The Body of Christ, both Whole and Wounded
Sermon by David R. Weiss (Texts: Isaiah 35:5-8 and Luke 1:1-4; 24:36-53)
This is a sermon I preached for the Lutherans Concerned/Lake Country Chapter (Duluth area) on October 18, 2009, the Feast of St. Luke.
Today is the traditional feast day for St. Luke. Like most characters of the biblical world, the details of Luke’s life are more a study in what we don’t know than what we do.
In the letters written by the Apostle Paul, Luke is named as one of Paul’s close companions in spreading the gospel. He’s also called “the beloved physician,” and his feast is often commemorated, as we do today, with a service of healing.
His name became associated with the Gospel that now bears it by the year 170, although the text itself nowhere names him as the author. But if we accept that identification, we might add that Luke was educated and of a literary mind—his gospel shows the finest writing of any of the New Testament books. And, that alongside his vocational care for the sick, Luke displayed an uncanny compassion for those at the margins. More than any other gospel, Luke’s portrait of Jesus emphasizes his interactions with social outcasts, with women, with Gentiles—including Samaritans, and with those who were outcast for lack of medical understanding.
Yet Luke is equally at pains to show Jesus as fully and faithfully Jewish. His opens his gospel with Zechariah in the Temple. He gives us Mary’s Magnificat, modeled on Hannah’s song in 1st Samuel. He alone describes a youthful Jesus visiting the Temple. And he closes his gospel, right after the Ascension, by telling us the disciples were “continually at the Temple praising God.”
In short, Luke writes his “Good News” for a church trying to balance an extraordinary gospel impulse to be ever-widening in its reach toward those at the margins … with a religious longing to keep faith with its own traditions.
Sound familiar? Here we are—
Our church has dared, perhaps tardily and timidly in our eyes but quite disastrously in other eyes, to inch itself forward to a wider reach of the gospel.
Our church has dared, perhaps without sufficient clarity or boldness for us but quite unsuccessfully according to others, to claim that its recent decisions reflect faithfulness to our Lutheran heritage.
And on a feast day dedicated to a physician-evangelist, we surely have genuine longings for some good news of healing in the midst our personal lives, our communities, and surely our church.
Dare I hope in this moment to speak a word that bears Promise to the Whole people of God? After all, for Luther that is the task of preaching.
But in a church as stressed and strained as ours is—and truly the hurt and anguish we have heard these last weeks only makes clearer the silent, the silenced stress and strain that has marked our church—and many of our lives—these past decades, in such a church is there even a word that bears Promise to the Whole people of God?
If there is, I want to find that word.
I begin with Nancy Eiesland (EES-lund), theologian and author of The Disabled God, who died this past spring at the age of forty-four. Eiesland helped me step beyond my own imagination, beyond even my own best words, in fathoming what it means to be whole.
I heard her speak at Hamline University a couple years ago. Born with several congenital challenges, including a bone disorder that left her with a permanent limp, she related to us at Hamline how she was terrified as a child when a well-meaning relative once told her reassuringly, “Won’t it be wonderful in heaven, when your limp is gone?”
She was haunted by the fear that without her limp, God would not know who she was. Already as a child she sensed that her identity and character were so interwoven with her body as it was, that she would not know herself, nor could she imagine being known by God, any other way. And she knew—in her bones, as it were—that it was the full presence of God’s knowing not the absence of her limping that would make heaven a holy and whole-ing place for her.
As an adult Eiesland had her “Luther” moment of insight not in the book of Romans, but in the Gospel of Luke, in this tale of Good News crafted by a physician. She read in Luke 24, verses 36-39, about a resurrected Jesus, who invited the disciples—in order to confirm his full presence—to touch his wounds. She discovered in that scene that Jesus’ injuries were “neither a sign of divine punishment nor an opportunity for divine healing.” They were simply—and essentially—a part of his identity.
The resurrected wholeness of Jesus did not hinge on his being without wounds.
Eiesland invites us to read the words of Isaiah today with a reverent cringe—and to remember that beyond the best of Isaiah’s imagination, there can be a wholeness in the eyes that see only dark; there can be a wholeness in ears that hear only silence; there can be a wholeness in limbs that do not leap; there can be a wholeness in tongues that form no words.
And in her words I heard deep truth. I could not have guessed this in my own narrow field of vision. Indeed a couple of my own earlier hymns (we sing one today) echo Isaiah’s limited notion of wholeness, and I wrestle with whether to change the images or leave them as witness to my own sometimes disabled imagination. Yes, I rejoice when those who are lame leap and those who are blind see, but I am learning to rejoice as well when others claim a wholeness that is different than mine but no less grounded in God’s embrace.
I find Eiesland’s insight especially provocative for us today, as we gather for healing, in light of Luke’s feast and our own August Assembly. Can we believe now, after our Churchwide Assembly has resurrected some measure of hope for us, that the wholeness of the Body of Christ in this moment, does not hinge on an absence of wounds?
Is it possible to imagine that a word of Promise to the Whole people of God … perhaps does not mean a word of Promise that necessarily sounds promising right now to every last person in the church? Surely to many of Luke’s original readers his news sounded at best ambiguous, at worst scandalous, and only with time truly Good.
Is it possible to imagine that a word of Promise to the Whole people of God … does not mean a word of Promise to the uninjured/unwounded people of God?
What if the Whole people of God are whole precisely as they, too, bear their wounds alongside the wounds of the resurrected Christ? What would that mean? Where is the Promise in that?
I will offer a suggestion, but first I do need to acknowledge my own weariness, because it is simply honest.
See, Monday night I spoke at St. Olaf College. When I got home I had an e-mail waiting for me from the father of a student, probably a man about my age. He hadn’t gone to my talk—didn’t even live in Minnesota—but he saw it posted on the St. Olaf website as part of their Coming Out Week activities, and felt the need to correct me on my views. His one-paragraph message, written as though he couldn’t even pause for breath, let alone find the “return” key to start a new paragraph, ran three pages single-spaced. He could have typed the words “I am scared” several thousand times because that’s what I read in his words from start to finish.
And Wednesday night I spoke at Hamline University, and afterwards I visited with two different students, one transgender, the other bisexual; one had just come out to a family member and was deeply anxious over her response, the other was hoping to come out to his father (a pastor) … as soon as he found the rest of his courage.
And Thursday morning I got an e-mail from a woman in Southeastern, Minnesota, the wife of a Lutheran pastor and the mother of two gay sons. She was lamenting how the tone of media coverage in her pat of the state, following the Assembly, was framed almost entirely by the language of a conservative negative backlash. She asked if I would please join her in writing a letter to her local newspaper to add, alongside her own, a Lutheran voice of affirmation.
So this is my weariness—perhaps my woundedness even now. And I doubt it is foreign to many of you. Children continue to reach toward authenticity … fearful of whether we will honor and embrace them as they do. Loving parents continue to ache in fear for their children, some of them because they hear the words of judgment now redoubled after the Assembly … and others because they don’t know what to do after the Assembly except to redouble the words of judgment that were first taught to them.
So I repeat, what if the Whole people of God are whole precisely as they, too, bear their wounds alongside the wounds of the resurrected Christ? What would that mean? Where is the Promise in that?
Here is what I can offer: Jesus says to the disciples, who are astonished, startled, unable-to-believe that this much Wounded Goodness stands before them, fully present, fully alive, whole—Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” “Touch me.” “Let us eat.” “Rejoice.” His wholeness is not in his absence of wounds. His wholeness is in his capacity to offer peace. His capacity to invite touch, to share food, and to bequeath joy.
So how shall we, for our part, be a word of Promise to the Whole and wounded people of God in this moment?
Let us not be dismayed by the conflicts, the wounds that seem so evident on our particular expression of the Body of Christ right now. The resurrected Christ has always borne wounds—and has not only been no less resurrected on that account, but has been recognized as Christ precisely through the wounds.
So will we as the Whole and wounded people of God.
To those who may be frightened or startled right now, whether by the actions of our Churchwide Assembly or the sudden appearance of the resurrected Christ or the sudden appearance of us in their midst, let us say clearly, “Peace be with you.”
To all who seem feint at all this tumult in our church, let us at least, warmly and clearly, offer a piece of food—let no one doubt whether they are welcome at the Table around which we gather.
To all who seem like those first disciples, hungry for faith but hesitant in their disbelief, let us say, yet one more time, “Come, touch my wounds, hear my story, know the wonders that God has done for me so that you might know the Good News, only barely and only timidly hinted at this past August, is really true.”
And most of all, let us be known by our Joy. I don’t mean by our “celebrating”—although I do think we have cause to celebrate what happened at Churchwide.
But quite beyond celebrating a vote, we have cause for Joy. As Martin Luther declared and as our Lutheran confessions affirm, we are honored, embraced, and cherished by God as sheer gift. God has not waited for us to get our theology, our sexuality, our ethics, or our ecclesial politics squared away first. At every moment in our lives, even before we had faith, God had already chosen love.
I say it like this: the joy in our lives—even amid our wounds—is the fruit of the faith that knows the love that God holds for each of us. Luther says it like this: we are justified by grace through faith. And both the Lutheran confessions and some of our fiercest critics are adamant in naming this conviction—the joyful news that we are made whole to God and to ourselves as a free gift of grace—as “the article by which the church stands or falls.”
Our joy is the measure of our faithfulness to our tradition.
More than anything, in these last decades of debate, we have all been tempted to forget as a church what it means to draw our life out of God’s declaration of love for us. We have been tempted on all sides to play the game of arguing about whose behavior, whose teaching, whose interpretation, whose polity is most “right.” But none of that is the article by which this church stands or falls. We have been busy positioning ourselves this way or that, but all along it has been God’s disposition toward us … all of us … that has truly mattered. And God’s disposition has always already been chosen love.
So how shall we, for our part, be a word of Promise to the Whole and wounded people of God in this moment?
Our best witness is to be clear that the Deep Joy that marks our lives, the Wide Welcome that marks our sanctuaries, is not on account of our sex—joyful though that may be—rather, it is on account of our Faith. We are joyful because we believe as Nancy Eiesland might say, all the way down to our bones, in the love that God has announced for us.
Luke offers us—as a physician’s wisdom and as an evangelist’s good news—the parting image of a Christ whose wholeness is not without wounds, an image of powerful hope for our church in these days.
Let us pray then, today and always—in the midst of our wounds, both personal and ecclesial—for healing that makes us whole. And for the wisdom to know that wholeness does not necessarily remove every wound. And for the wholeness that empowers us to speak peace, share food, touch one another, and together find ways to share our Joy.
May that be enough for us to be a Whole and wounded people of God. Amen.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (Langdon Street Press, 2008, http://www.davidrweiss.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. You can reach him at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.