Women of the graduating class of 2005, it is both an honor and a joy to be able to join your family, your friends, and other members of the seminary community in celebrating this last leg of your seminary journey with you. You have worked hard to arrive here, and, as you leave, you take with you a wealth of skills, wisdom, and insight as you go forth as ministers of the gospel. As one of the many faculty who has invested so much into seeing you succeed in your journey, I cannot resist taking this opportunity to ask you to be sure to take just one more theological insight with you as you leave. The one insight that I would like for you to take with you is this: A sure understanding of who you are.
Scripture is very clear about who you are. To put it quite simply, you are someone whose identity is found in Christ. Through the power of the Holy Spirit,
- You are a person who is being fully transformed into the image of Christ;
- You are a woman who is fully capable of imaging Christ in this world;
- You are a minister who is fully called to image Christ in this world.1
While this may seem like a straight-forward theological truth, clearly found in Scripture, through listening to your stories in the short time that I have been at this institution, I have been terribly grieved to hear that this truth is something with which many of you have had to struggle to claim as your own. And, as I have learned from you, this struggle is not without good reason. One of the reasons why you have had to struggle is because you are in a world that has competing claims about who you are and who you are supposed to be—claims that fail to engage the wondrous mystery of the incarnation.
We live in a world that is very good at classifying and segregating people by how they look. We know all too well that, unfortunately, people are often put in certain categories according to something over which they have little or no control: the way in which they are embodied. Rather than engaging the mystery of the full humanity of every person, it is much easier to put people into stereotyped categories of race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, and so forth and then work out identity issues from there:
- “You have black skin, so these things are probably true about you.”
- “You’re a woman, so you should be this way and do these things.”
- “You’re overweight, so you must be this kind of a person.”
- “You’re too old—you’ve clearly lost your relevance and usefulness.”
- “You have a disability, so we don’t even know what to do with you.”
And we could go on and on down the list.
Now, clearly, such categorizations are often not overtly expressed in these blunt ways, but, nonetheless, the underlying sentiments are indeed out there. And because the church is also out there in the world, we unfortunately sometimes see these kinds of attitudes creeping into the church. We see it on Sunday mornings when we prefer to image that part of a segregated society that looks more like us rather than imaging the diversity of God’s kingdom. We see it in the choices we make to use exclusive language when gospel content is clearly meant to be inclusive. We see it when we take this society’s worship of youth into the church and promote a young congregation as a more ideal congregation. We see it when we fail to make all of our spaces that are supposed to be open to all, that we say are open to all, truly accessible to all. We see it when we declare that embodiment, rather than the discretion of the Holy Spirit, is the final arbiter of gifting and ministry calling. And every time something like this happens, a message is clearly sent that there are just some-bodies who should not be seen and celebrated as full members of our community, fully able to image Christ in whatever body and with whatever gifts they have been given by God.
But every time skewed ideas of embodiment get in the way of seeing people in the way Christ would have us see them, we who know Christ and who are being transformed into his image know that we are dealing with a veil of sin and a false witness to the gospel that must be confronted. Theologian, Dr. Molly T. Marshall, President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, gives an interesting illustration of how a church she once pastored had to confront the sin of discounting people who had certain kinds of bodies.2 One day, Dr. Marshall found out that, whenever the children were dismissed during the worship service to go to children’s church, the little girls would never let any of the little boys be the preacher. You see, in their brief experience of life, these children had only seen Molly Marshall in the pulpit, so they concluded that only women, and never men, could serve as pastors. Consequently, one of the children’s workers had to take them aside and tell them, “Now, girls, little boys can be preachers, too.”
Because of their incomplete understanding about how God calls, gifts, and equips people to serve in the Kingdom, and because they had only witnessed one kind of a person holding a particular church office, these little girls failed to see the possibility that these boys had for receiving a call to the pastorate. We can imagine the great loss to the Kingdom that might have occurred if Pastor Marshall and her congregation had not stepped in to address this… .
One major lesson that we have from the incarnation—one lesson that we have from one who, as Isaiah prophesied, “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”3—is that God does not see embodiment the way that the world sees embodiment. Not only did God choose to show up in an unexpected body, but God continues to show up in bodies where the world—and sometimes we—least expect it. God told his story most clearly to us through the incarnated Word, Jesus Christ, and he continues to tell it through us: we continue to embody God’s word to this world.
One of the great mysteries of the incarnation is that, because of what Christ did in becoming fully human, every single human is fully capable of imaging Christ. We do not have to conform to the particularities of Christ’s physical, earthly body in order to, as 2 Corinthians 4:10-11 puts it, make Christ “visible in our bodies”; “visible in our mortal flesh.” In other words, it is not the case that Jewish bodies better represent Christ than gentile bodies; 1st century bodies better represent Christ than 21st century bodies; and (dare I say?) it is certainly not the case that male bodies better represent Christ than female bodies. For, as the first chapter of Genesis clearly reminds us, humanity, male and female, are created in the image of God, and fallen humanity, male and female, is what Christ came to restore to wholeness by taking on human flesh. In the miraculous act of taking on the fullness of humanity in the incarnation to bring us to salvation, Christ brings every-body to a place where, through the power of the Spirit, we are not only able to speak the words of Christ, but are able to be transformed into words of God incarnate. Having been created in the image of God and having been invited to be transformed by Christ’s salvific work, every-body has the capacity to be fully conformed to the image of Christ and to participate fully in imaging Christ to the world.
The fact that the Word came in the flesh to dwell among us means that these human bodies are not incidental to the gospel message: they are a critical part of it. God does not speak to and through people in spite of their many different bodies. Rather, God has chosen all kinds of bodies to make his presence known on earth.4 In taking on the fullness of humanity, a fullness that includes the body, and then in turn sending the Spirit—not to take us from our bodies, but to conform us, in all of our frail humanness, to the image of Christ—God made a powerful statement. The statement that God made and continues to make through the incarnation and the on-going presence of the Spirit is that God values all bodies enough to dwell fully in them. God values all bodies enough to communicate through them.
Embodiment expresses reality in a way that mere words cannot. That God created people with all kinds of different bodies means that it takes all kinds of different bodies to make God’s salvific presence fully known in this world. People with different bodies are able to manifest Christ differently—to make Christ present in ways in which other bodies may not be able.
The story of Joni Eareckson Tada is very well-known. Rendered quadriplegic in a diving accident, Joni has been able to reach people all over the world for Christ in a way that people who have full use of their limbs have not. It is not in spite of her body that Joni is able to image Christ as she does. Rather, it is in part because of her body that Joni is able to image Christ as she does. As a person who has full use of her limbs, I can certainly go to someone who has just been indefinitely confined to a wheelchair due to a tragic accident and tell that person with all sincerity, “God loves you and wants you to live an abundant life of joy.” But that person will probably not receive the same gospel message in the same way as if it were to come from Joni, who knows what it is like to find God’s love and an abundant life of joy in that situation.
What the incarnation tells us is that the measure of your success as a human being and as a minister of God is not found in how well you are living up to an identity constructed through stereotyped categories of the body, but it is found in how well you are imaging Christ to this world. We image Christ best when we are exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This is fruit that is available to every-body through the power of the Spirit and obedient discipleship.5 We image Christ best when we obediently let our light shine brightly in the world, fully using all of the resources, all of the skills, all of the education, and all of the spiritual gifts God has given us—spiritual gifts given not according to bodies but according to the discretion of the Spirit.6 In short, we image Christ best when we do what Christ did in his earthly ministry, making space for all people, no matter how they are embodied, to come to fullness in him: gentile, Jew, slave, free, female, male, poor, rich, sick, healthy, old, young, powerless, powerful.
So as you go forth, my hope and my prayer is that you take with you this one true theological insight: take with you a sure knowledge—and a sure confidence—that your identity is found in Christ. And as you image Christ in your ministry, be sure to look actively for ways in which you can create physical space, mental space, emotional space, relational space, spiritually-discerning space, and (in our busy society) temporal space for every-body whom God puts in your path in order that they, too, might realize that their true identity is found in Christ, growing into the fullness of the image of the One in whose image we are all created.
- For these points as well as background scripture for what follows, see, for example, 2 Cor. 3:4-6; 3:17-4:11. All scripture references are taken from the NRSV.
- The following account is taken from Battle for the Minds: A Controversial Film about Fundamentalism and Women, VHS, produced and directed by Steven Lipscomb (Battle for the Minds, Inc., 1997).
- Isa. 53:2b.
- See Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 101.
- Gal. 5:13-26.
- For example, see Matt. 5:13-16; Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12.