What a beautiful and open image that is of the depth and diversity of the human body! It is a representation of different potentialities, flexible adaptations, and the variety of value we can ascribe to our own, and others’, bodies. It does not determine what our bodies are to be, but rather invites us into new life and possibilities. No wonder it therefore has as its title: selfnature is subtle and mysterious - nun.sex.monk.rock. For it is breaks open new and/or deeper ways of seeing, and being, bodies.
Nell’s sculpture - selfnature is subtle and mysterious - nun.sex.monk.rock - is resonate for me of the resurrected body of Christ. For, as our biblical texts vividly highlight, Christ’s risen body is not only ‘subtle and mysterious’. It is also an invitation to share in greater subtlety and mystery, to open ourselves to fresh possibilities in our lives and bodies, and in the lives and bodies of others. It is indeed, to use Nell’s phrase, about ‘a world without hierarchies… a garden… sprouting’. And this, it seems to me, goes to the heart of today’s Gospel, and Thomas. For, traditionally, at least in recent times and in the Western world, this account, in John chapter 20, has been treated as a narrative, and a warning, about doubt. However, I think it is much more about the nature of divine transformed bodies, and what, to adapt a phrase from Walt Whitman’s great poem, I would call an invitation to pray the body electric.
Praying the Body Electric - does Christ’s resurrection body electrify you!? The Gospel stories often remind me of the first time I heard of the first transgender priest. I can recall the exact moment and the exact spot. I can see in front of me, right now and always, the church paper I’d picked up, and Carol Stone’s picture – and I was truly electrified! It was like the heavens had been torn apart and light shining. Death-dealing powers had been cast away and a pathway opened into new life and freedom. I was possible. My mystery was real. My body had been revealed. Now, it took many more years for me fully to embody that resurrection body myself. Yet, like the first disciples, the way to transformation had been open.
That is part of what the resurrection of the body means to me. It is about the transformation of bodies: how we see them, know them, live in them, and relate to the bodies of others. It is not about the details of this, or that, body. It is about the subtle and mysterious potential in them all, and in us all as bodies together, and in the body of God as a whole. That is the heart of it, and what Thomas, in our story, was missing. It was not so much that he had doubt, as that he was not appreciating the mystery.
For Thomas had a problem. He’d heard the news about Jesus’ Resurrection but he just couldn’t bring himself to accept it without hardline proof. In this, Thomas shows himself to be much more of a fundamentalist than a wobbly liberal. The mystery of Faith really wasn’t his strong point. Never mind the spirit. Literally speaking it all had to be nailed down. Hence we have this encounter with Jesus.
Now, I have to say that this conversation has a very familiar kind of ring to it for transgender people. Father Shannon T. Kearns puts it very well. As a trans man, he says, he has lost track of the number of conversations he has had with nice enough people who somehow just have to have the details about his body. Yes, they say, I’ve heard you’re transgender but can I just get a few more details to satisfy my curiosity, my ‘need’, to reassure me? I know it is intrusive but, hey, you don't expect me to receive you just like that, do you? How about you tell me about all the wounds you’ve had to your body? Better still, how about you show me some of the scars? Maybe I can have a sneak peek, or a little investigation? I’m like Thomas, don’t you know, and I need to check out these things.
That kind of encounter is pretty exasperating – or at least that is a polite way of putting it. It happens quite a bit. Officialdom is full of it. You’re transgender? You want to change your birth name and assigned gender? Prove it. Prove to us that it is not a lie. Prove it to us with your body. Prove to us that you’ve been through all we expect, or insist, you’ve been through. Prove to us that a doctor has checked you out: and a psychologist, and psychiatrists, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Prove it. Show us your scars. Let us touch your wounds. Prove to us you are who you say you are! This is hardly a transgender problem, but one shared by many people whose bodies are different and 'othered'. Many of my good friends who have had dealings with the National Disability bureaucracy certainly also echo my words in spades.
In contrast, the details of the resurrection body are not about proof and argument. For what we see in Jesus’ resurrection is surely a transfigured, body. It clearly has continuities with the body Jesus had, yet it is also significantly different. It bears the marks of its past, and indeed, vitally, of its own transition. Yet the resurrection body is also a new creation. As such, it challenges easy preconceptions on so many levels. Like Nell’s sculpture, it asks us to reconsider how we look at all our bodies, in life and in death. It invites us into experiencing our bodies, and the Body of Christ, as mysteries, always open to transformation. Is that bodily transformation something we consider? As Christians, do we think about what difference the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body might make to how we view our bodies, and those around us? The body, for all of us, is both a real and potential site of pain and shame, and also of liberation and joy. Transgender people typically simply feel this more acutely. It is in wrestling with all of this that God is found in our bodies, not apart from them.
So what are our emerging ideas of the body, and how are we to help God’s body positivity to emerge?
Let me, in closing, briefly open up one further stream of emerging body spiritualities…
This area of emerging Christian body positivity comes from theologians of disability, including Nancy Eiseland. She died at the age of 44 in 2009, after having lived with pain throughout her life due to a congenital bone defect in her hips, for which she had 11 operations before she was 13. Awful. So why then do you think she said that when she went to heaven she hoped she would still be disabled?...
...I don’t think it was because of the pain! Her reason was that her identity had been formed with her disability, so that, without it, as she put it, she would ‘be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God.’ In that sense, Nancy might have agreed that Thomas did us a good turn in confirming that Jesus still bore the wounds and brokenness of his body. For Nancy reflected helpfully about next week’s Gospel reading - Luke chapter 24 verses 36-39 - where Jesus invites the disciples as a whole to touch him as they look as if they seen a ghost. Nancy strikingly commented: ‘In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God,” God thus remains a God the disabled can identify with, Nancy argued: he is not, in that sense, cured and made whole; his injury is part of him, neither a divine punishment nor an opportunity for healing.
With all our variety of bodies, does that make sense to you, or to someone you love? It does to me. It affirms that God is the God of all of us, whatever our bodies are like, positive or negative. For even the negative aspects of the body of Jesus are taken up into the fullness of God in the Resurrection. It is thus, as it were, a 'subtle and mysterious' ‘differently abled’ Jesus who is raised for us. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, all that is valuable about all our selves is raised.
So many of us bear bodies in which pain, and forces of death, bind us. Yet we are called into the ‘subtle and mysterious’ power of love which can not only hold us but transfigure us. In a world in which bodies are so contested, and in which we may struggle ourselves with our own, may we know that transformative power and share the joy of the resurrection of the body with others.
In the Name, and through the grace, in the wounds, of Jesus, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Easter 2 Year B, Sunday 11 April 2021