A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 20, 2011.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Like many of you, I grew up in a Baptist church.  And I’m guessing like many of you, I heard precious little at church about the human body.

Here’s what I remember about church where our bodies are concerned.  I noticed that our bodies were almost never mentioned except, of course, when we were praying for the sick.  There seemed to be an unstated rule that talking about human bodies was unseemly at church.  And besides—it was our souls that counted, our souls that Jesus came to save, not our bodies. 

On the rare occasions that our bodies were explicitly mentioned, it was usually for a negative reason.  Our sexuality was not so much a gift from God as a dangerous urge to be subdued or even avoided, and I got the impression that about the only thing that justified sex was having children.  The other bodily sin we heard about was drinking alcohol.  I remember hearing that the wine in the bible was unfermented, and no good Christian would ever use alcohol.     

Otherwise, my church was largely silent about the body.  You got the impression from the sermons I heard that our bodies were little more than physical prisons we were bound to carry throughout our earthly lives.  They were full of evil impulses so you had to guard them every minute.  As we aged our bodies would eventually break down and die.  And death would be a relief because we’d no longer carry these earthly frames.

I noticed some other things.  Because I grew up in the state of Kentucky where tobacco was big business, nobody in church ever said tobacco could be harmful to your health.  In fact, I remember a big group of smokers who would routinely gather outside our church on Sunday mornings to do their thing between Sunday School and worship.  I also noticed my fellow Baptists didn’t seem to mind eating like there was no tomorrow.  Many were overweight, and some were grossly overweight, including the preachers.   Apparently, being so heavy you couldn’t climb a flight of steps without breathing hard was of no spiritual consequence.

What I and my Baptist friends didn’t understand is that our God values our bodies as well as our souls.  And how we take care of our bodies matters greatly to God. 

Several years ago I heard a fellow pastor talk about why he committed himself to care for his body.  He was about 75 pounds overweight when his father-in-law, also a pastor, had a massive stroke because he had neglected his health.  Watching his grossly overweight father-in-law almost die in the hospital convinced my pastor friend he had to do something to improve his own health. 

Until then, he said, he had treated his body like a “rental car”…a vehicle he could mistreat and drive into the ground without a second thought.  Now he understood he could no longer abuse his body and get away with it.  He remembered his body belonged to God, and he had an obligation to take care of it, not just so he could look good, but so he could glorify the God who created him.  That pastor not only dropped his extra weight.  These days he stays fit by running triathlons all over the country.  He’s not competing to win the race, though that would be nice.  He’s doing it as a way of honoring his God and his body.

Where did my pastor friend get the idea that his body was that special to God?   It so happens that idea is very biblical. 

Few Christians pay much attention to the Old Testament book, Leviticus because of our perception that Leviticus is full of lots of religious rules and regulations—and that’s true.  But Leviticus 19 is one of the more significant chapters not only of Leviticus, but all the Old Testament. 

In Leviticus 19:2, God instructs Moses to say to the Israelites:  You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.  God is saying in so many words, “When it comes to managing your life and relating to other people, you are to operate the way I would in your place.  You shall share food with those who are hungry, and be honest and fair with those you do business with.  You shall be especially sensitive to the plight of the hearing impaired and the blind.  To sum it all up, you shall love your neighbor as you yourself.  You shall love yourself enough to care for your own needs, and love others the same way.  That includes caring for the welfare of your own body and soul, and theirs, too.”

In the New Testament, we encounter a startling affirmation of our bodies in John 1:14 where we read that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  The theological doctrine of the incarnation says that matter matters, that our bodies matter so much that in Jesus Christ God chose to dwell in one, teach in one, perform miracles in one, die in one, and be raised from the dead in one.  In Matthew 25 Jesus said that when we dishonor the bodies of others—by refusing to feed them when they are hungry or clothe them when they are naked—we dishonor his body.  And when we honor the bodies of others, we honor him.

Interestingly enough, after Jesus was physically gone early Christians did not refer to the church as the Spirit of Christ but the Body of Christ.  Members of Christ’s church were members of Christ’s body.  And if by chance you became contentious in your church  and did what you could to divide your church, it wasn’t just your church but the body of Christ that was wounded.

The church in Corinth was a case in point.  To the Apostle Paul’s dismay this church that he planted was a train wreck because deep divisions had been created by people who claimed differing loyalties to different leaders.  Some claimed they belonged to a well-known teacher named Apollos, others to Cephas (Peter), and still others claimed allegiance to Paul.  Not only was Paul not pleased to be treated as a church icon—he was heartbroken by the broken body of Christ in Corinth. 

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” says Paul to the Corinthians.  “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

Now Paul is speaking first and foremost about holiness in the corporate body of Christ.  It’s not the building of a church that contains God’s Holy Spirit—it’s the community of people.  And woe be unto you if you do anything to divide or destroy that community, that body of Christ, that temple of the Holy Spirit.

But I agree with those New Testament scholars who contend that Paul is also addressing, by implication, individual Christians.  Our individual bodies are also temples of God’s Holy Spirit.  And if we destroy our bodies, we are destroying something holy, something that belongs to God. 

This theme is affirmed even more pointedly in 1 Corinthians 6.  Paul is chastising the new Christians in Corinth who eat like their stomachs are their god, and behave as though sexual promiscuity is no big deal.  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:19-20). 

Many Christians correctly point out that this passage has much to say about living a sexually pure lifestyle.  The conventional wisdom of our culture says that sex is nothing more than two bodies coming together for mutual pleasure.  But the wisdom of God knows better.  Sex not only affects the body but the soul inside that body.  And when you have sex outside of that deep, abiding, mutual commitment we call marriage, you are not only damaging your own soul, but compromising the Spirit of Christ who lives in your body.   

While this message of sexual purity seems hopelessly old fashioned in our 21st century world, it needs to be repeated so we can be reminded of the holiness we are called to in our sexual lifestyles.  But treating our bodies like temples of the Holy Spirit should not just impact our sexual behavior.  Honoring our bodies and the bodies of others includes a multitude of behaviors that express our realization that our bodies are incredible gifts from God, and then treating them accordingly.

Listen to this marvelous description of our human bodies written by Carl Koch and Joyce Heil in their book, Created in God’s Image:

“Over eons, the human body has…slowly undergone minute adaptations that today allow us to breathe, live, and love.  Silently, our skin helps regulate the temperature of our body and makes chemicals to heal our wounds.  Two hundred muscles act in harmony to propel us in a single stride.  Our human hand has an opposable thumb, useful for grasping elusive shoelaces, tiny pens, and the wiggling fingers of babies.  Automatically, seven major muscle groups move together to draw each breath of air.  Our sexual organs—male and female—are a wonder of form matching function and serve as a sign that God created us to be creative. 

“Our bones can stand up to twenty-four thousand pounds per square inch of pressure.  Each day our heart pumps nearly two hundred gallons of blood out to the rest of our body.  With constant feedback and fine-tuning from the brain, our lungs adjust automatically to provide the eight quarts of air per minute we need when lying down or fifty quarts per minute we need when running.  In one-tenth of a second, our mouth can analyze and identify food.  Our nose knows the difference between leaking gas and cooking apples and can trigger waves of powerful memories.

“Every moment, thirty thousand auditory nerves rush impulses to our brain, telling us, “Ah, a fine Hayden quartet,” or “Terry’s in the cookie jar again.”  Ready to attack and destroy invading bacteria, our lymphocyte-packed tonsils stand guard at the entrance to our throat.  Our tongues curl around sounds that whisper of love or sing wild songs.  And finally, the brain’s trillion cells mysteriously spark and (pulsate), monitoring and controlling nearly every aspect of our marvelous, magical body.”     

Do you realize what a miracle your body is?  I understand no human body is perfect.  And I know as we age our bodies gradually “fall and fall apart.”  But my hunch is if we really understood how wonderful our bodies are, and how they are repositories of the very Holy Spirit of God, we might treat them more carefully.

How might we glorify God in our bodies?  Carl Koch and Joyce Heil have devised a wellness plan around the following declaration statements that you might follow as you live out a bona fide “flesh and blood spirituality”. Here’s my slightly amended edition of their plan:

  • I eat a variety of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, lean meats, and dairy products.
  • I am careful in the amounts of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol-rich foods I eat.
  • I limit my salt and sugar intake by monitoring my cooking and eating habits.
  • I maintain a healthy weight.
  • I do some vigorous exercise for fifteen to thirty minutes at least three times a week.
  • I take leisure time away from work to recreate myself and develop other interests in life.
  • If I use tobacco products, I do so moderately, fully aware of the risks to my health.
  • If I drink alcoholic beverages, I do so moderately and not as a way of handling stress or problems.
  • I monitor the medications I take, keep doctor’s appointments, and maintain a regular medical schedule of check-ups.
  • I enjoy and find meaning in my work.
  • I maintain close friendships and good relationships with my family.
  • I give appropriate expression to my feelings.
  • I avoid, when possible, situations that will cause negative stress.
  • I drive safely and wear a seat belt.
  • I read and try to grow intellectually.
  • I regularly devote time to spiritual practices like meditation and prayer.

Following these steps won’t make you immortal—our bodies aren’t designed to live forever.  But these behaviors will allow you to live a holy life, a more fulfilling life.  And they will enable you to be good stewards of the marvelous body God gave you.

So go and glorify God in your bodies!  

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