At the beginning of this series, I made an apology. Normally, we use the inclusive text for our Scripture readings, but I chose to use the NRSV for this series. The reasoning was that John is very careful about language and the inclusive text sometimes obscures it. The downside is that we hear God constantly referred to in the masculine, as Father. So this week we’re going to push back on that, try to break down the masculine framework that we assume in John.
John leverages the father-son relationship for power and authority. Jesus has authority because he is from the Father. Jesus has power because he is from the Father. In 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.” In 5:19, “for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” In 5:23, “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” In 12:50, “What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.” I could go on an on. This was the way that fatherhood and sonship was understood in John’s world. The son has the authority and power of the father and therefore merits the honor given to the father. The father commands and the son obeys and, therefore, they can be said to be one in authority and power.
I think this is the most common way that Christians understand our relationship with God. God is God because God has power over us. We submit to God’s power instead of rebelling against it, and so we are saved. I can see the attraction of this. For those who are disempowered and marginalized, it’s good to think that, ultimately, power is on your side. But it’s also good for those who have power because they can claim God as the source of their power. The Southern Baptist Convention just appointed its first black president and they are touting it as a victory for racial reconciliation. Congratulations. In 2012, you finally accept African Americans as fully included under God’s power and authority, you finally grant one group access to your God. How long to women have to wait? What about my LGBTQ friends? When do they become acceptable? They say, “We don’t hate women, but God says that men are to be the head of the household and the head of the church.” And, “We don’t hate gay people, but God says they are an abomination.” God says… God says… God says… We are helpless in the face of God’s command.
Framing our relationship with God as one of power is a dangerous game. It has consequences. In the world, injustice continues as people see themselves as being ordained with God’s power. From ordination of women to equal pay to reproductive health. Bullying, teen suicides, marriage equality. At one time, it was slavery and interracial marriage, but it’s all the same. Whether it’s Loving v. Virginia or Proposition 8, Roe v. Wade or the Defense of Marriage Act, there’s always someone advocating for injustice in the name of God.
It also affects our theology. If our relationship with God is one of power, how can we really be one? We talked about this last week, that friends don’t have power over one another. How can there be mutual self-giving in a non-mutual relationship? If it’s about power, our real relationship with God, like God’s justice, must be pushed off into the future. Eternal life only projects forward. Heaven – and God, for that matter – is that which is forever beyond the limits of our power. We exert our power in this world until we run out of time. Then we find God. It doesn’t even make sense, if you think about it. Eternal means “without beginning or end.” Thinking of eternal life as that which begins after our death is a depressingly narrow view. Eternal life must be something more. Something infinitely more.
There are a couple of ways to attack this power-centered, androcentric structure. The first is to question the way we divvy things up, what is masculine and what is feminine. Not all men are aggressive; not all women are nurturing. We can certainly make room for a messier sense of gender. I think this is a fruitful line of questioning, but one I’d like to come back to later. The second option is to examine how we value the things we organize by gender. Perhaps power, logic, and aggression should not be valued above all else. Perhaps those things we characterize as feminine – nurturing, emotion, receptivity – can also be valued. There is good evidence that John takes just such an approach, which we see in a few of his word choices.
First, John portrays God and Jesus in nurturing relationships. In John 1:18, John the Baptizer says of Jesus: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Only, it doesn’t say heart; it says bosom. The word in Greek is kolpon. When referring to a person, it usually means bosom or breast, as a nursing child. It could also mean embrace, as two lovers. Early Christians, such as Augustine and Clement, translated it as womb because it often refers to a cavity of some kind, an enclosed space. It might be the fold of a garment or a bowl of food, but for a person, there is a sense of intimacy, of safe enclosure, the embrace of the beloved. Interestingly, the only other place it is used is in John 13:23, “One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him.” Only it doesn’t say “next to him;” it says, “reclining in the bosom of Jesus.” Whatever oneness might mean to John, it would appear to involve physical closeness, nurturing, and intimacy, even with God.
Second, John talks a lot about birth. John uses the word “beget” eighteen times, even though there is no genealogy as we find in Matthew and Luke. “Beget” can refer to generation through the father or it can refer to birth. The tendency is to assume it refers to fatherhood and sonship because of the constant use of the title “Father” and probably to harmonize with Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies. It is also fair to note that in the ancient world it was believed that only the man contributes to the child – the woman is merely a vessel – and so the father-son relationship is the critical one. Power in the ancient world certainly rested on this. But John frequently refers to the act of birth itself.
Starting in John 1:12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Then there is his conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”’” One could – and feminist scholars have – criticized this as devaluing the physical birth from the mother in favor of a spiritual birth from a masculine God. It’s a fair critique, but it assumes that God’s masculinity is unquestioned. Perhaps John means for God to be imagined as a woman in this case, complicating God’s fatherhood.
This is not unprecedented. We’ve talked about feminine names for God, such as Shaddai, but there is something else so common that it gets overlooked. It is always obscured in translation, but the Hebrew and Aramaic word for compassion is an adjectival form of the noun womb. When Jesus says in Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate,” he is making a gender-bending pun in Aramaic. “Be a Mother just as your Father is a Mother.” In Jeremiah 31:20, God says of Ephraim, “Therefore my womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly compassion upon him.” There is a long tradition of God as Mother.
Finally, when John talks of oneness, he speaks of being in one another. In 17:21: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Continuing in vv. 22-23: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” Unless you are caught in a blizzard while riding a tauntaun on the icy planet of Hoth, there are only a couple of ways that you want to be in another being.
One possibility is sexual intimacy. I can’t rule this out. In my opinion, it is not a reach to think that, in the author of John’s understanding, there was physical intimacy among some of the disciples and even Jesus. There are betrothal type-scenes with the Samaritan woman at the well and with Mary Magdalene in the garden. No one is alarmed when Jesus strips down to a towel during dinner to wash everyone’s feet. Peter apparently likes to fish naked with the boys. And there is always that Beloved Disciple, resting in Jesus’ safe embrace. The problem, of course, is with the way that we understand sexuality. It’s tawdry, prurient. It must be contained within strict boundaries. In particular, gender difference must be maintained. The active masculine acts on the passive feminine. Women’s bodies become places for men to exert power. We too often regard our intimates as servants rather than friends. It’s hard to see God in that.
The other possibility, of course, is the womb. We’ve already talked about the biblical tradition behind this, but I’d like to mention one other key word in John: become. In the Greek, it is ginomai, which is extremely common, so common that it’s hard to make something of it. It just means “to be.” Think of all the times we use “be.” Be brave. Be calm. I will be there. But in John, it is frequently used in a sense of creation, as something coming into being. In 1:3, the Word is said to have created everything: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” In 1:12, we are given the “power to become children of God.” In 1:14, “the Word became flesh.” Water becomes wine at the wedding and a spring in the hearts of believers. People become well. People become blind. People become disciples. And when they become disciples, they abide in God’s love and pain becomes joy.
The French feminist Luce Irigaray says that woman is place. This could be thought of as woman as place for the use of men. That’s what leads to our distorted view of sexuality and our distorted view of God. Woman is not space to be conquered, but place to become. The womb is our primal source where all possibility exists, where all things become. The mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp says it like this: “I was in a very depressed frame of mind one Christmas night, when I was taken up in the spirit. There I saw a very deep whirlpool, wide and exceedingly dark; in this abyss all beings were included, crowded together, and compressed. The darkness illuminated and penetrated everything. The unfathomable depth of the abyss was so high that no one could reach it . . . It was the entire omnipotence of the Beloved . . .” This abyss is terrifying for man because it can’t be conquered. Except by an all-powerful masculine God. Man turns away from the primal, natal source and toward a different unknown, the unknown of the future beyond death. He erases the memory of his becoming and erases woman. Woman is left without a place for herself to be herself, to become herself.
But Irigaray makes another move. While woman has always been the place of becoming for man, man is not usually the place of becoming for woman. That, in her mind, is the key to an ethics of sexual difference in which all have a horizon of becoming, a place to become. Man must be a place for woman to become. I think John had a similar gender-bending strategy in mind. Beget can refer to fatherly generation or motherly birth. The bosom can be the nurturing breast of the mother or the comforting embrace of the lover. The Father must be the Mother. We become because we have a place to do so. In turn, we are the place for the other to become. And that place is the eternal, that from which we come and that to which we will return. The mystery of the ineffable Godhead is identical with the unfathomable natal abyss. It is without beginning and without end. All that we have ever been and all that we might become is contained in the One.
There is one more move to make. If God is the place of our becoming because we are in God and if we are the place for one another to become because we are one, then what does it mean for God to be in us? It can only mean that we are the place of becoming for God. Hadewijch encourages the young female Beguines to whom she writes to carry their pregnancy with God to term, each month a step on the mystical journey to the birth of Love. God is imagined as a baby girl to which they will give birth. Irigaray is more forceful. She imagines the coming of an ethical God, a God in which man and woman have a place to become, as a new birth, “not waiting passively for the god to come, but by conjuring him up among us, within us, as resurrection and transfiguration of blood, of flesh, through a language and an ethics that is ours.”
As Christians and as a church, we have an obligation to one another to be a place of becoming. Nurturing. A safe embrace. An unfathomable abyss of love. In that abyss of all possibility, of everything that has ever been and everything that ever could be, swims the one person you are. This is the place to become that person, to be born again. But it is also the place for God to become, to be conjured up among us in flesh and blood, in the language we use and the ethics we live by. This is the place for God to be born anew. And it’s the same place. As we become, so does God; as God becomes, so do we. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”