This is the manuscript of a sermon I preached a little while back for a class focused on the relationship between preaching and the human body.
“Loving the Body in Ephesians 5”
Today’s scripture is Ephesians 5:28-30 (NRSV).
“In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body”
Ephesians 5 is known as ‘the household code,’ setting out guidelines for some of the relationships found in ancient Christian communities. It contains now controversial statements such as “Wives, be subject to your husbands” and “slaves obey your masters” alongside “Husbands, love your wives.” I personally struggle with this text. When I read Ephesians 5, it often doesn’t feel like good news. Because I have seen the harm done by this text. I have seen the physical and emotional abuse of women that has been perpetrated under Ephesians 5, the way that control and power are twisted around love. The text also carries a bitter legacy of enslavement–my own ancestors most likely pointed to this text to justify enslaving Black people for generations. It’s okay to see this legacy and to object to the harmful use of this text in our history and experience. But when we look at this text with open eyes, we can see hopeful things that we may not have seen before.
We know that Ephesians 5:21 is a call to mutuality–Paul writes, “Be subject to one another as to the Lord.” With these words, Paul signals something deeper in this text, something to challenge all of us, maybe even something that could be good news–a sense that we must honor and care for each other. That is the spirit in which I re-read the text. I invite us to look at a specific verse in this passage that, up until a few weeks ago, I had never even noticed. That verse is Ephesians 5:29-30: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.” So let’s do a new thing with this text.
When I first read “For no one ever hates his own body,” I thought “Yeah, right!” Because I can’t help but think of people who avoid being in pictures. I think of people, myself included, skipping meals and pulling all-nighters to get more work done. I think of extreme diets. I think of the resentment I feel of my own body when it manifests anxiety through migraines and nausea, how I sometimes try to push through and work harder even when I know that my body needs to rest.
Considering my own experience and the success of multi-billion-dollar industries focused on weight loss and looking better, even in the midst of a global pandemic where our survival is at stake, I couldn’t believe Paul’s words; they just seemed so far from reality. But then I read the passage again: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church.” And I started to see something revolutionary in what Paul was saying.
What if we treated Paul’s words as aspirational? The truth is, in our current context, the evidence of body hatred abounds, and it’s only gotten worse since the pandemic began. It’s hard for many people to nourish and tenderly care for themselves, especially since we live in a society that does not consistently nourish or care for bodies, even in the most basic of ways–nutrition, healthcare, shelter, safety, autonomy…the list goes on. We fail to love or protect so many kinds of bodies. We discount and ignore the needs and value of poor bodies, sick bodies, ageing bodies, disabled bodies, treating them as disposable. We abuse black and brown bodies, women’s bodies, bodies we perceive as ‘female’. We reject fat bodies, queer and transgender bodies, bodies that don’t look or behave in ways that we find lovable…again, the list goes on. We starve, intimidate, and coerce bodies all the time.
Bodies loved by Christ are unloved by people, abused, and treated as disposable, pushed to work harder and look better, no matter the cost. Even our language around ‘self-care’ and ‘wellness’ often reflects a need to project an outward image of wholeness and well-being that isn’t the reality for many people. It’s not nourishment. It’s not tender care for self or others.
Thus, instead of seeing reality reflected, I hear a revolutionary call in the community of mutual subjection that Paul imagines: We are called to nourish and tenderly care for our own bodies and the bodies of others. This statement is not an admonishment toward ‘self-care’, though that’s part of it–I think we all know what it’s like to feel uncaring toward our own bodies, to choose not to nourish ourselves, and it causes suffering. We deserve care from ourselves.
But we’re not just individuals; we live in community. We need mutual support, especially in times of crisis. Something that writer and community organizer Nakita Valerio wrote last year on this topic has come back to me many times over the past few months as we’ve dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic. Valerio wrote that “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need community care is how we fail people.” Care is a communal matter, a truth that feels clear and urgent in a time when we are asked to help slow the spread of a disease that is mild for some but disabling and even deadly for others.
Paul’s letter shows that we cannot care for our bodies as individuals without caring for and nourishing the others to whom we are bound by God–Paul says “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.” Where bodies are unloved, we are called to love. This means that when bodies are threatened, we nourish those bodies, we fight for those bodies, and we love them fiercely. Sometimes, that’s our own bodies. We may not always feel connected to the sense of love that Paul describes, but we can intentionally nourish and tenderly care for ourselves and each other. Because we are all members of the body of Christ: holy, precious, and beloved.
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. “Emancipative Elements in Ephesians 5:21-33: Why Feminist Scholarship has (Often) Left Them Unmentioned, and Why They Should Be Emphasized.”
Feminist Companion to Paul. Amy-Jill Levine, Ed. Sheffield Academic Press, 2003.
Johnson, E. Elizabeth. “Ephesians.” Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition. Carol A. Newsom, Ed. Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume X – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 &2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude, Revelation.
“Community Care Versus Self Care” https://mashable.com/article/community-care-versus-self-care/
Ephesians 5 commentary notes by Rodney Sadler Jr. http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=20
“Scripture and Our Selves” by M. Shawn Copeland
“The Body is Not an Apology”