Title: “How Can This Be?”
Texts: Proverbs 8-9, 1 Corinthians 1:24-30, Luke 7:31-35
Date: Oct 30, 2011
Author: Meghan Florian
Since we are in the midst of a sermon series specifically focusing on God and gender, our texts have been chosen to direct us to a particular topic – Jesus, Woman Wisdom. And, I admit, I am simultaneously thrilled and daunted at the prospect of trying to figure out what the heck to say about Jesus, as a feminist. What does Jesus’ embodiment as a man mean – and what doesn’t it mean – for our understanding of God and our relationship to God as embodied creatures?
For feminist theologians, Jesus raises some difficult question – now, eventually he might present us with some answers, too, but let’s resist moving there too quickly. “What God has not assumed, God has not redeemed” the theology goes, and the question in response is this: “Can a male savior save women?” In other words, does Jesus’ masculinity matter? It’s the kind of question that ought to stop you in your tracks. Your answer might be, “Well, of course Jesus saves women too!” but that answer can’t come without careful explantation. Or, your answer might be some variation of a, “No, but…” followed by a narration of the fall and the curse of painful labor via Genesis, and the assertion that women’s salvation is somehow linked to childbirth.
Such articulations already assume a certain essential difference between women and men, in which women are associated with baser, carnal bodily impulses, while men are associated with the intellect. Men are human, unique bearers of the image of God, and for woman to become fully human, she must be stripped of her feminine attributes – she must become “genderless” – but let’s not skirt the implications here: genderless really means “like a man.”
To be man in a patriarchal world has been in many ways to be the one without a gender marker. Isaac’s first sermon in our series hinted at this, I think. Getting beyond gender in Christian history has often translated into getting past our femininity to a supposedly androgynous but actually male norm. Theologically, I have no more interest in that than I do in properly performing femininity in the more contemporary sense. Neither of those binary opposites fits; nor should it have to.
One theologian puts it this way: “Apologetic christian feminist attempts to prove that Jesus was a feminist or ascribe to him androgynous status and to claim that he was the perfect man who integrated masculinity and femininity remain caught up in the androcentric-patriarchal framework of western culture.” More simply put, the question itself assumes the same old power structure. The question, ‘Can a male savior save women?’ assumes a frame of reference in which femininity and masculinity are essential natures. What if what we really need to do is to challenge that very notion?
What if Jesus does this by his very nature as divine-human?
Theologians have been arguing about Jesus for 2000 years or so, even aside from the vital questions our acknowledgement of women’s full humanity bring to the table. It’s no simple task to make sense of God as three-in-one, a union without confusion. “How can this be?” we ask, like Mary. We don’t want it to be the case that Jesus can’t redeem women because he hasn’t assumed their embodied existence, so we set about proving why that isn’t the case, ascribing feminine attributes and so forth. What if, instead, we confront Jesus as the living God? What if, once we have a robust understanding of who God is in Christ, we then learn something about who we are as the image of God, and as the church – Christ’s body for one another?
Looking at our texts for today, we find Jesus identified with Woman Wisdom. This is at the heart of the trinitarian controversies of the early church. It’s not like God creates at the beginning, Jesus is born later on, and when Jesus leaves then we get the spirit at Pentecost, on some sort of historical time-line where God morphs from one person into the other. The Spirit – Woman Wisdom – is present in the beginning, participating in the work of creation, according to Proverbs 8. And, in 1 Corinthians 1:24, Paul tells us that Christ is the Wisdom of God. So, she is with God in the beginning, is God incarnate in Christ. These passages help our minds conceive of a triune, communal, relational God.
We also find here a God who messes with our understanding of gender; Spirit she, Jesus he, the un-namable creator God. But, while it is all well and good to have feminine imagery for God, while it is necessary to re-shape our imaginations from years of hearing Father this and Father that, this leaves us with couple of problems when it comes down to the nitty-gritty question of bodies.
Returning to the question of gender binaries and all of that – ideas which function within social constructions of gender that are not essential to our personhood, we find ourselves trying to show how Christ is both, as if he needs to be in order to save women. We are, after all, still left with Jesus embodied, biologically, as a man. We’re told he was circumcised on the 8th day, and that’s that. Jesus may have been a gender bending fellow, what with his emphasis on peace and meekness and children and hanging out with women all the time. But we’re still left with an essentializing move if we go that route. Jesus performs femininity, thus he redefines what it means to be masculine, and we are to emulate him. And so, Jesus is still the model of the right way of being a man.
An understanding of Christ that stops there leaves much wanting. Perhaps it’s because I grew up being taught that Jesus understands our lives because he lived one, that I can’t just stop at “his masculinity is inessential.” It is. Yet my lived experience is as a woman, and his was as a man – and our bodies matter. It matters when we talk about things like pregnancy, or barrenness, or when we think about breast cancer or street harassment, when we cope with daily realties of being parents, children, spouses. It matters when we consider the reality that statistically 1 in 4 women are sexually or physically assaulted. It matters when it comes to whose body is or isn’t allowed in the pulpit, or whose voice gets to say the words of institution when we celebrate communion together.
So the question stands: Who is Jesus? What did God do in Jesus, by becoming flesh, taking not just one single human body but all of humanity onto this one body, living – and dying – once for all? In this question, we begin to see that Jesus does not simply subvert the system – Jesus obliterates it. He radically disrupts the entire order of things. The words from the Council of Chalcedon that are printed on the front of your bulletin get at a bit of that complexity: “We apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten – in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union.”
Jesus’ body is the body that renders the kinds of binary opposites our imaginations are formed around incoherent. God or human, right? Wrong. Both/and. And our humanity is taken on this both/and being. In Jesus, all people are remade; our personhood is redefined in his. Hence the meaning of our baptism. The impossible possibility is not that a man died for woman, but that one person died for all people; that God humbled Godself, became not just apparently but actually human, without subtracting anything from God’s divinity.
In becoming human, in drawing near to God, why would any of us believe we need to deny or ignore our own human embodied experience? To become Christ like, why would I think that I must shed whatever the heck it means to be a “woman” or a “man”? As each of us, in our unique particularity, experiences those things differently, we know simultaneously that God became human as a particular Jewish man, for human kind universally, not to erase differences but to draw us beyond them. Never less than my embodied human existence, but far, far more than it, as well.
God incarnate, born of spirit and a woman’s body, gives us an identity beyond ourselves, one that we do not construct or perform on our own. Given the reality of transgressive bodies – intersexed bodies, mulatto bodies, and so forth – in Christ we find a disruption of our very notions of purity. Christ is the word that gives birth to the world. It is with a word that God creates in Genesis – and with the Word made flesh, we are recreated, baptized into new life together. When thinking about Christ’s embodied reality, the church is where Christ is embodied in the present. When it comes to the question of the particularity of Jesus’ body, in the church we’re directed toward the particularity of our bodies. When women, and others, serve communion, preach, and so forth, Christ is re-presented for us. Our lives together in Christ embody God in many ways, in many bodies unified into one non-biological family.
Drawing back to Proverbs again, in 9:1-6 we read:
1 Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
2 She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
3 She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
4 “You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
5 “Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
6 Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
Also, Luke 7:34 “…the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Wisdom invites us to her table, to eat of the bread and drink of the cup that does not nullify but rather holds all of our particularities. Gluttons, drunkards, friends of tax collectors and sinners – she has mixed her wine for you, and set a place for you at the table. Lay aside immaturity, and live.