The wonderful thing about the Internet, and especially Facebook, is that I can keep in touch with lots of the students I knew from my time as Chaplain at Oxford Brookes University; and one of the things that many who are women share is their experience of being a young mother. I get pictures of the baby in the womb, of the baby just after birth, and many more. But they also share the troubles of being a mother, the worries, the sleepless nights, the hospital visits, even in one case the greatest tragedy of all. Looking at all this means I do a lot of praying as I follow their joy and their tears, and assure them of my support.
Christianity, following its Jewish ancestry, avoids calling God a mother because in ancient times it wanted to distinguish itself from mother god religions in which God was not distinct and other. The sense of God as separate from us is an important one calling us on beyond ourselves and our small concerns into something bigger leading us one into infinity. But there is one way in which we do think about God as mother without often realising it ; and that is when we call on God to have mercy. For mercy is a word that in its original Hebrew origins has the same root as the word “womb”. So when we say “Lord have mercy” or “Kyrie Eleison”, we are asking God to be like a mother to us, and indeed we are asking God to be like a womb for us.
Now that’s a pretty important idea, especially for those who have got a rather frightening notion of a God who is far away and is always judging us. It is certainly the theme of all our readings today. Listen again to St Paul from our 2nd Reading “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ.” (Eph 2:4-10) and then from St John’s Gospel (3:16) Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”
There is however an additional point about God being like a womb that is worth mentioning. You see when we say “God loves us so much” we are using human terms to describe a power that is not like us at all. In one sense God does not love, because God is love. In the same way God does not exist but God is existence. In both ways God is like a mother’s womb which surrounds the tiny baby with protection, which is the source of that baby’s existence, which is almost part of that baby, and yet is entirely separate.
When we think of God as loving us so much, it is easy to begin to think that sometimes God loves us less and sometimes God loves us more, according to the way we behave. But God’s love is not like that. That is why St Paul says “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.” Note that. God’s love for us is not dependent on anything we have done. All we have to do is to accept that infinite love. That is what believing in God means, not believing in a lot of propositions about God, or Jesus, or the Church, simply accepting God’s love, accepting one’s part in God’s Church.
It is intriguing that just before today’s famous passage in St John’s Gospel (See John 3:1-15) about God’s love, we hear Jesus saying that in order to be part of God we do not have to do anything, except…and this is the significant bit……..be “born again”. Nicodemus, who is being told this, actually protests. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” And Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And that’s the point. Of course we have to accept the gift of life from God. Of course we should use that gift well. That is what grace is – God giving himself. But the gift is given, life is given, like life is given to a baby in the womb. And that is how we need to receive it. Being born again means being “like a little child”, being like a baby in the arms of God.
In one sense this imagery is impossible to understand isn’t it? We want to think of God as a bit like another person, and Jesus wants that too, which is why he teaches us to call God “Father” or more accurately “Abba” – Daddy. But he also wants us to go beyond that in our understanding of God, and in our relationship with God. You remember earlier I said that in one way God does not exist? It sounds extraordinary. But think about it. Things that exist are all made by God – the creative power underlying the Universe. But God is not created. God is infinite. God is the power that creates existence and so God does not exist, God is existence. As St John says of Jesus as the Word of God at the very beginning of his Gospel. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
A baby, both in the womb and after birth, only gradually understands itself as separate from its mother and from other people. We have to remember the reverse. That whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are never separate from God, for if we were separate from God, we would not exist. Of course, we believe that God has given us the ability to choose that way, to choose to absolutely and for ever deny him by denying all that is good and true, but the offer of eternal life is always there. That is why Jesus died for us.