Sermon at St Matthew’s, 25 February 2018
This is the third in a series of sermons on the body and today I am going to talk about gender and how our gender affects our identity. I want to bring you some good news about gender rather than see it as a problem.
As I am talking about gender it is inevitable that I will saying a little about sex. Be warned and feel free to leave at this point or at any point in this sermon if I start knocking into your internal furniture, as it were, or even if I offend you: I will try not to take offence. And I will try not to offend but I realise gender is a sensitive subject for many of us.
My main text for today is Genesis 1 verse 27 ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ A second text I will look at is Genesis 2 verse 22 ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’ I find this second text hugely problematic. It seems to contradict the previous text and quite frankly I wish it weren’t in the Bible but it is so we need to take it seriously.
Why pick these two texts? Well they are representative of the way that the authors of the Bible, like we ourselves, struggled with gender issues but also because Jesus uses them when challenged by the Pharisees for his views on marriage and divorce and asked by his disciples for his views on sex. Jesus directly refers to the first verse, Genesis 1: 27. Admittedly he only indirectly refers to Genesis 2:22 and quotes Genesis 2: 24 – two verse later - instead. I might have been better off following his example.
But before coming on to these texts first I’d like to recap on what we have learnt so far in this sermon series about a right perspective on the body, at least in connection with gender and secondly to say something generally about Genesis and what the stories in Genesis can teach us about things like gender.
And by gender I do mean gender. I think we need to note there is a difference between our sex and our gender. Our sex, whether male, female or in rare cases intersex is essentially determined by our chromosomes. If we have an X and a Y chromosome we are male and if we have two X chromosomes we are female. Well sex determination is not quite as simple as that but can we leave it at that for the moment. Gender is what people say they are. If a person has two X chromosomes and says they are male then their gender is male despite their two X chromosomes.
And also I need to say that today my primary focus is gender and not sexuality. Sexuality and gender, although related, are quite distinct. Your sexuality, it surely doesn’t need saying, refers to who you are attracted to not what sex or gender you are. For example a person of the male sex can identify themselves as being of the female gender and be homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual and similarly with a person of the female sex who considers themselves to be male.
Why focus on gender and not sexuality in a sermon series on the body? Of course gender and sexuality are issues which are connected but actually by not by as much as we might assume. And also the Bible does not – in my view - have a lot to say about sexuality and what it says is difficult to interpret. However it does have much more to say about gender and in particular relations between men and women, including sexual relations. But of course relations between men and women are not just sexual.
But, as I said, first I’d like to recap on what we have learnt about the body so far in this sermon series. Rhiannon, in her introductory sermon, reminded us that many of us – perhaps most of us – are dissatisfied with our bodies for lots of reasons. Perhaps we think we are too fat or too thin, not beautiful enough or too beautiful, too old or too young. We might be worried about or body for lots of different reasons: we might be worried about its appearance: to both ourselves (how it appears to us when we look in the mirror) and to others. But we might also be worried about how it works: whether we can do what we want with it: whether that’s climb mountains or just go to the shops. We might also be worried about how healthy it is: how long it is likely to last.
Steve, in his sermon pointed out that most of the biblical texts tell us that the body is inseparable from the soul – from who we are. He reminded us that it was the philosophers like Plato that have made us think that the body is somehow inferior to the mind, and that if there is life-after-death then it is of a disembodied mind.
However we know that central to Christian belief is the idea that when God became human in the shape of Jesus he adopted a human body. ‘And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory.’ as it says in John’s gospel. Here then is God’s endorsement that a human body is very much worth having.
And furthermore central to Christian belief is that this God who became embodied, rose from the grave after his death, and that his resurrection body, if not entirely like his body, prior to death was certainly a body. It looked the same, if not identical. Jesus could eat and drink, his disciples could touch him, etc.
All this points to the fact that we should love our bodies. It means that we should not be disappointed in them: they are what God has given us, just as he has given us our minds. This is, of course, easier said than done for many of us. And of course I am not saying we should not worry about our bodies. They do get old, bits fall off and other bits stop working: this is inevitable but it in turn means that we should look them as much as we are able.
How does what we have heard so far about bodies effect our attitude to our gender. Well of course our gender, in as much as it affected by our sex, is an aspect of our body. Our gender is not just determined by our body. What gender we see ourselves as being – is also a function of our mind. Of course having a Y chromosome vastly increases our chances of identifying ourselves as male but does not make it a certainty. In saying this I am trying not to fall into mind-body dualism - which Steve warned us against last week. He told us that the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, views the soul as an enspirited body not an embodied spirit, that our soul or identity is as much our body as our mind.
So we need to love our gender just as we need to love our bodies. Our gender is an important part of our identity, our soul.
Secondly a bit about Genesis. Genesis is a set of stories about origins. Not just the creation of the universe and of life and of human beings – as is famously described in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2- but also about the origins of lots of other things besides. It explains why things are the way they are and particularly the nature of relationships: not only between human beings and God but also between human beings and other animals, between men and women, between parents and children and between siblings. It is about both how God created things but because from the outset he gave human beings freedom – including the freedom to mess things up – these stories should not always be read as descriptive of the way things should be but of the way things are, they should be read as normative not prescriptive in other words.
Of course I am not, today, going to go into whether the stories in Genesis are literally true or not, or whether they are compatible with current scientific views of origins or not. That is for another day. But, of course, I do think that the stories have important things to tell us about things like gender regardless of whether they are literally true or not – and furthermore the debate about literality should not permit us to neglect the truths to be found in Genesis.
Another thing to say about Genesis is that the stories are mainly about men. For example, most of the stories about sibling relations in Genesis are about brothers: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, etc. There are some stories about sisters: Rachel and Leah, for instance, but not so many as about brothers. It is true that women figure prominently in many of the stories often playing a vital role but generally men are the protagonists. In general these men mess things up and much of Genesis is aimed at teaching men about the error of their ways, at educating them in the task of transmitting to their descendants not just life but a worthy way of life devoted to justice and holiness and reverence for God.
Why this emphasis on the deeds of men rather than women in Genesis? Does it represent a sexist and/or patriarchal mentality on the part of ancient Israel or does it reflect something closer to the reverse, a belief that men are by nature, much more than women, in need of education if they to live responsibly, righteously and well.
But back to our texts for today. First Genesis 1 verse 27 ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ This is a reassuring text to those of us who might be inclined to worry that the Bible considers men better than women in some way or other. Here: at the very beginning or the Bible is a clear statement that both men and women are created equal in status – both, in some way or another bear an equal likeness to, God. Much ink has been spilled over what ‘image’ precisely means here. But for today just let us note that this verse means that if both men and women bear God’s image then gender is not part of that image. God’s image, and by implication God, does not have a gender.
Of course men and women are different, and those differences are important, but surely of less importance to that fact that we are all, men or women or indeed transgender are made in the image of God.
A word about those differences. It is self-evident that there are bodily differences between men and women: differences related to their different roles in reproduction. In the next verse – immediately after declaring that both men and women are made in God’s image the writer of Genesis says that God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ . So human beings’ first task, before subduing the earth, was to have sex and to produce children. The idea that sex is related to sin – promulgated by St Augustine – is a later invention.
But is the fact that men and women behave differently in all societies, including this, anything to do with their sex? I know that people in this congregation will have strong views on this question and I am not going to answer it. I actually don’t think it is an important question. And it might not be answerable.
I do think it is worth pointing out at this point that it is easy to get confused by apparent differences in behaviour between the genders to your own detriment. I’ll give you just one example from my own life. I was brought up to believe that women hug people and men don’t. And this was partly because my mother hugged me but my father didn’t. I think we all like being hugged and hugging but I got confused and thought for a long time that hugging was something I shouldn’t do because I thought of myself as a man and men don’t hug. Perhaps you don’t have this problem with hugging but you may think, wrongly, that a behaviour associated with the opposite gender is something you shouldn’t do, might even be ashamed of.
Now turning to my second text: Genesis 2 verse 22 ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’ This is a problem verse because it suggests firstly that God created men first and secondly that women was made for the benefit of men rather than for their own good.
First the order problem. This is really only an apparent problem when we remember back to Genesis 1 where God first creates the inanimate – the heavens and the earth, then the living - the plants and the animals – and finally the god-like - human beings. Arguably to be created last is better than to be created first.
Note too that in the Genesis 2 account Adam, the prototype human being – prior to the creation of women - was, in fact, gender-less, the potential to be female was within the body of this creature, but only after the separation is there really male and female.
Secondly the problem of women being created for the benefit of men and not for their own good. Though in the absence of women the first human being may have experienced nothing of his maleness, the first human being does seems to have been male, according to this creation story in Genesis 2 if not in Genesis 1.
And it is certainly with a sense of his own male priority and prerogative that the man reacts to the woman’s appearance, in a similar fashion to billions of men down to the present day: Genesis 2 verse 2:
And the man said
This one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called Woman (in Hebrew Isha), because from Man (in Hebrew Ish) this one was taken
Note that, as I said earlier, many of the stories in Genesis describe things as they are not as they should be. Here is a good case in point. Note that it is Adam not God who is saying this about Woman. It is not necessarily how God views the matter. Not everything in the Garden of Eden was lovely, even before Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. There was remember a snake.
What Adam says – in, incidentally this first recorded human sentence – expresses his pent up desire: ‘This one at last is…’ To him the woman is, or will be, his possession: ‘This one is bone of my bone’ And this is also apparent in his explanation of her name. But his desire is for her body rather that her mind, she is bony and fleshy not brainy: an object of sexual attraction not a conversation partner. What the woman thought of this speech we are not told. Presumably not a lot.
But as well as carnal desire there is in the speech the germ of love. Whatever Adam thinks about his new companion, God’s purpose in creating her was to solve the first human’s problem of aloneness. Chapter 2 verse 1: Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ The story of the origins of women in this account are as much about companionship, and the possibility of love, as about sex.
So perhaps only superficially does Genesis 2: 22 seem to denigrate women – but lets us also acknowledge the damage this text, and others like it, have done down the years. Wikipedia tell us, and I quote, that ‘the name Spare Rib [for the famous feminist magazine of the 1960s] started as a joke, with its play on words about the Biblical Eve fashioned out of Adam’s rib, implying that a woman had no independence from the beginning of time.’ Now you can say that the founders of ‘Spare Rib’ misunderstood the Biblical text, and the name was a joke, but isn’t their reading of the text also understandable and was the name entirely a joke?
My friend Adrian was, last week, helping members of the LGBTQ community in Kenya write a grant proposal for some research into HIV amongst women there. He tells me that some members of grant writing panel were uncomfortable about using the term Woman because of its derivation from the word Man – as in the Genesis account. There is still a lot of angst around about gender and some of that turns into anger at religious, including Christian, perspectives on gender, whether actual or perceived.
Now I said I wanted to bring you some good news about gender and not just present it as a problem. I think the good news comes in the words of the writer of Psalm 132:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
The good news is that we all, of whatever gender, have been made by God in God’s image. We are both mind and body, inextricably connected, and part of who we are is our gender, determined both by our genes at our conception – our inwards parts – but also what has happened to us subsequently – in our mother’s womb, in childhood and beyond. I don’t personally think our gender is ever fixed but we can all understand that our gender is important to our identity. Despite some readings of the biblical texts no gender is more important than any other. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made and equally important to God
With acknowledgements to Leon R Kass (The beginning of wisdom, reading Genesis, Free Press, 2003)
 Mathew 1: 1-19
 I wonder if this should be masculine. Should male and female be reserved for sex and masculine and feminine be reserved for gender? If we describe a person ias a man are we describing his sex or his gender?