Texts: Gen 1.26ff, 2.5ff, Ps 45, Eph 5.20-33, Matt 19.1-15
The Church has always faced opposition to the Word of God. Today our teaching about human nature is the issue of our time.
1. Modern Gnostic Return
In Colossians, 1 Timothy, and 1 John, the apostles Paul and John drew the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God (Eph 6.17), to fight against a heresy called “gnosticism” that threatened to overthrow the truth of the gospel from within the bosom of the Church herself. The heart of gnosticism was a denial of the Incarnation. Against this, St John lays down a clear rule: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4.2-3a). Why do you think the gnostics denied God became flesh? It’s because they taught the real part of the human is the spiritual part, the soul. Bodies are bad. They limit us, they’re ugly and filthy, they divide humanity into two halves, and in the end they putter out and die. Bodiliness is what Christ, the Divine Spirit, came to redeem us from!
Hand-in-hand with the ancient gnostic teaching about what humans really are went a teaching about how humans ought to live. Well, two of them actually. Some said since we’re really spirits enslaved in flesh, we ought to deny our bodily desires in a radical way and live for heaven only. Others said just the reverse: since our bodies aren’t our true selves, we can do whatever we want with them. Let us eat and drink and live like Desperate Housewives, for tomorrow we shall be set free from these prisons and leave our bodies – and the stuff we did in our bodies – behind us forever. Asceticism and licentiousness, self-denial and self-indulgence, were two sides of the same gnostic coin, upon which was stamped the image of the real human as pure disembodied spirit.
One way to interpret our time is that it’s a return of ancient gnosticism in a new cultural form. Modern gnostics teach that the real part of the human is neither the body nor the soul, but the feeling “self.” As for the body, that is the male or female body, and what we ought to do with it, the road forks violently into two oddly familiar directions. For modern gnostics, either there is no Man or Woman at all, or the difference between Man & Woman is reduced to erotic desire.
(a) In professional culture, male or female biology is a thing indifferent. Having boy parts or girl parts doesn’t matter; all that counts is the ability of the achieving self to succeed in its chosen field. Let’s be clear: in itself, this isn’t entirely wrong. Some women make fine doctors, and some men fine nurses. But in order to make this work, over the past century what’s happened is that the natural difference between Man and Woman had first to be sidelined and then suppressed, so that now it is altogether denied. In the name of justice and/for for the sake of enhanced productivity, modern professional gnostics are neutered into interchangeable, sexless selves. The difference between men and women is banished from the workplace, the battlefield, the pulpit, and the public school bathroom, in order to make way for the triumph of the emoting, achieving, unisex self. In process, “Man” has been emasculated and “Woman” vulgarized before our uncomprehending eyes.
In profane popular culture, the same holds: you are who you feel yourself to be; the sexed body you’re more or less stuck with has nothing to do with the gender you chose to identify with. There is no male and female.
(b) The big exception to this is if we’re trying to sell something: movies, Packers tickets, car insurance, blue jeans, beer, whatever. Then, Madison Avenue empties your wallet by alluring the disordered sexual desires of your heart. In this case, images of “man” and “woman” are on explicit display. The image of “man” used to sell you deodorant is The Perpetual Adolescent defined by his swagger and sexual conquests. The image of “woman” used to sell you pretty much everything else is The Foxy Object of Man’s Desire and nothing more.
We live at these extremes: either the prim neutered existence of the office or the pornographied fantasy of the bedroom.
Truth is, it’s gotten so bad that even in the Church we’re not quite sure any more what it means to be the creatures God made in his image as Male and Female from the beginning and predestined to be restored to the image of his Son at the End (Gen 1.26, Matt 19.4, Rom 8.29). Our culture’s incoherent vision of neutered and hyper-sexualized humanity shapes us far more than we realize. As we come to the Word, we must take care to come not as wise people who’re in a position to teach, correct, and liberate an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy God, but as a foolish, sinful people who need to be taught, corrected, and liberated by Him.
2. The goodness of Man and Woman
In his Word, God teaches that the difference between Man and Woman is natural and therefore, “very good” (Gen 1.31). The sexual difference written upon our bodies and evermore radiant in holy souls is not an obstacle to overcome, but a gift to receive, a goal to grow up into, a mystery to marvel at.
(a) In the first place, we know this because of Gen 1.27: “God created Man in his own image; in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” The Lord Jesus himself quotes this verse at Matt 19.4, to show that the sacred and permanent union of one man and one woman in marriage is part of God’s good purpose for us “from the beginning.” Far from being a burden to cast off, our embodied being together as men and women is a chief part of the goodness and glory of our nature, for it forms an integral part of our creation in the image and likeness of God. God is not Neutered Unisex Sameness. God is love: the Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself proceeding from Both; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is the God who made us in his image. When he did this, he gave us the gift of sexual difference – “Male and Female,” v. 27c – in order to ennoble our common nature – “Man,” vv. 26-27ab – to reflect in a creaturely way the Difference-in-Unity and Unity-in-Difference that he is as the living and true “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
(b) We also know the difference between Man and Woman is natural and good from Gen 2. For at v. 18, we hear for the first time that something is not good in unfallen creation. “The LORD God said: It is not good that the Man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” What to do? Patiently, the Lord creates all kinds of beasts and birds and parades them before Adam the King in holy procession; but not one of them does the trick (vv. 19-20). So the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and took a part of his very being out of him in order to make a partner fit to share his holiness and joy in the image of God. Can you imagine Adam’s astonishment when he awoke, and the Lord presented him with his Bride? “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She shall be called ‘Woman,’ because she was taken out of Man” (2.23). Adam is ‘a man,’ ish, and Eve is ‘a woman,’ isha, but because she is taken from him and made for him to share life together in communion with God, both alike are equally human (adam), creatures of dust bestowed with spiritual life and called to radiate the glory of God. They are perfect for each other. Adam is no longer alone, for he has his Eve: two different, complementary, fit-for-one-another, happy human beings united in one flesh. And it is very good.
(c) Last but not least, we know the difference between Man and Woman is natural and good, because St Paul explains this mystery is deep and refers not only to the gift of nature, but to the higher gift of grace in Jesus Christ and the Church (Eph 5.32). It is good for Man to be Man, because Jesus Christ is not an emasculated “self” with a fluid sense of gender identity but the Last Man – the Bridegroom. It is good for Woman to be Woman, because the Church Jesus redeemed for himself at the price of his blood isn’t his partner, but his Bride. You see, the creation of Adam and Eve in Gen 2 isn’t just history, but prophecy. The wedded bliss of our First Parents points ahead to the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19). God made us Male and Female from the beginning of time, because in his eternity he’d long since purposed to unite sinners to himself through Jesus Christ by a strong grace, as a most beloved Bride made one flesh with her Husband in a most ardent, pure affection (Eph 5.29-33). And that’s why, in the middle of Time, the Second Adam was put to sleep too. The first Adam fell asleep peacefully, for he had no sin. The Last Adam suffered the violent death of the cross, because he bore our sins in his innocent body (1 Pet 2.24). And while his corpse hung in the deep sleep of death on the life-giving tree, our new Adam’s side was opened up too, not by the gentle hand of our Maker but by the cruel spear of a soldier. Out of it flowed blood and water (John 19.34), so that Christ might cleanse his Eve with the grace of baptism and the gospel of his atoning sacrifice (Eph 5.26). We his people, his Church, his Bride, are formed out of the mysteries that mercy extracted from the spear-pierced side of the Lamb.
So you see that because of nature and because of grace, because of creation and because of redemption, because of the Two Adams and their Two Eves, Man is Man and Woman is Woman. And in the sight of God, our Maker and Redeemer, this difference – which opens up the space needed for intimacy, love, and fruitfulness to abound – is exceedingly good.
3. How do we explain this to our neighbors?
We can’t explain this at all; when we talk of such things, we might as well be speaking Chinese – or Arabic. And I warn you in love, the time is coming when the world will start treating people who speak the new language of the gospel like terrorists, for the single reason that we have heard and believed the Word of God and refuse to twist the truth about the goodness of being human as Man and as Woman. What then shall we do? Through repentance, and simple trust in the grace of God to forgive our failures through Jesus Christ and to empower us to come alive in love by the gift of the Spirit of life, we will live the truth of Man and Woman, boy and girl, in the Church of God. The culture can’t hear us anymore. But the real people who live next door can still see. Show them what it means to lead a human life. Show them the goodness, the beauty, of Man and Woman, and in time they will come to see its truth too.
(a) Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord (Eph 5.22). Dare to defy what the culture tells you is true. Submission is not the path to slavery, but to freedom. See to it that you respect your husband. Embrace the goodness of being a woman, a bride, a mother, whether in the flesh or in the spirit or both. If you have been called to the exalted vocation of motherhood, do not be ashamed when the world thinks you are mad. If you’ve been called to a career outside the home, don’t forget that your first calling is to serve the priest of your domestic church and the congregation of little people God has given birth to through you. If you’ve been called to holy singleness, never forget that you have a Husband who cherishes you. Remember that by his Spirit, he makes you exceedingly fruitful in faith, love, and holiness (1 Tim 2.15).
(b) Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5.25). Christ calls your wife to submit to your godly leadership. He calls you farther still. He calls you to lay down your life in love as a sacrifice for your bride. Christ calls you to love and serve your wife just as passionately as you love and serve your own desires. Learn how to cherish your wife. If she wants to talk, listen. If she asks you to mow the lawn, mow the lawn. If she’s had a crazy day and you’re eating fish sticks for supper, be thankful. If she’s worried you’re working too much and neglecting the kids, make a change at work – and if that doesn’t work, get a new job. Your wife matters more; your kids matter more. Show them you really believe that.
In sum, Eph 5.33: “Let each one of you love your wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Do this humbly and joyfully by grace, and your neighbors might still think you have some pretty crazy or even oppressive ideas about the different goodness of Man and Woman. But they won’t be able to deny the beauty they see in your life together with their own eyes.
Do you know what a trysting place is? It’s like the scene in the Disney Robin Hood, when at last Robin and Maid Marion are able to be alone and to hold and kiss one another behind the waterfall. The Holy Eucharist is a trysting place. The Lover of our souls comes to be close to us and gives himself to us in holy love and grace, and we his Beloved come to him and give ourselves to him in faith, and we become one flesh, one body, with Him. Eat his flesh and drink his blood in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving, and don’t you doubt for a minute that he nourishes and cherishes you as his very own flesh. You are his Beloved. Come, Beloved, and open up your heart to receive the One who loved you to the bitter end, and who loves you still, and will never let you go. To him be glory forever, Amen.