Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament receives the Lord Jesus in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother [or sister].” Life Together, p.9.
I experience this truth last week while I preached in Yei South Sudan. The rumor was a white American woman was going to preach, so they came. It mattered that I was a woman, it mattered that I was white, it mattered that I was an American. Everything about my bodily presence mattered. In fact, it was a sign of hope, of healing, of something new beginning.
The body matters; being present matters. (Even if your feet can’t touch the ground while sitting in a seat.)
A quick history lesson for those of you who don’t know much about South Sudan: South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. This was the outcome of a 2005 agreement that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war (over 50 years). Unfortunately, in 2013 the world’s newest nation broke out in civil war displacing 2.2 million people. Massive Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps have sprouted in Uganda and Congo as a result of people having to flee their homes.
My husband Steve has had his boots on the ground for decades. He’s walked hand-in-hand with his fellow brothers and sisters in South Sudan. It’s because of his bodily presence, over the long haul, staying in the game, that he was included in the Yei River State grassroots peace process. He was there when the generals and government officials met to figure out how they could bring peace to their state. He was there when the rebels came out of the bush and laid down their guns. He helped figure out aid to get them reestablished into society. That was three months ago, and now we were back on the ground.
What now Lord, what now? That’s why I found myself standing and preaching to war-torn men, women, and children in South Sudan.
I taught on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Scripture declares her a blessed woman, favored by God. She even proclaimed “God did great things for her.”
I’ve noodled on that concept for a while. I’ve struggled with how I view being blessed in light of Mary’s life. Mary suffered. Her life was hard. All. The. Way.
I was able to share how Mary, this young nobody from nowhere, was God’s instrument of hope to the world. Although her life was full of heartache she was able to see that in it, through it, and in spite of it, God was at work. (Luke 1:38, 45-55) And in the middle of all the hard, God gave her glimpses that he’s still on his throne, still bringing forth life from the sting of death. (Don’t forget she did see him raised from the dead.)
What hadn’t occurred to me was my standing there was one of those glimpses. It turned out that the Governor heard I was going to preach, so he and his cabinet members showed up. They brought a camera guy so it could be broadcast on the news. My presence was evidence that peace was on its way. It must be true – grassroots peace was happening – because this 5’ 2” white American woman was standing in the middle of what had recently been was a war zone. It is as if my bodily presence was calling to those who fled and were now living as refugees, “It’s safe for you to come home.”
I love that at Christmas we celebrate that God came in the flesh. Incarnate. With us. Like us. To show us the way. Jesus’ arrival was God saying to us, “Peace has come. It’s safe to come home.”
And it makes me wonder if this holiday season our mere presence as ones who follow this Jesus might communicate that very message to those where unrest rummages in them, around them, and through them?
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. John testified about him when he shouted to the crowds, “This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘Someone is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’” From his abundance, we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself, God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. (John 1:14-18)