by Jenna Pulkowski

I have long struggled with my relationship with my body. It’s a relationship that on the best days is positive, on most days is apathetic and on the worst days is downright hateful.

Scripture has a lot to say about bodies. From Genesis to Revelation, law and Gospel, prophets to Jesus, the message can be a bit mixed. Sometimes scripture lifts up our physical selves. The Torah has a lot to say about how we are meant to treat people and meet their physical needs. Sometimes scripture emphasizes how our bodies are less important than our souls.

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that we ought to live by the Spirit and put the desires of the body to death (5:16). He goes on to say that the body — “the works of the flesh” — are things like anger, jealousy, impurity, and the like. In contrast, when we live by the Spirit, we will instead show the fruits of the Spirit — kindness, compassion, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The body leads to death, and the Spirit leads to life.

However, in Psalm 139, David emphasizes the wonderful way in which God is the creator of our whole selves, the One who knit us together in the womb, who “formed our inward parts.” And in 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that because our bodies are a “Temple of the Lord God,” what we do with our bodies matters!

So, when scripture sends mixed messages, I turn to the gospel. One of my professors would say to us, the gospel is our norming norm. It’s what provides the lens through which we look at the rest of scripture, and how we interpret it. God tells us about our bodies in the person of Jesus Christ about how God values our physical bodies.

Through the four gospels, we learn about the paradox that is the Incarnation. As ELCA Lutherans we affirm that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. This is a physical and metaphysical impossibility to us mere human beings: an unsolvable mystery.

We affirm that Jesus was born of Mary, going from conception to birth just as any other human being is born. Jesus’ life included things we all experience: sleep, hunger, laughter, crying, eating and drinking, and what comes after eating. His body had the same needs all of ours do.

What a remarkable method for God to choose to show us the way. Bodies are fallible and easily hurt, broken and destroyed. Why would God choose such a fragile path, and allow for such a humiliating and excruciating death?

I don’t claim to understand God’s ways. I do the best I can with the background information found in scripture, Christianity’s traditions, our world today and my own life experiences to help me make sense of it all. That’s part of my job as a pastor and preacher.

I believe that God’s taking on a human body in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s own beloved child, sends a resounding, world-changing message: that God deeply and beautifully values our humanity and our physical bodies. God didn’t have to become human. God didn’t have to allow the Roman leaders and the religious leaders to arrest him, no matter how much he alarmed the mighty among them. Yet God chose to be born to human parents, at least one of whom was quite young, and both of whom were quite poor. God chose to live and die as a human being.

The body matters. Why else would Jesus have chosen to return people to their communities, to their loved ones, if our ordinary human lives didn’t matter? Why else would Jesus have defeated death and the grave by coming back to life? He had his wounds to show his disciples that he was the person they knew. He wasn’t a ghost or a figment of their collective imagination. He had truly, physically returned to them. He ate a lot of meals to prove this, using his physical self to bear witness to who he really was and is—fully human and fully divine.

This, more than anything about my body as a temple of the Lord or the emphasis on my soul’s eternal nature, helps me to be grateful for my body. Studying how Jesus lived, died and resurrected as a human being shows me that God values my physical self. That my body, as imperfect as it is, matters.

Discussion questions:

1. How has scripture impacted your body image? If that image has been negative, how might God be calling you to reframe it?

2. Have you ever considered why God chose to become a human being, and not only to die but to be resurrected? Does how you think of this affect how you view your and others’ bodies?

3. What are positive scripture passages that can encourage you when you’re struggling with your body image?

Closing prayer:

Incarnate God, you have emphatically shown us how deeply you value us and our physical selves. Thank you for your witness to the importance of each of us as an entire person, and for sending us other witnesses who fight against the dangerous separation of body and soul. Help each of us as we work to be bearers of this beautiful, good news. Reassure us and remind us whenever we doubt and forget that we have been made in your holy image and that nothing the world says about our bodies determining our value and worth actually determines anything. Our value is in being your beloved children. Creator and Sustainer, we pray, Amen.

Jenna lives in northern Illinois with her husband and two fur babies. She began a new call in September 2020, is currently serving a wonderful ELCA congregation in Mundelein, Il. as a solo pastor. Even though Covid has made starting a new call a completely different level of difficulty, she thanks God every day for this amazing new church home.