The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
19 February 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48 Psalm 119:33-40
In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God. + AMEN.
“Do you not know that you are God’s Temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?” Or, as Paul will say later in First Corinthians, “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,” Paul says, “therefore glorify God in your body.” Glorify God in your body. Many preachers I have known seem to think this is about sex. It’s not. Or, it’s not just about sex. It’s about what we do with our bodies every day. We are not just ghosts in machines. Our bodies are gifts that we use to glorify God or to glorify ourselves, to cause pain or to create meaning, and we neglect them entirely at our peril.
Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. These were not originally motivational aphorisms that we put on Nike posters. They go along with: give up your coat, give to anyone who asks, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and, last but not least, be perfect. Be perfect. The first thing we might ask is, “Can Jesus really be serious?” And once we realize he is dead serious, and stop asking what Jesus must have “really” meant when he said these things, then we have to ask, What exactly is Jesus getting at?
One of the things I think Jesus is trying to tell us is that it does actually matter what we do in and with our bodies. Yes, that includes sex. Certainly. And when it comes to sex, as Christians, the question isn’t really about what we can or cannot do, what we are supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do. The question that we really need to ask is, How vulnerable am I prepared to be here? Or maybe, how much do I trust that I can blunder my way through this and still be wanted for who I am. The question is not, “Do I hope to marry this person?” That’s a fine question to ask, but that’s only secondary to a much better question: What am I prepared for this to mean? Because it never means nothing. And when it means next to nothing is usually when we experience the most pain and sadness.
There’s so much to say about love, sex, and marriage, and there’s no way I can say it right now. But let me suggest that what is true of sex is true of the ways we use our bodies more generally, that being embodied creatures we find delight and pain only in these bodies of ours, we are loved and rejected, abused and hateful, tender and accepted in these bodies and not apart from them. That is their gift, and that is their risk. That is true of sex. And it is true of how we live, move, and have our being.
For the last few weeks, I have been addressing the seemingly extraordinary times we are living in, and encouraging you to see your resistance to malignant powers as a path of Christian discipleship. The reading from Leviticus for today summarizes what God has been saying through the Scriptures in these past few weeks. Our duty as Christians is to pursue the well-being of the stranger and those who are most vulnerable: in our context, refugees. We are to be impartial in our fight for justice, not privileging only those like us, or giving undue deference to the rich and powerful, nor patronizing or infantilizing the poor. And yet, we must err on the side of mercy. And finally, in our struggle for justice, we are not permitted to hate any one in our hearts.
It is this last one that may seem most difficult. Jesus instructs us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Including Donald Trump, including Steve Bannon or Kellyanne Conway—even including, and I almost hesitate to say it, the accused members of SAE. What can that possibly mean? How is that even a possibility, that we could love perpetrators of violence and assault and those who stir up hatred and exclusion? When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, does he mean, we are to be passive puppets? Absolutely not!
The Scriptures say we must reprove them—that silence is complicity. We cry out against the damage they inflict as we shelter victims and stand with survivors; we demand just recompense; and we hold them to account. When we are struck on our cheek, we do not buckle and submit, but we exercise all the glorious plasticity of our body, standing in power and showing our tormentor that we will not be complicit in the cycle of violence. In not submitting but refusing to participate in the script that says we must hit back, we point to a different possibility, to ways of being in the world that do not depend on violence and subjugation, but in mutual vulnerability and trust, and, well, love. And we have no right to impose this position on victims; these commands are not for the weak, but for the strong.
That is why we cannot afford to hate our enemies. Because we are called to be holy, as God is holy. That is to say, we are to be different, unnatural. Striving after holiness does not mean we do not burn with anger, that we are somehow above it all. It does not mean remaining aloof or trying to be some sort of disembodied, unconnected, dispassionate ghost. It simply means we reject the scripts that have been written for us.
We must be careful that the demands of justice do not blind us to the brokenness of the oppressors, and we must be careful that our resistance does not make oppressors out of the victims. The Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf knew a thing or two about this. Having grown up surrounded by and having lived through the atrocities of the Croatian-Serbian wars, Volf nevertheless wrote his first book on the task of reconciliation—the problem of exclusion and the struggle to embrace. Justice is necessary, he said, but even before the demand for justice must be the will to embrace. Without that prior impulse to love animating it, cries for justice will always be empty. And that is unnatural. Loving our enemies is unnatural. But that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the way of his followers.
We can never accept these times as normal, cannot capitulate to the brutality that is now rampant among us. And yet. And yet, we must live in these days, in these bodies, now and here, as we find in the Gospel according to Mumford and Sons: In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die; where you invest your love, you invest your life. To live lives defined by resistance, or at least, lives circumscribed or constrained only by resistance, is to identify ourselves only by what we stand against, and not be what we stand for.
We put our bodies on the line in protest not because we recoil at what shouldn’t be, but because we see what should be, what could be, indeed, what will be! And this is not it. We put our bodies on a line, praying with our legs, sheltering victims and standing with survivors, not in order to resist evildoers, not because we need to dismantle or destroy those in power, but because we know that, together, we can—we must!—do better. We stand and march and pray as a witness to the world—as a light to the nations—that hate, fear, injustice, callous indifference, hubristic excess and self glorification are not our watchwords, are not life-giving, place us all on a road toward our own destruction. We stand in these bodies as witnesses to truth, justice, mercy, the wisdom of humility—in a word, to love.