Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Bible on Gender, Marriage, Church

I was planning to preach this long, complicated lecture on Sunday, November 15, 2015, but the acts of terrorism in Paris the day before led me to preach a different sermon instead. Maybe my congregation will be willing to sit through this at a later date.

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:18-25: Ephesians 5:21-33; Matthew 19:4-6

Today I hope to share what I believe the Bible says about the direction we take in living out our identities as male and female; particularly in marriage, and why it matters. I hope, with God’s help, to teach why it is important that the Church, the Body of Christ, faithfully nurtures our relationships as male and female, as God designed them to be lived.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explained that, in order to understand the meaning of our life, and the nature of our relationships as male and female (especially in marriage), we have to go back to the beginning, when God created human life.
Maybe a couple of things need to be explained first.
For one thing, in the Bible, in the very beginning, there is no hint of inequality between male and female.
Even Paul, in the verses we read in Ephesians, does not tell anyone about their own authority. He tells them what they owe to others. Paul says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Being subject to one another comes first and it conditions everything else. Paul tells wives and husbands how to submit to each other, or how to respect each other. He tells wives how to respect their husbands. He tells husbands, how to love their wives sacrificially, without thought to themselves. Such respect and such love leaves no one un-subjected to anyone.
He doesn’t tell us what to expect from others. He tells us what to give to others, and that is what submission is about, as God’s word teaches us. And above all he says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
Another thing to remember is that the name Adam is not (properly considered) a proper name. Originally it was not a personal name at all. Adam is a Hebrew word for person, or human. More literally it is a word that describes human beings as beings from the earth. In fact you could just translate Adam as “the earthling”, in the sense of someone who belongs to the earth.
If you are a female, there is a sense in which you are a female Adam. In Genesis 1:27 we could translate it this way: “So God created “the earthling” in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And, then, God commands them to be fruitful and multiply, but nothing is said about the nature of their relationship with each other in Genesis chapter one.
We are told about their relationship in marriage in the second chapter of Genesis. This builds on our understanding of human nature, and marriage, as a part of God’s creation.
It tells us that part of our essential nature, as God made us, and as God sees us, is that, “it is not good for the earthling to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) It is not good to be alone: at least, not all the time.
The interesting thing is that (at this point in the story) gender and sex are not the most important issues in human relationships. What is needed is “a helper fit, or suitable, for him.” (Genesis 2:18) Help is about assistance, and support, and encouragement.
One thing we need to know, as Christians, is that the church is God’s new creation in Christ. In Christ, and in the Church, God has given us a source of helpers who are supposed to be fit for us and suitable for us, and we are supposed to become fit and suitable for them. It’s a requirement.
God said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.” There are so many ways to think about this. But there is the thought of being suitable for real, basic companionship.
We know that Adam was able to speak and name God’s creatures, but we don’t actually hear Adam speak until he meets the woman, and then he practically sings! What he says when he meets the woman is true Hebrew poetry. It is the first human poem in the Bible.
We have to understand our first opportunity to hear Adam speak. Speaking is one of the essential parts of human companionship in terms of the help we need. A suitable helper is a being who can hear us when we speak, and who can speak to us; or even be silent beside us with an eloquent silence (a silence that says something). A suitable helper is someone who can think with us, feel with us, and work alongside us. At first the Adam didn’t know he needed this.
The Lord gave the Adam a growing experience of himself and what kind of helper he needed. What kind of helper would fit the Adam? To help the Adam start thinking about this we are told that God made a circus parade for the earthling: rabbits, cougars, deer, bears, sparrows, quail, monkeys, sheep and cattle, and maybe even platypuses, even though they don’t do much. And who knows what else?
Adam needed companionship. But God didn’t ask, “Are you a cat person, or a dog person?”
God knew the kind of helper Adam needed, but there is no way of telling if Adam was even aware yet; or even understood his need to not be alone; let alone anything more than that. In the Hebrew version of this part of the history, the Hebrew word for man never actually occurs. It only calls him “the Adam”.
The Adam named each animal that God brought to him. The ability to give them names meant that the Adam had the ability to understand the nature and purpose of each creature. But he gave none of them the name “Suitable Helper.”
The scriptures tell us that the suitable helper was a gift from God; and that God had a definite plan and design for this helper. The story tells us that God took part of the earthling’s side to make that helper. The old eighteenth century commentator Matthew Henry says, “Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be loved.”
The earthling, the Adam, had the ability to see the nature and purpose of God’s creations. So the Adam looked at the woman and said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” And this is the very first time the Hebrew word for man actually occurs in the Bible. Man, as a concept, doesn’t exist before that. In Hebrew, the word for man is “ish” and the word for woman is “ishah”: “ish and “ishah”.
Now, in one sense, from the sound of it, it seems as if ish and ishah are just masculine and feminine versions of the same thing. If this were the only fact in the matter, one might say that males and females were simply interchangeable. But that is not how the language of Genesis works, it is not how Hebrew works. It is not what the message is saying. Males and females, in marriage, are not simply different versions of the same thing.
For instance: the earthling’s name was Adam. Adam is a masculine Hebrew word. The feminine version of Adam is Adamah (Adam and Adamah, as in ish and ishah”. But Adamah (the feminine form of “Adam”) doesn’t mean female or woman. Adamah means earth, and Adam means earthling. Earth and earthling share a relationship, but they are nothing alike.
The earth is a place where an earthling can get lost. The earth is a thing of which an earthling might barely scratch the surface. Men and women are especially like that to each other.
In the language of Genesis, the relationship between male and female is that kind of relationship. Marriage is meant to be that kind of relationship; to join two completely different categories.
In Hebrew, there is a singular word for a righteous person that is masculine but is applicable to both males and females.
(Don’t read this note out loud: a careful study can find examples in many places, for instance, in Psalm 5:12 and Psalm 37:16.)
Righteous (as it applies to both men and women) is the masculine version of the thing that is called righteousness (in its feminine form). Yet there is a difference between a righteous person and righteousness itself.
Isn’t righteousness, in itself, a much bigger thing than any one righteous person can ever be? And yet, what would righteousness (the feminine) mean, if no one was righteous (the masculine)? And a righteous person does not relate to righteousness the same way as righteousness relates to a righteous person. And so they belong to each other (the feminine and the masculine), but they are not the same. They belong to each other, but they are two entirely different categories of things.
Righteous men and women seek to live within the realm of righteousness. Righteousness is a whole wonderful world; a Promised Land to any man or woman who dreams of being righteous.
Male and female, man and woman, are a pair like that.
In the creation, marriage was designed not only to unite individuals, but to unite different ways of being.
Men and women are, in some essential ways, two entirely different categories of things. They have significantly different anatomies that affect how they experience life. Their bodies have different rhythms and calendars.
No two men are alike. No two women are alike. A man and a woman can have more in common between them than they have with the other members of their same sex, or they can have less in common. But men and women are, in some sense, different categories, by God’s design.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians talked about “a great mystery”. Paul compares the relationship between a husband and wife with the relationship between Jesus and the Church; which is the body of Christ, and also his spouse. The mystery is both the relationship between Christ and his Church and the way in which a good marriage (between a man and a woman) represents the story of Christ and his Church.
They are nothing alike. There is never any question of which one is which. They are completely different categories. Yet they belong to each other. They serve each other in every way. They help and bless each other in everything.
A mystery, in the ancient world, was not a problem to be solved, or a puzzle to be figured out. A mystery was the story of a saving truth that you could not know unless it was revealed to you. In that ancient world of the Ephesians, a mystery was always acted out (or lived out), as if it were a pageant or a play. For Paul, a man and woman in marriage were actors in the pageant of the story of Christ and his Church, playing distinct parts.
Paul took his notion of this salvation pageant from the prophets in the Old Testament. Israel was sometimes described as the bride of the Lord, taken from Egypt, planted in the wilderness, or planted in a garden. Or Israel was a bride rescued from a life of prostitution. Solomon, Hosea, and others wrote about this pageant in different ways.
Christ, dying on the cross and rising from the dead, is the drama of God’s saving story. The story of the cross and the resurrection is the mystery of God’s salvation; winning for himself a human bride (which is us, the Church). It is the drama of God joining to himself something entirely different from himself in love.
In the cross and the resurrection God and we are joined in one. God and we are nothing at all alike, but we are joined in one, in a mysterious sort of marriage.
In human marriage, man and woman (on so many levels nothing alike) are joined in one. Our anatomical sexual identity is part of the costume that makes it absolutely clear how different we are from each other in this pageant. This adds to the drama that Paul calls the mystery of oneness.
Two men, or two women, together, would not bridge the distance, and would not enact this drama. They would not be radical enough. The creation itself is a radical thing because God is a radical.
Two men, or two women, would only be a half measure toward what God wants. But God never goes in for half measures when he calls us to do anything. God forbids half measures because they create confusion about what he wants and what he calls us to.
The joining of two people of the same sex would be the joining of two individuals, but God wants a place called marriage that will be a new creation in the sense that it is a recreation of the whole human race in two people together, in one single couple. A man with another man cannot represent the whole human race, nor can a woman with another woman.
God wants each marriage to be a Garden of Eden to the best of its ability, and a new human race. Marriage acts out this drama.
The marriage of a man and woman is what made the human race possible. It is what makes life possible. God wants human beings to have a place, called marriage, where they re-enact the creation, where the human race began and where all human life comes from. Children with a father and mother experience the whole human race in miniature and get some idea of how the two halves of the human race fit together.
Anything any less than this can be given another name (if someone wishes to do so); but anything less than this is not marriage as it is shown to us, by God, at the beginning of the human race in the Garden of Eden. Anything less does not enact the mystery of our creation, or the mystery of our salvation.
Anything less is not quite essential enough. But a man and a woman coming together is an essential. And marriage celebrates that.
In the creation stories, it is not clear that Adam really understood what he lacked. God gave Adam something that Adam was not wise enough to ask for, or even to understand.
We need to understand that marriage must be like this. But God knew how to give Adam something better than he could anticipate. This is why we hear the joy in Adam’s voice when he suddenly discovered the woman.
We need to trust that God knows how to give gifts to his people that are better than they know how to ask. And we want the Church, the new creation, to be a place where God gives those gifts to people; because we want to be the people of the Gospel, the people of the good news.
When men and women do not find each other, then Christ and the Church become their marriage mystery. Our relationships with Christ and the church become the drama of our help and our salvation.

As people of the good news, we want the church, the new creation, to guard the real treasures of life. We want to guard marriage and family, and call them by their right names, their proper names; so that new generations can understand what marriage and family mean, and find their way into the blessings for which God has designed human life.

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