful and moving. The cadences and rhythms have been woven thoroughly into the essence of who we are as people, and have shaped the course of the English language. But it’s translations are occasionally pretty inaccurate.
One of the examples of the King James Version not translating so well is in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In verse 21, The King James Bible says “Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
The part I take issue with here is the first bit: “Who shall change our Vile Body.” The reason I quibble with it is that apart from it’s mistranslation of the word ταπεινώσεως, which should be translated as “humiliation,” it seems to miss the point, and in that it joins a long and distinguished line of people, many of them heretics, who also seemed to miss the point. More on that in a minute.
When I was little I played many sports, and while I was not really a superstar bound for professional glory in any of them, I was a fairly respectable journeyman athlete. I could hold my own with most folks, and while I wasn’t the most athletic, I played smart enough to make up for it.
As I’ve gotten older, I can usually keep up with my peers, but I’ve also noticed that occasionally (and it happens more and more frequently) my body lets me down.
At the Seminary, we’re an overly athletic bunch, I think mostly because living in dorms has caused us to forget that we are mostly in our late twenties to thirties, but occasionally our forties, fifties, or sixties, for that matter. We sometimes don't realize that we’re not 19 years old and back in college. As a result, I find myself playing a fair amount of soccer, basketball, softball, frisbee, and this terrifying Irish sport called hurling where we all swing around these big wooden axes at a little tiny ball.
Funnily enough, this story about my body failing isn’t about hurling.
I play on our seminary softball team and we’re pretty awful, playing mostly against a bunch of people who take softball more seriously than we do. It’s pretty forgivable for us to make a bad throw to second, or to miss a grounder because we don’t want to dive on the rough and rocky clay. But even as bad as we are, we are generally pretty reliable with easy pop flies.
I said “we” there, but what I meant to say was “they.” Standing at third base, tracking an easy pop fly into my glove, keeping my eyes locked onto the ball the way I was taught when I was 7 or 8, I missed. My body let me down. The ball glanced off of my glove and within a split second had broken my face. It took me a week or two to figure it out since it hadn’t broken my nose, but after the gigantic gash started to heal and the black eyes began to fade away, I figured out that this bone right near my eye had been broken clean through. On an easy, little league pop fly.
Bodies of our humiliation indeed.
But this kind of thing is exactly what St. Paul is talking about.
People for millennia have misunderstood his phrase, and have taken it to extremes. On one side of that spectrum were the ascetics, who thought the bodies to be evil, and the spirit to be primary. They denied themselves in the extreme, trying to rid themselves of the evil in the bodies, of the sin our bodies cause, and of the way they ties us to this physical and broken world in which we live.
On the other end, there were the libertines, those who thought that the spiritual was all that mattered. They worried nothing about what they ate, how they treated their bodies, or for that matter, how they treated the bodies of others. They took on airs of spiritual superiority because the spiritual was all that was important, and what they did with their bodies meant nothing at all.
But what St. Paul is talking about here is centered on nothing less than the majesty and the power of the incarnation of God into the physical body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was through the death and resurrection of a physical body that God chose to redeem the world. It was through the ministry of healing other physical bodies that Christ demonstrated his power and gave his signs. It was the wounds on Christ’s physical body in which Thomas placed his hand. Jesus did not come down and stoop to dwell with us in this mean and lowly creation, in this broken and brutal world so that he might save only our souls. Christ came to redeem us... every bit of us... and to justify our relationship with God.
At nearly every service we say either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. The last line of each of them is something like “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Where the King James Version gets it wrong, the Council of Nicaea gets it right.
What we have are not just bodies of humiliation made to be either used and enjoyed or ignored and then discarded. What we have are bodies that are gifts from God, even in their brokenness, because even in their brokenness, they have goodness and life within them. Just as our souls and our world have goodness and life amidst the brokenness.
While we are traveling through this season of Lent it is tempting to scourge ourselves and lament all we have done wrong, all that has failed in our spirit, and all that is wrong here on Earth. We recognize the need for redemption and restoration of both our spirits and the world, and we pray for that final day when Christ will come back and make whole not only our souls, but the whole cosmos.
In the chaos that we think of when we ponder what the end of all things will look like, we frequently ignore the part of us that exists physically. It’s easy to forget it, when we’re caught up in the midst of thinking about God making a new heaven and a new earth.
But what we shouldn't do is forget that the proclamation is not just that we have vile bodies, not just that we have bodies of humiliation. That Good Friday note is not where it ends. Rather, as we take our time this Lent to recognize our sins, shortcomings, and spiritual brokenness, let’s also take some time to recognize our own physical failings large and small. And like our moral stumbles that have already passed, and have already been forgiven and redeemed, let us remember that our physical humiliations, our embarrassments, our failures, our falls, and our weakness.... like all that is broken in this world, they will be conformed to the body of Christ’s Glory. And during Lent, during our time to recognize just how abundant God’s grace is in the face of our similarly abundant failings, may we take solace, may we take comfort, may we take joy, in the absurd abundance of grace bestowed upon not only our world, and not only upon our souls, but also upon our bodies, that will, at that last day, be made new in Christ.