The body of scarred tenderness

The sacred body of Christ is a body of scarred tenderness, aching with love for the world. (Listen.)

At our last leadership meeting, we reflected on how we are members of one body, united and growing in love (Ephesians 4). We observed that we are therefore all connected: what affects one part of the body affects the whole; and this led us to think about the wounded and scarred bodies that form the body we call Sanctuary. For in recent weeks it has become clear that many of us live with chronic conditions or persistent pain: our bodies are exhausted, aching, or screaming in pain.

Then there are the other things. Between us, we bring a significant degree of emotional pain and trauma relating to how our bodies have been used by others. We bring a sense of alienation from church and other institutions. We bring a high level of scepticism and a deep mistrust of authority. We bring addictions; we bring PTSD; we bring our pain. We bring anger, and shame, and so much more: and all these things come with us and affect us not only as individuals, but as the wider body, that is, the church.

The Apostle Paul (or whoever wrote the letter to the Ephesians) describes what we call church in glowing terms. As we heard a couple weeks ago, it’s a holy temple built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. It’s the place where the full diversity of humanity is brought into loving communion, and it’s where God in the Spirit delights to dwell (Ephesians 2). Then, as we heard tonight, the body is called to grow into maturity and the full stature of Christ. In fact, it is central to our faith that the body of Christ, aka the church, is the physical body of our perfectly mature, perfectly loving, Lord.

So we might expect the people of the church to be, let’s say, a little bit more perfect. Yet the body we call Sanctuary is made up of people who are wounded and scarred, physically, emotionally, and spiritually; and people whose life histories have not really taught them to love well. So what’s going on here? Can this body be the church?

Obviously, the answer is yes! But I would like to flesh this out, so to speak.

The first thing to ask is this: If we are the body of Christ, then what happened to Jesus’ physical body in the world? Was it unscathed and perfect? Well, there were times when his body was fed and anointed. But he was also stripped and humiliated. He was beaten, whipped and spat upon; a crown of thorns was thrust into his scalp; then he was nailed to a cross and impaled with a spear. Before the violence, his guts wrenched at other people’s suffering. In the garden, he was highly agitated, sick with grief. He begged God for a different life; later, he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Even after his death and resurrection, he still wasn’t shiny perfect. There was dirt under his fingernails, for he was mistaken for a gardener; and the scars in his hands, feet and side endure.

And so we should expect the body of Christ, that is, the church, to reflect this. It will be wounded and scarred. It will be earthy; it will be real. It will know brokenness; it will know suffering; it will know what it is to feel forsaken; it will know humiliation; it will know despair. This knowing will be embodied by various members in different ways: but in our unity, in our life together, it is a knowing which will touch and affect us all.

But this knowing is not the end of the story, because the body of Christ is dynamic. Bodies are organic, growing things. They never stop being renewed; they keep developing day after day. In some very contorted imagery, Paul describes how growth both comes from Christ and leads to Christ: but we get the idea. Christ makes the body grow; and as it grows, the body acts in ways which move it collectively closer to Christ.

So what ways are these? First, Paul urges us to be completely humble, gentle, and patient. There is no place in the body for arrogance, impatience or pride; there is no place for festering resentments or malicious gossip or scapegoating. At all times, we need to stay grounded and treat one another tenderly.

Then, writes Paul, we must bear with one another in love. He knows that, in any congregation, there will be irritations and annoyances and people we really can’t stand. There will be people who think differently and act differently, and people who disappoint us and drive us crazy and even feel like enemies at times: just as every one of us will inevitably disappoint people and drive them crazy and seem like enemies to them, too.

This is why Paul tells us to bear with one another in love. He knows that it’s normal not to get along with people; but he also knows this is a gift. Because it’s the people we find hardest to love who force us to grow up. We are faced with the limits of our humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness; and we are faced with the parts of ourselves that we’d really rather ignore. If we are to mature in love, if we are to keep growing, we need to work through our issues and love these people—and ourselves.

Now, some of you might be thinking that everyone at Sanctuary is perfectly lovely and you’ve never had a problem with any of them; but if so, this only points to a challenge. As a group, we’re great at vulnerability and connection within the boundaried experience of a worship service and the conversation which follows; and in the stories we write and share. But most of us don’t see each other during the week, and so we’re rarely forced into confronting difficulties or disappointments in our relationships. When there has been conflict, people have tended to gloss over it, or simply leave, rather than take the time and effort for the level of reflection, conversation, prayer and repentance which truly loving relationships require.

Yet Paul tells us to make every effort to maintain the Spirit’s unity. So the invitation for us is to engage with each other in meaningful ways, ways which can leave us open to hurt and disappointment, disagreement and even betrayal; and then, when the inevitable happens, to do the hard work of repairing relationship. For when we are engaged at this level, when we make this kind of effort, we, and the body, will grow in love.

Finally, Paul tells us to use people’s different gifts to ensure that every person is equipped for servant-ministry and the body is strengthened as a whole. In other words, church is not a consumer product. It’s not something you tap into simply to get what you want. Instead, it’s something to belong to, and something to contribute to; growth happens when we are both ministered to and ministering to others in the body. Your growth as an individual is bound up in the growth of the church, even as the growth of the church is bound up in your growth as an individual; and all this growth flows from and towards Christ.

And this brings me back to the beginning. Our body politic is wounded and scarred: we all know and are affected by brokenness. But this is nothing to be afraid of: for together we are growing into the image of a wounded and scarred Christ who heals and blesses the world.

Indeed, it is precisely our wounds and our scars, our fraught personal histories and chronic conditions and pain, that are the source of our ministry and blessing. For our wounds and our scars have compelled us to go beyond violent shaming images of god, and have brought us to the gentle humble self-giving love of Jesus. Our wounds and our scars inform our reflections and stories and testimonies; and, by speaking the truth in love, the truth of who we are and how the gospel is at work in our lives, we are bringing others to a deeper knowledge of Christ. Seeing the wounds and scars of others leads us beyond complacency, to praying and caring for them in real and powerful ways. And so we are growing in maturity and love.

My friends, this body we call Sanctuary is not and never will be shiny perfect: and nor should it be. At the same leadership meeting, Emma told us that she had misheard a song at church the night before. Where the lyrics said ‘sacredness’, she had heard ‘scarred tenderness’; and I think that just about sums it up. The sacred body of Christ is a body of scarred tenderness, aching with love for the world.

So let us not be ashamed of our wounds; instead, let us allow Christ to keep working through them. And let us keep bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain unity, and let us keep speaking the truth in love. For in these ways we grow into greater maturity, and the fullness of the scarred tenderness of Christ. Let us pray.

Jesus, when you rose from the dead
you came to your disciples.
You showed them your wounds,
you opened their minds to the scriptures,
and you blessed and commissioned them.
Help us show our wounds wisely;
help us speak the truth in love,
that others might come to the knowledge of you,
and be blessed and commissioned also.
For yours is the body of scarred tenderness,
given for the life of the world. Amen. Ω

Reflect: How has God used your wounds and your scars to bless the world?

A reflection on Ephesians 4:1-16 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 1 August 2021 (Proper 13 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash.

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