St. John’s Lutheran Church
14 May 2023 + Easter 6a
John 14.15-21; Acts 17.22-31
Rev. Josh Evans
“Our great father, God almighty, who is Being, knew and loved us from before the beginning of time. And from his knowledge, in his marvelously deep love and through the eternal foreseeing counsel of the whole blessed Trinity, he wanted the second person to become our mother, our brother, our savior.
“From this it follows that God is our mother as truly as God is our father. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good lord the Holy Spirit confirms. And therefore we should love our God in whom we have our being, reverently thanking and praising him for our creation, praying hard to our Mother for mercy and pity, and to our lord the Holy Spirit for help and grace; for our whole life is in these three—nature, mercy and grace.”
Medieval mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich, commemorated on the church’s calendar of saints every May 8th, wrote these words over 600 years ago in her book Revelations of Divine Love – which has since become one of the most well-known and accessible texts of Christian mysticism.
On the night of May 13, 1373, nearly at the point of death, Julian experienced a series of visions of Christ, which subsequently restored her to health. As a result, Julian later became an anchoress, living in seclusion in a monastic cell attached to a church in her hometown of Norwich, England, and devoting herself to a life of prayer, contemplation, and occasionally offering pastoral counsel to visitors at her window.
In her writing inspired by her visions, Julian speaks profoundly and with deep sophistication on the motherhood of Jesus:
“So [Jesus] sustains us within himself in love and was in labor for the full time until he suffered the sharpest pangs and the most grievous sufferings that ever were or ever shall be, and at the last he died. And when it was finished and he had borne us to bliss, even this could not fully satisfy his marvelous love … He could not die any more, but he would not stop working. So next he had to feed us … The mother can give her child her milk … but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most generously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament which is the precious food of life itself.”
Julian’s words continue to inspire poets, artists, and hymn writers, as we’ll soon sing in Jean Janzen’s short yet stunning hymn text, paraphrasing Julian’s own writings.
Julian offers the church the gift of a more expansive image of God beyond “traditional” theology, and yet her writings are ancient. Julian’s description of mother Jesus shows us a dimension of God often overlooked. A view of God that is more expansive and inclusive and that opens up our imagination about who and what God can be.
All too often, we have a tendency to create God in our own image, constricting who or what God can be. God is “Father.” God is “He.” God uses only one set of pronouns.
Yet when we do that, we do God a disservice. As though somehow God can be limited by the ways humans have described God.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the descriptions and names we use for God, including God the Father. What is problematic is when we decide that that is all that God is.
Each of us, from our own life experiences, gravitates toward different descriptions and names and images for God.
Often, our images for God change during our lifetime, or even from one moment to the next.
Julian offers us “Mother Jesus.”
Jesus himself offers us “the Advocate.”
Jesus knew his time with his disciples was running short. He was conscious of the fear and the uncertainty that his friends would soon face – and perhaps already were facing.
In that moment, Jesus wanted to give his friends the reassurance of God’s continued presence with them. Just as they had experienced God’s presence in the human form of Jesus these past few years, Jesus reminds them that God is still with them in another Advocate.
“Another.” That’s an interesting choice of adjectives, isn’t it? Perhaps to imply the sort of relationship that God has had with God’s people all along.
Advocate. Itself a word with an abundance of meanings.
In English, according to Merriam-Webster, an advocate is “one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group” or “pleads the cause of another.”
In the original Greek, paraklētos (“paraclete”) is “one who is called to someone’s aid.” A mediator, intercessor, or helper. A consoler and a comforter. One who accompanies and walks alongside another.
The disciples would need each of these images for God in the days ahead – just as they had come to relate to God made known to them in Jesus their teacher over the past few years.
We need an abundance of images for God – and then some.
The gift of expansive language for God – Father, Mother, Parent, Advocate, Helper, Teacher – invites us to relate to God in the ways we need to experience God in every unique moment of our lives.
“Bring many names,” the hymn writer (Brian Wren) says. Strong mother God. Warm father God. Old, aching God. Young, growing God.
And, ultimately, “never fully known God.”
The Athenians were on to something. Their altar “to an unknown God” isn’t born out of ignorance or some kind of catch-all: “just in case we forgot one.”
Rather, it expresses a deep, fundamental truth about God – that God is, ultimately, unknown … never fully knowable … mystery, we might say.
For as much beautiful language as Julian or Jesus or any of our traditions give us for God, God cannot be contained by the limits of our language and our imagination in the ways that They continually show up for us and show us Their Love in new and different ways.
And yet, amazingly, God, who is never fully known, does reveal God’s self to us in wholly profound ways:
In the Word made flesh.
In the Advocate.
In the waters of the font.
In bread and cup.
And indeed, in the very presence of one another, each of us made in the image of God, each of us bearing God’s image and reflecting God’s love for one another and for the world, each of us images of God.
For surely, this God is never far from each one of us.