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1 Corinthians 6:19
Or 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?
1 Corinthians 12:13
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Sermon- Holy Spirit, holy body
I’m going to tell you a story. When I was 25 I was doing a masters degree in Philosophy at the University of Sussex in England, trying to figure out what on earth to do for a living. This path of being a minister was definitely not on the radar, I didn’t go to church except for as a tourist. During that time I was living in the seaside town of Brighton. Now Brighton is unusual because it acts as a kind of hub for literally all types of people. While I was there I met
a Numibian Freedom fighter, an Ecuadorian artist, and Spanish teenagers earning money for university doing data entry. To afford this, I had 5 roommates and one of them was this tall, vibrant woman with long red hair from the British Isles, let’s call her Gwen. She was one of those optimistic people, often in the face of adversity: she had recently lost her father to Parkinson’s, and during her Ph D this super fit woman got sciatica and literally couldn’t move yet somehow worked away on her thesis with her leg elevated and never complained. Now sometimes that relentlessly positive attitude can just be about ignoring reality, but in her case it seemed to be more about saying “yes” to her life, whatever shape it took.
At the time her older sister was about to give birth and she went into labour during exams. It was a much-hoped for pregnancy, so when the text came Gwen was thrilled and kept updating us as we studied in the communal kitchen and our dorm rooms. The labour was stretching out, and unfortunately, things started to go wrong. Very wrong. And at one point, the normally buoyant and unshakeable Gwen came running into my room, all 5 foot 11 of her, with this crying sentence coming out of her mouth and her arms outstretched, because what was happening was turning into a kind of nightmare. I turned to her and here is where language is going to show its limitation, where language isn’t going to touch what this felt like, and is going to be easy to dismiss or pick apart. But I am going to try anyway. As I turned I felt something rush in and flood my whole body. It was not adrenalin, there was no fast heart beat or hyper-alert energy or awareness. Instead I felt completely calm, completely present and what was pouring out of my fairly reserved self was love. And while I am not a tall woman, I managed to wrap her fully in a hug, like a parent holding their child.
And I just held her in silence for a moment, we both went silent. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but that flowing energy or love feeling didn’t stop. When we let go she stood back and looked at me and said “I’ve never felt a hug like that before.” And I knew what she meant, because neither had I. Somehow what held her then was me, but not only me, it felt as if something greater than myself participated in that embrace, that the love that flowed through me was limitless in its depth and its compassion. It felt like a wave, it felt like the holy and somehow I was a part of it.
The Christian tradition is full of unusual ideas and one of the most unusual is the idea of the Holy Spirit. It is not completely unique to Christianity. In Judaism it is referred to as ru-ach, which translates to “the breath” and it means the spirit of holiness or a holy feeling or state. It shows up in the creation stories, the breath of life that animates creation. In Islam the concept of the holy spirit is more like the action of divine communication between people and God, and, like in the Jewish tradition, it is also a kind of creative energy or spirit that seems to be animating life. What these two religions don’t say that Christianity does is that the Holy Spirit is a kind of third divine expression of God.
In the Christian spiritual tradition, the understanding of God involves this idea of not one, but three, three Divine expressions that are distinct but not separate.
For all of us who are new to Christianity, the tri-part God goes like this: God (sometimes called the Father), Jesus Christ (sometimes called the Son) and the Holy Spirit (sometimes called the Holy Ghost). Now, as you can imagine, there has been a fair amount of scholarship about this rather confusing idea. In the 1200s something called the Fourth Lateran Council decided to issue a bit of a position statement on it, explaining: “it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds” and in their relations with one another, they are stated to be one in all else, co-equal, co-eternal and not separate , and yet “each is God, whole and entire”. Accordingly, the whole work of creation and grace is seen as a single operation common to all three divine persons, in which each shows forth what is proper to him in the Trinity, so that all things are “from the Father”, “through the Son” and “in the Holy Spirit”.
Clear as mud, right? So they are not separate but they are different somehow but equal but you need all three for life and grace to happen, sigh… You can see how many scholars might have written endless confusing books on the subject.
So let’s just look at the least confusing parts here: 1) Three is key: they can’t be broken apart, and 2) that the three all express particular ideas or energies. Some of you might be able to sense at a rhythm that is in this concept of the Trinity. It might help to view the Trinity not so much as three parts, but maybe instead a movement of the Divine energy through the world, through matter, and through mystery. Comparative religion author Karen Armstrong suggests we use the concept of the Trinity as an actual meditation and move through the concept by bringing our awareness through that flow: “it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds”
So, if we remove the language of religion from this idea, you could reframe it and say something like: the Big Bang is God= the generative act, our universe is Jesus Christ= the begotten piece or the result of the generative act, and then the continual unfolding, growing and changing of life that we witness and are part of is the Holy Spirit. It is the part that proceeds, that comes forth, that evolves. You’ll see even from this clumsy example we are capturing an effable something: a certain kind of flow that we witness in our own lives and in the seasons, the animals, and the plants around us. What the Trinity suggests at is the dynamic movement of life.
But of course, the Trinity is more than that. One can’t actually take the spiritual ideas out. And what the Trinity is clear about it when it talks about the Holy Spirit is that it has one feature that is not in the idea of God or Christ: that the Divine can move into us. That this energy can enter into the body and is in fact part of our body. 1 Corinthians 6:19: Or 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?
What that suggests about our bodies is a kind of sacredness, a preciousness, a belovedness that is surprising. After all, as Rev Dierkes said a few weeks ago, Christianity has often focused on the “ascending” part of Jacob’s ladder.
It has been a religion that looks to get away from the body, even shame the body. The body in recent times in the faith tradition has not been seen as holy, but as a kind of impediment to spiritual fulfillment.
And there is plenty of Biblical evidence for that perspective because we know there is all that uncomfortable talk about sin. This passage from First Corinthians is written by Paul, who is basically our church-building ancestor. He is trying to unite a multi-cultural, multi-geographical group of people under some common set of rules and ideas that will let them live out the Way of Christ. And like anyone writing during a particular time, his focuses on what he see as the greatest threats and he can’t escape his personal biases. It is no accident that when people start something new, whether it is a religion, a club, a company or a government, we start with lots of openness and an “anything goes” attitude but then we start to move into something more rigid, more easily defined. This makes things easier to understand but we also lose that openness and transformation. So for Paul, this idea about the Holy Spirit being in our bodies and our bodies belonging to God soon turns into ideas about sin and purity, ideas that I think many of us have rejected because of the damage that has been created from that type of thinking. And I’m not convinced that was what Paul meant but that is another sermon.
If we look at the mystical implications of this passage, you’ll note the radical intimacy that is created here. This idea of the body being a temple for the Holy Spirit means that somehow the Divine can reside within us. That we have access to the Divine because we are a part of it. If you read about lives of mystics like Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avila, or Hildegard of Bengen, they all talk of moments in their lives where they feel the Holy Spirit fill up their bodies, light them as if they were candles and otherwise in some way work though the body to transcend their own ego, their own limitations and become part of the greater whole. This idea suggests a deep intimacy of the individual with God, along with the possibility to access God and have your body be a vessel for God. And this has great beauty and potential in it: for all the times we feel limited, unworthy and alone, this is a counter argument. Our bodies are holy. They can be the Holy, here on earth.
What cannot be missed about this conception of the Holy Spirit is that it can transform us and make us more than we think we are. As we heard from the second passage: 1 Corinthians 12:13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit., it suggests an intimacy and unity with all other people on the planet. The idea of the holy life force, this connection to the Divine then is the heritage and legacy of each and everyone of us. It is profound.
And this feels particularly important today, in this moment. The last few weeks have seen a tremendous amount of unrest, war, conflict and grief become known to the public consciousness. And it is going to be really easy to forget the shared ancestry that is being stated in these passages: that we can be vessels for the holy, that we share one Spirit, that we are united as part of the Divine here on earth. Can we afford to forget that right now? So, I’d like to end the sermon a little differently, not with an idea, but with an experiment.
In my story today I suggested that maybe what Gwen and I experienced in that embrace was the Holy. And I imagine that some of you recalled moments in your life when you saw the common humanity, the common divinity, in another person. Perhaps you’re recalling a moment of divine connection now (pause). So I am asking you to take a small leap with me this morning and turn to the person next to you and take their hand and look into their eyes and hold that eye contact. That’s all you need to do. Sarah and Rob are going to sing us a reflective song while we do this, and when that is over, I’ll say Amen and we can drop hands. This is just a chance for us to truly look at someone and see them fullyfor just a short moment in our day.