The Gospel of John is probably my favorite narrative about Jesus. As Bishop Spong points out, the Jesus of John’s gospel is a Jewish mystic. In John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus speaking more than in any other text. In John’s writing, Jesus identifies himself with I AM imagery.
I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life, way, truth and the true vine
(John 6: 35, 48; 8: 12, 9:5; 8: 58; 10:9 ;10:11; 11:25;14:6; 15:1)
I love John’s word pictures- all but one. As Jesus teaches his disciples about the Divine YHWH, Holy God of the Universe, in John, he uses a “Father” metaphor almost 120 times.
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
Those who love me will keep my command, (to love one another) and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
Twenty years ago I could have heard that scripture reading without the involuntary flinches that now ripple through my body each time God is referenced male. Twenty years ago was before seminary lectures and systematic theology classes and pastoral care classes all of which made me more cognizant to the consequences of masculine language used for God. Twenty years ago I had not given a thought that a male God image could be a spiritual stumbling block for both women and men. Twenty years ago, I was a bit naive.
In a previous church where I served, the choir most often sang of God as “father” or using male pronoun “He.” After awhile there, I asked the director to use more inclusive language in songs. I think he tried to comply, but when he told the choir that they would be changing some of the “His” references to simply “God” to make their anthems more gender neutral, he met some resistance. That should have been my first clue, but my naivety did not set off the warning alarms. The choir director asked if I would come explain to the choir why I wanted gender inclusive language in the hymns and anthems. That should have been my second clue; the gate of the lion’s den swung open, but I cheerfully agreed to talk to them and walked right in. I didn’t give a long lecture or drawn out theological or psychological argument. These were good people, smart people, loving people – I imagined they’d “get it” quickly and easily – like a V8 moment; they would see the opportunity to be sensitive and inclusive. I imagined we would close our conversation that evening with a group hug singing “Kumbaya.” I imagined they would thank me for opening their hearts, minds, and doors. I might as well have imagined a magical unicorn would fly on a rainbow across the soprano section, because that would have been more likely as it turned out. I will spare you the bloody details; it wasn’t pretty. I was surprised that the most vicious, enraged, passionate resistance came from a petite woman in her late 60s, whose clear soprano voice became shrill and angry at the suggestion that patriarchy was being challenged. She got in my face and saying, ‘It says Father in the Bible! That’s what Jesus said! That’s what I say! That’s what I’ll sing!” That’s when I knew there was something more, something critical at stake for her and for all of us.
When she was a little girl she learned in church and she learned it in school and she learned it in home. It shaped her and formed her and made her who she became. She didn’t have the word for it early on – but patriarchy was instilled in her being. She was in general stronger than her brother and just naturally more aggressive, which she learned was really bad. Her brother was a gentle, peaceful boy, which they both learned was really, really bad. When she and her brother played marbles, it was okay if her father was at work and did not see them; but one day they forgot the rule. Mother was content to watch her children play marbles together, but Father saw his daughter was more aggressive and more competitive and better than his son. The boy did not really seem to care who won and was quite willing to give over his marbles at her demand. That’s when her father announced, “Girls do not play with marbles!” That made no sense to the five year old girl. She knew she could play marbles. Not only was she playing marbles, she was winning! Her Father told her to stop. She did not obey. Perhaps she could show him that girls could play marbles. His voice grew louder and louder. Then suddenly the little girl was snatched up into the air. Her father broke a board off the screen door and began to beat her, yelling, “You are just a little girl. When I tell you to do something, I mean you to do it.” The beating did not stop quickly. Father’s rage, his violence filled the house. When he finally put her down, the child was banished to her room alone in the dark. Later, her mother snuck in to soothe her pain, reminding her, “You are just a girl and girls can’t do what boys do.” The story of the whipping was told and retold again and again throughout her life. It hurt just as much each time she heard it. Little girl daughter whipped by big strong Daddy story was a reminder not only to her, but to her mother and to her brother and to any who would hear its telling. Father was the ruler. Father demanded obedience without question or punishment – even to the death – would ensue.
That’s what patriarchy is. It’s political- social – religious – family systems that insists that males are inherently better, dominating, superior to everything and everyone, especially females. It endows males with the right to rule over the weak and to maintain dominance though psychological terrorism and violence. Patriarchy wounds women, and men. What happens when that cultural patriarchal belief system is projected onto God and woven into our religions? When patriarchy is allowed to go unchallenged, we are told that the Bible says, that man was made in God’s image; man – not woman – is the image of God. Woman were made less than, beneath, a fraction of, a spare part, incomplete, weak, and even the temptress of evil. Man was made to dominate and women were made to serve. Patriarchy says man was made god-like, women not so. When we project our male indoctrination onto God, we make God in man’s image and women are deemed inferior, unworthy, unfit for service or leadership to the extent that conversation has taken place as to whether women are even fully human. Even for those who have not experienced the personal violation of a male figure; the cultural lessons have prevailed. Reinforced by church doctrine and a dominate image of God as male, the one in power, the one who demands obedience and inflicts punishment and oppresses rather than the one who liberates and loves all.
I wondered why that 60 year old grown up petite woman objected to my re-visioning God. I realized it went against how she had learned to relate to her own husband and father. It went against all she had taught her own son and daughter. It went against the mold into which she had been pressed. It terrified her to think all she had endured could be wrong.
Using only Father language and male pronouns for God, reinforces patriarchy. For some, it generates an image of God the Father which means only violence and violation. For those who have known only a hard, domineering, absent, or abusive human father, God the Father creates a wall, a barrier, a stumbling block that prevents them from drawing near the holy. That opposes what Jesus (or John) was trying to convey.
John’s writing came together near the end of the first century decades after Jesus of Nazareth had been executed. One might ask how this fledgling Jesus movement of The Way was going to continue after their leader was dead? After those who knew him best died too? We humans have a rather short memory as it turns out. We get excited about a cause, a new teacher, a new practice, but we lose interest if left on our own. We forget what our teacher said. The passion dwindles. The early church began to feel abandoned, orphaned. They developed some abandonment issues.
Jesus of John tells his followers, I will be killed, but don’t worry, you will not be orphaned. Implying that his followers had come to think of him as their Father-figure. The padre of our home church is going to die! We will be like orphans without a father! Jesus redirects people from worshipping him, Jesus of Nazareth – to worshipping the one that Jesus points to – God the Father of us all. Jesus makes God bigger (not smaller by limiting to just a human male gender) but larger by showing God’s Spirit isn’t found only in the person of Jesus, God’s Spirit lives in all of you. Jesus tells them, he is leaving their sight, but they still have each other which means they still have God With Them – Emmanuel lives as a homemaker uniting us all. This Father image that Jesus uses reveals not a distant far off man on a white cloud dominating out of patriarchal violence – the Father image that Jesus uses reveals a RELATIONAL Being that makes all of us brothers and sisters related, interconnected family.
On that day you will know that I am in my God,
and you are in me, and I am in you.
Those who love me will keep my command, (to love one another)
and my God will love you,
and we will come to you and make our home with you.
What happens to those sayings when we open them up with wider language? God becomes something other than an old white guy with a long beard who may love or may fling lightening bolts – or may beat you with a board. God is no longer a man-figure housed behind high pearly security gates or fences of gold, but God is housed within the hearts of all who love. Unbinding God from the smallness of a male persona makes for a much, much bigger God of us all.
If we can reclaim what Jesus was saying and lose our patriarchal notions of Father as Domination, we can find a Personal God of infinite Love that resides within us and unites us. This Universal Personal Loving Parental God makes all races and genders and nations and species part of a single family – where there is no longer Jew and Gentile separated by walls, where we are more than our male or female birth gender, where slave and master share equally. We are not divided into better and less than, but we are all children of the same Divine family – all in the images and vessels of the Holy.
May it be so.