Female Aspects of God Are Found in Christ.
A sermon based on
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 21, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
When our first child, our daughter Tristan, was old enough to wonder about what she could do and grow up to be. I told her she could do anything she wanted. And that if someone ever told her she couldn’t do or be this or that because she was a girl I suggested she tell the person they must be thinking of a chicken, because chickens might not be able to do it, but girls could.
In our culture females are often denied equal access and opportunity to a great many things; they are treated as somehow lesser beings than males. Indeed a shaming technique among males is to claim a male is woman-like. Today’s reading suggests Jesus would have none of that. As we heard Jesus is remembered as having no problem referring to a female image as representing the incarnational behavior of Christ. As Christ he imagines protective mother-like: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . .” This is remarkable not only for a male in a patriarchy that also considered and treated females as lesser beings, but because references to God and God’s incarnation on earth tend to be overwhelmingly male in our modern tradition. But here in our reading today we have Jesus being remembered as using a mother animal metaphor to reference Christ’s –God’s incarnation on earth– God’s mother like wishing to shield and protect her beloved.
Clearly the Jesus of the Gospels did not seem to mind in the first century referencing God in a female image. Yet I have noticed that when I raise the idea that God need not be considered male in the Twenty First Century, it rattles some. I am often surprised by the reaction. There is sometimes offense, often times defense, and more than a few times anger when I suggest that God can be understood as not being male.
To those of us who might be inclined to not like even thinking about the notion that God has female aspects, I apologize in advance if there is offense or upset in this sermon– because I will be suggesting that very notion today. Indeed I actually plan to assert that Christ has female aspects; and I suggest it not just to get your attention, but because it is a truth that we need to consider. Since this stuff can be upsetting to ideas and notions and theologies. Let me note that in this church while I have freedom of the pulpit – no one has to agree with me. You, the congregation, have freedom too, we – least of all, I– do not expect anyone to check their brains or their heart or their faith at the door. So while this morning I feel called to preach a sermon on the female aspects of God, and by extension Christ, reject the idea if you want. I’m preaching it because pastors in this church have also long been encouraged to not check their brains or their hearts or their faith at the door.
My purpose in all sermons I have preached is to hold up a facet of the Bible that I’ve been praying over and peering at and through, in hopes that some or all of us might hear “our still speaking God” calling us from Scripture. I am not looking for acclamation, I am only looking to help us better experience God or Christ . . . better ground our own theology, better go into the world to be love on Jesus’ Way. That’s once again my goal this morning.
So let me move into the heart of the message today by first noting that it is a fascinating –but rarely acknowledged– reality that God in the Bible appears in female forms. I preached a generalized sermon on the female aspects of God last Mother’s Day. I pointed out that there are a number of female images applied to God in the Bible. I noted how the word “compassion” in Hebrew and Aramaic carries with it a womb-like meaning. That very female, womb, image matches up with Paul’s claim that God is what we live and move and have our being in. We are in the womb of God and our Mother God cares and protects us there.
But the Bible also compares God to a birthing mom: Isaiah 42 (14)) “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp I will pant. . . ” And to a nursing mom: Isaiah 49 (15): “Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” Then there are outside-the-womb female images, a mid-wife: Psalm 22: 9 “it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast;” And an angry and distraught mother. In Hosea 13 (8) God claims to be “like a bear robbed of her cubs.”
And it is not just female mom images. In Luke 13: (20-21) just before our lesson today Jesus includes in his metaphor a God a female working:
“To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
In addition to these snap-shots of female images of God there are moving pictures of God-as-woman that stream through the Bible. One stream in about wisdom. The Hebrew word for wisdom is the feminine word “hokmah,” in Greek it is the feminine word sophia.
The female image of God as Wisdom appears in many Bible passages. Proverbs 8 makes this clear – even in English the female nature is stated:
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise from her voice? On the heights, beside the way at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”
These female wisdom aspects of God tend to be referred to with the Greek for wisdom, Sophia, by theologians. And these Sophia references soak a good deal of the Book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha. And she is also there in Jesus’ own images of God. In Luke 7(35) Jesus declares that “wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
This Sophia, wisdom, very female aspect of God moving through scripture is not the only one. I’ve mentioned before that God in the very first book of the Bible appears in a female image. God’s spirit creates the world. “Spirit,” in Genesis, is the English translation of the Hebrew word “Ruah” another feminine word. Kinda of like queen and princess and actress are feminine words in English that carry female denotations and connotations. The first manner in which God acts in the world in the Bible in Genesis 1, is as “Ruah.” She gives birth to creation.
And guess what? The start the Gospel of John can be heard to claim Christ is this very aspect of God, the Word that was with God at the beginning, the Word that became flesh. Ruah, the creating and present female spirit of God, can be understood to be Christ in the Book of John.
And as strange as that may sound to our ears, it is no stranger than saying God as a “He” works through women. The author of John is saying the creation experience of God, Christ was incarnate in Jesus, so much so he is known as Jesus the Christ.
Here’s the thing, the human idea of male and female aspects of God are metaphors. We can I suppose imagine God literally has XY or XX chromosomes. That does not make sense to me. And frankly neither does an image of God with the distinguishing physiological attributes of either gender . . . or both. In other words, I am not suggesting with this gender-of-God talk that God is a huge human-like male or female or transgender or intersex who stands astride earth or the universe.
I also want to point out that when I refer to Christ I am referring to God incarnate on earth in humanity. Which in Christianity is considered molded and exemplified and very much in Jesus, a first century male, but Christ is not limited to being incarnated in one gender or the other. If there were such a limitation, then how could over half the population –females– act as Christ’s hands and feet and voice and presence in the world . . . which women have clearly they have done for thousands of years, not only as church, but as individuals? From Mary Magdalene to females in this church this morning Christ has – through them– been experienced.
One of the most influential books in my life has been Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. When I first read it I was an agnostic who really dislike Christianity, and almost every page seemed to provide an epiphany for me. As a long time feminist I was particularly intrigued– and still am- by one of Dr. Borg’s more complex chapters. It’s called “Jesus, the Wisdom of God: Sophia Become Flesh.” He notes in that chapter how early Bible Christianity had what Borg calls “an embryonic wisdom Christology.” What he means is that early on Jesus the Christ was understood to have been the embodiment of the Wisdom of God. Christ was the incarnation of the wisdom aspect of God on earth in a 1st Century man, Jesus.
This Wisdom of God – Sophia– by nature, carried with her the long Jewish tradition of that aspect being female in nature, that’s what Borg refers to as the Wisdom Woman, Sophia. She’s found throughout Jewish literature. We can hear this again in Proverbs 8 (22- 31) which notes in Wisdom’s female voice
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth– when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker;
That’s Sophia, and she ends by saying her aspect of God “was daily [God’s]s delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
The famous first words in the Gospel of John can be heard to echo in summary fashion what I just read from Proverbs 8:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Joh 1:1-5 NRS)
The male pronouns in English in this text from John are from the Greek word “autos” (ow-tos) which can also be used as female pronouns. Which, of course, if they could be tied into “Logos,” the Word of God it would line it up all the closer with both the other descriptions of the female aspects of God I’ve mentioned.
The text in John is referring not to the Word being Jesus, but the Word, being the Christ that became incarnate in Jesus, making him, Jesus, the Christ. We tend to use the names “Christ” and “Jesus” interchangeably, but Christ is the God part and Jesus is the man part.
Without Jesus willingly incarnating God he – Jesus– would not have been Christ enfleshed. But that enfleshment need not be understood to mean God is male. Nor can it diminish the female facets of God which stream through the Bible and Jewish tradition – female facets that Jesus can be understood to incarnate, like the protective hen in our lesson. I know it can sound kinda mind blowing. But it need not be if we accept that God is neither male or female; and that both male and females are made in the image of God. Both of those understandings are Biblically warranted.
See, we may not have heard it much or at all in church before, but God is our Mother. The Bible says it’s so. Thank God . . . our Mother.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED