Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
It was the first prayer that I learned--probably the first prayer you learned too. And not without reason. It's rhetorically sound, in that it makes good use of parallel structure and rhyme. It acknowledges the distance between God and the prayer that sociologists claim marks all human prayer. And it can be customized, or at least mine could, by adding the imperative "bless" at the end of the prayer and then listing those who needed blessing.
But it's also a deeply disturbing prayer. In the first place, it introduces children to the macabre possibility of dying in the night. What's more, the prayer reveals a startling division of the human being. The prayer does not ask God to protect the body against death, but instead confesses a desire only for the protection of the soul. The tacit confession of the prayer is that the soul is what is essentially human, what really matters.
Children's prayers, however, are not the sole offenders when it comes to this strange phenomenon of splitting the human being into body and soul and then ignoring the body. Perhaps, like me, you once invited Jesus to "live in your heart." There are infinite variations on the so-called sinner's prayer, but they are all focused on the inner life, the nebulous soul-self signified by the metaphor of the "heart."
Now most theologians agree that prayer is a window to a person's theology. When one addresses God, the language is of the utmost importance. No one wants to flub it before theAlmighty, so each word is chosen with care and reveals volumes about an individual's theology. What I see revealed in these prayers is this: a startling disregard for, even denial of, en-fleshed human experiences in favor of the "essential self" contained within the soul. We did not originate this heresy, but we as Americans are the most pernicious preachers of it that I know.
It would be ironic to claim that this is only an intellectual or theological problem. It is not. Rather, this insidious denial of human flesh manifests itself in flesh. It denies, marginalizes, and kills human bodies. "Colorblindness" is a good example of thisphenomenon. An individual pretends not to "see race," opting instead to see the "essential humanness." But colorblindness fundamentally denies the embodied experiences of people of color and attempts to force them into a "post-racial America" that the slain bodies of black teenagers fundamentally invalidates. Or consider short-term missionaries who venture to some distant corner of the world and expend tremendous effort evangelizing the souls of "the lost" all the while "the lost" continue to starve. Because the soul is all that matters, right?
But doesn't John declare that Jesus became flesh? Doesn't Mark show us that he grew tired and slept? Doesn't Luke love to show him at the table? Absolutely, and Luke does another thing, too. When he narrates the ascension of Jesus, which is today's gospel lesson, Luke takes great pains to demonstrate that the very same Jesus who became incarnate is the Jesus who ascends to heaven. At this pivotal moment of the gospel, Luke shows us the scars. And those scars reveal something different, even uncomfortable, to modern American Christians: God is intimately concerned with the full range of en-fleshed human experiences and uses human bodies to bring about the very Kingdom of God.
Our first introduction to this fleshy Jesus comes way back in v. 15. There we see Jesus walking to Emmaus, conversing with friends, teaching, and breaking bread. In the next scene, the disciples think he's a ghost. To reassure them, he invites them to touch his flesh and view his scars. He even eats a meal with them, something no ghost would ever need to do. He goes on to walk with the Eleven and teach them--not by transfiguring them--but by discussing scriptures and giving their minds the tools to understand. Though Luke is clear that Jesus has been glorified and this has changed him, he remains fundamentally an embodied human. Jesus ascends to heaven as a human, and that is tremendously important.
It is tremendously important precisely because we live in an era of sinner's prayers, an era where the old flesh/spirit dualism once again reigns. The language of piety is now the salvation of the soul and the mortification of the flesh. But Jesus had and continues to haveflesh. His glorification happened in a body. And he treated other bodies like they mattered. When he encountered sick bodies, he healed them. When he encountered hungry bodies, he fed them. When he encountered bodies that had been pushed to the margins, he brought them back to the center. The body matters to God precisely because it is the human being, the locus of human activity and experience. And the fact that a member of the very Godhead has human flesh means that we cannot dismiss en-fleshed humanness any longer. We must come to terms with the fact that Jesus' flesh reveals to us that flesh is good, and flesh is how the Kingdom of God comes.
There is something else, though. We would do well to note that the body in which Jesus ascends is not a lily-white, perfectly proportioned, idealized flesh. No, the body that ascends to heaven ascends with scars; and that means that, on a profound level, Jesus ascends as a disabled God. He has holes in his wrists and his feet. He has a spear wound in his belly that probably doesn't look that different from my appendectomy scar. I can't even begin to fathom the kind of permanent nerve and bone and joint damage that comes from the torture Jesus endured. But it remains. His scars are real, markers of his identity just as ours are. In the words of Nancy Eisland, "Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God." The ascendant flesh is not just real human flesh, it is flesh that takes on the fullness of human life by embracing pain and disability.
Jesus' disability causes us to radically consider disability in our own contexts by shattering the paradigm that disability is the result of personal sin. If even the sinless one can be disabled, we must reject any connection between sin and disability. Disability is not a punishment or a judgment, but a way of being human in the world. In the Ascension, disability is taken into the divine life and restored to its proper place as one of the myriad reflections of the imago Dei, the very image of God. Can you imagine how different the world would be if, instead of telling persons with disabilities how different they are from other humans, we instead told them how like Jesus they are! The disabled Jesus is dependent upon others. He is a survivor of trauma, and he bears its marks in his body. This image of Jesus is rarely talked about, rarely portrayed. We want a young, good looking,"fully-abled" Jesus. But we don't have him. We have a disabled God.
So far, we've been exploring the unspoken implications of the ascension of Jesus' body. Let us now turn to the explicit words that Jesus offers the Eleven and us concerning what exactly we should be doing with our own flesh. In v. 47, Jesus tells the disciples,"Repentance and the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are the witnesses of these things." In his very last moment with the disciples, Jesus says these words to them. He chooses to let them know that they will spread the repentance and forgiveness that he's been preaching about his whole life. They will do this with their bodies, and their bodies will even bear the marks of this activity, something Jesus hints at by capitalizing on the double meaning of the Greek word martyrion, which can also mean martyr in our modern sense. They will use their bodies, their very lives, to spread the news that God has reconciled all people; and some will even give their lives to do so.
Now, to the casual observer, this might seem like the end of the argument. Because the disciples might be using their bodies to spread Jesus' message, but Jesus has returned to the old flesh/soul dualism by emphasizing forgiveness and repentance, activities that we moderns link to the mind and the heart. A closer reading of Luke's Gospel, however, reveals that Luke never speaks of repentance without linking it to concrete acts of en-fleshed human justice and reconciliation. When wealthy Zacchaeus, for example, realizes the depth of his economic exploitation, he promises to pay everyone back four times what he stole. Likewise, it is not enough for the Prodigal Son to say he's sorry. He must walk the long, dusty road home and embrace his father. When Jesus forgives the unnamed woman in Luke 7, he authorizes her presence at the table despite the resistance of the Pharisees and pulls her from the margins. Jesus' forgiveness isn't the kind that fits on a tract. It is the radical, jubilee forgiveness of Israel's ancient past--the year of the Lord's favor when all the slaves were released and the land itself was allowed to rest.
We are called to follow that pattern. Just as we one day hope to mimic Jesus' ascension, so must we also mimic his earthly life, which will certainly take a toll on our bodies as it did on his. In many ways, the Ascension of our Lord is a challenge, the passing of the torch from the master to the students and the beginning of the era of the church. The blessing Jesus gives the eleven disciples is our blessing as well, and it is a blessing we will surely need on the road ahead. Our bodies will no doubt experience pain as we raise voices and signs to protest legislation that disenfranchises the sick or permits weapons of death in places of peace. Our arms will certainly grow weary as we embrace refugees from Syria and Ukraine. Perhaps our bodies will even bear the scars of resisting violence in our neighborhoods. Certainly our fingers will be caked with mud as we work to bring food to areas where human beings consume chemicals than they do plants. Our bodies will bear the justice of God, and the Kingdom will come.
And as much as Jesus' ascension represents a challenge to those who would follow him, it is an amazing comfort as well. The Ascension is good news for human bodies because it means that a human body is already glorified and in heaven, and that Jesus Christ--who is that body--is profoundly aware of what it means to be human. As the author of Hebrewssays, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses."More than that, though, His ascension means that bodies are good. Can God incarnate become something that is not good? And if Jesus' body is good, ours must also be; and if our bodies are good, then no one ever again has the ability to shame us because of our bodies.
Perhaps you've been excluded from your community because your body is black, or you've been kept from expressing your deepest sense of vocation because your body is female, and, "female bodies aren't allowed to do those things." Maybe your body has recently become disabled, or has been for a long time, and someone is trying to tell you that you're not useful, that because you cannot complete a certain mechanical task you are somehow less than human. Or maybe you've been told that you cannot sanctify your commitment to your partner because you both inhabit queer bodies. Whichever portion of your embodied reality has been used to keep you from God, the Ascension of a specific, marginalized, disabled, Jewish body into heaven means that the experiences of en-fleshed humans matter. Your experiences have value. Your body is good, and it is the means by which God's Kingdom comes. Let us no longer pray only for our souls but let us love our bodies. Let us revel in the fact that God has chosen flesh, real, fragile, warm, hairy human flesh to reveal the character of God and accomplish reconciliation in the world.