A community of Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Ephesus is in crisis. It’s the second century of the common era, and they are troubled by the central questions of the church at that time. Was Jesus fully human? And was Jesus truly divine?
The writer of the text of 1st John, believed to be a leader in that community, responds with a sermon driving home the message that has become Christian orthodoxy: Jesus was both! He was both fully human and truly divine. He was human, coming to us by water and blood: in the waters of birth and in the blood of his death. And he was divine, coming to us from God, born of God, a child of God.
There is so much in this short text, but the image of God as a parent is what really struck me this week. Of course, the idea of God as Jesus’ parent is very familiar; we know Jesus as God’s son. And the idea of God as our parent is very familiar, too; we call God “Our Father” at least once a week here in worship as we say the Lord’s Prayer. But there is something in the language of this passage that is particularly powerful, particularly poignant. Jesus is a child of God; and so are all of we. What does this really mean?
Parent is a human word. And there are so many kinds of human parents. There are biological parents and foster parents and adoptive parents and step parents and parents-in-law. There are parents who do it all on their own, and parents who parent with others. There are all kinds of people who might not have the title of “parent” and yet raise us, rear us, care for us: grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, teachers, neighbors.
Not only do many different people take on the work of parenting, but every parenting relationship is different. There are parents who die too early; those granted a full length of life, and those who live past reason or comfort, and must be cared for themselves. There are parents and children who are distant; others who are close; still others who are too close for comfort. There are parenting relationships that are full of anger and conflict, and those which are a source of comfort. There are parents who lose their children very young, and those whose children grow old. There are parenting relationships that never really begin; disappointed hopes; hidden emptiness.
Parenting can be painful and joyful; often, it is both. Parents can betray, or be betrayed; abandon, or be abandoned. At their best, parents can give us a rich sense of history, as well as an abundance of physical and emotional and spiritual care. They may even be our heroes; the saints on whose shoulders we stand. But all parents are limited; full of mistakes.
Who has parented you? What has parenting meant to you? And what does it mean, then, that God is Jesus’ parent, and also ours?
I want to tell you part of what it means to me. In February of 2011, as I was preaching from this pulpit, I was in the midst of a miscarriage. After six months of trying, I had gotten pregnant for the first time. But this pregnancy was not, as they say, “successful.” I was bleeding, and a much hoped-for life was over.
As most of you know, my story is not so tragic. Months later, after another miscarriage, I became pregnant with Miriam; and three months ago I gave birth to Simon. I was able to become a mother, a parent, without too much difficulty. And there is nothing uncommon about my experience, either, even though it is so rarely spoken about. Doctors estimate that 15-20% of recognized pregnancies end in the first trimester, through no fault of the woman carrying them.
There is nothing so tragic, or uncommon, about my experience, but that winter was hard for me. I wondered whether I would ever be a mother, something I had always longed for. And I felt that my body was a place where bad things happened; a graveyard; a place of death.
It was remembering that I was a child of God that gave me hope. I remembered that my body was a part of the creation that God made and called good. If God loved this body, I could learn to love it, too. I remembered that I was a child of God, and that my almost-baby was, too. I came to trust that that possibility of a life was – is — held in profound love, even though I never got to hold him or her in my arms.
Parent is a human word. Parenting is a human project. None of us get through having parents, or being parents, without some sort of pain or complication, no matter how wonderful it may also be. Perhaps, then, for some, using this name for God feels wrong. For me, it feels like a safety net. I’m grateful that we have another parent to fall back on.
The one who Jesus called “Abba,” Daddy, can be our Daddy, too. The one who gave Jesus life longs to gather us also under her wings like a mother hen. When our parents on earth are gone; when they disappoint us with their limitations; when we simply need something more, something different, God can be our parent. God can be the one we come from, the one we belong to, the one who knows us completely and loves us beyond measure. God can be our parent; and God can parent those we love in ways that we cannot.
Maybe this is cold comfort. What is divine love, however perfect, when we long for a human embrace? What is God’s love when we long to love and be fully loved by someone who comes to us, as the writer of this scripture does, in water and blood?
We do not always receive what we long for. But there are still human arms to hold us. When the water and blood of Jesus passed away from the earth, the Holy Spirit chose a new body: the church. Here we are: flesh of one another’s flesh; bone of one another’s bone. We are God’s children, and therefore, sisters and brothers, parents and children, family, beloved community. We are the new human face for our divine parent, called to give the perfect love of God imperfectly to one another, and receive it back again.
God, We remember today that Jesus is your child, and that we are your children, too. Send your blessing down on us: we who have received generous care, we who are bent and broken by imperfect care, we who wonder if the care we have given has been enough,
we who have care we wish we could give. Send us healing and hope: enough to live on, enough to be joyful with, and enough to share. May we use our warm arms to wrap up someone who needs holding, and use our breath to say the words of love that someone needs to hear. Amen.