A few years ago when Kerry and I were visiting a friend in London, I noticed a peculiar art installation along the escalator at the Notting Hill Gate underground station. Where the ads would normally be, there were these really grotesque and colorful pictures with advertisement-style script on them. But they said:
"Oh Mother. It's that time of day.
When I realise I'm an animal.
I'm a salivating, spasming,
piece of meat,
I'm a downloaded egg.
A gibbering omelet”
This is apparently what the London transportation authority thought people needed to see on their daily commute. Every day I’d read this on our way to our from an outing in a great and vibrant city with a rich history and it made me so sad. It summed up for me a widespread attitude of disgust at the human body.
And it made me wonder if estrangement from our physical being and all its oddities and complications and indignities and inelegance is behind a lot of modern behaviors and attitudes. We are always reshaping ourselves, hiding ourselves or revealing ourselves, trying to force ourselves to be different. Even dreaming of uploading human consciousness to the cloud so that it can continue free of all the follicles and pimples and itching and decay and death.
There is a terrible lack of self-acceptance in our culture that can come out as hostility to our own bodies.
This is what I tell myself. Then, last Sunday, when I got up for church, my back just wouldn’t work.
This was not the first time my back has caused me problems. But it had never been so bad on a Sunday. I suppose I took this as divine providence. God will afflict me with the troubles of middle age, but never in a way that interferes with the worship of the church.
So I found myself explaining to the day’s altar guild volunteer that I was sitting in child’s pose on the floor of the study to loosen up my back enough to get through church.
It’s easy for me to urge comfort in our bodies because the world is in many ways designed for the comfort of bodies like mine:
Not too old or too young
Not suffering from a disability
And all it takes is some badly timed breakdown to have me saying “oh just make it stop. Give me a titanium spine and a gore-tex heart and upload my memories to the cloud and let’s be done with all this mess.”
So what does this have to do with today’s Gospel?
Today we hear a rather different take on Jesus’s appearance to all his disciples than the story we heard from John’s Gospel last week. Last week, Thomas was absent from Jesus’s appearance and he does not believe his friends. In this week’s story, Thomas is not mentioned. But some of the disciples do not believe their eyes.
Or rather, they don’t know what their eyes are showing them. Is this a ghost? A ghost would normally be a hostile entity in this world, so that’s a frightening possibility. Is this an imposter or a group hallucination? How can Jesus demonstrate that it is really him, and that he is not just a vision or a spirit? He shows them his wounds. And he eats a piece of fish.
That is to say: he bears the marks of his suffering, and he still participates in that most animal and physical action, eating a meal.
Now as Jesus has been resurrected, never to die again, his wounds are signs of triumph and glory. And he eats not because he is faint with hunger but out of fellowship. The body of Jesus has been raised up and glorified. But he hasn’t been uploaded to the cloud. He hasn’t become a disembodied spirit. He is still flesh and blood.
In this simple gesture of asking for and eating a piece of fish, we see how different Jesus is from the fantasies not just of his world but of our world too.
We like superheroes, who are not all-powerful but who transcend human limits. They get punched and kicked and hurled into alternate dimensions and come through just fine. Not a hair out of place, no wounds on their hands and side, no break for a piece of fish. Not long ago we were fascinated by vampires, who are not dead but not really alive either, not eating anything except blood and having no pulse, no processes of life going on within them. Zombies frighten us because they show us bodies without souls, decaying and chaotic, devoid of any reason or love. All of these stories--and look, I don’t much care for superhero movies but I watched almost all of True Blood so I’m not excluding myself from this--all of these stories suggest to me that we are not at peace with our own humanity and the embarrassing limitations and needs of our soft, sweaty, phlegmy bodies. We fear decay and suffering.
But Jesus is not a superhero or a vampire or a zombie. It’s very important that he can be wounded. In fact it’s very important that he is wounded. It’s very important that his wounds endure beyond his resurrection. And it’s important that he eats with his friends.
Back in the first millennium of the church there was a debate about the humanity of Christ. And it was resolved with this principle: whatever is not assumed is not redeemed. Which just means that any aspect of human nature that Jesus lacked could not be redeemed by the grace of his incarnation. If he didn’t have a human mind, a human will, a human body, these things could not be redeemed. This is why it was so important that Jesus was understood to be fully human as well as fully divine. He does not shed our humanity where it is difficult or painful or inconvenient. That would be no savior at all. Instead, he embraces the fullness of human nature, right down to our pimply faces, our odorous glands, and our creaky backs.
Now I will be the first to admit that I don’t really want to think about this. I hate accepting my limitations. All dang week I’ve had to spend thirty minutes every day doing stretching exercises to keep my back functioning or loosen up after going running. I’ve had to sit down when I’d normally expect to be able to stand, take a break when I would normally want to keep going and it’s stupid and I hate it. And I wish I’d started doing it years ago.
I want to be doing other things. I want to be doing my job and shaping the world. But Jesus embraced our humanity. So we should embrace our own humanity too.
I’m going to say that again: Jesus embraced our humanity, and our human bodies in every detail. So we should embrace our humanity, and our human bodies, too. We have a duty of care toward ourselves that it is very easy to ignore. That our religion sometimes encourages us to ignore. We have a duty of honesty toward ourselves.
This does not mean that we have a religious duty to become extremely health conscious. It does not mean that we have a religious hall pass to endlessly indulge ourselves and seek comfort. But we are offered the grace to accept ourselves and look after ourselves, even as we know we are obligated to accept and look after our neighbor.
And I know that, just like me, some of y’all have put some of these things off. You have looked the other way when something in your life has been flashing you a warning sign at you. And I want to encourage all of us in this week ahead to do something out of care, to address some need that we have not wanted to face directly. Because Jesus is the one who already bore our full humanity and accepts it and embraces it, lifts it up and redeems us. And gives us the strength to care for our own frail humanity, as well as that of all our neighbors. Amen.