August 3, 2014
“A Theology of the Body”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
There are many ways we live out our faith, many different acts of discipleship, some which we pay more attention to than others. When we take our confirmation students away for a retreat each winter, these are things we talk about and practice, things like reading God’s story in the Bible, enjoying and caring for creation, praying, forgiving. And there are others that we talk about a good bit – generosity, hospitality and welcome, service.
But did you know that there is an ancient Christian practice of honoring the body? And honoring it not as a project to be worked on or perfected, and not honoring it because of what it can do, how fast it can run, or how well it can play a sport. Honoring the body because God made it and made it reflect himself.
We had a theology class for the parents and mentors of our confirmation students and we talked about a lot of theology, because honestly good theology will change your life, so we talked about theology and what all these doctrines that we believe meant for teenagers, and we talked about the doctrine of creation – this is a great doctrine, especially for teens.
We read Genesis, the first book of our Bible, which is the story of our beginnings, and there we find two important truths about ourselves.
That God made the world good and declared creation good, and means that everything is all good, and that includes our very selves, our bodies. And there are a lot of different kinds of bodies out there – tall, short, wide, thin, broken, scarred, tattooed and pierced, and they are good. Doctrine of creation, right there – exactly who you are is good.
And the second truth is that God created us in the image of God (that was what we read this morning). So that means: the nearest we draw to God is as ourselves, in these bodies.
However you read Genesis, it tells the truth. That there is something about us that reflects God.
I spent a whole semester in seminary studying the imago dei, and there is no consensus about what this means. Is the image of God our intellect, our creativity, our need for relationship? We only know who God is through a body, we only know our world through a body, we pray through a body, we love through a body. To see ourselves clearly is to glimpse the image of God, and to care for ourselves is to nurture the image of God in ourselves.
Stephanie Paulsell is a Theologian at Harvard Divinity School and she has written an entire book highlighting this practice of honoring the body and she writes, “Caring for the needs of our bodies, we choose life over and over again. Attention to our bodies through the simple acts [like bathing or eating or resting] might also remind us of the mystery that our bodies somehow reflect the divine image.”
The body is a mysterious thing.
Sometimes we feel that our body is who we are – we are a body – we cannot be separated from it – it is our identity – how we experience the world – we do not exist without it.
Sometimes we feel that we only have a body – especially when our bodies have let us down, when our bodies are in pain or sick, it can feel like these bodies are just vessels that hold us, or hold us back.
Fortunately we don’t have to understand this mystery of having a body and being a body in order to honor the body. In her book about honoring the body, Stephanie Paulsell mentions many ways – feeding the body, bathing the body, exercising the body, caring for the body in pain, clothing the body, resting the body. We always think of taking care of ourselves as something we should do – we should lose weight because it will make us feel better about ourselves, or give us more energy or lower our blood pressure, we should exercise so that our hearts will last longer, we should get enough sleep so that we will drive safely and get our work done.
Care for ourselves, we are told, is a means to an end: in order to be successful, in order to be liked, in order to find the right spouse, in order to look better in a swimsuit.
But what if we viewed ourselves, our bodies, through God’s eyes, and discovered that our care for ourselves should be because God made us, and we belong to him. Bodies matter to God. God himself became a body (doctrine of incarnation) and washed himself and was washed by others, and touched others and let himself be touched, and he ate and drank, and rested and prayed. We know that bodies matter to God because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in bodily form. Our bodies matter to God because they are who we are. In our Apostle’s creed we claim that we believe in the resurrection of the body, that of Jesus Christ and our own.
In our Heidelberg Catechism we answer the question: “ What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Bodies matter to God because he made them and we belong to God.
And this a distinct aspect of our faith — that every body is worthy of blessing and care and that through the needs of the body, we are invited into relationship with God.
And failing to care for ourselves is one of the first signs of loss of hope, and loss of recognition of the goodness in the world. One of the signs of depression is a failure to care for yourself, to wash your hair, brush your teeth, not eating or eating too much, not drinking enough water, or drinking too much alcohol, not moving much at all.
Care is not passive. The word derives from an indo-European word meaning ‘to cry out,’ as in lament, to stand up, to protest. Care asserts that as difficult and painful as life can be, it is worth something to be in the present and doing the simple, daily acts of care. Care is a protest against all that is hard and a struggle, to say that we believe that God has declared us to be good and has claimed us, and that in the face of all that is chaotic in our lives, that God’s kingdom has come.
I want to pause here and say please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying you need to work on your self-esteem, or feel better about yourself, or just figure out how to love yourself already.
I am saying that that you first need to see your body as belonging to God, and you have the care of it, that you should love it just as it is because God created it good and loves it more than you do, and the you should care for it because it is a way of crying out that life can be hard sometimes, but we still care for life, especially our own.
And the truth is that we don’t care for ourselves – we rarely rest as God commands us to, we eat meals in moving vehicles, we sit when we should walk, we stay up when we should sleep, or we punish our bodies with too much food or not enough, and we fill our bodies up with our stress and our anxiety, until our bodies cannot bear it any longer. We barely know ourselves, we barely love ourselves, – and if so, how can we hope to know the creator who made us?
Stephanie Paulsell talks in her book that eating and drinking are the fundamental ways that we care for ourselves, because these are the body’s needs that are the most urgent, and the most unending.
She writes, “Is food our friend or enemy? Is it a gift to be received with thankfulness or a problem to be mastered? It is not surprising that our questions about food are nearly identical to our questions about our bodies. For what other daily activity is more integral to the practice of honoring the body than eating and drinking?
How we understand our bodies – as friend or as enemy, as a gift or a problem, as sacred or as repulsive, as temple of God’s spirit or as a shell in which we are trapped – will influence how we eat and drink. . . . Our inerasable need to eat and drink confronts us, if we attend to our hunger and our thirst, with the vulnerability of our bodies. And attention to that vulnerability teaches us that we are not self-sufficient but dependent upon God, the earth, and the labor of others.”
Paulsell talks about bathing as another aspect of care. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Well, yes in a way. When we celebrate a baptism, we celebrate a life that is washed clean, but is also physically just a little bit cleaner (depending on how much water you use). When Jesus was baptized he was bathed fully. We have this wonderful story of Jesus wrapping a towel around his waist and washing the feet of his friends to show them love, this is how you love, literally washing someone.
Rarely is bathing sacred and honoring, except maybe those moments when you are washing a new born, or washing an elderly loved one who can no longer care for themselves – it is in those moments when we see the care and the love in the act of washing.
Paulsell tells this story: “A friend of mine learned how bathing could be used to adore the image of God present in herself and others from her father when she was a teenager with a face marked by acne. She remembers a day when her anguish over the appearance of her face made her feel unable to leave the house. Seeing her distress, her father asked if he could help by teaching a new way to bathe.
Leading her to the bathroom, he leaned over the sink and splashed water over his face, telling her, “On the first splash, say ‘In the name of the father,’ on the second, ‘in the name of the Son,’ and on the third, ‘in the name of the Holy Spirit.’ Then look up into the mirror and remember that you are a child of God, full of grace and beauty.”
We cannot talk about honoring the body without recognizing that nothing brings our bodies to our attention so quickly as when we are suffering, it is then that our bodies are impossible to ignore. And it is then, when we feel like our bodies have betrayed us, that we need to be touched and held and cared for by those who believe deeply in the goodness of the body.
Here is the sum of it, in Paulsell’s words, “We honor our bodies as God’s creation when we inhabit them with greater attention, for when we are where our body is, we are also where our creator is . . . when we reach and stretch and move, we have an opportunity to know ourselves fashioned by the one who cherishes bodies . . . we have the opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us, a beloved creation, fearfully and wonderfully made.”