Sermon for Sunday, 19 July 2020

By Revd Tim Clapton

Well hello – it is lovely to join you, Christ the Cornerstone, for your Sunday worship, if only in a digital sort of way. I lived and worked in Milton Keynes about ten years ago. It is amazing how time flies. I now serve as a Prison Chaplain in London.

As some of you will remember, I have always carried a few extra pounds. Well, probably extra stones if I was to be honest. For three weeks over the lockdown, as I recovered from the virus, I piled on the pounds comfort eating and watching daytime TV. While all the young gym bunnies took to the parks with an array of equipment. (I was surprised the different kind of equipment required by those working out these days: straps, mats, cuffs around the wrists, balls, for different kinds of yoga, Pilates and many other methods and techniques.) Anyway, I looked on in envy, wishing that I too had the courage to spread the mat and do some stretches or whatever in public. But I didn’t.

And I didn’t because I still, at the age of 61, when I thought I had finally arrived ‘at home’ and ‘comfortable in my body’, I find I’m not. I don’t have the confidence to get my body out in public. I blame my maternal granny. She was an Edwardian – but heavily influenced by Victorian modesty. From her and my mother I learnt that the body is actually — not very nice. It needed covering, it did unspeakable dirty things regularly and other people did naughty things with their bodies which proper, polite people do not do.

Of course the Victorians and Edwardians read the Bible through this lens supported, they thought, by St Paul in general and Romans chapter 8 in particular. THE FLESH came to mean everything that was dirty and naughty about the body. The flesh was unreliable and temporary. (P)  Bad, unChristian people did terrible things with their body, usually pleasurable things and they did this with other people’s body and none of these things could be talked about.

Prisoners also have a range of attitudes about their body as well. In a prison of sixteen hundred men there are a lot of bodies about and bodies are important signs and symbols. Some prisoners attend gym to build up or maintain their physical muscular bulk. For such men a weak body is a vulnerable body and a prisoner cannot be vulnerable. Other men work out in the gym to punish their bodies – it’s so difficult to men to forgive themselves; it’s a fine line between a disciplined and a punished body. Some prisoners cut their bodies because they feel so dead inside – any kind of body pain indicates there must be some life. The flow of blood from a self-inflicted wound is a release of tension. These also seem to be rather negative responses to the body.

Romans 8 seems to confirm that all things pertaining to the body are shabby and temporal. In contrast, the Spirit is blessed, godly, heavenly, truthful and eternal. It’s easy to see how it was possible to read a dualism into the writings of St Paul. Reading our own attitudes into St Paul, it seems he is saying the flesh is weak and bad while the Spirit is good and eternal. This is incorrect – we really do need to be careful to watch out for this kind of dualism when we read the scriptures. As if the body is separate from the soul.

So what did Paul mean when in chapter 8 verse 12 he talks about ‘The Flesh’?

The word he uses does indeed mean the physical body. But the word he uses does not indicate any overlay of value or judgement about the body. For Paul the body is not bad or evil or wicked – if anything, for Paul, the body needs to be nourished, treasured, protected and honoured. Certainly, for Paul, the body/soul is inherently limited; it is wounded or scared by the falling short of Adam. He uses different words to describe this condition of brokenness and other Greek words for the action or wrong-doing which is the result of this human condition. All these Greek words for this brokenness of the body/soul and the actions which arise out of these wounds have been rather clumsily translated to the word sin. So use the word sin if that is still a helpful words for you – I’m not sure it is for me (too much overlay).

In the first eight chapters of Romans Paul sets out how Christ’s death and resurrection has remedied or healed Adam’s wound or brokenness and how, as a result, we can find peace in God through Christ. He begins chapter 8 with the words, ‘Therefore there is now no condemnation for those in Christ’ – no condemnation for those of us who desire to be free from the constraints and death of Adam’s wounds, now no condemnation for those who wish to tread another path, who are open to healing through Jesus as we journey into the heart of God , no condemnation both you folk listening, me and our brothers in prison – ‘Therefore there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’ – ‘There is now no condemnation’: how we all need to hear those words echo around our body/souls. In fact, let’s take a moment now. Just for a moment be present in your body, if you can wiggle your toes, relax your bum and belly, move your shoulders up and down a bit. Wiggle your head around a bit so it sits nice on your shoulders. Be aware of your body. Let your jaw go slack. Now, if you can, put your right hand just under your left armpit and your left hand over the top of the upper right arm. Feel how comforting that is. Feel your body through your hands. Your right hand is close to your heart. Take a breath. It’s your body, it’s beautiful, it is wonderfully made. Listen to me – God knows you have been trying to walk the path of faith. Heavens knows you have been desiring the healing of the body and soul through Christ, journeying into the heart of God. So tell your body – tell your body now – while you have your arms crossed – ‘therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’. Tell your body –  go on. (PP) OK, that’s probably enough of that. This is good news for you and your body. Could you imagine what good news this, ‘no condemnation’ is for men in prison?

From time to time we all put ourselves into one prison or another: prisons of guilt and shame and addiction. Drink, drugs pornography are not just part of prison and prisoners’ lives – they are the prisons we make for ourselves through our own wounds and brokenness. But then so is the guilt and the shame and the regret which so hangs around our bodies/souls.

Paul says that when we are open to the healing work of Christ, when we journey into the heart of God’s grace – at last our body/soul becomes united in the Spirit’s life – and with that Spirit becomes adoption into the parenthood of God.

This last Epiphany, I was reading with the ‘church behind bars’, as I like to call it, the story of the Baptism of Jesus. We came to the voice from heaven after the Baptism – ‘This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.’ We were thinking that if we join with Christ’s baptism and death then those words are also for us. Most of the men in the ‘church behind bars’ never knew their father – or their father was remote or abusive – never were they told. It was a light-bulb moment – men realising they were ‘beloved’ and a heavenly Father who was ‘well pleased’  – oh how they had struggled to please their father or mother. My beloved son.

For them and us – struggling with the many wounded parts of our lives ‘there is now no condemnation’. Paul says even in our weakness we are promised the Holy Spirit of liberty away from the slavery of brokenness. The Spirit invites us into a new adopted intimate relationship with God.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own.