This sermon was first preached for an online service of New Life on April 11, 2020.
Relevant lectionary readings here.
I invite you to take a deep breath. (breathe) Feel the air coming in through your nose. Feel your lungs expand. Notice the rising of your chest or belly and the way it softens as you exhale. As we are sitting here, worshipping, I want us to remember that we are people with bodies. That these bodies are a part of us. That we are our bodies.
When you think of your body, what words come to mind? When you really take time to feel yourself in this body, what do you notice? Being present in your body might feel uncomfortable for you. That’s understandable, it’s not your fault. Our culture shames bodies through abuses almost too numerous to name: by closeting LGBTQ+ people, by perpetuating and allowing sexual assault, domestic violence, and state violence.
The weight-loss industry and the fashion industry are multi billion dollar businesses that seek to make a profit off of our insecurities by pumping us full of fear and shame, telling us that we can’t take up space, that we can’t age, that we can’t have a body. And so we try to tame and shave and nip and tuck and primp and preen and smooth and shrink our bodies into their unachievable goal of non-existence.
Maybe as we get closer to warmer and warmer days, you are starting to feel pressure about having a “beach body,” or worried about the changes you might have noticed in your body in the past year during times of quarantine. I know that oftentimes? When I think about my own body? My overwhelming feeling is shame.
During the readings today we recalled the familiar story of so-called Doubting Thomas. There are a lot of really phenomenal sermons about how that nickname is a little bit unfair – Thomas wasn’t present earlier when Jesus had shown himself to the other disciples. The other disciples saw and believed because of their own lived experience, and so Thomas was only asking for that same experience…to witness this unbelievable miracle with his own eyes. And in any case, doubt is a very healthy and important part of faith.
But this year when we read this story, instead of focusing on Thomas, I want us to notice what Jesus did.
In John 20, Jesus showed Thomas his wounds. He told Thomas to touch his pierced hands and feel his wounded side. These wounds were still present in Jesus’ resurrected body. The things that we go through mark us. They become a part of us.
So in following Jesus’ example today, I want to show you my wounds. These wounds that I will share with you aren’t marked clearly on my body, like a nail hole. But they have changed me just the same.
I grew up in a church that had a negative view of bodies. I remember hearing an idea (one often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis) that, “You are not a body. You have a body. You are a spirit.” Our spirits and bodies were seen as different from one another. And not only different. Opposite. God was Spirit. Spirits were pure and light and beautiful and good. And bodies? Bodies were human. Bodies were dirty, sinful, and wrong. They were cages of flesh holding back our truest selves, our spirits. And one day we would be rid of them in Heaven.
This negative view of bodies infected the way that my church talked about the things we do with our bodies. It lent itself to restrictive gender roles and hierarchies and a very negative view of relationships and sex.
When I was a teenager I remember an activity where we sat in a circle and passed around a Hershey’s kiss. First holding it. Then passing it on. Then smelling it. Then passing. Then unwrapping it a bit. Then passing. Then licking it. Then passing. Until the youth leader invited us to eat the chocolate. Understandably, everyone was like, “Ew! Gross! No! I don’t want to eat this! Everyone has touched it, disgusting!”
We were told that this is what would happen to us if we had those kinds of relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.
The message was clear. What we do with our bodies can make them less worthy. Even disgusting. Disposable.
This wounded me. Deeply. Because at the time, I was a victim of abuse. And I knew then that the things that had been done to me made me unworthy, disgusting, disposable. I knew I could never ever tell anyone about what he had done to me, especially not the church.
And as I began to understand myself as part of the LGBTQ+ community, the shame and fear only got worse. I spent so many hours in the night crying, praying, begging God to change me or change the church.
This theology alienated me from my body. I thought of my body as my enemy and sought to diminish and control it, ultimately ending up with an eating disorder. This anti-body theology hurt me mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Because these things cannot be separated. Body and spirit. We are one, whole human.
I am not the only one who has experienced these wounds.Or maybe not. Maybe you haven’t internalized these messages. In that case, I would ask you to believe those of us who have. But I think for many of us maybe you have some of these scars, too, even if the details are a little different. This kind of theology hurts women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, disabled people, fat people, marginalized people in general especially, but it really hurts all people. Maybe in your body, you house some of the pain of toxic theology that violently separates body and spirit and has cut you off from yourself. Maybe you are still trying to heal.
Let today’s scripture be a balm for you. Hear this good news.
While society treats bodies as dirty, evil, or wrong, while corporate greed preys upon our insecurities by telling us that there is a right and a wrong way to have a body… and does so for profit, while churches like the one I grew up in might shame us or trap us in a hierarchy of bodies…God reminds us that our bodies – ALL BODIES – are beautiful and good because God created them that way. And God continues to remind us of this by coming to us in a body as Jesus Christ.
We call this miracle – God coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ, a person with a body – the incarnation. And the embodied reality of Jesus shows us that bodies are not bad or wrong or inherently sinful. If bodies are good enough for God, then bodies are holy.
The incarnation is still ever-present in the story of the resurrection. You will notice from our Gospel reading today in the book of John that the resurrected Christ has a body. Some things about his body have been transformed, other things have stayed the same, but the fact remains that Jesus, post-resurrection, still had a body. Jesus invites the disciple, Thomas, to put his hands in his wounds. And elsewhere in scripture we read about Jesus after the resurrection cooking and eating. Jesus walking on dusty roads, feet on the ground.
The resurrection is not just spiritual and that is important. Jesus is not a ghost. He is not coming back as merely a spirit, a floaty, sparkly thing without a body. It’s not a spiritual resurrection, it’s not a symbolic resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is physical, fleshy, embodied. That feeling of breath earlier? With air coming through our nostrils? Noticing smells? Feeling our chest rise and fall? Jesus had that experience too…both during his life and after his resurrection.
When we are resurrected one day, we too are promised a body. It is right there in our creeds, “I believe in the …communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” It is not just our spirit that floats up to Heaven apart from us. In fact, when God’s reign comes in its fullness, it will be a community here on earth. When the church I grew up of spoke of suffering during this life, the message was often something along the lines of,”This is not our home.” We told not to worry about it, because one day our souls would go to heaven and things would be different. It was a way to subdue marginalized people, to tell us it would be better someday, later, somewhere else.
But the resurrected body of Christ means that our bodies matter, here and now. The resurrection is spiritually meaningful and it must make a difference in our fleshy, material reality. The Good News, the Gospel, is not just for after we die. It is not just for our spirits. The Good News is for bodies.
The early church understood that. We see that in our reading of Acts this morning. The believers of the early church knew that the resurrection wasn’t just a Good News for Later kind of thing. These early believers changed their lives here on earth immediately in light of the resurrection. Scripture says that they sold everything they had and lived in common, out of one communal pot. They gave up private property in favor of shared property. They upended economic systems, they formed a family of choice, they made sure that everyone was fed, and housed, and everyone had what they needed to thrive. This was not charity. It was not some people with resources doling it out others who do not have resources, which just reinforces hierarchy and the current unjust power structure. This was something else. It was mutual aid, where everyone was on the same plane. This radical redistribution of wealth wasn’t charity. It was solidarity. It was revolutionary.
The early church knew that the resurrection is about more than saving us from existential dread about death or snatching us from the fires of Hell. And they lived like it was true.
We have the opportunity now, today, to live out the resurrection, communally, in a way that makes a material difference in our own lives, and in the lives of our neighbors. Marginalized people are our teachers in this…marginalized communities throughout history have often lived communally, much like the story in Acts, because it was and is necessary for their own survival. So we can listen and follow their leadership. We can believe other people about their experiences. We can form networks of care. We can value people as whole people – spirits and bodies – by making sure that everyone’s bodies have food, water, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare, safety, and every other thing that human beings need and deserve.
We can radically redistribute our resources. We can upend economic systems of corporate greed and systems of oppression like sexism or racism and live in meaningful community with one another.
We can carry on the tradition of our ancestors in continuing this Acts 4 revolution.
Thanks be to God.