A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Sunday, November 20th, 2022
In Wakanda Forever, Marvel’s much anticipated sequel to the Black Panther, the movie must contend with a body that is not present. The beloved Black Panther, King T’Challa, played previously by the late Chadwick Boseman, is absent, in body, from the film. Though his presence is felt throughout, the movie must contend at the outset with a star who has died and as such an actor and a character who cannot fill the titular role. The movie handles this brilliantly, diving at the beginning, straight into grief allowing the characters and the viewer, to grieve, not only for the Black Panther, but all that has been lost in the past few years in the fictional world of the movie and in our real lives. While it is set in an Afro-futurist and thus imagined reality, still as in the real world, in the movie it is black women who must shoulder the weight of pain and loss. The kingdom is now a queen-dom, ruled by Queen Ramonda, played by the inimitable Angela Bassett. As she contends with the compounded grief of a murdered husband, the betrayal of a nephew, the inexplicable death of her son, and the kidnapping of her last remaining family member, her daughter, she cries out “I am the Queen of the most powerful nation in the world! And my entire family is gone! Have I not given everything!” The suffering and grief are so palpable they do not need the movie’s 3D special effects to jump off the screen!
The movie holds a space so needed in our post-George Floyd world, to let the lives and experiences of those whose bodies are most often on the receiving end of the violence and pain of this world to tell their story and reflect the world back to us. Similarly, I have found the work of Womanist Theology, which centers the experience and history of black women as a necessary voice to counter the predominantly patriarchal and colonialist ways our church and our theologies have been constructed. For me, Womanist theology is essential in order to move us as a church more faithfully as disciples of Jesus into the work of justice for all bodies broken and wounded by the colonial powers, empires, and kingdoms of this world.
And, as Christians, we always start with the body. This morning, as with Good Friday, the body of Jesus is presented to us as it so often is in art and symbol, at the moment of crucifixion, a gruesome and horrible exposition of just how low humanity can go in afflicting bodies with the worst kinds of pain. Historians tell us that crucifixion was a unique and particular tool of the colonizing power of Rome, reserved especially for the lowest classes, the worst criminals, and the least influential in society. To be crucified was evidence of your low status in the world, a final insult to a body already undoubtedly well-familiar with suffering. Those of status and privilege were rarely punished in public, but crucifixion, a horrific form of execution, was cruel both in the ways it drew out the suffering of the victim, and for the awful ways it displayed this suffering for the world. And, like on Good Friday, today, as we observe the Reign of Christ, or more traditionally Christ the King Sunday, we remember Jesus’ body on the cross because of the significance that moment holds in our theology and our lived experience. As the great author and humanist Dorothy Sayers once wrote,
“There is a dialectic in Christian sacred art which impels it to stress, from time to time, now the eternal, and now the temporal elements in the Divine drama. The crucifix displays in one period the everlasting Son reigning from the tree; in another, the human Jesus disfigured with blood and grief.”
What God was doing, in and through the body of Jesus on the cross, is a point of great and unending debate in Christian theology, the outcomes of which hold great importance for how we practice our faith and do the things we do in our own life as followers of Jesus. For some the crucifixion is that penultimate step in the cosmic drama of God conquering the powers of death and evil in the world. For others, the body of Jesus stands in for our own as the requisite cost for all our sin and the evil of the world; here Jesus is atoning for us, fulfilling God’s required blood sacrifice to save us from eternal death. Still others believe the crucifixion is an example of what God’s reign is to look like, a suffering servant who willingly stands in solidarity with the suffering of the world, even to the point of this most awful death. Here, Christ the King institutes a new kind of kingdom, a different kind of reign than those our world is most familiar with, one that inverts power and upends privilege, and places God’s preference on the side of the least and those in pain.
And, each of these is compelling to at least some of us at some point in our lives. Each of these visions for the meaning of the crucifixion holds some truth, and yet none is without points of criticism. As Sayers quote implies, at some moments, the crucifixion is nothing more than a body bloodied and in pain.
The late great Womanist theologian Delores Williams, famously critiqued traditional theologies of the cross, arguing that Jesus’ blood and suffering there cannot and does not save black women. To glorify the suffering of Jesus on the cross, especially as an atoning sacrifice standing in for each of us, is to glorify surrogacy. As Williams writes in her essential text, Sisters in the Wilderness, “Black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement.”
What happens to the body is an experience that connects us back in time to the bodies of our forebears, our ancestors, and which draws us forward in communion with future generations. And, so, we start with bodies, with our own, and with the body of Jesus. We pay attention to suffering, not glorifying it, but remembering it.
Recognizing the suffering of Jesus as the unnecessary violence that it was, instead of trying to force meaning out of it, might make us more empathetic and responsive to needless suffering elsewhere in our world. If Womanist and Liberationist theology does anything, it points to the liberating message Jesus lived and preached, the very radical message and life that got him hung on the cross in the first place. Jesus lived so that, as his mother sang, the power structures of this world might be inverted, the hungry might be filled with good things and the rich and powerful dethroned and sent away empty. The implications for us then are that we be about this kind of work in our own lives – feeding, serving, and tending to those most in need, and proclaiming God’s liberating justice to all.
But, to get to justice, we must attend to our own bodies, and the wounds we all bear. If the destructive powers of this world which put Jesus on the cross have any impact on the bodies of the oppressed in our day, they also leave their mark on the powerful and on those who benefit from oppression as well. Each of us is dehumanized by the kingdoms of this world, and each of us bears the wounds of participating in the destructive power of coloniality – either as victim or victimizer. And, as such, each of us is in need of healing.
Octavia Raheem writes in Gather, her beautiful collection of essays, poems, and sayings, our Advent read this year (shameless plug, you can pick up your copy at the back as you leave today), “What I do to my body, I do to my Ancestors and to my future.” What Raheem knows is that, just as Jesus practiced and preached, each of us needs to heal from the wounds of the past and those of the present moment, so that we do not pass them on to future generations. As she writes,
“I’ve come to the place in my journey where it’s time to release the pain and suffering of my Ancestors in order to access the freedom they prayed for me, my children, and their children to have.”
For Christians, the body is the starting point. It is in bodies, in flesh and blood, that we express our faith, active, alive, and engaged in the world. It is in a body that we mark the very presence of God with us, in Jesus.
This morning we are called again to pay attention to our bodies, to the wounds we carry and the wounds we cause, to notice the body of Jesus, beaten and crucified, to notice the bodies of those crucified in our world today, and to turn toward healing, freedom, and new life for us and for those who come after.