The Third Sunday of Lent
This is the prayer we prayed just after the Confession and Absolution this morning, the Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Now, theologically, there is much in that prayer that I would let go of. But this one line sticks in my head: Keep us, we prayed, outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls. Keep us in our bodies. Keep us in our souls.
We’re a heady bunch, we Episcopalians. Among other revelations, the most recent Pew research showed that of all denominations in the United States, Episcopalians are the most highly-educated. It makes me think of an Episcopal friend’s tee shirt from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago: “That’s great in practice, but how does it work in theory?” We parse meaning and play with concept and argue interpretation. We have a history of loving words and using lots of them. And both of those things go back to the DNA of our denomination, back before the split from England to Elizabeth the First, who did two things: made sure that the words of our worship were the words of our daily lives (sure, made more shiny and maybe multi-syllabic, but still, a fancy version of the vernacular); and she gave us the inheritance of free thought: “I desire not a window into men’s souls,” we know her to have said. “Believe what you will. And come to church.”
Keep us in our bodies. Keep us in our souls.
Even in talking about bodies, we know how to remain in our heads. I remember defending the position I had taken on the theological argument on “incarnational Christology” in seminary, and being pretty proud of it. Extra syllables and all. (Incarnational Christology Meaning: Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Meaning: Jesus is God, and Jesus has a body.)
Conversely, we gasp at the frailty of our human bodies. We gasp the vulnerability of a newborn’s immune system in light of a measles outbreak in Palatine. We gasp at the anticipation of a diagnosis. We gasp at the danger and at all the implications in an elderly person’s fall.
John’s gospel gives us a word about bodies in today’s passage. But even before we get to it, the poetry of that otherworldly, ethereal, evangelist echoes into the conversation. “And the word became flesh and lived among us,” John says. “Full of grace and truth.” And there’s some kind of irony in that, because this otherworldly, ethereal account describes the very concrete and earthy fact of God taking up space in this world with flesh and blood and bone. God is Word and God is more than Word. Because in the person of Jesus, God has a body. Fully human. Fully divine.
Two chapters past that point lands us at today’s gospel. In an argument with the authorities, Jesus says that if they destroy this temple, he will raise it up. They are confused, those poor authorities. This is not a concept that is part of their vernacular. But Jesus isn’t talking about the temple of marble and gold that has been under construction in Jerusalem for 46 years. Jesus is talking about the temple of flesh and blood that is his body; the temple that for 33 years, right here on this earth, showed us what God looks like.
And this is what that temple has revealed, this is what God looks like, right here: like walking alongside people who don’t know exactly where they are going, and are a little confused about what they’re going to do when they get there; like picking up children, when others want those kids to stay away; like feeding folks who are hungry, even when you never asked them to come along on what you thought was going to be a silent retreat; like trusting that what you need to eat and drink will be provided; like putting your hands on people who are sick; like “loving the bodies of other people who, like you, one day will die; like touching human flesh as if it is holy instead of worrying that it is unclean;” like taking and blessing and breaking and giving bread to everybody who is hungry, and sharing a cup with those who thirst.
These are the ways that the Body of Christ has shown us what God looks like. And you are that Body. You are that temple.
Earlier this week, as he has before and will again, Bishop Lee told a group of people that the Church is not a Building. The church, the ecclesia, is the body of people assembled. The Church, the Body, is You. You are the temple that shows the world what God looks like.
Keep us in our bodies, we pray.
This church has known frailty and vulnerability and loss in these past months. I was interviewed a few days ago about the gathering we had last November, on All Saints’ Night. I told my interviewer about our comfort food potluck (mac and cheese, chicken potpie) and hymn sing, our conversations about what it means to die a holy death, our funeral planning time that evening. It was impossible to talk about it, though, without telling about the many people who had died from this church in the months before and since that night. “It feels like body blows,” I found myself saying. “We carry those losses as a Body.”
As he has before and as he will again, Bishop Lee recently told a group of people that their minds will not save them. Their words, their checkbooks, their retirement accounts, their exercise regimes, their healthy eating practices, their education…all of them helpful, and none of them will save. But the Body will.
Christ was speaking of the temple of his body. Which is us. Which is you.
And this is how we show the world that temple; this is how we show the world what God looks like, here on earth: we walk alongside people who don’t necessarily know exactly where they’re going, as they stumble and lose their way; we pick up children who want to be held; we feed people who are hungry; we put our hands around the hands of those who are sick, and dying; we take and bless and break and give bread, and we share the cup we have to share.
Because the word became flesh and lived among us.
Because he was speaking of the temple of his body.
This is what Lent brings us: “a body anointed, a body beaten, a body on a cross, a body laid in a tomb.” Through it all, and through the 33 years that his body was a temple of flesh and blood in this world, and beyond, Jesus tells us that his body is what God looks like. And yours is too.
The word becomes flesh and lives among us…full of grace and truth. “We are baptized into that word made flesh, (so) that we might become the flesh made word,” that we might embody the truth of the gospel, become agents of the fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.
So yes, keep us, we pray.
Keep us in our bodies.