DEBUNKED | "Feminine Jesus"

SERMON TEXT

Good morning everyone, 

My name is Sarah Ngu, I lead a small group here in BK Heights and I’ve been coming here for almost four years now. It’s great to see so many new people here; by the way, if you found Forefront through a website called Church Clarity, I would love to talk to you. I’m one of the cofounders.

How many of you watched the World Cup Finals last Sunday or have been following the US Women’s National Team [slide 1]? It’s been amazing; my younger sister, Rebecca, got me totally hooked on following everything from Twitter to Instagram to Tumblr. One of the interesting conversations on social media was why we call it Women’s World Cup, and we simply call the men’s game: the World Cup. It implies that men are the norm and women are deviation, the alternative.

And when I read that, I started thinking back to my first year in America. My dad was very interested in us learning how to play American sports in order to become American. That meant no soccer, because we play that in Asia, which left football and baseball. And since my parents cared too much about preserving our brain cells so that we could go to Ivy League colleges, that just left baseball.

I was very excited about playing baseball because in school in Malaysia, my favorite game was rounders, which is this weird British version of baseball. And I was quite good at it!

I knew then that softball existed, but I was insistent that I wanted to play baseball. Baseball was what I knew, and I wanted to play it. So my first year in America, I’m 10 years old, and I went to baseball tryouts. I was probably one of the worst players there as I never played baseball before, no one in my family did. When I came up to bat, I stood on home plate, I had no clue where to stand. 

Afterwards, the coaches said: Ok since this is your first time and you’re not so good why don’t you play softball, that’s what girls play. And I took that as a sign that “Oh, because I’m not good, I have to play softball.” Softball seemed like the “easier” version of baseball, and baseball was the standard, the norm. And I wanted to prove I could meet the standard. 

But since I had no choice, I joined the local softball team [slide 2]. One of the first things we learned was how to swing a bat. I saw what everyone was doing and started imitating them, swinging my bat. Then the coach came up to me and said, “Sarah aren’t you left-handed, why don’t you swing your bat left-handed?”  

I said, “Don’t tell me what to do. This is how I want to swing. I can swing right-handed too, it’s totally fine, so I’m going to do this.”

In my head, swinging right-handed was the norm; left-handed was the deviation. And because I could swing right-handed and was good at it, I saw it as a way to prove I could do it. I was just the most stubborn independent conformist person there was. 

When I think about why I made that decision, I start to think to myself, “How many decisions have I made just because I was reacting, because I wanted to prove something to someone or some invisible group of people, likely a group of white men, instead of asking myself what it is I actually wanted to do.” It’s as if the easiest way to get me to do something is to dare me to do it, or to place a hurdle or a challenge in front of me, and I’ll spend all this time trying to figure out how to jump over it instead of being like, “Actually I’m going to turn left. Why am I doing this?”

We are surrounded by these standards, these models, all the time in society that are influenced by all sorts of things like our family, our culture, capitalism, race, gender, sexuality, etc. And the bible has plenty of standards as well, especially when it comes to gender. Perhaps the most explicit passage is from 1 Corinthians 11. Here is Paul writing: 

 … I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husbandis the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ [slide 3].  

So Paul is setting up this hierarchy: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of men, and husbands are the head of their wives. Then he says:

Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved [4]. 

So for some reason Paul is very against men praying with anything covering their head, and is very against women praying with NOTHING covering their head. Why? He continues.

For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflectionof God; but woman is the reflection of man [5]. 

Yeah that makes a lot of sense to me. Checks out. I get it. God is the best, God is the standard. Men are a reflection of God, and women reflection from men. It’s a single vertical continuum from God to men to women. Paul continues in case his point isn’t clear enough: 

Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,because of the angels [6]. 

There are many things to discuss in this passage, and I would say this is probably, hands down, one of the most brutally misogynistic passages in the bible. Let’s start by understand this passage historically first.

Now, in modern, Western society, we tend to believe there are two sexes: female and male. Now, intersex awareness is on the rise, but still most of society holds to what we call the sexual binary. Not only that, the popular belief goes that these two sexes are really different from one another – you know, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, like some sort of battle of the sexes.  

If you grew up in conservative Christianity, you may even have heard the sex binary used to justify why heterosexuality is the best: Men and women are so different only marriage and love can bring them together so they perfectly complete one another like Christ and the Church, and that’s why homosexuality is narcissistic or inverted because you’re basically just loving yourself. 

So the modern view holds that there are two sexes, and that’s the lens through which we try to interpret the bible. But that’s not necessarily how people understood sex back then in Europe. Over the past few decades, classicists and academics have been proposing a theorythat before the 1700’s, people did not believe in two sexes, but just in one sex: Men. And everyone else is just an inferior version of men. 

[So going forward I’m going to be saying the phrase women’s bodies and men’s bodies a lot. I want to be clear here that not all women have what I’ll be referring to as women’s bodies, and not all men have what I’ll be referring to as men’s bodies. I’m using a shorthand, but I want to state clearly that no matter what your body is, if you identify as a woman, you have a woman’s body, does that make sense? Are we good? Ok we’ll continue.]

As I was saying, before roughly the 1700’s, men’s and women’s bodies were seen as basically the same, except women had more imperfections. Their breasts were bigger, their hips were wider, their brains were smaller. It was even believed that women had all the same reproductive organs as men, except they were inside of our bodies. Wombs or vaginas were “inverted, internal” penises; ovaries were testicles but inside of us. And women also had ejaculated sperm during sex but it was less foamy. This is a quote from Galen, a Greek physician and surgeon, in the 2nd AD:

“Turn outward the woman's, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man's, and you will find the same in both in every respect. [7]

Think first, please, of the man's [external genitalia] turned in and extending inward between the rectum and the bladder. If this should happen, the scrotum would necessarily take the place of the uterus with the testes lying outside, next to it on either side. [8]

Fast forward to Renaissance and you have these anatomical paintings that depict how a woman is just a man turned inside out. They would have women’s organs and male organs depicted side by side to show how similar they were to one another.

One of the main reasons why it was thought that men’s and women’s bodies were slightly different was that women had less heat or fire in their bodies, so their bodies couldn’t push out these internal organs. 

In the medieval mind, all matter was composed of four elements: air, fire, earth, water [9]. Think Airbender with less fighting. Air and fire were seen as masculine and earth and water seen as feminine. Sexual differences then were about how much of each element you had in your bodies. The more air and fire you had, the more masculine and perfect you were. The more earth and water you had, the more un-masculine or feminine and imperfect you were. Not only were men hotter, but men were also more rational, stoic and active, and women were more emotional, intuitive, and passive. Thomas Aquinas[10], one of the medieval church fathers, writes for instance on how women are defective and misbegotten babies because the perfect babies are male, and he speculates that perhaps what causes babies to become feminine is the presence of a south wind, which tends to be moist. 

Academics describe this model of sex as the ‘one-sex theory’ [11],the idea that there is a single continuum of sex ordered along the axis from less masculine to more masculine. In the Greco-Roman world, on the top would be elite men who were active and rational; they were the people who penetrated others and responsible for ruling over others, and at the bottom would be women, slaves, children, barbarians who were seen as passive and soft; they were penetrated, and were to submit to those who were more rational.

 

This may seem pretty oppressive, but one of the nice things about it is it has a more fluid understanding of gender. Because each person had varying elements of air, water, earth, and fire in their bodies, the line between masculine and feminine could be blurred a bit. The difference between man and woman was a difference in degree, not kind, so it was totally normal and explainable to have womanly men or manly women [12].

 

Once you grasp this one-sex model, you can see a lot of biblical passages in new light. 

 

So when Paul writes that man is the reflection of God, and woman is the reflection of man, you can see that continuum at work. God: Man: Woman, in order of decreasing perfection but still along the same axis. 

 

When Augustine[13] is commentating on this passage in 1 Corinthians about how women have to cover their heads and men have to leave their heads bare, he says that women have to cover their heads to indicate that their reason must be focused on temporal, earthly things, whereas men have to expose their heads because that is their reason, or the image of God, which is meant to behold eternal things. 

 

The one-sex theory also sheds new light on Genesis 2[14]. Eve is not created just out of dust and God’s breath like Adam was, but she is created from Adam’s rib. She is an extension of Adam who comes first. And when Adam sees Eve for the first time, he says, “Bone of mybone, flesh of myflesh.” You can interpret that many ways, but one way to do so is that Adam is saying, “Ah, this is a version of me.” 

 

This one-sex model clearly did not die in the late middle ages; we still see many remnants of it today, despite the prevalence of the two-sex theory. I gave the example of “World Cup” vs, “Women’s World Cup,” where we treat men as the standard, and women as a version of that. Think also about how when we say “you guys” we expect people to understand it refers to men and women, or how when translations of the Bible talk about how “God came to save men,” we interpret ‘men’ as “people” – because, once again, ‘men’ stand-in for everyone else. They are the default, and the rest of us are just subsumed into them. 

 

I want to return to 1 Corinthians 11, and this time examine the two verses that follow from the passage I previously read.

 

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. [15]

 

So you see that Paul makes a different turn here. He says, “nevertheless,” and then instead of painting the picture of a vertical continuum we’ve been used to, he paints a circle. He says well, women and men are interdependent; men are birthed from women, and women are made from men. Both are responsible for the other’s existence. And in the middle of this circle is the true Creator: God. 

 

This is a kind of beautiful image, but it’s hard to make the case that it balances out everything he just said before. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, writes in his book, Things Hidden in Scripture,that texts like this are “texts in travail” [16].Travail means a painful, laborious effort. So this is a text that is laboriously struggling with the cultural norms of its day, and is reaching towards something that is true and divine and good. It’s a text that may feel to us that it’s taking three steps back just to take one step forward. So much of the bible is a text in travail. 

 

So you see that while Paul in 1 Cor 11 is very much recapitulating the norms of his day, he does go a step further than what is normal.

 

You can think of it this way: Paul is moving from Point A to Point B [17]. One way to read this is to say, Okay so we’re following the bible, which means we cannot go any further than Point B. And that’s how you get websites like “headcoveringmovement.com” which are trying to bring back head covering for women. The other way to read this is to not focus on the line, but the slope[18]. The rise over run, the rate of change that Paul is introducing. And if we focus on the slope, maybe we can keep extending the line [19],following that slope in a way that makes sense for where we are today, where we have better science, better understanding that women can think abstract thoughts, and so on.

 

What is inspiring Paul to make this change?

 

Perhaps it’s about the number of women leaders in the early church, which is perhaps related to how prominently women figure in Jesus’ ministry.

 

Now to be clear Jesus never said: Women and men, y’all equal. All his disciples were men. Jesus had, it seems, a masculine body. But I’d argue he did introduce a pretty fundamental shift in the Greco-Roman understanding of gender.

 

As a reminder, the Greco-Roman world was hyper-masculine. Men were supposed to be super self-controlled and in charge. It was totally okay to have sex with another man as long as you were penetrating him; if you were penetrated, you were not a man. You had to be either a slave, servant or non-Roman. To be Roman was to be more manly than barbarian nations, who were conquered by the Romans, aka, penetrated by them.

 

Photo of sculptural relief [20]

 

This is a sculptural reliefdepicting a Roman soldier penetrating a woman from behind. The soldier’s name is Claudius, and the woman is Britannia. Britannia refers to what we now refer to as United Kingdom (Britain), and Claudius is the Roman Emperor who conquered Britannia in AD 43. This relief was made approximately around 45AD.

 

So as reminder, elite men are on top, women, children, slaves, servants, and non-Romans are at the bottom [21]Men at the top, un-men at the bottom.

Amidst this gendered structure, what does Jesus do? [slide 22]

 

1.       He holds up a child and says you have to be like one of these to enter the kingdom of God. You have to be un-men.

2.       He heals a servant by a Roman centurion.

3.       He lets himself be touched by a ritually unclean woman.

4.       He is anointed by a woman, Mary, with perfume.

5.       He is hosted by a woman in her home, Martha.

6.       His burial is prepared by women; women are the first witnesses to his resurrection. 

7.       He washes the feet of his disciples, an act that servants do. 

8.       He says stuff like:

 

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”[23]

 

Given what we know of the Roman model of gender, you can interpret what he’s saying to be: If you have to be great, you have to be at the bottom, you have put aside how you’ve defined your masculinity, you have to un-man yourself. I don’t have time to unpack the deep life-wisdom behind this, but it seems he’s saying: This is what it means to follow me, these are the new rules, this is your new identity. 

 

This stuff makes me, to be honest, love Jesus. And I haven’t even gotten to the best part.

 

Around the 1400’s, a really interesting artistic tradition arose that depicted Jesus in very feminine ways. This is a time in which motherhood is increasingly valued, although not women, because of the Virgin Mary and so Jesus is increasingly depicted as a mother.

 

As context, do you remember when Jesus is on the cross, one of the Roman soldiers takes a spear and penetrates him, pun intended, leaving a wound on his side? In the bible, it emphasizes that what come out of his wound was not just blood, but blood and water. Keep this in mind as I show you this series of paintings.

 

[slide 24] Here is Jesus showing his woundsto a nun and feeding her the the eucharist or communion; he is literally feeding her his flesh, from his wound on the cross, and where the wound is position it almost seems he is feeding her from his nipple the way a mother would breastfeed her child.

 

[slide 25] Here is another paintingof Jesus feeding us the blood of the Eucharist from his wounds, once again, really close to his nipple.

 

[slide 26]And here is Jesus with a wound that looks really strange, almost two lips on his chest. 

 

Basically what starts happening is that artists start depicting his woundas a vulva. The lips of a vagina. [slide 27]

 

[slide 28] you see it all over illuminated manuscripts

 

[slide 29] often just standing alone by itself

 

I’m returning to this painting because it’s in the Morgan library, and the caption below reads:

 

After Christ’s death, this wound miraculously issued both water and blood when his body was pierced. Theologically, the Church was thought to have been born from this wound. The water had baptismal significance; the blood was, of course, the Eucharist (aka communion).

 

So you see that this wound is supposed to be where the church was birthed. Out of this wound comes water and blood, and where else do we see water and blood come out of human bodies at the same time? Menstruation and childbirth.

 

What I find admirable about this is that the artists were working in a time in which the masculine body was the standard of perfection, yet they chose to model a part of Jesus’ body after the feminine body, after bodies that were deemed imperfect. I don’t know why, but perhaps they felt they needed a more motherly, nurturing image of Jesus. Perhaps they were thinking of Jesus saying, “Oh Jerusalem, if only I could gather you under me like a mother hen gathers her chicks.” Perhaps they felt empowered, as the body of Christ, to shape new meaning of Jesus’ body in a way that met their needs. And I think as the body of Christ today, we can do the same.

 

I will transition now towards a time of communion where the ushers and musicians can take the stage. As you come up to take the cracker and juice symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus, perhaps it would be helpful for you to meditate on Jesus as a mother, birthing and feeding us. That may not be a helpful image for you, but whatever it is, I hope you feel permission to create the meaning of Jesus’ body in a way that meets your needs today. 

 

I invite you all, to come up and partake of the life-giving blood and body of Jesus Christ who has shown us through their life and death the path of liberation. For in their blood and water, we have new life. 

 

 

 

 

 

Robbie Klein