Bodies Transformed

Feast Day: Second Sunday in Lent
Readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” (Phil 3:20-21)

This is a sermon about the promise of Jesus Christ to take our bodies and transform them by to be like his risen body. “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” says St Paul. The Christian hope concerns what will happen to our actual bodies because the Christian hope is tied to the body of Jesus Christ. Rather, the Christian hope is the body of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. And that hope is fulfilled in us when Jesus takes our bodies and transforms them by joining them to his own glorious body, that we might be like him.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader C.S. Lewis tells the story of how a spoiled, snot-nosed, bossy little twerp named Eustace was magically drawn into the world of Narnia with his cousins Edmund and Lucy where they set off on an epic quest with the king of Narnia and his crew of seafarers.

At one point in the journey Eustace breaks away from the rest of the group and stumbles upon a dragon’s cave full of treasure. “With some of this stuff I could have quite a decent time here,” he says to himself forgetting about the others and the journey they are on. He shoves a gold bracelet onto his arm and as he is imagining the life of comfort he could enjoy he falls asleep upon his treasure.

He is, at this point, a bit like those that St Paul warns us about: enemies of the cross of Christ, whose god is their belly, whose minds are set on earthly things. Paul is describing those whose chief concern is worldly comfort and the present satisfaction of bodily appetites, especially insofar as these concerns get in between us and the cross. Living entirely for the present they have not trained their bodies to desire heavenly things, preferring instead “quite a decent time here.”

Eustace awakens to a fierce pain in his arm, the gold bracelet now digging into his flesh. Has the bracelet shrunk? No, in fact, as he discovers he is no longer a boy but a dragon himself, an outward manifestation of his inner greed and selfishness.[1] The pain in his arm is intensified by the realization that he is now cut off from his fellow humans. Isolated and alone Eustace began to weep large, hot dragon tears.

His treasure had become a prison, the gold bracelet a set of hand-cuffs cutting off his circulation. “Their end is destruction,” says St Paul of all those whose minds are set on earthly things. When we make present comfort, wealth, and desire our goal we end up in a prison of our own making, isolated from God and from one another. Yet God, who is rich in mercy, does not leave us there.

One night the Lion Aslan – King of kings in Narnia – appeared and after calling Eustace to follow him, led him to a garden on the top of a mountain at the centre of which was a well. The water was crystal clear and instantly Eustace knew that if he could just get in there and bathe it would ease the burning pain in his arm. But before he could go down into the water the Lion said that he must first undress.

After a moment of confusion Eustace remembers that dragons have scaly skin like snakes which could be shed. As he began to scratch at himself the scales started to fall off. He scratched a little deeper and peeled off an entire layer of skin only to realize that underneath there was another layer. After three layers he realizes that his efforts are in vain, he will never be able to shed his old skin or make himself clean or get rid of his pain.

“You will have to let me undress you,” says Aslan. Despite his fear of Aslan’s claws Eustace lays down on the ground and lets him do it. “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart,” Eustace recalled. “And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peeled off…Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…in new clothes.”

“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” Bodies matter. At first glance that seems obviously true. Who would question that our bodies matter? But if you dig a little bit deeper you discover a strand of thought, as prevalent in the church as it is in the world, that says our bodies really only matter insofar as they are containers for the soul which is what really matters. In this view, the material world is evil, the body is essentially a husk that holds our true selves, and salvation entails escaping this physical world, and our physical bodies, for a spiritual reality. We hear St Paul say, “But our citizenship is in heaven,” and we think he means that this life, this body, is simply a process of waiting until we can go and live in heaven where we belong.

That’s not what St Paul means yet this way of thinking is understandable. After all, our bodies get sick, grow old, break down. Some people hate their bodies and don’t feel at home in their own skin. Moreover, Christians know that our bodies suffer under the weight of sin. What St Paul means is that our present bodies aren’t ultimate so we shouldn’t be determined by our various bodily appetites as though our stomachs were our gods. That’s why Lent is about discipling our present bodies, submitting them to God.

Nevertheless to be a human is to have a body. Every human being is born and dies. And the Church proclaims that by his birth and death Jesus touches these two great poles that define what it means to be a human creature and transforms them.

It is significant that the rites of the Church concerning birth and death – baptism and burial – involve marking the individual with the sign of the cross. One theologian put it this way: “By nature we are all on the way from birth to death. But by grace we are traveling in the opposite direction. The Christian life is a mystery that moves from death to birth. At the beginning we are baptized into Christ’s death; and at the end we are born into the life of the resurrection. We are born as though dying; we die as those who are being born.”[2]

Scratch away as he might Eustace could not free himself from that dragon body, the body marked by sin and set on earthly comfort. I wonder if all of our desperate attempts at self-improvement, at being our “best selves,” won’t in the end add up to a few layers of skin piled up on the ground. What we need isn’t exfoliation but transformation: “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”

Only Christ can do this. Only Christ can be trusted to cut us right to the heart, bringing our mortal bodies down into the grave only to raise them up full of resurrection life. Only Christ can do this because he himself has led the way. He was born like us, he lived like us though was without sin, and then he died like us. But the grave could not hold he who is the life of the world. When he rose from the dead – bodily, not spiritually his physical body was the same body that had been crucified, still bearing the scars as Thomas discovered. Only this body was now transformed, shot through with the glory of God, filled now with a life that lies beyond death.

The promise of the gospel is that God will do the very same for you and I and indeed the whole world. The Christian hope is not that one day we will be set free from our bodies but rather that our bodies will one day be transformed by the power of the risen and living Christ. Moreover, this is something that Christ has already begun in us.

When Jesus catches hold of you and throws you into the water of baptism he removes your old sinful nature and clothes you with himself. Now your body is marked by the cross. Now your body is filled with the hope of the resurrection. Now your body belongs to heaven. Now your body is nourished by Christ’s body in the Eucharist making you a living member of his mystical body. Now you can train your body to long for heavenly things. Now you can present your body unto God as a living sacrifice. Even now he is conforming you to his likeness.

The Christian life that follows from this may hurt at first, it might hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt. It is, after all, the way of the cross. It is about learning how to die so that you might live. But the joy and promise of new life with Christ will enable you to withstand whatever suffering may come your way for the sake of the gospel. And in the end when you discover that all of the pain is gone you will see why. Aslan has turned you into a boy again.

[1] Luma Simms, My Dragon Skin Torn Off, Desiring God
[2] Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed

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