Glorify God in Your Body – Lent Sermon Series 7 – Palm Sunday

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.

We can't say it's something new. Every age has its ideal of beauty, by which I mean a sense of what constitutes the body's glory, and conveys that in both overt and covert ways. The ancient world of Jesus' day was no different. When St Paul talks about customs at worship within the fledgling Christian movement he reminds his readers that a woman's glory is her hair (1 Cor. 11.15). So those early Christians too were aware of the glory of the body in--how shall we put it?-- that cosmetic way.

By and large, though, the Christians' concern wasn't to glorify the body--that was something pagan Greek and Romans did, and did well--but rather to glorify God in the body. That was St Paul's concern, and before him that was Jesus' concern.

On Palm Sunday when Christians recall the crucifixion of Jesus that interest takes vivid form. For centuries in our western Church, Palm Sunday has been a day when Christians have read one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' Passion, that is, the sequence of experiences beginning with his arrest in Gethsemane and ending with his death on the cross. But because that aspect of the life of Christ is also, and more suitably, marked on Good Friday, we take forward the theme of Jesus' triumphal entry on Palm Sunday by focusing on the triumph of the cross. Our Gospel points to the triumph of the cross; for 'just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life' (3.15).

It's no accident, I think, that John's Gospel was the last of the four Gospels to be written. St John invests Jesus' crucifixion with an understanding which is the fruit of decades of reflection by the early Christians. Remember that the crucifixion of Jesus was a very tight knot which they had somehow to unpick. Put their challenge in question form: how could the man the Christians claimed to be God's Messiah have put been to death shamefully as a criminal on a cross?

For his part, St John sees in the cross the hidden glory of God; a glory hidden because it takes a form which no one expects. The form of that glory is humble obedience; God's glory shines forth in Jesus' 'troubled humiliation',[1] a humiliation which will take him through his arrest, trial and scourging, to execution on a cross.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, one of the latest writings in the New Testament, takes St John's insight further.[2] 'Therefore, my friends', the author writes,

since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, a way which is his very flesh,[3] and since   we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10.19-22)

Here, in a way not so apparent in St John's Gospel, we find the body of Jesus at centre stage. The flesh and the blood, that is, the organic reality of the man Jesus, plays a necessary part in the bloody business which, we believe, has made at-one-ment with God once again possible.

I say 'bloody business' because the key insight of the first Christians, as they tried to figure out why Jesus died the way he did, was that Jesus' death was a holy sacrifice. It was the perfect  expression of the countless lesser sacrifices which were offered day by day in Jerusalem's great Temple. So, the use of Jesus' body went hand-in-hand with Jesus' handing over of his own will submissively to the Father's inscrutable purposes. There was no other way in which Jesus could give his obedience to God any saving impact than by expressing that attitude of bodily obedience, through and with his flesh and blood.

This is not comfortable.

It becomes even more uncomfortable when we hear St Paul say that, through what he is doing in and through his own body, he possesses a share in Christ's sufferings, even becoming like him in his death' (Phil. 3.10)

Let's be clear, St Paul is not promoting himself as a substitute for his Lord; nor is St Paul saying that Jesus' death on the cross was somehow insufficient. But St Paul is telling us something important about our bodies and our bodily lives as Christians. He's telling us that our discipleship is no mere head-trip; nor can Christian spiritual life leave the body, how we use it and what we do or don't do with it, out of the equation. Our bodies, like our whole inner selves are meant to be 'a lively sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God' through faith in Christ (Romans 12.1-2).

What does it mean for us to sacrifice our bodies? Well, such sacrifices are first and last guided by the image of the cross which is before our minds and imaginations so clearly in the Gospel of Palm Sunday. That image is of the Son of Man 'lifted up'. Lifted up why? 'To draw all men'. To draw not just our physical and spiritual eyes to a sight. But beyond that, to draw us onto the cross too, so that where Christ is we might also be.

That happens in all sorts of ways; some are private and personal, other ways are public and corporate. There are, for instance, the Church's public duties to fast and abstain. There are spiritual exercises which involve the body as the door to inward spiritual encounter: pilgrimage to holy places, retreat into solitude, vigils in prayer while others sleep.

Above all there is this: St John's image of the Son of Man lifted up so that he might draw the whole world to himself. That's an image of compassionate openness to the needs of others, to the needs of the world. While Jesus, lifted on the cross, expresses his priestly sacrifice for the healing of the nations, it also declares a central truth about us who are in Christ through faith. As a royal priesthood in Christ we too live sacrificially for the life of the world through prayerful and practical intercession, that is, through the works of active service and compassion by which we do Christ's own work in the world.[4] The poor, the needy, they too, St Augustine has taught us, are altars on which Christians offer sacrifices of compassion and care.

In all such sacrificial actions in which our bodies play a part there is expenditure: 'love's endeavour, love's expense'.[5] As with Jesus, so with the Christian who presents and uses his or her body as a lively sacrifice, there is expense; energy goes out. There is diminution, and sometimes even death. We remember Jesus' words: 'No greater love is there than this, that someone give his life....'

But we remember too that, if our bodily sacrifices involve diminution, loss, and even pain, the aim of such sacrifices is life. And for us, in Christ, the aim and goal is nothing less than life in its abundance.

It's that strange mixture of loss and gain, death and life, love's endeavour and love's expense, which is the 'mystery of Christ' we celebrate through Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter: a cross of sacrifice which is, with those with eyes to see it, also the tree of life for our healing, and for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22.2).

When St Paul exhorted his fellow Christians to glorify God in their bodies (1 Cor. 6.20) he knew that in each and every Christian God had prepared for himself a body; and through the flesh and blood of each one of us, expended in sacrifice, the healing power of Christ can be at work for the life of the world until the Kingdom comes in power.

I suppose that's why an ancient Christian saint once declared: 'There can be no entrance before the Father except in a state of sacrifice'.[6] Love's endeavour, love's expense. As we seek to glorify God in our bodies--however and whenever we do that, however hard it may be--let's take inspiration from this, that 'with such sacrifices God is well pleased'.[7]

Amen.

 

~

Sermon preached by The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

Palm Sunday, April 9th 2017

 

 


[1] Ramsey, quoting Sir Edwyn Hoskins, in The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1949), p. 124.

[2] Harold Attridge discusses the issue of dating at length, suggesting between 60-100 AD, with scholarly weight on the late side; see The Epistle to the Hebrews [Hermeneia] (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), pp. 6-9.

[3] On this rendering of the Greek I follow the textual analysis of B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, reprinted (Grand Rapids, USA: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 320-1.

[4] I take inspiration here from M Ramsey, Gospel, pp. 114-17. 'God in Christ offers; the Church His Body beholds the offering in all its costliness, and is drawn into it' (p. 117).

[5] The potent phrase in H. R. Vanstone's justly well-known hymn 'Morning Glory' (Common Praise, no. 259).

[6] St Cyril of Alexandria; quoted by Kallistos Ware in his Preface to D. Staniloae's The Experience of God, p. xxiii.

[7] Hebrews, 13.16; an Offertory sentence in the Book of Common Prayer.