Saturday, 30 March 2013

Easter Resurrection - more than just for humanity!

Our Easter celebrations begin as we watch with Mary Magdalene the risen Christ walking in the garden.  But for me this year I've begun to wonder just how far out the ripples of the resurrection go...


Romans 8:18-25
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Resurrecting all life?
The resurrection of Christ changed how we relate to God forever. No longer do we have to live with the idea of a distant, transcendent sky-God, but through Jesus, God, the Almighty Power, is revealed as an intimate parent, present in every part of life. It means that we are able to be in an everlasting relationship which begins in this life, on this planet, but which will find it’s true and full expression on the other side of death’s veil. Or to put it another way, the closeness to God which we are able to grow into in this life is an echo of what is to come. This is just the beginning. But the writings of St. Paul in this part of his letter to the church in Rome tell us that something even greater than we had imagined is in the process of taking place, that the effects of the death and resurrection of Jesus are rippling out to have an effect on all life on this planet.

In order to try and explain what I mean I’m going to show you a painting that a friend of mine, Ruth Calder-Murphy, has done. This is called Resurrection, and I have put a link to her web page if you want to obtain a copy, and indeed to look at some more of her work.

Have a good look at this first in the context of that reading from Romans.  See what you see in it before you continue.....


Now let me tell you something about the universe. It’s not good news I’m afraid, but it’s this: the universe is running down. Slowly but surely it is becoming more disordered. It will last for a good long while, and we certainly don’t need to worry in our lifetimes, but the universe, just like us, is subject to aging. And as it gets older so it becomes more uniformly cold.  Stars burn their nuclear fuels, fusing hydrogen and helium into ever heavier atoms until they can fuse no more, at which point the star runs out of power and dies in a cataclysmic explosion. There is only a finite amount of nuclear fuel in the universe. And just as we can only burn fossil fuels for a finite time, and eventually all the planet’s reserves will be used up, so it is with the universe; there is only so much fuel. Eventually it will all be used up and it will cool down to a black absolute zero.  If we were to use St. Paul’s language, we might call this the ‘bondage to decay’. We feel this bondage to decay in our own bones as we get older. I ache now in places that never used to ache, and where I used to be able to run for three quarters of an hour, now I feel lucky if I can manage twenty five minutes. But that’s only my body, where as St. Paul might have put it, I groan inwardly awaiting its redemption.

In my spirit, though, I feel a rising hope, a sense of joy and expectation for what is not yet seen. I believe in the resurrection! And that means that heaven is not for me an image of fluffy white clouds and soft focus imagery, but instead of being more alive than I am now. The pictures the Gospel writers paint of Jesus after the resurrection are of a man who is more alive and more vital than he was before his death.  And that is what I believe is offered to us. He is referred to by St. Paul as the first fruits of the resurrection which he offers to us all. Of course I can’t see this yet, and St. Paul says exactly that, ‘Who hopes for what is seen?’ But he also talks about the redemption of our bodies, that this ageing physicality which I struggle with will find a new beginning. Come the resurrection I will be young again, for all time.  That’s what Jesus was like, and that’s what he promises us. But St. Paul makes it clear in this passage that it’s not just us that this resurrection applies to.

This is what St Paul was getting at, and we feel it in ourselves. The world, in all its glorious beauty, also has a cruelty about it and sometimes we feel a deep sadness when we watch one animal prey on another, or the death and destruction that follows an earthquake and tsunami. Those of us with a scientific background know that this is how life has to be for there to be growth and evolution, but as I’ve already said, that will only go so far, because ultimately all life ceases.  But St. Paul believes that the spirit of creation (however you wish to understand that) looks at us, at humanity, in eager longing for our resurrection; that creation knows that what we have inherited in Christ, a promise of a resurrection like his, is the first-fruit of what all life on earth can expect, and that in Christ it is not just us who are able to be set free to an eternal hope of resurrection, but that all of creation can look forward to this too.

Now I’m not going to get into the mind-bending philosophies of whether what Christ did on the earth applies to the whole universe or whether the Lord has a greater plan than that, and that the incarnation of the Son of God on earth has been just one of many visits God’s Son has made to his creation. St Paul’s understanding of the universe was much smaller than ours with no concept of other stars and planets, and the possibilities of a universe teeming with life.  But what I do believe is being said in this passage is that the beauty of this planet is also caught up in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that just as we put our hope in the redemption of our bodies at the resurrection, that hope is played out across the whole of life on earth, that all things can hope for resurrection in the new creation, and that through the work of Christ we can look forward to a life the other side of death in which not just we and our loved ones will dwell in God’s presence, but also all of life on this earth will be resurrected.

However, this has implications for us in the here and now. There is a phrase in Christian theology which is this, ‘Already but not yet.’ Our eternal life has already started. In Christ we are already saved, here in this life, although we look forward to the new life we have on the other side of the veil.  And so we treat the people that we already are with respect because we are already in the image of God and we are already being changed. That change will find its completion at our resurrection, but it is already taking place. So what effect does it have on the way we live if I tell you that it’s not just us but the whole of this planet which will be resurrected through Christ?  How does it affect our theology and the way we live if God values all of creation so much that it will all be resurrected through his Son? Surely that should raise the value of creation in our own eyes? Surely that should have an effect on how we nurture the other lives with which we share this space? Surely it should make us think hard about our consumer habits?

When we make our consumer purchases, is it because we need something or is it for the social status it conveys? Ultimately if it’s the latter it will always be more costly for the planet, and if God values it so much that he is planning on resurrecting it through Christ as well as us, then shouldn’t that make us stop and think about what we’re buying?

So look again at the picture.

The joy of art like this is that there is so much to see in it. In fact it feels to me like a prophetic painting, revealing hope in a multitude of ways. For me I see the resurrected Christ, vital, dynamic, more full of life than our normal pre-resurrection human bodies can cope with. From his face shines a warming glow as he stands with his arms outstretched across the day and the night, drawing all things together into his resurrection. There is almost a sense of life looking in eager and unexpected hope at the resurrected Lord and saying, ‘For me? I can come too?’

When I look at this picture I see it as full of hope that the resurrection for which we yearn is also yearned for by all life, and the resurrection which we are offered in Christ is also offered to all life. The events of the death and resurrection of Christ are more far reaching and glorious than perhaps we had ever considered.

In the midst of a spring which seems locked into the sleep of winter, this painting and the truth it contains is a cause of celebration. The weather conditions that we share at the moment speak straight into this theology. We hope and yearn for the rising sun to bring warmth and spring flowers to the earth. We yearn for the resurrection of spring in a frozen landscape.  And that echoes St Paul's belief that all creation yearns to follow us into the risen life of Christ. That is a hope which God promises to fulfil.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

For more or Ruth Calder Murphy's work, have a look at her pages,


Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday : He came back

There are so many different understandings of Christ's death as a sacrifice.  Some of them even go so far as to suggest he was being punished in our place, which is a completely incomprehensible understanding of sacrifice.  But today, on Good Friday, I want to focus on something far more simple: his death as our hope.
As we imagine Christ dying, if we are to take this seriously as an act of sacrifice, we have to ask the question, ‘What is dying?’ No family is untouched by death. Yet so often all the church offers is a shoulder to cry on and something so spiritualised that in reality it feels as if it barely really addresses what has happened.  I don’t believe that we can look at the death of Jesus as something isolated. The starting point for understanding his death must be to look at it through the eyes of our own experiences with death. After all, over and over again you will have heard me say that Jesus was fully human and fully God. I've written elsewhere about how his blood was shed to make the new covenant between God and humanity, a covenant that can only be kept because Jesus, as human, keeps it for us. So we are happy to declare that Jesus was human, but then rather too often we go on to spiritualise everything that happened, ignoring the brutality of the fact that Jesus died.

Jesus died.

Jesus stopped breathing. His heart ceased to beat. He died. Really and truly died. Let’s for once not spiritualise it, because if it is going to have any meaning for us as a sacrifice then we need to get our heads around the reality of death.

So what is death? Do you ever wonder whether other creatures think about it like we do? When the gazelle spots the lion at the last moment and leaps off at the fastest rate its adrenaline pumped muscles can manage, does it contemplate its own cessation? Do Orangutans sit in their nests at night pondering their demise? Or is it just humans? Are we the only ones who fear whether or not we will survive death?

One of the difficulties we have to struggle with is that there is a branch of theology which suggests that we should see death as a punishment. It is widely felt that the story of Adam and Eve and their fall into sin means that if there had been no sin, then they wouldn’t have died. This is based on a reading of Genesis 2 where God tells Adam that if he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then he will die.  But when they do eat of that tree, they don’t die. In fact God expels them from the garden in order to stop them from eating of the tree of life, which would mean they would live forever, remaining in that state of being fallen from grace with no way back.  We need to recognise, deep down, that this story is a metaphor; it’s not factual and it’s not even internally consistent. But it is a very early story, predating the seven day creation story. Some people think that it may even have been written around some kind of internal race memory of a simpler time when humans lived off the land easily without having to toil.  It’s possible that it may be more to do with the shift from being hunter-gatherers, living in harmony with nature, to being an agricultural and city society that had to work hard to make the land bear fruit, with a recognition that somehow this was second best.

So I’d like us to be set free from thinking of death as a punishment. I don’t believe that’s what we find in Genesis. Therefore I need to say something which is obvious but about which we rarely stop to think.

Death has been a part of God’s plan for the animal kingdom all along.

There was no time when all was well and the animals walked happily in the sun, arm in arm with Adam and Eve. It’s a story, perhaps rooted in a wished for simpler existence, that explains why life is hard work.  But it doesn’t explain why we die. We die because, as Rob Bell puts it, ‘Death is the engine of life.’ Without death the planetary eco-system would have crashed long before mammals took over from dinosaurs. We die because that is the natural order of things that God has always intended. Without death there is no new generation, no new ideas, no possibility of evolution and growth. Death is a necessity. You, me, we all need to die.  But unless we’re in an awful lot of pain, either physical, spiritual or mental, we really don’t want to die do we. By the law of averages I’m probably past the halfway point in my life now. For some of you, you have already had a very close brush with death, and maybe more than once. Yet you’re still going to die, and so am I. So if death isn’t a punishment, just part of the natural order, what was accomplished by Jesus dying?

To answer that question I think we have to turn to the opposite of death, which is of course life. Jesus said, in John’s Gospel, that he came in order that we would have life, and have it in all its fullness. Everything that he said and did was so that those who wanted to follow him would receive life. And ultimately that is what his death accomplished, quite simply because, and putting all the theology aside...

...he came back.

And what’s more, looking ahead to Sunday morning, when he came back he was more alive than he had been before, because after his resurrection he wasn’t simply a human like us, he was a resurrected person. He could appear inside locked rooms. He could eat and drink. He was solid and yet somehow he was more. And in him the promise is that death is not the end. He sacrificed his life to show us this.

For those of us who are bereaved and lonely; for those of us who wake up and the bed is too large; for those of us who so long to get on the phone and say, ‘Hiya, how’s the day panning out for you? How’s my nephew?’; for those who just simply want one more hug; for those of us who know that our time on this planet is nearly complete, the death of Christ in all its gory detail says this simple truth:

Death is no longer final.

He came back.

Jesus could not have been more dead. The Romans were experts at enacting punishment. He was so weakened by the flogging that he couldn’t even carry his own crosspiece. There was no escaping from a sealed tomb and somehow getting well again - that’s a ridiculous idea by the uninformed. Jesus died. But God the Father didn’t let him stay that way.

He came back.

Jesus sacrificed his life to give you and I hope, that however much it hurts right now, and however empty the house seems, and however much we want to pick up the phone to someone who can’t answer, and however hollow this ache is that you feel, or however bad the night terrors are that you have to face at your own decline: death is not the end.

He came back.

Sometimes it does indeed feel like angels tread on our dreams, and everyone one of us will have to make the journey through the veil. But it’s not the end. He came back. And he offers that hope to us too.

But it still hurts because we’re only human. It still hurts because we have to wait. It still hurts because the bed is too big, the house is too quiet and the ‘phone does remain unanswered. But we have a God who understands this and who says to us, ‘It’s not just about the hope of being reunited in the future; the sacrifice of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit means I am here with you right now.’

So amidst all the talk of penal substitution etc etc etc, sometimes the death of Christ just means something so much more simple.  Death isn't final.  He came back, more vital and alive than ever.  And our hope is that one day he will do the same for us.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Mission and Motivation

Today is Palm Sunday, and it's one of those days in the Christian calendar when we often sing songs of triumph and lively Hosannas.  Maybe we ought to read what Luke actually said...

So first, two readings
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!
Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
Open to me the gates of righteousness,that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.

Luke 19:28-40
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

'Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Mission and Motivation
It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion surrounding mission. But I think before we even start thinking about mission we need to take a step further back.  That’s because if we’re going to talk about mission then we absolutely have to begin with motivation because we need to be sure we know why we want to communicate our faith. I also want to set aside the idea that mission is just giving money to poor people. That’s not mission per se, that’s simply what we should do because we have resources which they need. Helping others in need should have no strings attached. We help others because that’s why God gave us resources to do so.

So what then is mission? Too often I have seen mission portrayed as basically, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong. You need to believe what I believe or something bad will happen to you when you die, if not before’. Is that really mission? If it is then it’s not exactly effective because experience has shown me that a lot of people turn their back on the Christian faith because of that approach.  It has a degree of certainty about it which brooks no space for question or disagreement, and once we allow that into our practice it’s a very short hop indeed into a fear-based fundamentalism where the leadership says, ‘If you don’t believe what I tell you to believe you are going to hell.’ Or simply, ‘Obey me’. Yet that kind of Christianity is all too common. Why? I think it’s down to motives, the desire to prove to others that you’re right and they’re wrong, and if you have a good salesperson they can get numerical results for you. But it’s wrong.

It arises, I feel, because of a misreading of scripture that allows triumphalism to obscure humility and love, and I find that in some church circles there is a constant battle between these opposing ideals. In fact sometimes it seems to me that triumphalists don’t read the same version of the Gospel as I do. Nowhere is this more plain than in the contrast between the two readings we have today.

The first reading comes from the hymn book of the Jewish temple, the book of Psalms. The context appears to be one of a great military victory having been won against the odds. All glory for this is given to God who helped them defeat the enemy. The motive is one of thanksgiving.  It’s also worth noting that the line, ‘Save us we beseech you, O Lord’ roughly translates as, ‘Hosanna’, the words that are usually found on the lips of those accompanying Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a triumphalism that Luke completely rejects, as I’ll come to in a moment.

But let’s just stay with the Psalm for a moment.

In its context there is nothing wrong with this. If, as it seems, it is celebrating a military victory won against the odds then you can understand them being joyful. And if, as it seems, the victory was won because of the intervention by God, then it is a good thing to ascribe praise to God.  For example in the last world war people often talked about the miracle of Dunkirk, that the sea was so flat calm for so long that it allowed so many soldiers to be rescued. In that instance many people gave thanks to God for what they perceived to be a miracle, and one which helped the eventual defeat of an evil military power.  So yes, in its context there is no problem with the Psalm. The issue I have is when that is then spiritualised so that the sentiment can be used triumphalistically in the context of the Gospel of Christ. Then it becomes a weapon against those we perceive to disagree with us, which in turn creates a spiritual blindfold that stops us from seeing people who should be being loved.

Triumphalism arises from having the wrong motives so that instead of seeing people who God loves, all we see are faceless targets who we try to get to agree with us so that they can fill our pews.

But we don’t see a triumphant entry when we look at Luke’s account. Usually our minds are filled with images of a huge crowd of people waving palm branches and shouting ‘Hosanna in the Highest’. It’s even called the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Well you will have to put all of that imagery away when you read Luke’s Gospel because he doesn’t record any of it.  No palm branches are being waved and none are being strewn on the ground. No one has come out from Jerusalem to welcome Jesus in with their, ‘Hosanna in the highest’, and Luke makes it plain that it is only the disciples of Jesus who are welcoming him in. It was probably quite a crowd of disciples, not just the twelve apostles, but nevertheless the people making a fuss were the ones who came with Jesus to Jerusalem.  And not only that, but the words that Luke records them shouting out are quite different from what you read in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel. Here there are no cries of ‘Hosanna in the highest’, that uniquely Jewish phrase that we picked out from the psalm. No, instead the disciples shout, ‘Peace in heaven’, and ‘Glory in the highest heaven.’

So what does this mean? Why the difference?

It seems that Luke wants us to understand this event differently from the other Gospel writers. There is no sense of a nationalistic fervour. There is no sense of anyone getting ready to rebel against the state. The palm branches waved by people in the other Gospels suggest that some of those present thought Jesus was in the same mould as the triumphant Maccabean freedom fighters, entering Jerusalem after the uprising against the Seleucids nearly two hundred years earlier. But Luke will have none of that.  And the word, ‘Hosanna’ would have meant little to Luke’s readers because he wasn’t writing for Jews, and he wasn’t writing about anything remotely militaristic, so instead he used the word, ‘Peace’. He wanted his readers to be absolutely clear about the motives behind the actions of Jesus.

So Luke paints a very different emphasis to Mark and Matthew, presumably so that his non-Jewish readers would have no misconceptions of Jesus and his followers acting triumphalistically. He is underlining that Jesus was a peaceful man. And that allows him to explore, with his readers, why such a peaceful man was crucified. And here is the nub of the issue:

Jesus was not a triumphant kind of character.

But he was counted as dangerous because he spoke of a deeply subversive kind of peace where those who were formerly counted as on the outside by the religious leaders were treated as the true insiders of the kingdom of God, and where those who claimed titles for themselves and tried to be seen to be important found themselves at the back of the wrong queue.  Jesus came with a message of love and of justice and of righteousness. Those were his motives and that’s why he was so dangerous to the religious and political powers. They didn’t know what to do with him. Jesus’s message had no hint of triumphalism in it. It was one of freedom from guilt and shame, and of being accepted by God, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done.

And when you set people free, you can’t control them anymore, and political and religious leaders get very nervous about losing control over people.

His motives were the needs of others, both spiritual and material, and there is no space in compassion and humility for triumphalism. There is no need to prove a point about right theology or doctrine. Mission is about reaching out to others because we care. It is about continuing the work of Christ in the same Spirit, of helping set people free from whatever kind of bondage they are in, spiritual, material or physical.  We don’t do that to get them to believe in Jesus; we do it because he did it. If we’re not doing it out of love then we shouldn’t be doing it. When I share my faith and what seems like good news to me, that Christ makes God intimately known under a new covenant, it’s not because I want to get people to agree with me, it’s because they have invited me to do so because we have already become friends without any ulterior motive.

Have a look at this from Philippians 2:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...”

Do nothing from selfish ambition. Look to the interests of others, regardless of what they believe. Be like Jesus. So I wonder where Christian triumphalism comes from. Why do some feel the need to sing songs which sound like battle hymns? Why do we sing, ‘Onward Christian soldiers’? Do we honestly think that Jesus would sing such words? Didn’t he say to Peter, ‘Put away your sword’?

Jesus’s message was deeply subversive because it challenged established power structures, just as it continues to do to this day. So I would have to say that unless we find ourselves wanting to help others, we’re not being Christlike and we’re not capable of meaningful mission. And if we want to be seen to be doing mission, then we’re in the wrong psychospiritual space.

Mission for Christians is about setting people free through Christ. As Jesus put it, ‘I came that they would have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ That’s the freedom which is finding me. But as soon as I find myself being tempted to browbeat someone with that then I shut up, because it ceases to be about freedom.

If I’m not good news then nothing I say will be.
If we need other people to agree with us, then we’d better do some careful thinking as to why. If nothing else it inhibits us from recognising that other people also carry good news, and I know that I personally benefit from listening to, and sometimes being challenged by, the views of others. But if we love people and want to help them purely because that’s what Jesus did, with no ulterior motive, then our motives are more likely to be right and we can simply get on with loving a world that’s hurting.

(Reference: Roots mag. Issue 64. 16.)

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Mothers, God and God the Mother

Buying a card for my mum for this Sunday is always an interesting task.  There are plenty of Mother's Day cards, but there are fewer and fewer Mothering Sunday cards.  She, I think rightly, insists that it is Mothering Sunday - ie it is not just her day, it's a day about mothering, and it's not just mums who mother, so mothering as a whole should be celebrated.

But how about God as mothering...?

So two thoughts for you in this post.  The first is about God the Mother.

The Motherhood of God

Many religions have a sense of God’s feminine side, yet Christianity seems to have moved further and further away from this, and this is despite the many references to God in the feminine such as the second verse in the Bible:
‘...the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters.’
Spirit is a feminine word in the Hebrew language, and brooding is what pregnant mothers-to-be do when they put their hands on their swelling belly, pondering what will become of their child. This, to me, is a beautiful image of God, ready to give birth to the universe. A powerful act of will is being readied for.  A pregnant God is readying her/himself to bring forth creation.

But instead of that picture we focus on God the powerful, God the vengeful, God the King, God the conqueror. Might that perhaps be something to do with all the men who have run the church? What happened to our memories of this from Isaiah 66 where God says:
'As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.'
Over and again, despite the patriarchal influence, God uses images of Godself that are feminine. Jesus says of Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Once, in the wind and rain in Scotland I watched a hen do precisely that as she pulled each of her chicks under her wings which she let down over them to keep them warm and dry in the storm. She put herself in harm’s way deliberately to keep them safe. That’s what good mothers do.

That’s what God wishes to do.

So why do we find it so hard to call God ‘She’? Is it because the Bible, probably all written my men, always calls God ‘He’? Yet it doesn’t, only our translations do. A common word for God in the Old Testament is ‘Elohim’, which is a feminine plural word, used with a masculine singular verb. Odd. But still feminine.

And remember, Spirit, in Hebrew, is a feminine word.

So take a moment to be still, and ask this question:
'Why, God, do I struggle to think of you as a woman, as a mother?'

Maybe it’s because we have got so used to St. Paul and his passionate masculinity. That’s St. Paul who wrote these words to the church in Thessalonika:
“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”  (1 Thess 2:7, 8)
Not so manly after all then.

I wonder, what would church be like if we focussed on the motherhood of God more, and on God’s caring feminine side. I wonder what effect that would have on our disagreements and our church politics.

I wonder what effect it would have on those we discriminate against.

More importantly, I wonder what effect it would have on our relationship with God. Pause for a moment with this well known scripture from Isaiah 40 in your head:
“But those who wait for YHWH (the name of God) will renew their strength.  They will rise on wings like eagles.”
The first image that enters your mind’s eye will no doubt be of a mighty eagle, a majestic, manly sight. But hold on, because that might not be what it means. Angela Boatwright-Spencer explains it like this:
"When baby eagles learn to fly the mother eagle flies beneath them so that when they tire, they land on the mother’s wings rather than on the ground. The mother glides along, carrying them until they regain their strength, then they continue practicing – soaring back into the heavens. It’s an image of God as Mother."
So now, go back to that image in your mind. Where do you wish to soar? What are you waiting to take place in your life? Are you scared to try and fly for fear of falling? God the Mother Eagle wishes to fly beneath you.

God the Mother Eagle.

Dwell on that image, of yourself as a newly fledged eagle. Or if you need shelter right now because you’re hurting, dwell on the image of God the Mother Hen, so wanting to gather you beneath her wings and give you shelter.

God, our Mother. It’s ok. You can call her that.

Our Mother, who art in heaven, and here on earth, and in my next breath, and in the beating of my heart, encouraging me to take the next step, or to glide on to her back, or simply rest in the shelter of her wings.

 Now, in a somewhat different vein, something more specifically about mothers, and what we owe them.  First a couple of readings from the Bible...
1 Samuel 1:20-end
In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’

The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, ‘As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there for ever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.’ Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.’ So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’

She left him there for the Lord.

Luke 2:33-35
And Jesus’ father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

The debt we owe
I’ll never forget, about eleven years ago, going to visit two of our closest friends. They had just had their first child and as I walked into the room the mother was holding her precious new baby daughter. She looked up at me, smiled and said, ‘Look what we made.’ I have rarely seen something more touching and beautiful and those of you who are parents will know that moment of amazement as a completely new creation looks at you for the first time.

But it’s only the beginning.

I’ve also had new parents tell me of the sense of near panic when they leave hospital with their first-born, heading home with the little bundle of joy thinking, ‘But what do we do now?’ Two parents once said to me that they couldn’t believe that the professionals in the hospital were actually going to let them, two complete amateurs, take their baby home!

Now it strikes me that mothers have one of the hardest tasks in the whole world.  Fathers share with them the fun of conceiving a child (I know, it's not always fun, but you get my drift), but it is the mother who has to carry the growing infant within the confines of her body for nine months. It is the mother who has to get used to all her resources being used up by the growing child within who has decided that her bladder makes a good football, and it is the mother who has to go through the pain of childbirth, knowing that her body will struggle ever to return to the shape it once had.

Ideally both parents share the joy of bringing the child up, but it has struck me that it is also often the mother who feels most keenly the time when they finally leave home. When the nest is empty some mothers find it to be may even be a time of mourning, that something special has come to an end.  But there’s something more to this. I wonder how many of you mothers consider that yours is often the truly difficult task of giving your child to the world; not just of setting them free to be themselves but of actively making them a gift of love to a hurting world.

The readings above are about two mothers who did precisely that, and of the great courage it took to do so. The first one was a woman named Hannah who lived hundreds of years before Christ. Hannah was one of two wives that Elkannah had, living in a time when it was permissible for a man to be married to more than one woman at the same time (which in itself is another challenge to those who say that anything other than one man and one woman is a threat to marriage...)

His other wife, Penninah, had lots of sons and daughters and would bully Hannah who seemed unable to conceive, perhaps because Elkannah loved her so very dearly. So Hannah was distraught and would weep in her prayers so hard that a priest once thought she was drunk. But what Hannah did was to pray a special prayer to God, that if God would give her a son then she would set him before the Lord, once he was old enough, and he would serve in the temple.

Sure enough, finally after many years of childlessness Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son whom she named Samuel. In fact after Samuel she went on to have three more sons and two daughters. But it is Samuel who is most important to our tale. God had answered her prayer and so she kept her side of the promise, and when Samuel was old enough she took him to the temple and gave him into God’ service.  Samuel grew in wisdom, insight and prayer, becoming a trusted prophet for the Lord to all Israel to whom God would speak. Samuel was eventually entrusted by God to choose not only the first king of Israel, Saul, but also the second and greatest king, King David. And it was from King David’s line that we eventually reach Jesus and the second mother in our story.  But remember this. All of this happened so that when the time was right Hannah gave her son into God’s hands to serve. If she hadn’t done so then history could have been very different. She honoured her promise and did one of the hardest things a mother has to do; give her child as a gift to the world.

Let’s turn then to the second mother in the story, and this time it is Mary the mother of Jesus. The short passage from Luke’s Gospel picks up the story when Jesus is still a newborn baby and Mary and Joseph take Jesus to present him before the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem, the place where Samuel had once served, though now rebuilt and a lot larger.  So Mary comes to offer Jesus before God and is greeted by a very old man named Simeon who immediately recognises Jesus as being the one sent from God to save us. He takes Jesus up in his arms and thanks God for allowing him to live long enough to see this day. And then he says those rather scary words to his mother, Mary:
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Jesus changed the course of human history. But at some point Mary, even knowing what she did about who she was, had to relinquish her son and give him as a gift to the world. In so doing she, just like Hannah, showed the way for all mothers, and it’s a hard path to tread because at some point, if your children are to reach their full potential, and if the world is to benefit from all the time and effort you have put into them, then you have to give them away.

Every one of us has the potential to be a gift to the world. Every one of us can make a difference, but for us to be able to do so requires that our mothers do an exceedingly hard thing... give us into the world and let go.

So I for one would like to thank my mother for doing that for me, and I’d like to thank all the mothers of those I know who have achieved such wonderful things in their lives because their mothers prepared them and then gave them as gifts to a world that needs them. Thank you.

Now there’s just one more thing to say. Hopefully by now you will have become used to my reference to the importance of recognising the motherhood of God. Well there is an element of what I have said present here too. God nurtures us like a mother, teaching us, encouraging us, comforting us and being the one who holds us when no one else understands.  But some day, sooner or later, God gives each of us as a gift to the world. God never stops holding, growing and nurturing us, but likewise we are not meant to be umbilically attached to the safe secure stable life that we may have become used to. Each person who believes, who follows the ways of God, needs to be ready and willing to be given by God as a gift into the world, ready to offer themselves wherever they are given.

This is God’s calling, to give us as God’s hands, feet, lips and love for the world. Our response is to be willing to be given. Are we? God as a mother gives us as her children to a world that needs loving. Will we go, or will we stay at home with her where it’s comfortable?