Harrowing Of Hell
October 18, 2020

The Body as New Authority

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning Epiphany. We are back to a didactic sermon, so, take out your pencils, and your Bibles because we are going to dance across scripture today. Now here is why: You and I are part of a movement, and a movement requires clear understanding of where we are going and why we are going there. We are The Christians, and so, by definition we are part of the Jesus movement organized to reveal the Kingdom of God.  

Jesus unveiled this movement in line with Hebrew prophecy and history, which means within the context of the people to whom he was speaking to. This point bears repeating: to understand where we are going and why, context must be considered, both in the moment and in the history. 

I’ll give you an example: If Albert Einstein traveled back 100 years to Princeton to teach his Theory of Relativity, even though E=mc2 was as true then as 100 years later, because James Maxwell had yet to reveal the theory of electromagnetism, the scientists of that day would not have understood what Einstein was talking about.

Same with Jesus. He needed runway to open minds and hearts, to the realities of the Kingdom of God. Which is why we are going to do some Bible reading today, but, before we get there, I want to circle back on this idea of being part of a movement. To understand a movement, it is important to understand where the power and authority of the movement comes from. Yes… I know, God… and the Holy Spirit, that is right too; but spiritual movements always find a new energy source to tap into, which is then followed quickly and closely by the emergence of a new religious authority. 

Let me draw and analogy. 66 million years ago dinosaurs dominated the landscape. Today, they eat bird seed.    And those weird little furry four-legged creatures that scurried under the dinosaur’s feet,  now have craniums about this big (my head). Remnants of old authorities stay around, and the new authority that emerges always grows out of something that is familiar. 

A quick look into religious history makes this point. Its evolution seems to jump genetically every 500 years. A mentor of mine, Bishop Mark Dyer, identified this pattern of shifting religious authority. He observed that every 500 years the empowered structures of institutional religion, whatever they were at the time, become stagnant and tired. They become encrusted, if you will, like a boat weighed down by barnacles. Every 500 years the hull needs to be scraped. This hull scraping is a metaphor for massive spiritual renewal and growth. This hull scraping becomes a religious renaissance, a movement, if you will. So, get out your scrapers.

Now let’s dance through scripture. 4000 years ago, a wandering Aramean named Abraham heard the voice of God, and broke free from the fetters of place-based religions, leaving the city of Ur and the gods of trees, and rocks, and waterfalls. Abraham followed a God that moved from place to place, a singular God, that had chosen a particular tribe to be the incubator of monotheism.

500 years later, Moses, the son of Egyptian royalty heard a similar call from God speaking to him from a burning bush. His authority came in the form of the law. 

500 years later King David united the twelve tribes of Israel and drew his authority from the monarchy.

500 years later the Hebrew people were hauled off to exile in Babylon, and the authority they appealed to came from the prophets. 

You see the pattern? Every 500 years the casing around the religious story is broken open, and what bursts forth is a deep longing for God and a new way of being with God.

Every 500 years a new religious movement is birthed, and a new spiritual authority comes into being. It happens in a swirl, in a mess, in a storm that rips through the assumptions and institutions of a culture; maybe by war, or rebellion, or deep division, or plague, or injustice uncovered and confronted.  Maybe it is a new technology… or maybe all of the above, but a convergence happens and then, from that point in time, a new spiritual authority emerges, and souls find a new way of knowing the joy and wonder and eternity of God.

And so, 500 years from Babylon we arrive at Jesus, who sets the authority of his teaching within the structure of small discipleship groups. 500 years later the group expanded under the influence of St. Benedict,  and monasticism becomes the authority. From there, we arrive at 1048 and the split of the Christian church between Rome and Constantinople, with the authority resting in the hierarchy of the church. By 1517 Martin Luther had enough of that, and the authority unveiled in the Protestant Reformation came from the words of the Bible itself. 

Which brings us to now, and a new inflection point, to another convergence, a new unveiling of spiritual authority. Yes, we still have tribes, but they are weak; we still have kings, but they are compromised; we still have prophets, but they are hard to distinguish; we still have discipleship groups, but they can be exclusive; we still have monks, but they live far away; we still have the church hierarchy, but they are committed to their own power; we still have scripture, but interpretation is full of disruptive voices.

Today, we are at the 500 year marker, and from the ditch we sit in, a new way is emerging. My claim is that it will arise (in time), to have the power to radically change religious authority for the next 500 years. Today it may look like that weird little rodent but soon, very soon, it will walk upright on two legs.

So, what is this new authority? And where will the power of this movement reside? Well, bear with me, because we are going to let this answer unfold by going back into the Bible.

We begin with the prophet Ezekiel who laments that the people of Israel had strayed from God, and run after idols, and debased themselves and polluted their minds. He cries out, quoting God: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:22-28). He wasn’t the only prophet making this plea. There was Jeremiah and Micah as well.

Next, we find ourselves in the Gospel of John, chapter two. Jesus is coming out of the Temple. In response to a comment about how amazing the Temple is, Jesus makes the enigmatic claim that if the Temple is torn down in three days, he will rebuild it. The prophecy he is making has many layers, but one trenchant is that the authority of the Temple will move into human beings; it will reside in us, in our hearts, and be expressed through our spirits.

This heart transplant has universal reach, like an evolutionary genetic jump, if you will. This imagery plays out in the book of Acts at the feast of Pentecost. A mighty wind runs through the city, and indeed, all the world, and in one fell swoop God performs a heart transplant on all people for all time. God removed all hearts of stone and gives all humanity a new heart, a soft heart, a heart of flesh. And, as Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians, this “body is (now) a temple of the Holy Spirit, which you have from God… and it is not your own; therefore, glorify God with your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20 para).

From the prophet’s mouth, to the Messiah’s presence, to the power of the Holy Spirt, to the teachings of Paul… we have history. And, today, now, that history meets providential context in our bodies.

The runway is paved and long enough. We are ready now because we live in the age of the individual; we have been taught to believe that we are autonomous beings; we have organized a government, and a culture around individualism; we are all about the body, and its adornment, and its care. We have been trained to put our bodies first… And yet, now the Holy Spirit is calling us to use these body-centric impulses for God… not to get buff, or to avoid illness, or to attract others, or for self-pampering… rather, to use the disciplines we employ for the benefit of our bodies, to actually become what they were designed to be… a temple for the Holy Spirit, an expression of the heart of God.

And this new power has been planted in the habits of people all over the world. Muslims and Jews and Hindus, and, I am sure other religions, have the same genetic markers of worship, prayer, sabbath, calendar, pilgrimage, fasting, and tithing, designed to form the human spirit. It is the spiritual exercises which will ignite a spiritual renaissance lasting 500 years.

And some of you may be thinking: selfish, self-centered, ill-informed. 

You might be thinking: “really, will everyone become a spiritual power source? Won’t this  just reinforce everyone’s own, self-serving, dumb, ill-informed perspective? Won’t this just codify individual fundamentalism?

Sounds scary!? And it would be if we didn’t have the history; if we didn’t have the spiritual genetic markers; if we didn’t have a plan to follow;  if we didn’t understand that at the crux of this new authority is power that comes from all of us being temples in a common city on a hill

And so, you might be wondering, what has taken so long for the human body to become the Temple for new and invigorated spirituality? Well, we needed time; we needed context; we needed enough runway to get this plane off the ground. We needed to be in the midst of the storm…look around, we are in the midst of the storm.

Fortunately, we find ourselves in a spiritual bunker, or, as I like to call it, a gym for the human spirit. This is a place where we train our spirits, our hearts. Just as when we train the body it becomes capable of doing things that it could not do before… like lifting something heavy, or playing an instrument; so, to, with our spirit. We can train ourselves to, out of habit, become “patient and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude;  where we do not insist upon our own way; where we are not irritable or resentful; where we do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. Where we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7 para) We become people who are habitually in a state of acting out of love… out of the power and authority of love; a love overflowing from our hearts; a love centered in and hardwired to these bodies, these Temples for the Holy Spirit.

We are ready for this new power, this new authority to be embodied inside each one of us, and played out by how we act out as bodies in the world. 

We are ready. The spiritual exercises make us so. It is through them that we own and unleash the power and authority of this Age of the Holy Spirit. It is our context, and it is our capacity, and it is our desire, which makes it our time.