Sunday, September 09, 2012

Fruits of the biological machine?

Sermon preached on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th September 2012 at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis

As you walk down Rochester High Street,
 just before you reach the turn off to the Corn Exchange
you see a pillar, about 13’ high and 2’ wide.

 On top of the pillar
 you see a man dressed in rags and tatters,
hair unkempt,
long straggly beard.

It’s clear that he’s been there some time.
 Of course, you’re interested.
 “Hello!” you shout, “greetings friend!”

 The chap looks down
and decides that you are worth
 breaking his silence for.

 “Hello down there!”

In the exchange of introductions
 you find yourself introduced to St Simon Stylites,
 the saint famous for spending
a great deal of his life doing
what you see him doing
– standing on a pillar all day and all night.

Of course, you naturally ask him why.

 Simon explains,
 “I’m mortifying my flesh
so that I can live in the Spirit.”
Mortifying his flesh?

That sounds positively barbaric!
 Something that went out in the dark ages!
 Does this really do anyone any good?


We tend to cringe at the thought
 of any form of over-exuberance in this country.
 So someone  standing on pillars,
wearing hair shirts,
 or deliberately beating themselves up
with whips and chains
in order to discipline their bodies
are people that may horrify us,
or at least make us cross the road.

We often regard folk like that
 as being in desperate need of psychiatric help and a wide berth!

 Then again, most folk in this country
find the idea of a Lenten fast as something
 too enthusiastic or obsessively religious.

 It seems terribly overmuch even
 to go without something for 40 days.

What’s wrong with going along
 with what our bodies tell us to do
rather than treat them so harshly?

Many biologists tell us that
Mankind is nothing more than an intelligent ape
– a biological machine.

If this is so
then this would explain our natural desires,
the need to eat,
to sleep,
to mate
and to avoid pain.

Every living organism has these needs
and so it is quite reasonable for human beings
to have instincts for
and avoiding pain.

This is why it appears unnatural to go in for fasts,
 to say prayers in the middle of the night,
 to live lives of celibacy
or even to go in for acts of physical endurance.

So, why do people balk
at this self-discipline of the religious
in the light of the Olympic Games?

 After all,
athletes withdraw from
eating, sleeping, and many other things
 and put their bodies through some terrible pains
 to become more than physically fit
to achieve something.

To become an athlete is something that our society praises.
Such folk get knighthoods
and honorary doctorates for winning a race,
but people standing on pillars or spending hours
 in prayer and fasting are regarded
as cranks and crackpots
even if the same people
go on to help those in need.

 But then Athletes win Gold medals, don’t they?

What does the self-disciplined Christian get?


It is quite clear that we are more than just biological machines.

Our athletes demonstrate
that there are things in life worth striving for
 and that we have things to prize
beyond the basic maintenance of our bodies.

We have other sensations too.

A biologist might ask, “such as what?”
Well, St Paul would say:
 “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness,
goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”

If you’ve ever had to feed a cat who hasn’t eaten
for half-an-hour,
you’ll know that cats can’t do patience.

There’s certainly no temperance
with Bonobo Chimps,
David Attenborough will tell you that! 

And yet we know that human beings
can be just like animals too.

 Look at the ten lepers that Our Lord heals.

Nine of them care only
that their misery is relieved and go away.

There is no need for gratitude
when all you are concerned about is
 the continuation of the basic biological necessities.

 It is the one who looks beyond
his physical comfort to see God
 who finds himself truly healed. 

He is healed at the level of his spirit as well as his body.

He is a human being made whole.

Christians aren’t disciplining
 themselves for some physical,
palpable recognition or achievement.

 We are cultivating our awareness
 of the spiritual which
 is intensely difficult in a world
biased towards the physical.

In order to be aware of the health of our spirit,
we have to turn away our attention
from the constant crying
of our bodies to be satisfied.

We hear St Paul remind us that
 “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh:
and these are contrary the one to the other:
so that ye cannot do the things
 that ye would.”

 He is telling us that
 there is nothing more defeating
to the health of our spirits than constantly sitting,
fat and contented,
watching “Murder She Wrote”
on the telly.

We cannot become aware of God
whose existence is not material
 if our lives are constantly focussed
on the material.


Of course,
our bodies do need food, sleep, love and healing,
 and for their maintenance
we need to take care of these temples
of the Holy Spirit.

But if we want to grow the fruits of the Spirit,
if we want to cultivate
 “love, joy, peace, long-suffering,
 gentleness, goodness, faith,
meekness, temperance”,
then we have to struggle
and experience some pain caused
by denying our bodies the comforts
 that they all too readily receive these days.


If we are not aware
 in ourselves of our struggle
between our flesh and our spirit,
then one of them has clearly won the battle.

Flesh or spirit, which one is it?

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