Lent Series 2017
You are the Temple
The Revd Dr Charles Miller
For many of us our bodies are problems. The current media coverage of the National Health Service and its challenges is chiefly about us, about our bodies, the way we treat and mistreat them, and the way our bodies, almost with 'minds of their own', often seem to mistreat us. Who would have anticipated that the most medically sophisticated, 'liberated', and dietetically informed society in human history would find the body such a problem!
There's an added issue for Christians: what's the place of the body in our relationship with God and one another?
This Lent-Easter series focuses on that question. We will explore the first part of that question especially by taking inspiration from two chief influences on our Christian vision: the Bible and the worship of the Church. How might they engage us as to the place of the body in expressing and growing in our relationship with God.
My hope is that we all will befriend our bodies in new and helpful ways as we seek refreshing paths of encounter with God in our private prayer and in our public worship.
March 1st - Ash Wednesday - From the Ground
March 5th - First Sunday of Lent - Kneeling before the Lord our Maker
March 12th - Second Sunday of Lent - Sitting in One Place
March 19th - Third Sunday of Lent - Standing in the House of the Lord
March 26th - The Feast of the Annunciation (Mothering Sunday) - Embrace One Another...
April 2nd - Passion Sunday - ...With a Holy Kiss
April 9th - Palm Sunday - Glorify God in Your Body
April 16th - Easter Day - Treasure in Clay Jars
(Please note that audio recordings of some sermons are available.)
A casual stroll down the aisle of any supermarket or W H Smith, with eyes trained on magazines for women or about health and fitness, urges a change to the title of today's sermon. Wouldn't a more current and relevant title be: 'glorify your body'? That, after all, is what so many magazine headlines are about, and what drives so much of our attitudes, and even dysfunctions, regarding our bodies: not just keeping them healthy, but lavishing attention and money on them in the hope of...well, what? Body beautiful.
When I was an undergraduate I spent half of an academic year in Rome studying the literature, history and archaeology of the ancient city. In the course of the months we visited countless sites around the city; each of us had to make a presentation to the group about the history and significance of the site. I vividly remember one visit, where an ancient structure was enclosed within the compound of a community of priests known as the Passionist fathers.
Our sermon series theme through Lent, 'You Are the Temple', has focused over the last three weeks on postures which are common in Christian worship: kneeling, sitting, standing. Today our trajectory turns somewhat as we take up actions that aren't so much characteristics of worship, as they are basic human actions. So they say important things about what it means to be human, and what it means to be created in God's image and likeness, and yet these same actions, in turn, say something about what it means to be redeemed by Christ, and called into the fellowship of his Body, the Church.
If you've visited, or seen pictures of, the catacombs in and around Rome, you may that they include the earliest work of Christian artists. Among the images is that of a woman standing with arms outstretched. She represents the Christian soul at prayer.
That may seem odd in light of our consideration of kneeling, which I described as the most basic posture of prayer, and an expression of Julian of Norwich's phrase, 'the ground of our beseeching'. But just as, with St Paul's image in mind, the body has many members, yet all have a necessary part to play in the body's health and activity (1 Corinthians 12), so too the body assumes numerous postures in prayer and worship, each of which 'says' something about the Christian's relationship to God. So it's fair to say, I think, that '[S]tanding is the other side of reverence toward God.'
It doesn't take long when reading the Church Times to come across a debate about seating in churches. Should it be pews, or should it be chairs? Opinions vary, and emotions often run high. I wonder, though, what interests really drive such debates. Is it a concern for the preservation of church furnishings pure and simple, or are deeper values about church culture, and 'tradition' on the line? Does the debate veil issues of churchmanship, and style? Or is it just a matter the spirit of the age: of bodily comfort for a more indulged, casual age which wants to turn almost every space into a sitting room of sorts? None of those matters ought to be disregarded in thinking things through, I'm sure; but from my point of view, what's often absent from such discussions is concern for the purpose of worship, and how a worship space enables or hinders worship.
Older worshippers in the Church of England will perhaps recognize the title of this sermon, 'Kneeling before the Lord our Maker'. In the years when the service of Matins was the staple for Sunday morning church-goers, the opening hymn, as we would call it nowadays, was Psalm 95, often known simply as 'the Venite' from the first word of the Latin version of the psalm: Venite!--'O Come, let us sing to the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation'.Its first seven verses form one of the Psalter's greatest hymns of praise, and worshippers throughout the Church and through the Christian centuries have found it inspirational at the start of their worship. In the sixth verse 'O come...' is repeated like a refrain; then the verse continues '...let us worship and fall down: and kneel before the Lord our Maker'.2
Many years ago I heard a theologian ask this important question: must God be glorified at the expense of man?1 The worship of Ash Wednesday might easily push us toward that point of view. We know well the most striking and memorable words of Ash Wednesday’s solemnities: ‘...you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.2