Why St Paul doesn’t tell women to love self sacrificially – Mothering Sunday sermon by Revd. Alex Pease

Mothering Sunday 2019

Mothering Sunday is not the same as Mothers Day.

Mothers’ Day was first proclaimed in the United States by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 after a campaign led by a lady called Anna Jarvis who wanted to honour her dead mother.  Mother’s Day in the US is always the second Sunday of May.

Mothering Sunday has a much older origin, as it harks back to the Middle Ages when the fourth Sunday of Lent was celebrated as Laetare Sunday after the Latin for the collect for this day….

On Laetare Sunday it was the custom for congregations to visit the ‘mother church’ or cathedral and became a day on which servants were released to go and visit their families, most particularly their mothers, bearing a simnel cake.

The practice of Mothering Sunday had died out with the Reformation but was revived in 1920 by a lady called Constance Smith who was a vicar’s daughter and was partly inspired by what Anna Jarvis had done in the United States.

The focus of Mothering Sunday, since it was revived, has been on our relationship with our mothers.  And we have all had mothers…

But it is inevitable that Mothering Sunday can bring pain to some.  Some will have lost their mothers and that will be very painful….But also for some women Mothering Sunday has difficult connotations because their precious children have died or relationships with them have broken down.  For others there will be the agony of not being able to have children but being surrounded by women who have….All very very painful and we need to be really sensitive as a church about that pain and be careful how we speak to those who may or may not have children.

Because it can be so sensitive for some, you might ask why we in the church continue to celebrate Mothering Sunday at all?

I think it is worth pointing out that both Anna Jarvis and Constance Smith who started Mothers Day and revived Mothering Sunday, that neither of them ever had children…..and so their focus was entirely driven by gratefulness for their own mothers.

So this is a day on which the focus is on our own mothers, not about how our children respond to us if we are fortunate enough to have them.

But what is it about mothers about which we should be so particularly grateful? Why single them out to honour them in the church calendar? Why not fathers? Why not brothers and sisters, cousins and friends?

I know that I am stepping on dangerous territory here, because of the way that our society sees  the equality of gender. But my focus as a vicar needs to be on the unpacking of the revealed nature of God and his will for us as this appears from Scripture.  Not on interpreting what modern society says is or is not politically correct….

The clue, for me, in why we should celebrate mothers, in particular, comes in something that St Paul implies but doesn’t actually say….

In a section of his letter to the church in Ephesus which the Bible editors entitle ‘instructions for christian households’ – Ephesians 5:25, St Paul tells husbands ‘love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’.  In other words,  husbands should love their wives self sacrificially…as Jesus loved the church – going to his death for the church.

But in the corresponding instruction to wives in that section of Ephesians, St Paul doesn’t tell wives to love their husbands in this way…

Why not?

Because, it seems to me, on the whole women do not need to be told to love self sacrificially.  On the whole (not every one, of course, but on the whole) so many women love their husbands and their children self sacrificially.  Its just the way that they are.

Of course, men do as well.  Fathers love their children and do make great sacrifices for them.

But it does seem, in my experience and observation, to go with the territory of being a woman to love self-sacrificially.  As my wife, Lucy, says, women love self sacrificially almost without thinking about it.  They certainly don’t need to be told to do so by a male apostle!

As many of you know, I have had quite a lot of mothers: one birth mother, one adoptive mother and two step mothers.  But have only ever met two of them…

I have been discovering a bit about my birth family over the last few months and its a fascinating story I think….of God’s amazing provision.  But I have decided not to contact my birth parents for various reasons, but it is clear that my birth mother simply could not look after me after I was born out of wedlock, because of her family background. And yet she carried me for nine months and gave me up for adoption.

What a huge act of self sacrifice that must have been for her…..as she saw a better solution for me in adoption than what she could provide.

My adoptive mother treated me throughout her life (which was very difficult in many respects) as if I was her natural child, despite this causing her enormous personal difficulties and indeed making  at least one marriage which she thought might make me flourish but turned out to be disastrous for her.

Both my mothers loved me self sacrificially.

We will be able to think of our own mothers and the self sacrifice that they made for each of us.

In fact I think that our passage in Genesis illustrates the point: Pharaoh has decided that there are too many Israelites breeding too quickly in Egypt.  They are inconvenient; a threat to the Egyptians way of life. So he instructs the midwives to kill off all the Israelite boys when they are born. But Moses’ mother takes this colossal risk of putting Moses in the basket and letting it float down to where Pharoah’s daughter was bathing.

How must she have felt?

Quite apart from the fear for her baby…there was the fear that as someone who had kept an Israelite boy alive she was liable to be executed by Pharaoh.

But then there is the risk that Pharoah’s daughter takes in adopting Moses; taking the risk of infuriating her father.  The risk that she too will find herself severely punished.

The self-sacrifice shown by these two women I think is so characteristic of how mothers love – whether natural or adoptive mothers.

But there is another side of love, as HM The Queen said in a message to the people of New York after the 9/11 tragedy, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’. We see this in our other reading of Simeon’s blessing of Jesus but pointing out to Mary how what happens to Jesus will cause her immense suffering.  Simeon says ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’.

The sacrifices that our mothers make and have made are extraordinary.

The sacrifices my natural mother and my adoptive mother made turned an unwanted pregnancy into a fulfilling life, literally transforming my life and obviously having an impact on my own family…the nurturing, the providing, the self sacrificial love of a mother, transforms lives.

How many of us get to transform others lives for the better in the way that mothers do?

Yet these days, a lot of mothers feel that they have to talk up their professional lives when they meet new people.  Some feel that they are just not interesting, that their heads have ‘gone to mush’.  ‘So what do you do?’ they get asked. ‘I am only a mother’ is something that gets said frequently in response.

Some of us men seem to be incapable of holding a conversation on social occasions with people who see themselves as ‘only a mother’, when being a mother, as we have seen, is the most important job there is….because it transforms lives and blesses the whole of society over the generations.

We need to show mothers much more respect and interest than we do at the moment.  We need to honour their self sacrifice.  We need to recognise what they do for the whole of society by transforming the lives of their children.  We need to show them respect in all our interactions with them, particularly our social encounters with them.

Indeed, the example of love that mothers give, what is described in the original Greek of St Paul’s letters as ‘agape’ love, is the sort of love that mirrors the way that Jesus loves us, it is the love at the centre of creation, the love that God showed in creating us, the love that Jesus showed in dying for us.  This sort of love is the heart of who we are meant to be as humans.  

It is this sort of  love that transforms humanity and which changes the world and shows that we have been created in God’s image….


2 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” 

 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ex 2:1–10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 2:33–35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

After the service we all had Simnel Cake (thank you Vanessa for preparing that for us) and the children of the Ark gave out little plants to the women in the congregation.  Thank you Tim Clapp and the Ark for organising this.

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