In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul says: “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” This verse is one where some knowledge of the Greek language is helpful. When Paul says that “every family… is named” from “the Father,” its helpful to know that the Greek word for “family” is patria, which is derived from the Greek word for “Father,”patera.
This verse touches on the issue of sex and gender, which is a lively one in our contemporary culture, as well as in the Episcopal Church, as evidenced by several controversial resolutions from the recently-concluded General Convention, which deconstructed the standard understandings of gender and sex. In particular, there were two such resolutions, which mandated that otherwise qualified transsexuals be ordained priests and bishops, and be allowed to serve in lay-leadership roles within the Church – roles like Senior Warden or Sunday School Teacher.
I don’t mean to rail against the Episcopal Church. I have been an Episcopalian all my life, and have been among the loyal dissent from quite a few of the Episcopal Church’s official positions on important questions ever since I have been aware of those positions. Some have asked me why I remain an Episcopalian at all. A full answer to that question is beyond the scope of what I want to say today. Suffice it to say that my attitude toward the Episcopal Church is like the attitude one might have toward the home where one grew up – even though it may have become somewhat derelict over the years, or even though it may have had design flaws from the beginning. As the Psalmist said about Jerusalem after the city had been destroyed by invaders: “I love her very rubble, and am moved to pity even for her dust.”
But to return to the presenting question of gender and sexuality: the teaching of Scripture, which has been faithfully perpetuated by the Church for two thousand years, is subtle and considered; and if we are to revise it, it is important that we first try to understand it. It is unfortunate, and really sort of astonishing, that this has never obviously been done.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul says, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father – before the patera – from whom every family – every patria – in heaven and on earth is named.” One of the difficulties with respect to sex and gender that many have with the Scripture is with the masculine language that it consistently uses for God throughout. When I was in seminary, there was a great effort to expunge this kind of language for God from Scripture readings and from official prayers in chapel services. So the word “God” would be used where the masculine pronoun “him” had been written. God’s “Kingdom” was referred to as “God’s reign,” “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” were renamed “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,” and so on. All so as to avoid using “gendered” words for God – words like “Father,” “Son,” “King,” or “Him.”
As near as I can understand it, these kinds of revisions are outgrowths of a discomfiture with the implication that God is like these various gendered human categories – that he is “like a father,” that he is “like a king,” and so on – and that he is therefore unlike a mother or like a queen. In short there is considerable unease with the implication that God is like men and that he is unlike women, and that women are therefore sort of second-class citizens in his kingdom – excuse me, in “God’s Reign.”
Let me first say that the derivation of this conclusion from the teaching of Scripture manifests a misunderstanding of what we might call the “direction of the analogy” when we call God “Father,” or “King,” or whatever else. To see what I mean, we can turn again to what Paul says in today’s epistle reading: every family in heaven and on earth – in other words every family, every patria, that is a part of the order of creation – is named “from” God the Father, from God the patera. And not the other way around. In other words, Scripture is NOT saying that we can learn something about human paternity by understanding God, but rather that a right understanding of human paternity discloses something about the nature of God – who is in himself, as Christian theology has always insisted, ultimately beyond the circumscription of any predicate; ultimately, that is, totally transcendent and therefore beyond our ability to talk about or to understand him.
God is not a man and he is not a woman. Human beings are men and women. And human men and human women are the analogy, the type of which God is the archetype. Medieval theologians called this state of affairs the analogiam entis – the analogy of being – meaning that existence itself, along with its many facets, are a fundamental instance of God’s self-disclosure. And with respect to sex and gender, we see this analogy, and its direction, in the story of creation from Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” (Genesis 1.27). So man himself, and maleness and femaleness, and the differentiation and complimentarity of men and women in virtue of their sex, is all a part of the story of who God is and what he is like. It is all an “image” and a “likeness” of him; while he is himself neither an image nor a likeness of anything.
This “analogy of being” is elaborated in the story of marriage, which has always been a thoroughly gendered story. When the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about marriage, Jesus quoted Genesis to them, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” There, in a nutshell, is the story of marriage, with its thorough going reference to gender categories, to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, men and women. And as Paul writes two chapters after today’s epistle reading, this story of marriage is analogously a story of God’s love for us – Jesus is the Son who leaves his Father in heaven, and leaves his mother on earth, and is united to human nature as to a bride, becoming one flesh with her, so that God and man are no longer two, but one flesh in the person of Jesus – a union that is consummated on the cross, and from which we are (re)born through baptism, thereby becoming children of God.
Marriage, with its elaborate reference to maleness and femaleness, is the story that God has given us in order to help us to understand THE most important thing: how and how much he loves us. So when those gender categories are deconstructed or confused, as they seem to be in the case of the new embrace and celebration of transgenderism, that story is at least significantly changed, if not altogether lost in translation. And our whole raison d’etre as Christians is to tell this very story, to proclaim to a world of people enslaved to sin and death that they are loved boundlessly and unconditionally by God, on account of which God’s own Son came down from heaven and united himself to our broken nature, refusing to let us go, even though it cost him his life.
“For THIS reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.