Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sermon: “Imago Dei: In the Image of God’s Body”, Psalm 139:13-18/Luke 1:26-33, 38 (December 15, 2019)

(Week 3 in our Advent series on how we reflect God's Image--
previous weeks' sermons can be found here and here)

*To expand upon the disclaimer in the sound file: this was a particularly challenging sermon to write because everyone has a different relationship with their body, and I know that talking about bodies can be painful for different people in a million different reasons. In addition to the footnote I added below, I want to reaffirm here: your body is holy, not because of what it looks like or how it works, but because of what you use it for. And as long as you're using it to love others and share God with the world, you're doing it right.

If you're still in the middle of coming to terms with what your body is or isn't, what it can or cannot do, know that God is with you in that journey, and that no matter where you end up and what you discover, God will still love, cherish, and value you just as much as when God knit you together in your mother's womb.  --KSW 


Human bodies have long been a point of contention in Christian communities. Although we worship an incarnate God, our own bodies have at times become targets of disdain and disgust. Historically, certain groups have seen the body as inferior to the spirit because of its finite and corruptible nature. They see physicality as something impure to be endured and transcended if at all possible. Individually, many of us see our own bodies as an inconvenience or a burden. For some of us, chronic illness or even just normal aging can make us question if having a body is worth the pain that we suffer because of it. Whether for functional or aesthetic reasons, most of us have been unhappy with our bodies at one time or another.

But our bodies are an important part of our faith. Consider, for example, Communion: Jesus could have used different means than this particular sacrament to connect humanity to the divine. He could have sat with his disciples and taught them to meditate, attempting to shed awareness of their physical being and transcend to a higher spiritual awareness. But he didn’t. He called us to take grain from the earth and fruit from the vine, everyday nourishment that’s common to all cultures, and to take them into our bodies in remembrance of him. Consider baptism: this sacrament that affirms God’s claim on our lives and welcomes us into the body of Christ is one that literally washes our bodies with life-giving water, connecting our spiritual senses to our physical senses (if you’ve ever heard a baby cry at the shock of feeling cold baptismal waters on their forehead, you know how true this is). Consider the Apostle’s Creed: whenever we use it as our affirmation of faith, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We may not completely understand what it means or think about it particularly deeply…but each week, we affirm the critical role that our bodies play in our salvation as centuries of Christians have professed before us.

Our Advent Project: Body
Our faith doesn’t just make allowances for our inconvenient bodies; it embraces them and is, in fact, shaped by them, because our bodies are a vital part of who God created us to be—and God doesn’t make mistakes. In Psalm 139, we’re granted a behind-the-scenes peek into God’s creative process: God made each and every part of your body with intentionality and love, even your bones and your guts! The psalmist uses the language of craftsmanship to describe how our bodies were put together: God knit and wove and spun until God’s vision of YOU was fulfilled. Your body was intentionally, lovingly, wonderfully created by God to be a sacred and holy thing.

Now. I’ll be the first to admit that my body doesn’t feel particularly holy a lot of the time. In fact, there are times that it doesn’t even feel useful in the most basic sense. Many of you know that I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia earlier this year, which means that I’m frequently in pain that I can do absolutely nothing about. Because the universe has an obnoxious sense of humor, I was experiencing a flare-up for most of this week while I was working on this sermon. The whole time I was reflecting on God’s gift of the human body and its divine reflection, my own body was doing its best to convince me otherwise. But this challenged me to think more deeply about what it means for my body to be created in God’s image.

See, our bodies don’t LITERALLY reflect God, in the sense that God looks just like us and is sitting somewhere in heaven with two arms, two legs, ten fingers and toes, and assorted other body parts. There’s so much physical variety in humanity that a literal reflection would mean that some of our bodies reflect God better than others, and that’s simply not true. ALL bodies, whether they have two legs or no legs, whether they can fight off germs or not, whether they can run a marathon or struggle to move from room to room, whether they can give birth or not, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, whether they’ve been exactly the same for years or have changed dramatically[1]—ALL are created in God’s image.

So even as I finished off all the aspirin in the house and blew a fuse plugging in all of the heating pads that I own, I realized that what I perceive as my body’s shortcomings aren’t what make it holy or not. Our bodies reflect God less in how they’re constructed and more in what they allow us to do: our bodies are what make it possible for us to connect with one another, to show love to one another, and to care for one another in a multitude of ways. That’s the essence of who God is, and your sacred body is the one thing that allows you to fully live into this reflection.

To be honest, that’s kind of a relief to me. Because that means that even when my body is feeling decidedly un-holy, even when I’m unhappy with how it’s behaving or what it looks like[1], I can remind myself that no matter what I think or how I feel about it, my body IS holy and can still reflect God, even if I have a hard time believing it. God didn’t put all that care into knitting me together just to admire God’s handiwork. No, God has PLANS for me and my body! Countless plans! Miraculous plans! Plans that I can’t even conceive of! Our bodies are sacred because they’ve been uniquely created and set aside for God’s purposes. And when it comes down to it, every single one of these plans are about reflecting the divine through our mutual love and care.

Few Biblical figures reflect this better than Mary. We’re all familiar with the story of Mary’s openness to God’s plan, her “let it be with me according to your word” that we hear every year around this time. We often assume that her body’s ability to give birth (and her willingness to do so) is her most important offering to God. But that’s not true. Mary’s body reflects imago dei in far more ways than just that. God cares for us through the giving of God’s own self, and at the end of the day, what Mary said “yes” to was using her own body to care for others. She (with Joseph’s help) committed to protecting Jesus, raising Jesus, teaching Jesus, and giving him everything he needed to survive and learn and grow. And as Mary used her body to care for Jesus throughout his life, he in turn used his to give life to others: just as his mother fed him, he fed thousands. Just as his mother touched and cuddled him, he touched and healed others. Just as his mother washed his body as a child, he washed the feet of his friends. In a way, God’s very body was taught by Mary’s body—the image of God reflecting back upon itself by living out God’s plans.

Of course, Jesus’ body was different from Mary’s. Because he was a man, because he was young during his earthly ministry, and because he was God, his body had different abilities. He was able to use his body to care for others in different ways. He was able to physically drive merchants out of the temple to ensure that it remained a holy place for people to worship God. He was able to walk for miles and miles to bring the Good News to people who otherwise wouldn’t have known him. And of course, he alone was able to offer his body and his life so that humankind might be reconciled to God. These were vital needs that someone like Mary couldn’t meet with her own body. But she could do her own part, with her own body, in her own time, to reflect God the way God had planned for her to.

Through the incarnation, God affirmed the goodness of bodies in all shapes, sizes, and forms. What we do with our bodies matters, regardless of their abilities or our evaluation of their worth. When we use them to care for others, to offer life to someone else in any way, we’re reflecting Christ’s body with our own. God acts in the world and in human lives every day; our bodies allow us to do the same.

But just because our bodies are created in God’s image doesn’t mean that all this happens without effort. As always, we have work to do in order to prepare ourselves for the task at hand. One thing I’ve learned since my Fibro diagnosis is how important it is to take care of my body and listen to its needs. My body was created to reflect God’s image by caring for others, but I can’t do that if I’m pushing it beyond its limit, or if I’m trying to make it something can’t be. Our bodies are created by God to fulfill God’s unique plans for US, not to look or behave like everyone else’s. It doesn’t really work if we try to hijack them for our own plans. Our priority is to keep our bodies as happy and healthy as possible so that God’s purposes can be accomplished.

On the other hand, we can sometimes fall into the trap of wanting to protect our body from any stress or damage at all. It’s natural to have a self-preservation instinct, but while we do need to care for our bodies, we do it so that we can use them in the world. God didn’t create them to be museum pieces; they’re tools! American author John A. Shedd once said, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Different ships may have different purposes and different uses, but none of them are meant to stay in port for long. And it’s the same with our God-given bodies. We care for them so that they might go out and do the important job that they were built for.

Even though this is what God created us for, even if we take care of our bodies and willingly send them into the world to reflect God’s image, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be easy. Mary knew this, too. A few verses later in Luke’s gospel, she sings what we call “the Magnificat”, declaring herself blessed. But she’s under no misapprehension that the task set before her will be easy. On the contrary; she probably knew better than anyone from the beginning that caring for God’s Son would be difficult in every conceivable way. She would have to give of herself completely to care for this one who would go on to care for so many others. But somewhere within her, she knew that she had been given her one body, limited and imperfect as it was, to honor and reflect God. And by offering herself as she was, her body became a part of the ecclesial body of Christ, varied and capable and beautiful as it can be when each of us does our unique part.

It can be easy to forget that our bodies are miraculous gifts from God when they don’t live up to our hopes or expectations. But rest assured, you were fearfully and wonderfully made just as you are. Every inch of you was knit together with pure love and joy by God, the same God who is now calling you to use your body to mirror that love and joy to the world. Listen to what your body is telling you; it yearns to fulfill its God-given purpose. Can’t you feel it? It dreams of reaching out to others, of caring and healing and cleaning and feeding. It longs to show God to the world. It’s what it was made for. All God asks of you is to do what you can. And that’s more than enough—it’s holy. Amen.


[1] I want to be clear that trans bodies are also holy. We all change our bodies to make them more closely fit who we feel we are inside, from tattoos to piercings to fitness to haircuts to what we clothe our bodies in. God created all bodies and God doesn't make mistakes, but God also created us to explore our understanding of ourselves and to express ourselves authentically. Only you and God know what that looks like. So if someone feels like their body doesn't match who they are, it's a holy thing to figure out how to express that for yourself. As long as you're still using your body to love and care for others, you're doing it right.

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