Preached 14 March 2010 at Bolton St James. Bradford.
Isaiah 66:7-14; Galatians 4:21-31
Anyone heard of St Cyprian? Well he was the bishop of Carthage in North Africa in around 250 AD; and he is really famous for just one thing. Anyone know what it is? It is for saying this: “You can’t have God for your Father if you don’t have the Church for your Mother.” He actually said it in rather fine Latin, but that’s the gist of it. And I wonder whether you agree with him?
I don’t know about you but as a good Protestant I get a bit twitchy when people start talking about Mother Church. It all sounds a bit Catholic-y. But as I started thinking about this service tonight and what I should talk about, I found myself drawn to that passage in Isaiah that we had as our first reading; and it led me to ask a number of questions about Mother Church and to try to find some sound, Biblical answers.
Is the church really, in some sense, my mother? Must it be, if I’m a real Christian? And if it is, what does it mean for the church to be my mother; and what bearing does it have on my life … and the life of St James’ and St Cuthbert’s?
That passage from Isaiah 66 was God’s comment on what had just happened in Jerusalem. In 587 BC, at the time of the exile, Jerusalem had been destroyed and for over a century it had been in ruins; but now, in the space of just two years, Nehemiah, back from Babylon, in the teeth of a lot of opposition, has rebuilt its walls. “So now,” says God, “it’s time to stop lamenting and start rejoicing. The city is being restored and” (here’s the important bit) “it will become a mother to Israel – a place where the returning exiles will find nurture, where they will be comforted, where they will find protection and peace … And it will be that kind of mother to my children,” says God, “because I am the mother behind it. I, as the one who dwells in Jerusalem, am the ultimate source of all the nurture and comfort and protection and peace.
Did you notice in the reading how the language switched from Jerusalem to God himself? “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her, celebrate! And all you who have shed tears over her, join in the happy singing. You newborns can satisfy yourselves at her nurturing breasts. Yes, delight yourselves and drink your fill at her ample bosom.” GOD’s Message: “I’ll pour robust well-being into her like a river, the glory of nations like a river in flood. You’ll nurse at her breasts, nestle in her bosom, and be bounced on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I’LL comfort you. You will be comforted in Jerusalem.” (TM)
Jerusalem is mother because God is mother. Do we have a problem with that? I know from a bit of a debate we had in the Lent Group the other night that some Christians who have read that best-selling novel “The Shack” absolutely love the way that God the Father is depicted there and some really don’t like it all. And while I’m not going to give much away for the sake of those of you who have yet to read it, I will say that part of the problem for those who don’t like the book is that God the Father is very definitely depicted as … well, God the mother.
Feminist rubbish? Unscriptural balderdash? Perhaps not. May I suggest that there’s far more Biblical support for that idea than some of you might think, or might want to think.
Let’s get one thing straight for starters. Whatever else God is, he is not a man. It says so in Numbers 23.19. “God is not a man.” And I think we can take it that he is not a woman either. If God is God it is kind of self-evident that he must be without gender at all. Though we might call him “God the Father”, God the Father is neither a man nor a woman.
And the same must go for the Holy Spirit. Although the Hebrew word for Spirit – ruach – is (interestingly enough) a feminine noun – the Holy Spirit is neither a man nor a woman.
But what about God the Son? Surely he is a man? He must be mustn’t he?
Well, I would want to argue that God the Son who is part of the Trinity from everlasting to everlasting is also neither a man nor a woman. Of course it is true and absolutely central to our faith that, 2000 years ago, as Paul puts it, God the Son, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). But the fact that Jesus has now carried his humanity back into heaven; does not change the other fact that, in his divine nature, he remains neither man nor woman. God is God, without gender.
However, though God is without gender, I do firmly believe that, according to the Scriptures, God in all three persons has both masculine and feminine aspects, held together in perfect balance and harmony. Look at Genesis 1.27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The male and female elements of humanity reflect the male and female aspects of the Godhead. And that is echoed in other Scriptures. In Numbers 11.12, Moses cries out to God in despair at the rebellion of the Israelites: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?” … clearing implying: No – you did, God! You’re their mum!
And then in Deuteronomy 32.18 he tells those same rebellious Israelites: “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” God is both their father and their mother.
And he is a God of compassion. Rawcham – one of the most wonderful words for God’s love in the Old Testament – and here’s the thing. The word rawcham is directly formed from the Hebrew word for womb. The love of God for his children, for us, is womb-love … mother-love as well as father-love. No wonder the Brazilian theologian, Maria Clara Bingemar has written: “A faith in God that is identified only with masculine traits is incompatible with Christian revelation and with the God of love. Why can’t the same God” she says, “who is known and adored by the chosen people as a strong liberator, a dread warrior, and a powerful Lord, also be known as a loving and tender mother?” No reason at all.
So where have we got to? God speaking through Isaiah talks of the Jerusalem that is rising again from her century-old ashes as a mother who will give birth to children, will nurture them, love them, comfort them and protect them … but will do all that just because and only because He himself dwells in Jerusalem and is the mother who with womb-love gives birth to new sons and daughters, nurtures them, comforts them and protects them.
“Well, yes,” you say, “but so what? That was Jerusalem. That’s about God and the Children of Israel, isn’t it? Nothing to do with us.”
Well, I wonder. You see, once Jesus had arrived on planet earth … once “the Word had become flesh and dwelt among us”, and had died, and risen and ascended, the followers of Jesus came to see pretty quickly and pretty clearly that when God was speaking through Isaiah about Jerusalem he was speaking, at least in part, about a different Jerusalem … a new Jerusalem … a Jerusalem that was nothing less than the church that had now come into being and in which God was now dwelling by his Holy Spirit and through which, as a mother, he was giving birth to new sons and daughters, nurturing them, loving them, and protecting them … And this is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Galatians – our second reading.
The Galatians had become Christians by believing in Jesus and receiving by faith the forgiveness and new life that flowed to them from the cross. They had once walked in grace but now they are turning back to law. They are turning back to a religion that is all tied up with the city of Jerusalem that lies some 500 miles to the south, in Palestine.
But Paul is having none of it. “There are two Jerusalems,” he says. “There’s the one down there made of bricks and timber and stone and marble; but there’s another one. One that has no physical substance; no walls, no gates, no temple that you can visit. It’s a spiritual Jerusalem. It’s the church. And you can’t belong to both those Jerusalems. If you are truly Christian you can only belong to one. You can only belong to (and here I quote) “the Jerusalem that is above and is our mother” (Galatians 4:26).
Now don’t misunderstand Paul here. When he talks of the Jerusalem that is “above” he is not speaking of the church triumphant in heaven but of the church of those who now belong to Jesus, the spiritual community with Christ as its head of which Paul counted himself a member and of which all we who belong to Jesus are members too. Ano … kato … up … down. Two important words in the New Testament. Kato … down … below … of the earth. Ano … up … above … of God, spiritual. And here Paul speaks of the ano Jerusalem … the spiritual Jerusalem, the church. And of course you can’t belong to Jesus and not be part of the church. You may choose not to go to a church but you are still part of the church. Which is hopefully what Cyprian was saying when he said “You can’t have God as your Father without having the Church as your Mother”.
But now let’s just pause and notice one vitally important thing. If the church is mother church because the God who dwells in it is mother, then we are mother too. Because we are the church. It’s not “Toys-R-Us” it’s Church-R-Us. We are the church. So often we talk and act as if we are here and the church is over there, independent of us. Well, it’s not. We are the church. Take away me and you and all the other “yous” and there is no church. So what the church is here for, as mother, we are here for. I am here for. You are here for. And in the light of that, let’s spend a few minutes now looking at the motherly character, the motherly function, the motherly purpose of the church … which is another way of saying, let’s look at the motherly calling of you and of me.
First (and it should be pretty obvious, shouldn’t it?) as a mother, the church is here to reproduce; to give birth to more sons and daughters of God. Giving birth is what primarily defines motherhood. And giving birth should define mother church in every place where she is found. Here in Bolton and up the hill in Wrose. In the Book of Acts, one of Luke’s favourite phrases when talking of the young church is of people being “added to their number”. In Acts 5.14 for instance he says that “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” And shouldn’t that be what is happening all the time if the church is truly being mother church in a particular community?
We, perhaps, don’t catch the nuance; but the opening words of our Isaiah reading – “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her, celebrate! And all you who have shed tears over her, join in the happy singing” – is actually a description of the joy in a middle Eastern community when a child is born … Like the joy among the friends and neighbours and relatives of Elizabeth when she gave birth to John the Baptist as recorded by Luke.
For above all things, mother church should be fecund, fruitful, and wildly reproductive; so that the atmosphere when we come together should be one of joyful celebration at all the new-born Christians among us. But is it? Sadly not. Growth is slow, new Christians are few … and why? Is it not because, at least in part, we, as individuals, are weak in witness, shy of lifting Jesus high, reluctant to be different and to get the odd funny look and snide remark? Remember, we are the church. The church will not be reproductive if we are not reproductive. Of course we are not all called to be evangelists, but we are all called to share our faith in whatever way we can and to make the most of every opportunity that God gives us to do so. We, the church, are here to reproduce. I am here to reproduce; and so are you.
And that leads to the second thing the church is here for. As a mother, she is here to nurture. Do you recall what Jesus said in the week he went to the cross? “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! … How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me. (Mat 23:37). Jesus. A mother bird wanting to nurture and protect her chicks. And Jesus is the head of his body the church. The church as mother, as an expression of the motherhood of God, is here to nurture, to cherish, and to protect her young.
If there are new-born Christians among us, they need to be fed if they are to survive. I am told that not long after I was born I nearly died. I refused breast milk and the district nurse would not allow my mum to bottle feed me. No, I must be forced by hunger to breast feed. But I wouldn’t and I was fading away. And I’m told that my Nan, bless her, revived me by giving me sugar lumps soaked in brandy to suck upon. Which probably explains why I’m so fond of my glass of wine today … but there we are.
Babies who don’t feed die or if they don’t die they certainly don’t grow. Peter tells new Christians: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (1 Peter 2.2) But the corollary of that is that mother church must have the spiritual milk that the new-born Christians crave. There is a hunger in new-born Christians but I fear sometimes that they find little to satisfy it in some parts of mother-church. But, again, I want to remind myself and you that nurture is not just the Vicar’s job. It is the job of every one of us as members of mother church. Many years ago now, at a time when I felt that little was happening in St James and I was asking myself what I was doing here, I went down with a virus of some sort and had to go to bed. As I lay there, these words came into my head and I repeated them over and over as I drifted off to sleep: “Fan the ember wherever you see it glowing”.
An hour or so later I woke up briefly and as I repeated those words, some more were added: “Fan the ember wherever you see it glowing, Water the shoot wherever you see it growing”. And all afternoon, waking, sleeping, waking, sleeping, this process carried on until I had this from the Lord:
Fan the ember wherever you see it glowing,
Water the shoot wherever you see it growing,
Clear the stream wherever you see it flowing.
Nurture, cherish, prize …
But never neglect the sowing
It was, I believe, my God-given personal mission statement … and I keep it framed and in our front room so as to keep reminding myself of what I’m in St James for … but in a way it’s what each of us should be in the church for. We are all here to nurture the Christians around us. To feed them, build them up, help them to grow strong. In that Isaiah passage God told the new-born: “You’ll nurse at her breasts, nestle in her bosom, and be bounced on her knees.” And that’s the job description for every one of us as regards the new-born who we find here in mother church.
Finally, as a mother, the church is here to comfort. Now I don’t need to tell you, I think, that “comfort” means more than simply putting an arm round someone and saying “Poor little bunny”. You probably know that “comfort” comes from the Latin verb confortare which means ‘to make strong’. In the Bayeux tapestry which depicts the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, the English commander is shown at the rear of his troops, rather rudely prodding them on with his spear; but the caption reads, “Harold comforting his troops.”
Comfort is more than just drying tears and kissing better a scuffed knee. That’s for children but the comfort in Isaiah is for grown-ups. In every version of Isaiah 66.13 that I have looked at there’s a mis-translation. “As a mother comforts her child, so I’ll comfort you” the different versions say, But the Hebrew word translated “child” is ish which is not child at all but “man”. “As a mother comforts her man …” Nurture for new-borns, yes, but comfort … strengthening and encouragement and consolation for men, for grown-up children of God.
Why, I wonder? Perhaps because we need it most, those of us who are quite old in the faith. We, not the new-born, are the ones who are most prone to disappointment, weariness, disillusionment. But the church, as mother, is here to comfort us. To urge us forward, to revive our hope, to re-enthuse us, to spur us on. And again, we, as members of mother church, are here to do that to each other.
OK. I must draw to a close. Mothers’ Day is almost over – though my mum doesn’t know it. She is almost 92 and has Alzheimer’s so she doesn’t where she is, who she is or who anyone is. That mother – the one I once knew is almost gone. But I have discovered, in preparing this talk, something I suppose I’ve always really known … That I do have another mother too – the church – and she is a mother because in her I meet a God who, through my faith in Jesus, has become not only my father but my mother too. Listen once more to the passage from Isaiah 66 but with the word “church” substituted for “Jerusalem” …
“Rejoice, church, and all who love her, celebrate! And all you who have shed tears over her, join in the happy singing. You newborns can satisfy yourselves at her nurturing breasts. Yes, delight yourselves and drink your fill at her ample bosom.” GOD’s Message: “I’ll pour robust well-being into her like a river, the glory of nations like a river in flood. You’ll nurse at her breasts, nestle in her bosom, and be bounced on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I’ll comfort you. You will be comforted in the church.”
In the church … in you and me, together … that’s where the mother-love of God is to be found. And that’s why we are mother church. Amen