Some friends were having my wife and I over for a party not too long ago. When I arrived fashionably late I could tell a lively discussion was already going on. I was greeted with “Aaron, I’m glad you’re here; we have a theological question.”
It’s not uncommon for theological questions to come up among these friends, particularly when beer is involved.
“Aaron,” my friend asked in a sincere tone, “do Catholics believe in a resurrection of the body?”
At first I thought it was a setup to a joke instead of an actual question. I say that only because this friend is himself a devout Catholic; but I quickly realized he was serious.
“Yes" I replied, "don't you recite the creeds in worship?"
“Oh, like the Apostles’ Creed, yeah I love the Apostle’s Creed” he replied.
“So, you recall the line that says, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
“Well, yeah” he responded, “but I usually don’t say that part. That’s gross.”
Allow me a side note here. I think that is a good way to approach the creeds. If we’re honest with ourselves, as this particular friend seems to be, then we know we don’t always believe every word of every creed every time. Not every pillar of doctrine is on firm ground in our lives. The beauty of the creeds is that even when you don’t believe parts of it, there are others who are saying it for you. The creeds anchor us in communal faith while simultaneously allowing the space to affirm each person’s unique personal faith.
OK, back to the resurrection of the body.
The majority opinion at the party was that the idea of a resurrected body was too gross to support; it was too gross to be good news. We’re fine with the idea of eternity in an abstract perfect heavenly realm; but when resurrection is rooted in actual earthen soil and flesh, many of us have a big problem. Two problems, actually.
The first issue is zombies.
Our only frame of reference for resurrected bodies are the fictitious reanimated corpses seeking bloody sustenance from the living. We lack the creativity to envision just how beautiful a restored and resurrected earthly existence would be.
The second issue, however, is actually rooted in real everyday lived experience. It is a much more dangerous and subtle problem that we must confront. The issue is that we do not believe that human bodies are sacred.
We despise our own bodies so much that the thought of living in them for eternity is upsetting. We would rather be Disembodied spirits floating in the spiritual ether of some etherial time and space continuum. We prefer to contemplate a reality that we cannot even wrap our minds around over rather than cling to the promise that would keep us firmly in our resurrected bodies on a renewed earth for eternity.
Many forces have conspired to teach us that bodies are not sacred.
We are inundated every day with a multitude of micro-aggressions aimed towards our bodies. Beautiful people sell us products, smile at us on airbrushed magazine covers, and live out perfect happily-ever-after adventures with other beautiful people on our digital screens. Too often we look in the mirror and only see the things we wish were different so that we could be as happy as the beautiful people who seem to have everything.
We have spent our lives judging our bodies. And throughout our lives our bodies have been judged. There is always some part of our bodies that we feel should be smaller or bigger, or removed entirely. Our discomfort with bodies is so pervasive that you’re probably deeply uncomfortable at this point, thinking “Why is Pastor talking about bodies, that’s inappropriate!”
Our constantly-judging minds are also put to work against other peoples’ bodies. We regularly mistreat people based on appearance.
“That person looks too old to be of any value.”
“That person looks too young to be worth my time.”
“That person is too attractive to be intelligent.”
“That person is too ugly to be intelligent.”
“That person’s skin is too dark, he must be dangerous.”
“That person looks too poor to be of any benefit to me.”
The valuelessness of bodies is one of the threads of the fabric of our society. While much blame can be put on advertisers, Hollywood, critical parents, masochistic power structures, biased 24-hour news media, school bullies, as well as the pervasiveness of ageism, sexism, and racism; the Christian church has also played a historical role in perpetuating the false dichotomy between an inherently good spirit and an inherently bad body, and it comes up this time every year.
There is both a history and a temptation to view the Passion of Jesus not as a tragedy, but as the real triumph of Jesus’ life. Many point to the destruction of Jesus’ body as the moment of salvation; as if the ruthlessness with which Jesus’ body was abused equates to, or earns, God’s atoning love. We have internalized the awful idea that each open wound, each drop of blood, and each thorn pressed into the skull is a downpayment Jesus makes on our behalf to appease an angry God.
The problem in glorifying the destruction of Jesus’ body is that it means denying that all bodies are holy, sacred, and worthy of protection. Even Jesus’ body. If someone thinks God only attributed value to Jesus’ body in its destruction, it would be very easy for that person to think that the destruction of any body could be appropriate or even useful.
If we think that salvation comes through the violent destruction of Jesus’ body, what keeps us from destroying others’ bodies…or our own bodies? It is no surprise that our culture has a violence problem. What is less widely known is that our culture has a body image disorder problem. I don’t know how many people gathered here today have intentionally inflicted self-harm, but research that indicates “approximately 15% of teens reporting some form of self-injury [such as intentionally cutting or burning one’s skin]. Studies show an even higher risk for self-injury among college students, with rates ranging from 17%-35%” (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/self-injury).
We have a body problem because we think of our bodies as obstructions rather than God-infused organisms that have made every sight, touch, taste, smell, sound, thought, emotion, and adventure possible.
I would like to share a reflection by Hillary McBride, from a recent episode of The Liturgists Podcast, which frames the complicated nature of our relationship with our bodies.
Bodies are beautiful. A resurrected eternal body? That is not gross; that is good news.
Easter Sunday is a day for Christians around the globe to celebrate the human body. Not a culturally-imposed idealized “perfect” body; not the lashed and bloody body of Jesus hanging on a cross; but rather the resurrected physical body of Jesus Christ.
Christians don’t tell a story of a spiritually-resurrected Jesus who was released from the bondage of his body. Rather, we tell the story that Jesus’ body was resurrected from death and that Christ will return in bodily form to resurrect all of creation in a physical resurrection.
God values the human body enough to have incarnated God’s self in a human body. God values the human body enough to have brought it back from the dead. The fact that you exist is a miracle and a testament to God’s divine love and the worthiness of all creation. The fact that your neighbor exists is a miracle and a testament to God’s divine love and the worthiness of all creation. The faith that we will be embodied forever in perfected, resurrected bodies is good news with clear implications for how we treat ourselves and others today.
May you be free and old to celebrate your body, just as it is, with every wrinkle, pain, disease, discoloration, and hair folicle (or lack thereof). May you treat others as if their bodies are to be honored and respected. May you treat all of creation as various embodiments of the divine. And may you live embodied in the good news that He is risen!