This week we’ll reflect on the fact that we are made as bodies as well as souls. We’ll sink into the deep physical connections between us and our environment – usually for good, but not always when there is a virus on the loose.

Body and soul have not always been easy bedfellows in Christianity, and nor are they in the contemporary secular West.

Perhaps we should start with what the Bible actually says about flesh. Let’s start with Genesis. Human flesh is made from the dust of the Earth: even Adam’s name means something like ‘red clay’. The Bible later reminds us that ‘dust we are, and to dust we shall return’. From the outset, there is no mistaking that our origin and destiny is intimately bound up with that of the Earth itself.

John’s Gospel starts with a spellbinding echo of the Genesis story. God ‘makes his tent’ in human flesh – and why not, since God made it in the first place? Jesus was one of us, a living, breathing human organism embedded in the ecology of a particular place, its soils, its climate and its waterbodies.

Some parts of the Bible seem to be more ambiguous: ‘the flesh’ doesn’t always get a good press in Paul’s letters. Later on, outliers in Christianity would go further: some ‘gnostics’ pitted flesh, which they viewed as inherently evil, against spirit, which alone was good. They were eventually suppressed by the Church. But their heresy was not eradicated: it can be seen alive and well in today’s environmental crisis.

Now in some instances, the old-fashioned, pre-digital way of being together in ‘meatspace’ has been made illegal. It brings back difficult memories for Shokoufeh Sakhi, who writes movingly of her solitary confinement as a prisoner of conscience in 1980s Iran:

When the air of uncertainty was spreading around the world, bringing fear of a threat lurking inconspicuously to leach onto the most vulnerable ones, my hugs lost their firmness. My body had to let go of their bodies, my hands and my lips had to hold back their desire to land a kiss, to caress their vulnerability. We all did it; we all hesitated and gradually allowed this sensory deprivation.

Here are two brief questions to consider before your meeting, and then a reading from John’s Gospel, the full article quoted above, and another from the United Nations Environment Programme.

Justin Martyr (in the second century) said ‘matter matters to God’. How much does it matter to you and your faith?

‘Real presence’, in the Eucharist or in the bosom of the fellowship, is important in many Christian traditions. So what’s your experience of online worship?

In pondering that question you might like to look at Michael Landy’s installation Doubting Thomas (pictured). It reduces the disciple’s act of faith almost to parody by introducing the medium of technology. You might like to read this commentary on it.

Preparatory reading and reflection

For this week’s meeting, read John 1.1-18, Shokoufeh Sakhi’s article Self-isolation as imprisonment, and also Coronaviruses: are they here to stay? from the United Nations Environment Programme.

Opening liturgy

Together with all in Christ, we wait
Come Holy Spirit; soak into our deepest being
We reflect together with all your people
Come Holy Spirit; breeze through our staleness
We will hear the scriptures together
Come Holy Spirit; fire up our imaginations for good

There follows a moment of quiet, and our scripture reading, John 1.14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Questions for exploration

Take a minute each introduce yourselves and how you are, and agree a volunteer to summarise your group’s conclusions.

  • How is our own health connected to that of the planet? Are they well enough connected, in you and in society at large? If, as the UN Environment Programme says, the Coronavirus outbreak appears to have been triggered by human pressure on the natural world, is any reconciliation or repentance needed?
  • Why have we acted within weeks on Covid-19, and yet after decades of talk have failed to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies?
  • Reflecting on Sokhoufeh Sakhi’s experiences of solitary confinement and self-isolation, what have you missed about meeting with others, and how do you feel about that? Is the virus making you see the physical gathering of our churches for worship as more important or less?
  • Signing off a letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5.23) Paul prays for the church members, ‘spirit, soul and body’. Does your body get the same attention from your faith as your spirit and your soul? If so, how; and if not, why not? Is this pandemic changing how you understand yourself as a body and its place in creation?

Closing prayer

A liturgy to close this session is available here.

Andy Griffiths and Imogen Nay delve deeper into the heresies of gnosticism, which is still alive and kicking today. The Chelmsford Diocese group seek to put words into flesh through Community Organising and a post-Covid declaration of their own.