Part 1 of the Lenten Sermon Series “The Jesus Prescription: Health and the Christian Life”
One of the interesting phenomena that happens every year, as sure as January 1st will roll around on the calendar, is that the local gym will become really crowded. People make their New Year’s resolutions, join the gym—be it the YMCA or another—and start going regularly. The machines have a waiting list, the group exercise classes are crowded, all with people trying to get in shape.
But, also like clockwork, the crowed suddenly thins out (pun intended) around the first of March. People who have been huffing and puffing for a few weeks start to get sore, and they find other things to do with their time. Oh, they will go to the gym occasionally, out of guilt, and still pay the monthly fee but, for many of them, what was once a good intention soon becomes a burden.
The gym is full in January because we all know that we need to get in shape. We’re reminded every day by the media that Americans are going soft in a way that our rugged frontier ancestors would not have understood. According to a government study, 80% of Americans do not get the required amount of exercise. As technological advances increase, we have been sitting more and doing other things less. When I was a kid, for example, you used to have to get up to turn the channel on the TV. Now it’s just a click away. Used to be that you had to go to the store to buy things, which involved a lot of walking about. Now you can order it in a few clicks and watch the UPS man get his exercise. We don’t even have to walk to the mailbox to mail a letter anymore. We just sit down and use email.
But all that sitting is killing us. A study from the Mayo Clinic compared a group of adults who spent less than two hours a day sitting in front of a screen with those who logged more than four hours a day and found that those who sat longer increased their risk of death from any cause by 50 percent and their incidence of cardiovascular disease by 125%. Sitting for long periods can affect our organs, leading to a variety of diseases; it degenerates muscles, gives us foggy brains and bad backs, and softer bones. If our bodies are designed to be temples of the Holy Spirit, as Paul says in today’s New Testament lesson, then for many of us that temple could be marked “Condemned!”
It’s interesting that all of this is happening in a nation that is supposed to be culturally Christian. Christianity, after all, is an embodied faith. The very beginning of the Bible tells us that humans were created with bodies to reflect God’s glory to the world. God himself steps into the world in a human body in Jesus Christ. Jesus is raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion. Paul calls the church the Body of Christ. Being embodied is part of our creation in the image of God, and our bodies are to be used for God’s glory.
In our series on Romans, we read Paul in chapter 12:1-2 that presenting our “bodies” to God is our “spiritual worship.” We don’t often think of caring for the body as a spiritual discipline, but it certainly is. Our bodies have been uniquely designed by God for God’s purposes which include caring for God’s creation, serving God by serving others, carrying the good news of Christ to the world—we were designed male and female for the purpose of bringing forth families and relationships, filling the earth with God’s creative mission. When the read the Scriptures, you begin to understand that what we do with our bodies really matters.
But we don’t seem to act like it matters here in a nation that is ostensibly “Christian,” at least culturally. Maybe that’s because of our Platonist western heritage—a philosophy that values the spiritual over the material. Some Christian theologies can’t wait to get rid of the body so that the spirit can go to heaven at death and, if that’s the case, then why put any effort into caring for the body or anything material? Plato saw the body as a kind of husk that needed to be sloughed off in order to achieve spiritual bliss. Subconsciously, that philosophy seems to be embedded in our culture.
It’s a philosophy, however, that should never be part of the church. We began the church year at Advent celebrating the incarnation—the fact that God because flesh in Jesus. If God has taken the step of becoming human flesh, then that means that God values the body enough to become just like us in order to redeem us.
Indeed, one only need look at the ministry of Jesus to see how the human body and its restoration is a key part of God’s mission. In our Gospel lesson today from Luke, some disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask whether or not he is actually the Messiah. Jesus’ answer is telling: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22). For Jesus, the keys signs of the arrival of God’s kingdom were the restoration of humans—body and spirit together. Jesus’ ministry reflects this concern—healings, exorcisms, feeding people and eating with them, raising the dead—all of them aimed at making people whole again. He sent his disciples on long walks of their own in order to do similar works of healing, wholeness and restoration as in Luke 10 when he sends out the seventy to go to all the places where he himself intended to go. Jesus’ mission was an embodied mission.
That also means, however, that Jesus took care of his own body so that his mission could be carried out. People in Jesus’ day didn’t do a lot of sitting—work had to be done just to survive. Crops had to be gathered, animals tended, trade work completed…and all without a single machine. Jesus was a contractor (whether in wood or stone, the text is ambiguous on this point), so he would have worked with his hands daily. I read one estimate that suggested that Jesus walked more than 120,000 miles over the course of his lifetime—most of which took place even before his three-year ministry. In a land and a time when the average life expectancy was about 35 years old, Jesus was a model of health.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus said that his disciples would do “even greater things” than him under the power of the Holy Spirit. The question is whether we will take Jesus seriously and give the Spirit something to work with. That’s Paul’s point in I Corinthians 6:19-20.
In this passage Paul is talking about the fact that our bodies are “members of Christ” (v. 15), which means we should not use them in ways that do not honor him. Sexual immorality, gluttony, sloth, and a whole lot of other things that break down the body are out of bounds. Instead, we should treat our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit” because, in fact (v. 19) your body belongs to God. “You are not your own,” says Paul, “for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.”
Taking care of our bodies is thus a spiritual discipline and as important as prayer, Bible study, and holiness to the Christian life. When we care for our bodies, we enable them to be better vessels to be used by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of God. After all, God gave those bodies to us for a reason and they require regular stewardship in order to be used effectively for God’s glory. Diet, exercise, rest, and medical care aren’t just good ideas—they’re essential for disciples!
This is something I really grabbed on to several years ago. After ten years in the Army National Guard, where I had to take a physical training test every year to keep my job, going into ministry I saw a lot of my peers who had devolved into unhealthy habits. Clergy gatherings are not something you would ever see on the cover of GQ or a fitness magazine.
So, I committed myself to getting stronger and healthier, first with a person trainer and then, when we moved here, with group exercise classes at the Y. I’ve come to realize that in order to me to be effective as a disciple of Jesus, to do those “greater things” he talked about, to manage stress and maintain my overall health, I have to stay in shape. It’s a discipline with me—three days a week of intense cardio and strength training with a group and heavier strength training on the days in between. I’m certain that I can’t do what I do without that regimen. It took awhile to become a habit, but now I can’t imagine NOT doing that routine each week.
I’m convinced that Christians should be among the healthiest people on the planet because we know we have a purpose. So, as we begin Lent and think about things we want to “give up,” I want to invite you to also consider adding something new—starting an exercise program if you’re not in one already, or taking another step up if you’re exercising regularly. The more we work exercise and a good diet into our lives, the healthier and more useful we will be for God’s kingdom.
To give you a few tips on getting started, I went to the Y this week and talked with Heather Jones-Proctor, who is the group exercise coordinator at the Y and one of the best (and the toughest) instructors there. Heather has taught me and many others about exercising with not only proper intensity, but proper form as well. I asked her if she had any advice for those who may be looking at starting or ramping up a program of diet and exercise. Here’s the interview:
Being a disciple means making stewardship of our bodies a priority in our lives—even while listening to sermons!
You know it’s interesting that when Paul says “glorify God in your body” the “your” there is plural—like saying, “y’all” or “yins.” The call is not just to glorify God with our individual bodies, but to do so together as the body of Christ. I know that I do a whole lot better at the gym or at the table when I have a group of people holding me accountable and the same is true for the church, the body of Christ. Health isn’t just my responsibility as a disciple, it’s the responsibility of the whole community to help each other to health for the sake of God’s kingdom.
And if we’re doing our job right as the body of Christ, we’ll help others get healthy, too. Our Emergency Preparedness Group is a great ministry that’s focused on health and wholeness for people recovering from disaster. We promote health when we, like Jesus, seek to bring healing to those who are broken in mind, body, and spirit. Traditionally, this is who we’ve been as Methodists—people who reflect the wholeness and health of God’s kingdom to the world. It’s the Jesus Prescription for our physical health.
So, to sum up, this Lent I want to invite you to do two things for your health: 1) add a new health habit in your life—be it diet, or exercise, or preferably both and get a partner or group to help you maintain it, and 2) commit to helping someone else get healthy as well through acts of service and compassion. Walk in Jesus’ shoes for a bit over the next several weeks and see what it does for you and the world around you.
It’s a great way to to start maintaining your temple!