Loving the Body in Ephesians 5

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. 

Amen.  

Works Consulted 

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 

https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/213/scripture-and-our-selves

“The Body is Not an Apology” 

Beatitudes PSA – The Rich don’t need your blessing.

[Image description: Photo is of the cover of The New Interpreter’s Bible.]

I led a discussion of the Beatitudes in Sunday School today. In the Bible, the Beatitudes are statements of blessing that Jesus gives to his disciples at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. These are the Beatitudes as told in Matthew 5:3-12: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The Beatitudes are tricky. In context, they are revolutionary; Jesus and his disciples were persecuted and eventually executed by legal authorities for threatening the established social, political, and religious order of the Roman Empire. When looking at the key words’ original meanings, I learned that underpinning the Beatitudes is a drive for justice. For example, as the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary noted, “righteousness” isn’t about being “personally pious.” In the original Greek, the word dikaiosyne, usually translated as “righteousness” in this passage, also means “justice.” 

The Beatitudes contradict typical social attitudes about wealth and power with shocking fierceness (see also “The Woes” in Matthew 23). They turn expectations upside down. When I read them, I get the impression that God loves and honors those whom society looks down on (like the poor). We don’t need to become rich or powerful to be worthy of love and justice, but God celebrates the difficult work of peacemaking; God understands the sorrow of those who cry out for justice and is on our side–that’s huge. Unfortunately, many people (myself included) have defanged the Beatitudes, making them all about personal piety. It’s hard not to; the powers that be don’t want justice for the poor and downtrodden, and that agenda shows up all the time in Christian communities. It’s difficult, especially in the United States, to push back against the notion that if you’re poor or suffering, you’ve done something to deserve it. Sunday school illustrated this problem. 

When we discussed the Beatitudes today, I noticed an interesting pattern: people defended the rich. Even though I tried to emphasize the importance of justice in the Beatitudes, the discussion kept cycling back to these three areas: defense of the wealthy, personal guilt, and individual piety. The class struggled with the language around wealth and poverty, asking “How can that be? Does that mean that you’re not blessed if you’re not poor?” 

I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I suppose it depends on how one defines wealth (and how that wealth was acquired, and what you do with it). In Jesus’ day, social mobility was limited. In general, the rich stayed rich, and the poor stayed poor. Resources were limited. In order to become ‘wealthy,’ you would have to take from someone else, in the way that a king collects tribute by force (see 1 Samuel 8 for more spicy commentary on that). In other words, if you became rich, there was a good chance you were also greedy

In our current culture, where we like to think that wealth is a meritocracy, that idea can be uncomfortable, even for people who aren’t wealthy. Here in the American South, it’s common to believe that financial benefits will accrue if you are faithful to God and that abstract benefits to the economy justify the runaway accumulation of wealth. The (often unrealistic) belief that you should be able to get out of poverty through hard work and dedication, the “bootstraps” narrative, is also common. 

Some folks turn to an explanation I call the “IN SPIRIT Loophole” to avoid acknowledging the blessing of the poor alongside the peacemakers and the merciful. We don’t know exactly what “poor in spirit” means; some think that it refers to humility, while others think it refers to a sense of ‘downtroddenness.’ Literal, physical poverty and blessedness just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t leave room for that. Luke just says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Way to refute the Prosperity Gospel in one fell swoop.

It may not mean the rich aren’t blessed by God (though it probably did when first written), but it entails a countercultural worldview either way, one that lifts the lowly, sorrowful, and oppressed. It doesn’t tell them to change. It does challenge us all to do hard work (including acts of mercy, peacemaking, and things that make us unpopular with the powerful forces that govern our lives), secure in the knowledge that we are loved, respected, and valued. We don’t rely on the blessing of governments, corporations, or other powers for worth, even though we live under their influence. 

That idea was very hard for my class to accept (and I don’t blame them). We went around and around, raising defenses whenever I steered the conversation toward justice. It was a bit like trying to work the knots out of tight muscles; when a muscle is chronically tense, it forms a habit of tension. It may need regular massage and other caring work to stay relaxed for very long–and that can be painful. Reading challenging scriptures like the Beatitudes in unconventional ways is challenging. We can only get so far in thirty minutes of meandering group discussion, but I hope that it inspired feelings of compassion and courage alongside the frustration. 

Further reading: 

Some Modern Beatitudes – A Sermon for All Saints Sunday” – a different but beautiful take on the Beatitudes 

Rightwiseness and Justice: A Tale of Translation” – why dikaiosyne ends up getting translated as “righteousness” instead of “justice”

BDSM is Not Repentance

[Image description: Photo is of a black flogger draped over a gold handheld mirror.]

Content notice: possible self-harm, police brutality 

Some time ago, I read about a guilt-ridden police officer who went to professional dominatrices to be beaten and humiliated as punishment for his habit of mistreating the people that he stopped on the street. As far as I know, his kinky sessions didn’t stop him from hurting the people under his power. He was still cruel. To put it in religious terms that I understand, he wanted to burn off his sins by ‘suffering’. Instead, he just burned off his guilt and went on his way. Shame covered him like a blanket of ash. 

He wouldn’t be the first to try to use BDSM to cope with guilt and shame. Some reading this post might wonder whether typical kink ‘punishment’ activities like being caned, forced to do chores, or verbally degraded will allow them to compensate for behavior that they’re ashamed of. My answer is “Maybe, but probably not.” 

My full response would be a real treatise, accounting for the various ways that people like to define BDSM and even ‘punishment.’ I’d also have to talk about whether I think that consensual punishments are fruitful (I have complex feelings). I’ll save those for other posts and spare you the ninety-five theses. 

For now, I want to talk about repentance, something more powerful than self-punishment. The Hebrew and Greek words that we often translate as “repent” appear over and over in the Bible.  

In Greek, the original written language of the New Testament, the word is “metanoia,” “to change the mind.” In biblical Hebrew, words literally meaning “to turn” or “turn around” are common (a little more on the language here). 

Wikipedia calls repentance “the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better.”

In short, repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry. Feelings are important, but they don’t do much in themselves. Instead, repentance is about harnessing thoughts and feelings through reflection in order to change behavior. 

Let’s consider the police officer. Did he repent? No. He felt bad and used BDSM to feel better. Perhaps, he thought that because he had chosen to experience pain, he now understood the pain he had caused others. Maybe he thought that his pain (carefully calibrated to satisfy him, as kinky pain usually is) would balance out theirs.

Repentance doesn’t work like that. For those who use Christian God language, God doesn’t work like that. 

Jesus didn’t say “I was in prison, but you felt bad and punished yourself.” Jesus said “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Mt. 25:43). 

This passage might sound harsh and confronting to some readers. It is. It doesn’t leave room for us to pretend that feeling bad about something is the same as doing something about it. 

But it also means that God doesn’t demand that you punish yourself to counteract the suffering you have caused. It means that you get to choose how you respond to that suffering. 

In the police officer’s case, there was most likely nothing he could do to repair the harm he had caused. The bodies he bruised (probably black bodies) would have to heal themselves; the heartache and trauma might never fully go away. He numbed them out with his own ‘suffering’. But he has the power to recognize what he has done and to make different choices, I hope with the help of a good therapist and strong community. That in itself is painful, and not in a fun way (think of a much less extreme version of Voldemort’s fractured soul).

The temporary hurt of kinky play is not a shortcut to understanding the harm one has caused, and it isn’t repentance. 

That being said, does BDSM have a role in repentance? Maybe so (and I’ll talk about that more in another post), but it depends on one’s goals and attitude. I want to practice treating others well through kink, and I want to give myself care in the play that I choose. I want what my sub experiences under my direction to have a positive impact on the way that he interacts with the world outside of our dynamic. I believe that kink can help people to reflect and grow. In the end, though, repentance is a chosen struggle, and there is no substitute.

The Story Still Matters – An Epistle on Theory

The birds had just begun to lift their songs of praise as I reverently opened my laptop. Illuminated by the glow of the screen, I sought the sacred PDF: “Postmodern Biblical Theory.” I trembled with emotion as I read, eyes welling with tears. “Yes, I see now,” I said aloud. I knew, as rosy-fingered dawn appeared on the horizon, that I now understood the Bible. Heavenly music played as I typed my ardent one-page reflection. Now fully prepared to deliver the Gospel to this troubled world, I emailed the quote “Nothing is original” to a custom bumper sticker company. I said a quick prayer to the Academy as I filled my metal water bottle, fortified by my faith in postmodernism. 

That totally did not happen. 

Closer to reality: I skimmed the PDF at 11:30 at night, my brain promptly shut down, and I slammed my laptop closed in disgust. I had hoped that going to divinity school would help me to reconnect with the Bible. Unfortunately, this New Testament class had turned out to be a survey course of critical theory. We read a whole lot about the Bible but hardly the Bible itself. I felt less connected than ever. 

That’s not to say that critical theory isn’t valuable. Theory helps us to see consequences of writing and interpretation, especially for groups then tend to be on the margins of society. It trains us to be flexible; we’re not stuck with the old “Eve sinned and now all women have to obey their husbands” nonsense that often gets repeated in churches, for example. I think that many of us find comfort in theory because we’ve been hurt by people who repeat “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Theory reminds us that nothing is actually ‘settled.’ 

But theory is a set of tools we can use to understand the Bible’s role in our lives. The story still matters. Unfortunately, my class was often “all theory and no Text.” Without the consistent opportunity to read the Bible, it was hard for me to figure out how to use these tools, let alone imagine how I could communicate the value of theory to other Christians who love the Bible and read it…religiously. 

All theory and no Text makes Fox a dull boi

I’m pretty grumpy about it. As a result, one of the purposes of this blog will be for me to read the Bible as a beloved story book, informed but not driven by theory, and to find what moves and inspires me as a Christian. What might this look like? Bible studies, spiritual practices, poems, stories, and songs. In other words, church activities minus the peer pressure (love you, Church). I’m going to start with a series on the story of David and see where it takes me. 

Be of good courage!

Perpetua Fox

She/her/hers

“Herod, They’re Lesbians!” In Praise of Biblical Fanfiction

[Image description: Photo is of a stack of weathered old dark green and brown books, including works of Shelley and Shakespeare.]

As a divinity student, I read and write a fair amount about queerness and sexuality in the Bible. A lot of it’s depressing or just needlessly complicated. There will be a time and place for me to dig into the nuances of biblical meaning, the authors’ intentions, etc., and recommend scholarship here, but not now. 

Right now, I want to give some love to a genre that most people can read, even outside the academic world: fanfiction! In short, a fanfiction is work based on a piece of pop culture, like a book, movie, or show. A fic author might ask “What happened after the end?” or “What if this had happened a little differently?” or “What was happening behind the scenes?”

Most fanfiction is archived on websites like FanFiction or Archive of Our Own. While fanfiction based on the Bible may seem like sacrilege, it’s been around for quite a while. The Prince of Egypt, Jesus Christ: Superstar, and Milton’s Paradise Lost are all fanfictions. Other works, like Harry Potter, use biblical themes to tell new stories. 

The point is, the Bible inspires all manner of creative work. Some of it invites us to see ourselves in the stories, to reimagine them as we learn. For people accustomed to seeing the Bible used as anti-queer purity culture propaganda, fanfiction can be a refreshing oasis of healing affirmation. And most of it’s free. 

It helps us see the Bible not as a dusty old rulebook or tool for bigots but as a living collection of stories that we’re still in conversation with today. It helps us bridge the gap. 

Here are a few Bible fanfic gems that I enjoy: 

Mature/Sexually explicit works:

“…Jonathan became one in spirit with David…” Quintessential David/Jonathan slash fic based on 1 Samuel 16-2 Samuel 1, written beautifully in the literary style of the Hebrew Bible

“Afterwards she blamed the serpent. It wasn’t a lie, really, because the serpent had been there, and the serpent had encouraged her. In fact it was quite possible that the serpent had arranged the whole thing. But, truthfully, it was not the serpent’s urging that made her lips part uncertainly and her teeth slice into the skin of the fruit.” Juicy and poignant Eve/Lilith femslash based on Genesis and Jewish tradition

Works for teens and older: 

“Stop telling me to leave you, because it’s not going to happen. I’m not turning away from you. Wherever you’re headed, I’m headed there too. Where you stay, I’ll put down roots. The tribes of Israel will be my tribe. Your God will be my god. Because the only thing that’ll keep me from you is Death, and even then, I’ll be right there at your side.” It’s Ruth/Naomi…in Space.

  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett 

This book (now a charming miniseries on Amazon Prime), is especially fun for me right now. It contains a queer bond (not necessarily sexual but deeply loving and subversive) between an angel and a demon who team up to try to stop the Apocalypse. It raises good questions about the nature of God, humans, redemption, and the “Divine Plan.” It’s also spawned some fanfiction (great but not always appropriate for all ages ;)). 

General Audiences: 

“The Exercise of Virtue” by tree_and_leaf

“Exegesis! fic, to invent a new genre label, on the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), who may be anonymous, but is the only person in the Bible who changes Jesus’ mind.” No pairings, but good retelling. 

Do you have any favorite fics to recommend? Have you ever been encouraged by a story? If so, let me know in the comments! 

Endnote: In case you didn’t catch the reference in the post title, it’s a play on the “Harold, they’re lesbians” meme. You’re welcome. 😉