Harrowing Of Hell
April 25, 2021

Why We Need the Body of Christ

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Last Sunday we talked about moral blindness. We talked about how moral blindness causes us to have moral blind spots, like driving blind spots, except for our spiritual life, in ways that inhibit our relationships.  We defined moral blindness as: an unconscious barrier produced externally from ourselves, that inhibits us from seeing our actions clearly, and runs counter to what we might claim to be our actual moral values.

The three, particular, external influences I mentioned were: the authority of Government; culturally accepted beliefs and ideas; and, influences of family, tribe, and tradition.

Last week, our moral blindness case study was inspired by Immanuel Kant and how he came to see that his 18th c. cultural beliefs around the hierarchy of race were actually a moral blind spot.

Today we’re going to look at moral blindness that comes from tradition, in this case the Christian tradition. (You hardly seemed surprised). Peter is again the foil that leads us into this conversation. When we met him last he was being escorted out of Solomon’s portico in the Temple on his way to jail. It seems that the people in authority don’t like having their moral blind spots pointed out.

{On a side note: that is why totalitarian and fascist Governments despise a free press. If their moral blindness is called out, it may undermine their capacity to impose moral blind spots upon their constituents. That was just as true in Peter’s day as it is in the world right now.}

And so, we return and find Peter making his case in front of the high priest and his cohort. His message is simple: God is in charge; a point punctuated by the Resurrection, and made known by Peter; lungs full, voice resonant, mind engaged, embodied, and filled with the Holy Spirit – Which means, in that moment, Peter was being his best Jesus self, right then and there. That is why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to all people-Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Arabs, to name a few. It was a worldwide, time unbounded response to the Psalmist’s plea: “Create in us a new heart, and renew a right spirit within us” (Ps 51).

Why did God do that? Out of love, of course, but also so all people can be their best Jesus self; living as Jesus would if he had my life or your life, embodied, in the moment, centered in the Kingdom of God, moving as God made us to move in the world as God made it to be moved in. That is not a Christian thing, that is a human thing. All people. One Flock, made by God, whether you believe in God or not.

So, we have Peter dragged out of his jail cell, filled with the Holy Spirit, embodied, and ready to confront moral blindness of the high priests, and in doing so giving us a model for how to confront the external forces put upon us that perpetuate moral blindness.

And what Peter embodies is boldness and Jesus centered power. This requires fearless action. This requires physical grit. This requires an utter confidence in the power of love, not as feeling, but as a thing done…love, after all, is an action. Jesus’ presence in the world is an action by God, to show us how much God loves us.

And when we embody this love, when we own it, then we are Jesus in the world… in the flesh and blood, just as if he were standing right here, right now.  That is why the Church has always talked about the body of Christ. That is why we are always studying the life and teaching of Jesus. That is even why we go on pilgrimage, to walk in the very footsteps of Jesus. That’s what Peter is modeling for us by opening his heart to the presence of the Holy Spirit and in that moment being Jesus in the world… Resurrected, opened hearts, trusting God; fearless, physical, and full of love revealing the resurrected Jesus, whether you believe in Jesus or not.

We are loving Peter for this revelation… until he stumbles into what I call the Christian cringe factor, saying: “There is no salvation though anyone other than Jesus.” What do you think about that? What about Muslims? What about Jews? What about those good people you know who don’t believe in God? Usually, it is best to just quickly read through the cringe factor, skipping to something more theologically palatable. But, as you know, ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. Sometimes it just makes it worse.

And so, today we are going to look at the Christian cringe factor; to see if we can reconcile these words with the theology of inclusion revealed by a Trinitarian God. In doing so, we may find that Peter’s statement has been twisted, over time, by the Church, in a way that imposes a moral blind spot on some within the Christian community.

To start, let’s examine why Peter’s statement provokes a cringe. To our ears, as we hear these words through 2000 years of Christian power, politics, and hegemony, they reverberate in an echo chamber of exclusion, claiming that one cannot be connected with God if they have not claimed allegiance to Jesus. A lot of Christians have read it that way and continue to read it that way. And when it is read that way, it makes the achievement of salvation conditional upon intellectual agreement; that is upon belief, that is upon stated adherence to an idea. Which is how, incidentally, moral blindness gets blanketed upon a population: it happens around agreement with an intellectual concept, like phrenology and craniometry, ideas developed to define who is in and who is out; classically modelled by Nazi Germany.

But God, in the person of Jesus, is actually making a claim counter to this, that salvation doesn’t happen through intellectual ascent, but through person to person connection; and personal connection is always an action, that comes from the same place… that is our will, our heart, our spirit telling our BODY what to do.

And so, salvation must come from the actions of a body, rather than adherence to an idea swirling around in one’s mind: for when Christianity becomes more idea than action disillusionment sets in. Which might explain why so many people are disillusioned with Christianity. They hear of an idea claimed to be sacrosanct by some people, and yet, these same people do bad things with their bodies, in fact, repressing the salvation of others  with their bodies.

And let me be specific lest you think I am making a purine judgement about sex or partners or the preference of attire. No, I am talking about the words that are formed by tongues, and supported by lungs, and shouted out by mouths to shame, blame and control.  Bad ideas plus (+) words become bad actions, formed and played out through bodies. A body’s action matches the state of its heart.

And so, as we can see, sin comes through a person, a body, person to person; yet so too, does salvation comes through a person, a body person to person, like the body of Jesus to the person of Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is all about the body, and what the body does… not what it believes. We can use Michael Phelps and Serena Williams as our role models. You’ve heard of them, one swims, the other plays tennis. Here is the interesting thing: for both to compete at such high levels in their sport, they must attend to the same core exercises. Each works on their cardiovascular health, each considers their sleep patterns, each considers their diet, each works out their core muscles, each participates in visualization exercises, and then Serena Williams works on backhands, and Michael Phelps works on back strokes. And here is the crazy thing, neither have to believe in these exercises for them to form their bodies… they just have to do them.

Spiritual exercises are just like that, whether you are a Muslim, a Seik, a Hindu, a Jew, a Mormon, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, or even a Christian, the spiritual exercises are all the same, to form the human spirit to be its most complete and whole and healthy and holy self. All religions have discovered over time that there are particular spiritual exercises that form the body so, the human spirit can soar. They include worship, prayer, Sabbath, a spiritual calendar to follow, and pilgrimage; They also include fasting and tithing. It’s just the way the body trains to allow the spirit to become acquainted with and access the Holy Spirit heart that God endowed all humanity with at the feast of Pentecost. And these spiritual exercises always come to us the same way, person to person, relationally, taught and participated in through bodies over time.

Which brings us back to Peter, and his claim that salvation comes through Jesus. Jesus is a body, who has come into the world to be like you and me. He eats, and he sleeps, and he walks around, and he talks, and he listens, and he responds, and he participates in the spiritual exercises.

As Christians we claim that the person of Jesus came to articulate for humanity how to build a relationship, person to person, in harmony with the world as it was designed by God, and harmony with God is salvation, because harmony with God is the point of our being. And that is what Peter is doing, standing there in front of the Sanhedrin; a body, filled with the Holy Spirit and being in his personhood the person of Jesus.

Can someone be the person of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, and not abide by the traditions of Christianity?  If this is God’ world, and God made it, then: Yes, they can. The Holy Spirit does not discriminate. Do I think Christianity is the best way to engage salvation? Yes, I do. Do I think it is the easiest way to grow into holiness? You bet! Absolutely! Yes, I do. I think it is the cleanest, clearest, most sublime way to engage the world and engage God.

But do I think it is the only way? Well, there are a lot of bodies out there, too many for me to make a claim for exclusion. When I look out there at all those bodies, one thing that is clear to me they are all bodies made by God. After all there is one shepherd and one flock. And if that is so, then they are all bodies that are loved by God. And if that is so, then as a follower Jesus Christ, they are bodies that I am to love as well, irrespective of what they believe.

And so, with all of that in mind, we return to the topic of moral blindness, and how our Christian tradition can be twisted in rebellion against the Kingdom of God. We know this is happening when Christianity becomes more idea than action. We know this is happening when inclusion becomes qualified by rules.  We know this is happening when shame becomes a means of control. We know this is happening  when equity becomes secondary to “what is in it for me.”

Moral blind spots are revealed when limits are imposed in a way that retains power in the hands of the powerful. That is what Peter was exposing as he stood before the high priest and his cohort, filled with the Holy Spirit he proclaimed the salvation of the Kingdom of God, as named through the person of Jesus, and passed on person to person to person, body to body to body, right down through time, to the person sitting in the pew next to you.