I made a profession of faith at a summer camp when I was sixteen years old. I wanted to get baptized right then and there, in the pool on the campus of Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where the Student Life camp was happening.
My motivation to move quickly had little to do with my newfound enthusiasm for faith. I was anxious because I feared there would not be a baptismal robe to fit me at the church when we got home.
I imagined myself climbing the short set of stairs into the baptismal pool with a white robe stretched tightly over my body, clinging to every roll of fat—a spectacle that would only be emphasized when I came out the other side, skin cold and wet with a newly translucent robe.
But I was too shy and nervous about asking to be baptized at the camp, so I spent the remainder of camp, the bus ride home, and the waiting days until the next Sunday wondering if the robe would even stretch over my body, or if I would be forced to wade into the small pool in shorts and a T-shirt.
Thankfully, my church’s largest robe was not as tight as I had imagined, though I doubt it would fit my body today.
When I graduated high school a couple of years later, our graduation robes were white, and mine was larger than that baptismal robe. After graduation, I donated it to the church and told them to keep it in the baptism dressing rooms just in case someone needed it one day.
As a teenager, I was afraid my baptismal robe wouldn’t fit. But more than that, I was afraid of not fitting into life, of being unwelcomed, and what that might mean about my ability to fully participate in the life of the church. My experience in the years since then has taught me that I was not the only one with this fear.
Certainly it is a fear that others feel regardless of their body size, but it is a fear that seems almost universal to fat people of faith.
This fear hinders people from being a part of the body of Christ, which in turns hinders our ability to fulfill the mission of the church—to love God, love neighbors, and make the kingdom of God known on earth.
When our churches exclude people through fat bias or structural barriers, we can’t carry out that mission to our fullest potential. When the people already inside our walls feel too much shame about their bodies to live vibrantly into the calling God has for their lives, we can’t extend love to those outside the church.
The many layers of shame and bias around fat bodies exclude people from joining or fully participating in the joyful life that God offers.
Our calling as the people of God has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. There we find a picture of a welcoming people from the very beginning. The people of God, the Israelites, are called, over and over again, to welcome others and to make the name of God great to the ends of the earth through that welcome.
In a long list of rules and laws in Leviticus, nestled in between a verse about honoring the elderly and being fair in business, are two verses about welcoming the foreigner: The emphasis on community and on making sure that people are welcome, no matter what, is reiterated again and again.
The elderly do not get tossed out, people who are foreign and new are not excluded, and people with power and wealth do not get to cheat those who must do business with them. One standard after another emphasizes God’s heart for community and inclusion.
There is no Levitical law that says, “Do not mock or exclude a fat person.” But it’s there in spirit, if not in letter.
In the New Testament, this radical welcome is emphasized further. Jesus makes his debut in the world in the midst of outcasts: a young woman, visitors to a city, and poor shepherds.
Before his childhood is over, Jesus is a refugee taking flight to a foreign country and receiving the gifts of the magi (who practiced a religion other than Judaism). Jesus’s life and ministry welcome and love those who are shunned.
Jesus shows them that their bodies—the ways these bodies are used, the diseases they might carry, the labor they perform—do not disqualify them from the right to be counted as beloved children of God who have a place in his community.
Among those who were outcast from the community in the first century because of their bodies were women and lepers. Yet throughout the four Gospels, we see that Jesus has no problem engaging with either.
In Luke 7, Jesus is invited to dine at the house of Simon the Pharisee—a man who spends much of his life drawing boundaries around who and what is considered acceptable. While Jesus is there, a woman whose body is viewed as sinful by the men at the table kneels at the feet of Jesus and washes his feet with her tears and anoints them with an ointment (Luke 7:36–50).
Imagine the scene. The table is set with food. Jesus, Simon, and the other guests are reclined about the table, eating their meal. The religious teachers are, as always, on the lookout for evidence of the way Jesus disrupts their world and order. They quickly find a reason when a woman enters the home and approaches Jesus. We know from the story that her worth is questionable in the eyes of the guests at the table because “she lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37, NIV).
However, this woman has seen or felt something to be true about Jesus, and she comes to honor him with a jar of perfume. She pushes back against the rules that say her body dictates what she is allowed to do, the faith she is allowed to express, or the love she is allowed to share. She washes Jesus’s feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and then anoints them with her jar of expensive perfume.
Her whole body is engaged in this act of love and devotion. Her body, in the eyes of many, has been wasted. It has been misused.
The men at the table believe that she has failed to honor her temple and can imagine no scenario in which she is worthy to engage with them, in which she has anything to offer the family of God or the world.
Yet still she comes with her tears and her long, flowing hair and her jar of expensive perfume that came into her possession at a cost we will never know. If her body is wasted as they say it is, then she has nothing to lose in wasting this perfume, too.
She pours out all her wealth, all she has to offer, in service and praise of the one who shows her that she is not wasted after all—that she is not used up or too much. Jesus accepts her offering and her love; he does not recoil from her touch.
Simon sneers that Jesus would send her away if he only knew who was touching him, if he knew “what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39, NIV). Jesus does not turn her away. Jesus honors her body, even the parts deemed shameful and sinful. The religious teachers are shocked that Jesus welcomes and accepts a woman whose body is viewed as worthless by the men and leaders around her because it does not meet their standards for purity and respectability. Jesus rejects this narrative by reminding them that they, too, are sinners.
The church is full of sinners—thin sinners, fat sinners. We are each called to participate in the life of the church, to welcome the stranger and the outcast to the table. We are each called to offer our lives and bodies up in service to the Creator God in our calling to love God, love neighbors, and love even our enemies.
Our bodies, no matter how far out of conventional bounds they are, do not disqualify us from participating in this venture together with the whole body of Christ. To exclude another’s body is to mock the grace and inclusive love of Jesus, who honors the gift of tears and ointment from the woman who empties herself to honor him.
I hear from the world and from the church that my fat body is too much for them. The world tells me that feasting and joy and grand displays are wrong because I’ve already had enough, that my body is too much and too conspicuous.
But Jesus shows up on the scene and doesn’t care when the woman who has been told that her body is too much goes for one more extravagant indulgence to thank him for his inclusion and love. She is an integral, needed part of the community of faith.
Throughout Scripture, we hear a message repeated: “Open your doors a little wider. Make more room at the table.” When we exclude people, either because we fail to effectively combat the secular norms about what a good body is or because we don’t have baptismal robes in a full range of sizes, we damage our ability to fully welcome everyone into the body of Christ.
Modified excerpt from Chapter 2 of Fat and Faithful: Learning to Love Our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves by J. Nicole Morgan. (Fortress Press, 2018, pages 17-27).
Featured photo by AllGo – An App For Plus Size People