Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 29 August. Readings: Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-9; James 1.17-end; Mark 7.1-8, 14,15, 21-23
Over the last few Sundays we have heard from the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel. That’s the chapter that opens with the Feeding of the Five Thousand, an event that is ‘unpacked’ as we receive Jesus’ teaching on how he is the Bread of Life and how we participate in his life as we consume the Bread of Life.
Eating and nourishing: it’s all very physical; of the body.
As Christians, we should know that bodies matter.
At the heart of our faith is the incarnation, which is the ultimate in saying that human bodies matter to their Maker, to God. The incarnation tells us that the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ, takes human flesh: that is; has a body, is a body. That’s what St John is saying when he declares ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14)
That divine body nestles and grows in the womb of the human body of Mary, which is why we honour her so highly as the Mother of God.
In John chapter six, and elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus is clear that to participate in his life we need to connect with his body in a physical way, the act of eating.
Christianity is not a religion of the mind or intellect disconnected from the body; that’s the way known as Gnosticism which is ultimately body hating. Indeed we declare, in the Creed, we believe in the Resurrection of the Body, in other words one’s soul and body are so intimately connected that God will raise both together.
In society today we see signs of body discomfort, to put it mildly. There’s the idolising of the body – think Love Island - and the loathing of the body when people speak of being trapped in a body, as if their body is not part of them.
There is a growing separation of body and mind in the Western outlook. It was put a long time ago by René Descartes who said, ‘I think, therefore I am’. In other words, my thinking is what makes me, me. The limited body is apparently inconvenient to pure thought and reason.
The Olympic Games, and now the Paralympics, are fascinating because we see the human body pushed to the extremes of physical endurance, poise and power. But we also understand the intimate connection between body and mind. For the first time many athletes, such as Simone Biles, have spoken of the pressures on their minds as much as their bodies.
It rather gave the lie to the idea that if you want something enough, as an act of will of the mind, then you can have it. That is the route to deep frustration and malaise. Do you not want it enough? Or do you blame your body, as if it is something remote from you? ‘My body let me down’.
So the relationship between the body and the mind, let alone the body and the soul, is the stuff of philosophical and theological discussion and practical application.
That reflection on the body gives the backdrop to how we might handle this morning’s gospel. What is Jesus talking about as he condemns the Pharisees for their outward practices of holiness and cleanliness?
First, we should note that the Pharisees were a group within first century Judaism. Often the legalism of the Pharisees has been used to dismiss Judaism down the centuries. Not all Jews were Pharisees, and indeed some of the first followers of Jesus were themselves Pharisees.
Pharisees sought holiness in everyday life, what we might call ‘embodied holiness’. That in itself is laudable and good, but as we shall see there is a flaw in the application.
The Pharisees wanted to take the holiness codes of the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that applied to temple priests and extend them to everyone. In so doing the practice became burdensome and, what Jesus really gets at, utterly hollow.
When Jesus comments on the practices of the Pharisees it was not the intention but the application that he takes issue with.
To hallow everyday life and action by infusing it with a vivid sense of God’s presence is a wonderful thing. Why not this week try and find small prompts in your day to spur you to the recollection of God’s presence so that you can embody holiness. That begins with cherishing the gift of the body God has given you and being at home in it.
For me, I wear a cross around my neck. As I put it on each morning I say the words of Jesus, ‘take up your cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9.23). It is one small action I use to hallow the beginning of the day and intentionally commit myself again to the way of Jesus.
Saying grace before meals, a simple prayer of thanksgiving, is another great practice, whether eating alone or in company. It hallows the day and hallows the act of eating.
I could go on: prayer before bed, fish on Friday, saying the Angelus morning, noon and night, and such like, in these ‘little ways’, as St Therese of Lisieux called them, we can embody our desire for holiness.
There’s a health warning about holiness: it’s what Jesus pointed out with the Pharisees. No one wants to be called ‘holier than thou’. Holiness is never about superiority; that’s where the Pharisees fell short. Holiness doesn’t look down on others but invites them to look up to the Holy God.
The pursuit of holiness is what we do! ‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ (Psalm 97).
Holiness connects body and soul. It’s about the inward movement of the heart as much as outward action. When the heart is right, holiness of thinking, speaking and acting will flow.
St Benedict counsels, ‘Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may be truly called so.’ (The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter IV, 62 my emphasis).
We come now before the Holy God, seeking the holiness that is his gift, so that as we taste the body of Christ, the Bread of Life, we may be one of body and soul and live our lives to his glory.