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Bodies in Worship

By David Ney

Iappeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Romans 12:1

As a kid I hated malls. I hated standing around waiting for my mom to complete her business. I hated the florescent lights. And I hated having to exert myself to do something as useless as trying on new clothes. I recently went to a local town and found its centerpiece, a once proud mall, in a rather depressing state. It appeared to have more empty retail spaces than stores. I surprised myself. I was genuinely troubled.

Experts predicted in 2017 that within five years more than a quarter of American malls would close – 300 out of 1100. Many of the departments stores that have anchored these malls have gone out of business: Alexander’s, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, and The Bon-Ton in the USA; Eaton’s, Kmart, Target, Woolco, Woodwards, Zellers and Sears in Canada; Allders, British Home Stores, Lewis’s, Owen Owen, and Vergo Retail in the UK. And while some malls have managed to reinvent themselves, people continue to speculate about the impending disappearance of the mall.  Some economists are talking about a retail apocalypse.

But empty malls aren’t necessarily a sign of economic hardship. They signal something else: the Amazon revolution. With a couple of clicks what you want can now be yours. You don’t have to lift a hand, much less leave the house.

In Japan the government has identified a new class of people called the hikikomori. The hikikomori are people who refuse to leave the family home. They do not work or go to school. They simply hide away, often in a single room, for a period exceeding six months. A 2015 government survey estimated that there were 541,000 hikikomori between the ages of fifteen and thirty-nine. In 2019, another survey showed 613,000 people between forty and sixty-four should be regarded as “adult hikikomori.” The Japanese government estimates that a further 1.55 million people are on the verge of becoming hikikomori. International researchers are now applying the Japanese research to their own contexts and are finding the same phenomenon all around the world.

Though the hikikomori tend to find ways to survive while doing as little work as possible, there are also many people in our day that work diligently from home. The enormous benefit, of course, is that if you manage to pull this off you don’t need to waste precious time being stuck in traffic. But if you work, eat and sleep at home, there is only one reason you absolutely have to go out: To shop. Except now you don’t. Now you can get everything you need delivered to your front door. Even your groceries. You can live quite comfortably without ever leaving the house.

You can shop from home. You can work from home. And you can even worship from home. Churches have made Sunday sermons available on their websites for a long time as a courtesy, mostly to accommodate shut-ins. Many larger churches have also begun to video the entire service so they can teleport it in to multiple campuses and make it available online. And since the service is available online, your satisfaction doesn’t have to end when the band finishes the final song. You can relive the experience within the comfort of your own home. Or better yet, just go to the website and download the service without ever having to leave the house.

Getting out of bed on Sunday morning is so hard. But don’t worry about it, about going to church, about entering a sanctuary of worship. And don’t worry about the most awkward part of Sunday morning, having to interact with other people. You can stay in your pajamas. You can keep your bathrobe on. Popcorn before breakfast isn’t that weird, is it? Ok, maybe it is a little bit weird. But that’s fine. Just watch the service after dinner, to go with the popcorn.

There’s a well-known sign that greets you when you pass through a nearby town. It proudly boasts “Bellevue: Live, worship. Shop.” Bellevue has fallen on hard times. Many businesses have shut down. Many people have moved to the suburbs. And many churches have followed. Today, “live, worship. Shop” might mean what it meant when the sign was first put up. It might signal that your life in Bellevue has everything to do with the community of Bellevue. You live in this particular place, rather than somewhere else. You are well planted in your neighborhood. You are an active participant in your local church, and you support that final retail holdout, Do it Best Hardware. But not necessarily. Now it might mean that your house happens to be in Bellevue, and that you worship, inside your house, and you shop inside your house. Live; worship; shop. All from the comfort of your own home.

In Exodus chapter 23 the Israelites are commanded “Three times each year, every male among you must appear before God the Lord.” These three festivals are named in Exodus chapter 34: Passover, the Feast of Weeks [Pentecost], and Tabernacles. Many Jews were still going down to Jerusalem for these three festivals as often as they were able in the time of Jesus. And the Gospel accounts confirm that Jesus was among them. Yet there were also those that questioned whether it was really necessary to make the long arduous journey to Jerusalem.

That’s the question, you may recall, that the woman at the well asked Jesus: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain (here in Samaria), but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (Jn 4:21). Jesus, as we all know, gave to the woman this famous reply: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24).

Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. And because true worship is in spirit and in truth, you can live, worship, and shop from the comfort of your own home. This at least is what we have been told, at church (of all places!). But the question of course is what this all means. Is Jesus here telling us that true worship has nothing to do with space or place or community? Is he telling us that bodies are incidental? The answer, definitively, is “No,” since we are exhorted to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” as our act of “spiritual worship” (Rm 12:1). Spiritual worship is about what we do with our bodies.

It makes perfect sense that we would be asked to begin with our bodies in our pursuit of spiritual worship, for human worship is necessarily, and, thanks to the resurrection, eternally, bodily. This means, among other things, that as Ephraim Radner likes to put it, where our bodies are is a theological issue, and that, as my colleague Amy Schifrin likes to say, Christian unity at worship is to be found in the gestures. But even before we proceed to consider the ecclesiological and liturgical implications of bodily worship as spiritual worship, we must come to terms with bodily worship as obedience. Jesus has the harshest of words for those who deny the command of Moses — Honor your father and your mother — by saying to their father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)” so that they no longer need to do anything at all (Mk 7:10-12). Obedience must be expressed bodily.

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is assistant professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.



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