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” 

Perfectionism Rant

Hoooo boy. 

Classes (and new jobs) have started in earnest this week, and they’re going pretty well overall. That said, I’m a recovering perfectionist–my perfectionism is manageable, like a low staticy hum in my life most of the time, about a three out of ten. Today, it was dialed up to about a seven, sometimes blaring over the information I wanted to take in. I think that’s mainly because I’m trying so many new things this week. I know I won’t be immediately good at all of them, and they all require shifts between different modes of thinking throughout the day (from a more intellectual ‘class space,’ for example, to the practical and pastoral headspaces of my new jobs). 

Some of it’s the intimidation of the mundane. For example, I’ve never made coffee in my life (it’s just never been necessary to). I’m sure I’ll learn, but I have a feeling that I’ll do it wrong at least once–I already cringe thinking that I’ll forget to fit the lid properly. And I am writing this post in part because I don’t like the number of days that have gone by without writing anything non-academic. I don’t want to lose my commitment to this blog. Are queer, sexy, kinky things happening in my life? Yes. Do I have the energy to write about them right now? No. That will return when my schedule lulls. In the meantime, I’m going to attempt to adjust the dial by chatting with people about impractical things, sharing my anxiety here, and singing along with Steven Universe songs. Those are ways that I treat myself like a beloved friend. I don’t have any major nuggets of wisdom to offer, but I hope that anyone who feels perfectionism creeping up, like I do right now, can treat themselves with kindness (and when that’s hard, reach out to kind people). Be of good courage!

My Experience with Pelvic Pain

[Image description: Photo is of dark purple flowers spilling from a white hanging basket.]

Content notice: In this post, I’ll talk about virginity, my journey with pelvic pain, and medical treatments that I’ve pursued. I hope that this epistle will help people to understand one kind of pelvic pain and get a better understanding of what to expect from treatment if they have that kind of pain. 

By some people’s standards, I’m a virgin. Why? Because I’ve never received vaginal penetration from a penis. Most of the time, I think that’s hilarious because I’ve had several sexual experiences and consider virginity a very silly social construct. I like to joke about how I could be sacrificed to the Kraken to save a kingdom. A knight would be pleased to rescue me from a dragon. Funny how those scenarios would involve me being imprisoned and subject to pain or death. 

In reality, I haven’t had “penis-in-vagina” sex because I have a chronic pelvic pain condition called vulvodynia. More specifically, my issue is called vulvar vestibulitis. That means that the vestibule, an area surrounding the vaginal opening, is inflamed and sensitive to pressure. This makes vaginal intercourse difficult and painful. I seem to have had it at least since puberty; I remember not being able to insert a tampon when I first started my period as a teenager. A little embarrassed but not aware that it might indicate an issue, I just thought “Well, I guess I can’t use tampons. *Shrug.*” 

As I developed sexually, I discovered my clitoris and learned how to have lovely external clitoral orgasms, but I never much bothered with trying to penetrate myself. In hindsight, that seems odd to me. I wonder whether I tried it once, felt like I was hitting a wall, and decided not to try again. At the time, any desire for penetrative sex wasn’t on my radar. Even when I became sexually active, I didn’t go to the gynecologist; I had heard horror stories of gynecologists in my hometown who didn’t care if their exams hurt their patients–when I mention that to people, they have their own stories to share. I hope to learn more about why that is soon.  

Fortunately, when I did finally see a gynecologist, referred through a routine STI testing appointment, I found one who was compassionate and understood pain. She also happened to have a divinity degree, a big plus for me as a divinity student. A female nurse and a male medical student also attended the exam. The student was nice but clearly didn’t expect to interview a queer, sexually active patient who couldn’t receive penetration. I had a bit of fun watching his reactions as I explained that I have a very fulfilling sex life sans PIV, swinging my bare legs as I sat there in my oversized cloth examination gown. I can be a little emotionally sadistic when it comes to teaching people new stuff. 

The gynecologist was very kind. She listened as I explained my inability to be penetrated and then attempted a vaginal exam, flanked by the other two. Oddly, I didn’t feel embarrassed by the three lab-coated figures looming like angels at the foot of a bed; I just thought it was nice to have a team of people who wanted to take care of me. When I said “Okay that hurts” and started to shrink back, she stopped. It had felt like sharp pressure. She said that my hymen was intact and referred me to a pelvic pain specialist. I left the appointment emotionally wrung out but relieved that I was finally taking a step to help myself feel better. 

When I visited the pelvic pain specialist a few weeks later, she also attempted an exam, briefly penetrating me with one finger. It burned. She explained that my vestibular inflammation and pelvic muscle tension had created a feedback loop: chronically tense muscles aggravated inflammation, which increased tension and pain, leading to a dread of penetration and more inflammation. Vestibulitis can have many possible causes, she explained. For some people, yeast infections (which I did have as a child) lead to greater pain sensitivity. Some people experience an unusual proliferation of nerve endings. Some have a history of sexual abuse; tensing and guarding is a protective response to the trauma. For others, contact dermatitis from irritating soaps, pads, or underwear materials is the main culprit. I would add that anxiety and socialization in a culture that teaches vulva-owners to expect pain with intercourse compounds those issues. 

I’ve become a lot more mindful of my feelings in the past few years, but I wonder how long I experienced chronic tension in my body before I had the language to explain it. I was a sensitive and anxious child who never got in trouble at school. Adults in that arena either didn’t notice my anxiety or didn’t see it as a major problem, as long as I was ‘mature’ and ‘well-behaved’. I wonder how much of the tension I experience was carried from childhood into adulthood without my awareness.

In any case, the specialist and I attacked the problem on multiple fronts; while I might choose never to have PIV sex, decreasing muscle tension and inflammation was a worthy goal in itself. 

She prescribed a hormone cream, recommended dilators and physical therapy, and suggested some lifestyle changes. I marched out of CVS that afternoon armed with Shea Moisture Soap, cotton period pads, and unbleached Seventh Generation toilet paper. Of course, before I did that, I had a very quiet crying fit in the Panera Bread–it had been hard to endure the searing pain of the exam, to feel betrayed by my body’s self-protective processes. 

As a cis woman, I didn’t feel inferior about not being able to have intercourse, but I did feel dysfunctional as a human being. In reality, people of every gender can’t have or don’t want to receive penetration for many reasons, and that’s okay. It’s not shameful. But I had to remind myself of that. 

The treatments are helping; I have been using a high-quality set of silicone dilators, and that process is gradually getting easier. Read this post to learn what I use and how. (Please note, dilation isn’t always a linear progression; some days are easier than others, and I do get frustrated with it sometimes or even skip it for weeks at a time.) 

At my follow-up appointment, the pain specialist* managed to do a full exam. As she pressed on different areas, I was able to focus and distinguish different sensations. For example, I could breathe and notice that one area didn’t hurt at all, while another, tenser area felt irritated or sharply painful. The pain hasn’t gone away, but I understand it. I know that I can make decisions about how to respond to pain without judging myself for feeling it. 

I might like receiving vaginal penetration some day. I might not. But fortunately, no matter what society thinks about the status of my body, I’m not actually a sacrificial maiden. I get to have as much or as little of whatever kind of sex I want, and I get to nurture my body. In a way, I’m grateful for the pain, as much angst and inconvenience as it has caused; it’s taught me how to find many avenues for pleasure and reminded me to treat my body with kindness when it’s hurting. That’s all for now, but I will continue to write about pelvic pain and share resources. 

*I swear, I’m going to have to write an erotica called “The Pain Specialist” now. 

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