In Defense of Bodies

A Sermon on 1 John 1
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Today is the first in our sermon series on 1 John. This lovely little book is anonymous—the text itself never says who its author is—but because it has such theological overlap with the Gospel of John and 2 and 3 John, tradition attributes it to John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. Whether John himself is the writer or it comes from a community deeply formed by John’s gospel, what’s clear is that this little epistle—which really reads more like a sermon—has punched above its weight, so to speak, in the history of the church.

Not to give too many spoilers, but you’ll probably recognize many references from 1 John in Christian culture.

In 1 John, we hear the beautiful summation of God’s very Being: “God is love.”

In 1 John, we hear about the “antichrist,” a term that has had an outsized impact on popular culture. I am sorry to report that it does not refer to the leader of the government you like least but to teaching that denies the full humanity of Christ. I know; the Left Behind series has let us all down.

In 1 John, we are reminded, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

So, what’s going on here? What context brings forth so much substance from such a small book?

Reading between the lines, we can surmise it’s something like this:

There are factions in the congregation to which this book is addressed. Some have left over a teaching called “Docetism,” an ancient heresy that says that Jesus only seemed to have a human body, to suffer physically, and to die a physical death. That’s because, according to this worldview, flesh is evil, and the purpose of life is to learn to transcend the physical body, to escape it. 1 John, then, is an attempt to correct these errors, while keeping the community together in the face of disunity.

It’s why it begins as it does: “We declare to you what was from the beginning.”

Here, 1 John draws allusions from the Gospel of John, which in turn draws allusions from Genesis: “In the beginning.”

In Genesis, you hear, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In John’s gospel, you hear, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

This is important because it is a testimony to the goodness of creation.

Flesh isn’t evil. The physicality of our world—bodies, blood, dirt, water, mountains—these aren’t a mistake, created, as the Docetists might have argued, by a lesser, evil god to entrap our disembodied eternal souls. In the beginning, God created the world in and through the Word, who is Jesus Christ, and he called it good.

So good, in fact, that this God came down and took upon himself human flesh. The Docetists argued that nothing divine could be physical; but 1 John defies that: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.”

Remember, this first generation of Christians were witnesses to the resurrection. They heard Jesus speak. They saw him with their own eyes. They touched his resurrected body with their hands. It wasn’t an illusion. It wasn’t a magic trick. It was real. It happened. And it matters that it happened, physically, in the actual world, so that, as our text goes on to say, “our joy may be complete.”

I want you to take a moment, breathe deep, and think of a time when you have experienced true, deep joy.

Perhaps it was getting up early to watch the sun rise over the distant horizon. Maybe dipping your toes in the ocean and feeling cool, crisp water lap up on your ankles. Maybe eating a spectacular meal, or drinking a fine wine, or snuggling a new baby, or making love with your spouse, or laughing with your friends until your sides ached, or feeling the wind whip your face as you rode downhill on a tree-lined bicycle path.

One of my favorite poems is by William Stafford, “After Arguing against the Contention that Art Must Come from Discontent.” Here, he describes the simple joy of climbing a mountain:

Whispering to each handhold, “I’ll be back,”
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind—
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward. . . .

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark—
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
—the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
“Made it again! Made it again!”

All these experiences—they are embodied. They happen in the real, physical world. The world into which Jesus was really born. The world that God created and called good.

I sometimes fear that the ancients weren’t the only ones tempted by Docetism—by the lie that if we could only escape our bodies, all would be well.

In our own world, we are tempted to hate our bodies. I don’t think I know anyone who has never looked in the mirror and thought: Too fat. Too short. Too skinny. Too tall. Too masculine. Too feminine. Why are my teeth crooked? Why is my hair curly or straight or thick or receding?

So we starve ourselves. Or binge-eat. We go under the knife to deny the reality of what God gave us. We resist aging. We punish ourselves with strenuous exercise routines.

Don’t get me wrong: taking care of your body feeling as well as you can is a good thing.

But how often do you do these things not because you love your body but because you hate it? How different would it be if you asked yourself, “How can I be grateful to God for the body I have?” instead of “How can I change it?”

The digital world only makes things more difficult. Never, in the history of humanity, have we had so many images of ourselves floating out there in the ether, disembodied, “curated.” We apply filters to smooth out our wrinkles, take selfies from the most flattering angles, and only post pictures of ourselves at our best—not when we’ve just woken up and have hair sticking up in every direction and pillow creases lining our faces. Behind a screen, you can be anonymous or pretend you’re somebody else. You can almost forget that life is meant to be experienced.

Digital media has its benefits, but never mistake it for the real thing. Your body is God’s creation, and God declared it good.

Of course, we sin with our bodies as well. Our text doesn’t deny it. “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Just as we experience love, joy, laughter, and hope in our bodies, it is there that we experience shame, anguish, lust, rage, hatred, fear. When we hurt or are hurt by others, we feel it physically.

This is why salvation must come in a bodily form. The reading goes on: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

This sacrifice was not in some distant spirit realm or on Instagram. Jesus hung on the cross, suffered, and died; he rose bodily from the grave three days later. He extends his grace to us in physical form: in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of communion, which are his own body and blood.

Eventually, his salvation will extend to the entire world—not just people, but all of creation will be redeemed and renewed. The new heaven and the new earth will not be disembodied but transformed, whole, tangible, real.

You see, friends, our bodies are the location of God’s salvation.

May we love, care for, and cherish what God has called good and promised to redeem in the way we treat ourselves and others.

Amen.

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