In our digital age, many (if not most) the messages we receive throughout the week come stark naked — i.e., disembodied. I’m finishing up my first doctoral thesis paper today, and exploring the power of and need for “embodied teaching” in the church and “embodied words” in our lives as a whole.
We get sprinkled with text messages throughout the day, but what we really long for is a hug. We read someone’s Facebook rant and make false assumptions regarding the mood and emotions behind it. We shoot off a rushed email that leaves the recipient questioning our heart and motives. We make phone calls on our drive home from work each day to catch up with friends, but we haven’t seen them face to face for far too long.
For many Christians today, spiritual growth and nourishment is often coming through disembodied the voices of celebrity pastors into our earbuds via podcasts and online sermons. Many of our own “teachers” we’ve never even met face to face. Some of our beloved teachers live in another part of the country, and while they mean the world to us and have changed our entire lives, in reality they have no clue we even exist.
Even God Himself, after centuries of trying to get his Word across through the writings of Moses, the prophets and wisdom literature, decided there was a better way.
An Embodied Way.
The Word became flesh and lived out God’s Wisdom in a human body with the full array of emotions, with eyes that searched our souls, with tears that wept over our broken world, with whiskers that rubbed against our cheek in a bear hug embrace.
The disciples “beheld his glory” in person; they didn’t just read a book about it or download a podcast discussing it. In 1 John, you can almost see the apostles running up and down the streets sharing about their relational encounter with the Embodied Word with anyone willing to listen.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life”…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us…And we are writing these things so that our/your joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-3).
Why are they writing these things? Because they want others to experience, or “have fellowship” with, this Word-in-Person themselves and to share their joy. But sadly we have often missed the significance of “embodied words” and settled for raw information, naked facts and stripped down soundbites.
In the memorable words of N.T. Wright:
The word became flesh, said St. John, and the Church has turned the flesh back into words: words of good advice, words of comfort, words of wisdom and encouragement, yes, but what changes the world is flesh, words with skin on them, words that hug you and cry with you and play with you and love you and rebuke you and build houses with you and teach your children in school” (N.T. Wright, “The New Creation,” in The Crown and the Fire).
Let church leaders, teachers and lay people alike all recommit to surrounding ourselves with friends and teachers whose words come with a personality attached to it, with a “lived-quality” to our messages that says, “Hey, I’m not just spouting ideas here, but really trying to live this stuff out and embody these ideas with my very life — Would you like to join me?”
We all need to become ‘embodied words’ to those around us who a need some encouragement wrapped in a compassionate embrace. When we offer words of advice to a young, fatherless child in the church, that word needs to come with a firm arm around their shoulder that says, “Hey, and I’ll walk with you through it all.” When we offer words of marital wisdom in pre-marital counseling, let them be cloaked in a lifestyle that proves our wisdom can stand the test of time and the challenges of marriage.
As Jesus brought his most famous sermon to a close, Matthew records the crowd’s response to his embodied teaching:
“The crowd burst into applause. They had never heard teaching like this. It was apparent that he was living everything he was saying—quite a contrast to their religion teachers! This was the best teaching they had ever heard” (Matt 7:28-29 The Message).
Now its our turn to live out—to embody!—our Master’s teaching, and to pass it along to all who are ready to receive it and enter into the Dance with us.