Sometimes, it seems God has a sense of humour. Last weekend I had a look at the gospel for Wednesday’s service. John 6:35-40. “I am the bread of life” and “I will raise him up on the last day”. That got me thinking about Christian attitudes to the body. Now, the day before Easter Day I had been on a walk and injured my ankle. No big deal – a support bandage helped a lot, and I decided to carry on as usual, but taking it easy. After a week or so it didn’t seem to be improving, so although I went about my daily business, I was careful – last Monday, instead of walking, I caught a bus for the first time in over a year and sat with a friend in the garden instead of going for a walk. But Monday night the ankle protested, and I didn’t get much sleep, so I caved and rang the doctor. Yes, I was doing all the right things, ice pack, ibuprofen, raising my leg and resting… then I heard “of course, you are OK to get up to walk to the bathroom”. It turns out that her idea of resting meant staying in for 2 weeks with my foot up. So that sermon didn’t get preached. But the injury focused my thoughts even more on the subject of our bodies.
According to a BBC survey, more than half the people in the UK believe in life after death. But there are many different opinions about what happens to us when we die. The survival of the soul and reincarnation are popular alternatives to the belief that there will be nothing at all, but none of these are what we read about in the Bible. As the creed says, we believe in the resurrection of the body.
That’s a bit difficult to picture and the only indication we have of what it might be like is the disciples’ experience of the resurrected Jesus. The tomb was empty, and his earthly body gone – transformed into a new and different form. The risen Jesus ate bread and fish, and the disciples could touch him to reassure themselves that he was no ghost. Yet he could pass through locked doors and surprisingly was not always immediately recognised as the man they had known and loved for 3 years. The scars of the crucifixion remained on his hands and his feet – the experiences of his life were not swept away. But they became the signs to us, not of an ignominious death, but of his undying love.
Jesus was still incarnate (i.e., he was, in some sense, flesh and blood) after his death. His body was a part of his identity. You do not have a body as though you are a disembodied being living in your body, you are body, mind, and spirit. The unique person that is you is your DNA, your thoughts, and your deepest longings. You cannot separate them. If you have a virus, you may very well be depressed for a short while afterwards. Your thoughts will become negative, and you will find it difficult to pray. The body has had an impact on both mind and spirit. Conversely, if you develop your spiritual life and become more keenly aware of the love of God surrounding you, your anxiety levels may drop and so your aches and pains lessen as the tension in your body releases. There is a complex interaction that neither doctors nor psychologists nor theologians completely understand. You are, in the words of the Psalm, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
We live in a society where unhealthy attitudes to the body abound. Young people, both male and female, feel under pressure to have perfect bodies like the influencers they see on their screens – images that have been dressed up, made up, lit and digitally enhanced to give an impression of perfection that wouldn’t stand up to the cold light of day. Those who follow them become insecure and anxious because they cannot have similarly perfect bodies. At its worst that leads to eating disorders and other mental health issues. However, there is an antidote. A loving relationship can teach us that in the eyes of the other we are perfect, just as we are. Not because we are slim or beautiful or athletic, but because we are ourselves. Human love at its best reflects the love of God, who sees within us the person who he created, and who sees in the variety of people he has made diversity not inferiority.
If Lent was a time to be strict with ourselves, and to especially focus on treating our bodies well by not overindulging or neglecting exercise, Easter is the time to celebrate the wonderful gift of physicality. We praise God for the simple joys of human existence, remembering that we are precious and unique and treasured beyond all measure by our creator. And, sometimes, when our bodies remind us that they need some TLC, to be patient with ourselves.
I’ve been taught some lessons this week. Ignoring the needs of my body for rest and healing is not advisable, that I am not indispensable, and God can manage quite well without me doing my usual things for a while, and that impatience and frustration are a waste of energy that gets me nowhere. I wonder, what has your body been teaching you lately?