Thoughts on the Physicality of Christianity

I was in Michigan over the weekend for Last Day of Unleavened Bread and the Sabbath, heard some thought-provoking messages, and had some interesting discussions. One of these messages (and related discussion) touched on the role physical actions play in our Christian walk.

By itself the message I heard  would have prompted many thoughts on the subject, but taken together with a book I’ve been reading it’s quite a chunk of spiritual meat to chew on. I’ll probably write more about this topic when I’m not functioning on ~5 hours sleep and a chocolate hangover, but those are my thoughts right now.

Blocking the Light?

In the message I’m referencing, the speaker talked about Passover symbols (foot washing, bread, and wine) and said “the physical acts are irrelevant” but we keep them because they’re good reminders. That wrinkled my eyebrows a bit, but I thought I’d keep an open mind and hang in there to see where this went.

It went to Colossians 2:16-17: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” He took this and defined shadow as the absence of light, and then called the holy days that we were gathered to keep “blocked light.” The next place he took the analogy was back to the Passover, asking, “Why would Jesus partake of a shadow that’s blocking the light?” The message then jumped to saying that since “He wouldn’t do something like that” the words must function on another level, as in Luke 22:18 referring to our communion with the kingdom of God inside us today rather than an actual event in the future.

“Shadows” by pwjamro, CC BY via Flickr

Obviously I’ve oversimplified his points, but you get the basics of what I want to cover. The crux of his message rested on the idea that “the physical acts are irrelevant.” That led to talking the implication that because holy days, sabbaths, etc. are described as “shadows” they may distract us from living in the Light. But the word for “shadow” in the Greek can mean two different things, much like it can in English. You have the physical absence of light in the sense of “darkness and gloom,” and you have the metaphorical sense. For the Greek word skia (G4639), that means a foreshadowing of a full and perfect image not yet seen clearly. You have to infer the meaning from context. And when the context is discussing Sabbaths that are a key part of God’s covenants and saying that they point to Christ, I have to go with the metaphorical meaning as most likely.

Embodied Liturgy

Then on the other side of the spectrum we have the book I’ve been reading called Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith (between this and Fill These Hearts, I’ve been reading a surprising amount of truly fascinating Catholic theological works lately). I haven’t yet finished this book and it’s a deeply academic text that defies easy summary. One of his main points, however, is that humans are primarily lovers (“I love, therefore I am” rather than “I think/believe, therefore I am) and that we require embodied liturgies to aim our desires in a correct direction.

While my church does have many physical things we do as part of worshiping God (like resting on the Sabbath day, the Passover symbols, and water baptism) this particular view of physicality in worship was new to me. He seems to be prioritizing physical acts of worship over learning theology and understanding doctrines, which makes me uncomfortable, but the idea of doing what God tells us to just because He says so before we understand why does make sense. I also find the argument that we should engage with God on every level — including emotional — very compelling, especially in light of the many scriptures talking about the role of our hearts in our walk with God.

Balance

I’m thinking something between these views is probably closest to right. Yes, the physical isn’t the main point because it’s largely there to teach us more important spiritual lessons. Focusing too much on physical is one of the things that got the pharisees in trouble — you need to have a right relationship with God or it doesn’t matter how good you look on the outside or how closely you keep the letter of the law.

Still, the physical is vitally important. God created us as physical beings full of desires that He tells us to direct toward Him. If the physical didn’t matter, God wouldn’t spend so much time telling us what to do and what not to do. The state of our hearts is of paramount importance and we’re supposed to control our thoughts, but that results in physical actions. And if we’re in a right relationship with God, we’ll be walking in Jesus’s footsteps (including the physical things He did, like Passover) and keeping His commandments.

What about you? any thoughts on the role physical actions should (or shouldn’t) play in our Christian walk?

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Physicality of Christianity

  1. I agree with your article, but I also wanted to add a few things that have been getting nailed into my head lately. Recently, I have read The Cure, The Ragamuffin Gospel (which is excellent, btw) and 1 Peter.

    Combined, The Cure and the Ragamuffin Gospel got the spiritual message of the gospel across to me in such a pure way that it was hard to ignore or forget. I think they made me realize that even I, who have been Christian since I was eight, forget the aspect pf grace. It is the easiest thing to forget because it is not the way the rest of the world works. The Cure also had a good analogy: when we focus the most on pleasing God, we end up with a pile of sin between ourselves and him, intending to dig through it all before we reach him. Of course, we can’t.

    So instead, we can turn away completely, or focus on trusting God (which pleases him anyway) and allow him to work in you from the inside out. This leads to producing fruit, or as you call it, the physical, because God is changing your desires from the inside and so what comes out are good works.

    For example, when I felt incapable of overcoming addiction, I was too ashamed to share and so it almost got worse when I tried to “work on it” like some school project that I kept failing at. I am still working on it, but actually the biggest change has come when I let go of the pride I was holding onto (in not wanting to share because of shame) and trusted God (and loved ones) to help me. The same concept has applied to issues of depression in anxiety so far, because those things are often born out of a sense that we are not where we are supposed to be in some aspect, but rather than trying to get there on our own, God wants to meet us where we are so he can get us to where it is he wants us, which might not even be where we assume we ought to be.

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    • I agree with you so much. Taking actions on our own can never make us right with God, but turning to Him, submitting to Him, and trusting Him will result in us producing good fruit as He changes our hearts. Thank you for adding to this discussion! Grace is definitely an aspect we can’t forget.

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  2. If God didn’t think the physical world was important, there wouldn’t have been an incarnation, and we wouldn’t believe in the resurrection of the body as Christians. It’s both/and, not either/or.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly!
      Have you read N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church”? It was recommended by the James K.A. Smith book I quoted in this post. What you’re talking about is core to his teachings. I’m about 3/4 of the way through right now, and I’m really finding a lot that resonates with me.

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