Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. We have known and have believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. – 1 John 4:7-8, 16-19
There’s an old story that goes like this: a kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom while the students were drawing pictures. She walked around the room, observing the students’ work and commenting as she went.
The teacher came to one little girl who was working very diligently, and she asked, “What are you drawing?”
The little girl said, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused for a moment and then said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
And the little girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
So how do we picture God? What are images that come to mind when you think about God?
One of the most common names for God is "Father." We can look to Jesus for the tone of that title and picture of God that might sound a little different. Now, some of you may refer to your male parent as “Father,” but I for one have never called James Howell that except when I was making fun of him. I refer to my father as “Dad.”
It turns out that’s how Jesus referred to God. Whenever Jesus prayed, he called God Abba—which we often say means “Father,” and it does, but the intonation is really something more like “Dad.” Some of you may know Richard Cassidy, who’s a member here at Centenary—anytime he prays aloud, he starts not by saying “Dear God” but by saying “Dear Dad,” like Jesus did.
This image of God as “Father” tends to reinforce that picture that our first focus song was trying to undo: the idea that God is a man—probably a white man; probably an old man with a long, white beard. But if we think of God as “Dad,” and if we think of the best images of “Dad” that we have either from our own fathers or from other examples we’ve seen, it’s a different picture. Instead of sitting on a cloud, God is playing catch in the backyard, or rocking a child to sleep, or teaching a kid how to ride a bike.
How else might we picture God?
If we call God “Father,” we can also call God “Mother.” Last week, Martha shared with us about the Shaker community and how they refer to God as “Mother.” This isn’t just feminism or political correctness; it’s a deeply Biblical image of God. In Scripture, God is depicted as a mother hen gathering her chicks, as a mother bear defending her cubs, as a mother who comforts her child.
I’m reading a book by Lauren Winner, a Duke Divinity School professor who will be speaking here at Centenary next month. In her book Wearing God, she looks at images the Bible uses for God that are often overlooked in usual Christian conversation.
One that struck me was the image of a woman in labor. Dr. Winner points out this passage in the book of Isaiah that is written in God’s voice—it says: “I’ve kept still for a very long time. I’ve been silent and restrained myself. Like a woman in labor I will moan; I will pant, I will gasp.”
If any of you have given birth or witnessed a birth, it may be strange to imagine the animalistic sounds that came from you or your spouse coming from the mouth of God. But throughout Scripture, we see God not only as a Father but also as a laboring Mother, as a midwife, acting as a wet nurse or breastfeeding. These are incredibly intimate pictures of God caring for God’s people.
How does it feel to imagine God as a Mother?
Of course, talking about God as Father and Mother brings up this question of gender. The other day, I tweeted that I was working on a sermon using this Gungor song, and a friend replied commenting that he had always thought it was funny that a song specifically about God not being a man used male pronouns for God (“God is love, and he loves everyone”).
As we wondered out loud via social media about this paradox, the band Gungor actually replied to one of our tweets, which was pretty cool—and what they said was this: “It was intentional deconstruction of the pronoun most often used.” Touché, Gungor. Touché.
The vast majority of dominant Christian images for God are male. After all Jesus, was actually male. But God is not God’s self male or female. We are for the most part accustomed to referring to God as “he,” but in the last several years, I have made an effort to simply avoid pronouns for God altogether. God is God, Jesus is “he,” and the Holy Spirit is “she” because the Greek word for Spirit is neuter and the Hebrew word is actually feminine—but more on that in 2 weeks.
This question of how gender is related to this image of God takes us back to the creation story, to the verses we heard from Genesis 1: “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”
Now, there has been some confusion in the history of Christianity, and even in the Bible itself, no thanks to Saint Paul—in 1 Corinthians 11, we read that a woman ought to cover her head in church, because “because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is man’s glory.” Some have taken this to mean that man was created in God’s image and then woman was created in man’s image, but that’s not what’s going on in Genesis 1.
First, it says, “God created humanity in God’s image”—and that word for “humanity” there is adamah, a neuter noun with no gender attached to it. Then it goes on: “in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”
Why do you think God created two different people in God’s image?
This is where we get to the doctrine of the Trinity. God’s image came into the created order as a man and a woman because God’s very essence is relationship.
Before I get further into that, let’s talk just a little bit of technicalities about the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s how the United Methodist Book of Discipline defines the Triune God: “There is but one living and true God… And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
So God is one—Christians are monotheists, we believe in one God—but within that one Godhead are three persons. Those persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—are in eternal relationship with one another. God’s very being is community.
If we were to try and write out the Trinity as a mathematical equation, we would get an F, because it would look something like 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. But for centuries the church has insisted that the doctrine of one God in three persons is central to Christian faith. The Trinity isn’t about God shapeshifting from one form to another like water and ice and steam; it’s not about the Father producing Jesus and the Holy Spirit like the sun produces light and heat; it’s about three persons equal in substance and power in eternal communion within the Godhead, and there’s just not a good metaphor or any real math to explain that.
If the bad math isn’t too much already, let’s have a quick Greek lesson—can you say perichoresis? Perichoresis is a word that describes the relationship between each of the members of the Trinity, the eternal love that is the essence of who God is. When 1 John 4 says that “God is love,” it’s not a metaphor—it’s an actual description of God’s nature.
So when God goes to create humankind in God’s image, God creates two people, made for relationship with one another. Now, before we get too hung up on the man and the woman, I do not believe gender is that important here, and I’m also not just talking about marital relationships; the image of God is lived out when we seek friendship, family, and community with all of our brothers and sister.
We are each and every one of us bearers of the image of God. But no individual carries the fullness of that image within himself or herself. We only fully live into the image of God in relationship with one another. We hear this in the passage from 1 John—how do we know that we love God? If we love one another.
What problems might we run into if we look to human love to help us understand God’s love?
There’s a quote I love that’s been attributed to a few different people, but it goes like this: “God made man in his image, and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” A similar quote comes from Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
If our God hates gays or Muslims or Baptists, we’ve probably made God in our own image. If our God hates Republicans or Democrats or even terrorists, we’ve probably made God in our own image.
God created us in God’s image for relationship and community, and we need to keep looking to God to order those relationships and that community. If we start with human relationships and human community and try to map that experience on to God, we are bound to make a mess of things.
Certainly we get glimpses of Trinitarian love in our human relationships, like in those memories you have of your father that make you feel good about praying, “Dear Dad.” But more often than not, our human sinfulness and brokenness creeps in and prevents us from living out that relational image of God.
Some of you may know that right now in Portland, Oregon, over 800 clergy and lay delegates from all around the world are gathered for General Conference. General Conference is the once-every-four-years gathering of United Methodists to make policy and to pass legislation that will determine the practices and procedures of the global church.
One would hope that such a gathering would be the perfect expression of the image of God—people of all nations, races, ethnicities, and cultures coming together under one banner of Methodism to pray and work together. And there are moments of that. But there are also political agendas and interest groups and parliamentary manipulations; there is frustration and anger and deep, deep pain, particularly around the issue of homosexuality.
On both sides of these arguments, delegates want to believe that God is more with them than with their opponents. But I suspect that there are times when both sides have made God in their own image, because suddenly God hates gays and lesbians, or God hates conservatives. I suspect that God is outside the convention center with his head in his hands, because God hates no one, because God is love.
Just today, the Council of Bishops issued a statement in response to the General Conference’s call for them to lead the denomination forward around these debates. In the statement, they emphasized the importance of unity. In that, they acknowledged that relationships and community are hard. “God is love” sounds nice when it’s sung along with a sweet cartoon, but living out that image with real people is difficult and painful. But it is only in keeping that image at the forefront that we can find healing and reconciliation.
How should seeing the image of God not just in other individuals but in our relationships and communities change the way we treat one another?
For about 4 years, I was part of a predominantly African-American church in Durham. Each week, during the passing of the peace, they sang a song while they made the rounds hugging and shaking hands. It goes like this:
How can I say that I love the Lord
Whom I’ve never ever seen before
And forget to say that I love the one
Whom I walk beside each and every day?
How can I look upon your face
And ignore God’s love?
You I must embrace!
You’re my brother, you’re my sister
And I love you with the love of my Lord
Now, singing through the once might have been enough to get us through the passing of the peace here at Roots Revival—but remember, this was a black church, so we had to sing through it multiple times, usually with a key change or two. The passing of the peace could take 20 minutes.
But I love that we sang that song while we passed the peace. This church had black and white, old and young, PhD’s and high school dropouts, gays and those who thought homosexuality was a sin, all worshipping together, hugging each other, seeing God’s face in their neighbor’s. They were proclaiming and living out 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen.”
The challenge before us as Christians is to see the image of the Triune God in one another—not just in those who are easy to love, but in those we are tempted to hate; not just when things are going well, but when things are going poorly. No one knows what God looks like. But God is love, and God made us in that image, kneeling in the dirt and cradling our formless clay like a mother with a newborn child. “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God,” who created us for relationship with himself and with one another. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell