community · faith · Poetry · Worship

What’s The Opposite Of Spiritual

This is quite a bit longer than I would usually post … a sermon preached a few weeks ago in Easter week, focussing on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the importance of an embodied faith, lived out by our spiritual practices.

Thursday Communion 13.4.23 St Catharine’s, Gloucester

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

On the day of resurrection, Jesus had appeared to two disciples on their way home to  Emmaus … after Jesus has left them, they hurry back to Jerusalem to share the news … Luke 24:35

35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’


Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”   … touch me and see …

The risen Lord is present with us now as we meet to share in this meal of Holy Communion – bread and wine … now able to be here present in our bodies – a privilege that we appreciate so much more in recent years.   Pause

It’s that aspect of our lives that I’ve been thinking about – we might call it the embodied life.  We had some family time over Easter, and spent hours playing board games … physically present with one another, engaged in an activity that was communal and devoid of screens. Contrast that with what we often see and experience ourselves as we spend time relating to our phones , social media etc.

I remember an occasion when I was a theological student and we were visiting the local church for a seminar.  The vicar led a discussion with us, and at one point (I can’t remember how it came up) he asked us “what is the opposite of Spiritual ?”  We kind of knew that he was laying a trap for us, and I can’t remember if anyone did fall into the trap, but he was expecting someone to say ‘physical.’  The point being – the opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.

And the reason he asked the question is because one of the heresies that have always been around for the church (Gnosticism) is one that sees the physical, material world as bad, creation is fundamentally flawed, even evil, and to be truly spiritual we need to rise above the material world, to escape from the body and become pure spirit.

This heresy was around in the early years of the church, and is still around today. although we may not recognise it easily.

I have a Christian friend who to all appearances is an orthodox Christian – but his view of the climate crisis is that we shouldn’t worry too much about it or put our energies into tackling it because Jesus will return and renew the earth anyway.  And yes, that is a part of our faith, but it’s getting dangerously near to saying that the material world doesn’t matter.

But Christian faith is founded on the material world. Everything about our faith is solid … material .. physical.

God is revealed in creation – The heavens declare the glory of God – psalm 19

God is supremely revealed in the  incarnation – Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh.

And in our Gospel reading we see that even the resurrected body of Jesus is solid, substantial, not an apparition, not a free floating spirit somewhere in the ether.

Just note some of the words in the Gospel reading – hands, feet, touch, flesh, bones, hands, feet (again) eat, fish, eat (again).  This is bodily stuff.  Now I know that there’s much that we simply don’t know about what happens when we die, and what resurrection means for us, but there are some clues here – aren’t there ?

I’ve heard people talk about the spirit leaving the body when we die and having some kind of independent existence as if the body is merely a shell, and not really important for our existence.  But the resurrection of Jesus is not like that – the resurrected Jesus is body mind and spirit … new body for sure, but a resurrection of the body, and not some free floating spirit.

Each of us is made up of body mind and spirit, working together, and the gnostic heresy that tries to elevate the spiritual as something disembodied must be resisted.

There’s a real danger at this moment in time that our spiritual life becomes less embodied, with fewer physical expressions of faith in favour of something interior, private, individualistic.

I enjoy thinking, and reading … stuff that goes on in my head, but I’m more interested in living !  I’m more interested in a faith that is embodied, lived out in material ways.  One of my retired clergy colleagues years ago talked about the way that the life of the spirit, spiritual things are experienced through the material stuff of life.

This includes acts of service to others; being present with others to share our lives; taking creation seriously – enjoying the diversity of all that God has given us, and playing our part in caring for the world.

And it includes our practices in worship – that wonderfully work to keep us true to this embodied faith.  Just think of these actions that embody our faith …

The waters of Baptism; The bread and wine of communion. The posture of our bodies … in our Christian tradition we stand when the Gospel is read, or when we say the creed. We greet one another in the peace – and I have noticed the way the peace is shared in this service – with handshakes and hugs.  

In Lent we have the service of ashing on Ash Wednesday, and the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. Our Good Friday services are focussed on the bodily crucifixion of the Lord, with crown of thorns, and torture and vinegar.

But there are other practices that might not be so familiar to us – making the sign of the cross, bowing down or kneeling as part of our worship, or raising our hands in praise. Having hands laid on us in a service of healing.  All of these are ways to embody worship, and all touch on something profound that cannot be replicated by the inner workings of the mind.

In the eucharistic prayer there will be pouring of wine, breaking bread and lifting the cup and the bread … bodily actions that reveal something of the heart of our worship.  Do you know ? I think there’s more – you may think of more … but let’s just stop there … 

I’ll finish with a sonnet .. . inspired by this a book of sonnets by poet Malcolm Guite that go through the church year 

Disciples gathered in Jerusalem
When suddenly two friends arrived and said
The Lord had risen and appeared to them
They’d recognised him when he broke the bread
While they were puzzling on the situation
Jesus himself came with his word of Peace
“You look as if you’ve seen an apparition
Do you have anything that I may eat ?
He took the food and ate it while they watched him
“You see a Ghost does not have flesh and bones,
I’ll tell you ev’rything that has been written –
I had to die and rise to take my throne.
Now soon it will be time to say goodbye
Then you’ll be clothed with power from on high”

Later in the service we shared the peace in silence …to focus on the bodily action.
I suggested that for any who are keeping their distance (as we have had to do in the pandemic) that they find a way to make the sharing of the peace a bodily thing, maybe by using the Makaton sign for peace.


N.B. Whilst writing this I came across this article on ‘excarnation,’  Embodied Living in the Age of Excarnation” By Joel Oesch .

The article helped to inform and clarify what I was trying to say and draws on the work of Charles Taylor, who defines excarnation as “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more in the head.”

Grace and Peace.

One thought on “What’s The Opposite Of Spiritual

  1. Wow, some very wide thoughts there. Don’t understand lots of that but just one thought about the spiritual and physical world. In a large number of events God “manipulates” the physical world (not sure that manipulates is the right world). There are so many examples. The burning bush, parting the waters, changing wine to water, bringing the dead back to life, and so on. Why can He do this? Simple, because He can. God can “manipulate” the physical world because He created it. Perhaps the word miracles should be replaced by manipulations. God can cut through anything.

    I have a number of “givens” in my faith. These are the unexplainable things in the Bible which happen in God’s way. For example, the virgin birth. There is no physical evidence from our experience as humans but it happened. So why? For me, simply, God can do that and how else would we expect God to come into the human world and fully experience and live as man and God. He simply did it because He is God and I accept that as a “given” of my faith.

    God bless.


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