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“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”  So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”  2 Samuel 5:1-6, 9-10

David’s Palace – an artist’s rendering

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Today we continue our summer series in I & II Samuel. So far this summer we met the prophet Samuel as a boy, serving God in the midst of a corrupt temple leadership; we’ve seen Samuel as a mature man, whose own sons didn’t believe in or serve God the way their father did; and we’ve heard the people of Israel asking God for a king “like all the other nations” and God’s displeasure as God said to Samuel, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s me.”  We saw Samuel – at God’s direction – anoint Saul as king, and then (when Saul turned out to be a disappointment), Samuel annointed David. We saw young David confront the giant Goliath and lead Israel to victory over the Philistines.  And last week we heard David’s lament at the death of Saul and his son Jonathan.

Which brings us to this week, and “The Glory Years.”

What do these words bring to mind when someone says, ‘the glory years’?  For some of us it might take us back to the 1980s, when hair was big and big hair bands were bigger. For some of us it might be the 1960s, when the Beatles were the cat’s meow and just about every family could make ends meet on one person’s income. Or maybe the 1950s, back when everybody worshiped God on the weekend: our Jewish and Catholic friends on Saturday nights and everybody else on Sunday mornings, and the churches and the synagogues were packed because that’s just what you did.  Or maybe for some of us it was the 1940s, when World War II was finally over and our soldiers came home and there were parades and celebrations and reunions.

I was thinking this past week as we celebrated the 4th of July – talk about glory days!  242 years ago we Americans declared ourselves independent of Great Britain and made ourselves a new country. So would we say that 1776 was our ‘glory year’?

The reason I ask is because our scripture reading for today talks about the beginning of what Israel in Bible times would have called their ‘glory years’: those years when King David and his son King Solomon reigned over the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been waiting so long for this! From the time God set them free from slavery in Egypt to the time they set foot in the Promised Land, forty years had passed – just to get there. And once they were there, they had to deal with attacks from neighbors on the outside, and rebellions against God on the inside, and leaders like Joshua and Samson and Deborah and Gideon were led by God to deal with all these things. But it took almost 350 years from the time the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land until the time King David sat in peace on the throne of Israel and the people of God were safe in the Promised Land.  And this was only after their first king, King Saul, failed to live up to expectations and very nearly ruined the nation by fighting unnecessary wars.

But finally, finally, David was king.  Finally, 400 years after Egypt, Israel was at rest in the Promised Land, secure in David’s leadership. And David, this man who Samuel described as “a man after God’s own heart,” became the pattern by which we would recognize the Messiah, ‘the Son of David’.

It’s the beginning of Israel’s glory years.

Those glory years, sadly, would last only 80 years. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom would be divided, never to be completely united again in the course of human history.  Even if you count modern-day Israel – which was founded in 1948 – less than half the Jewish people in the world live there. So the children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and David have not yet been reunited completely, even 3000 years later.

The fact that any nation could survive for so long as a people without a country and a land to call their own tells us something about how secure God’s promises are in spite of what we see around us. And it teaches us something too about the nature of the Body of Christ, the church – because we too are a people without a land to call our own in this world, because our home is the promised land, the Kingdom of God.

So what we’re reading about today was the beginning of Israel’s glory years. Under King David the nation was united. They were united in worship of the one true and living God. They were free of idols, free of false gods. And there was peace (for the most part) and prosperity for all.  David built a palace, and made plans for the great temple of Jerusalem which his son Solomon would build. And it was glorious! And all of these things give us a foretaste of our own Promised Land.

But the funny thing about glory years is – from a human standpoint – people usually don’t know it when they’re in them.  Think about it. Take 1776 as an example. Yes, the surprise attack on the British at Washington’s Crossing went well.  But a year after that, in 1777, George Washington lost Philadelphia – the capital of our new country – to the British. And he stationed for the winter at Valley Forge – where the fledgling Continental Congress was unable to raise enough money for food or clothing for the army. The soldiers who practiced maneuvers there, hungry and leaving bloody footprints in the snow, never thought for a minute that they were living in any kind of glory years.

Or what if we look back to the 1950s and 1960s as our glory years – back when the economy was booming and the churches were full and dads worked and moms stayed home and raised the kids, and everything made sense and life was good. But if you were alive back then you would have been aware of the Vietnam War dragging on, with no end in sight… and all the mothers losing their sons while the protests on college campuses grew more violent. Racial prejudice was considered normal by many people back then, and when people tried to challenge it they got shot. In four short years we lost President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King… and those were the people whose names we knew. Many others died whose names we didn’t know. And don’t get me started on gender inequality back then!

Our scripture reading for today gives us hints that the people who lived during Israel’s glory years didn’t know it either. First off scripture says the tribes of Israel “came to David at Hebron”.  Why not Jerusalem? Because King Saul had his throne at Jerusalem. Saul had only been killed in battle just days before, and what was left of Saul’s family was trying to re-establish the throne in Jerusalem. So the leaders of Israel came to David at Hebron because that’s where David was: David was in exile, chased there by Saul.

But years before that, David had been a hero. He killed Goliath with just a slingshot and a few stones. And he led the armies of Israel to victory over the Philistines, so that the people sang “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” David served Saul so well, that Saul became jealous and tried to murder him. But the people never forgot what David did. And so now, with Saul and his son Jonathan dead, the people came to David and said, “look, for some time now, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel…” So lead us now, be our king now.

And David knows the prophet Samuel told him years before that this was his destiny. But he’s torn. David loved Saul in spite of everything. Saul was David’s king, and Saul’s son Jonathan was David’s best friend, and David wants to show mercy to what’s left of Saul’s family. So David says ‘yes’, and the people of Israel anoint David king, but David stays at Hebron for another seven and a half years until he can take care of the things that are on his heart. He takes time to grieve the loss of Saul and Jonathan, and he writes the song:

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (II Sam 1:19)

‘Your glory O Israel’ – This lament stands at the very beginning of Israel’s glory years.  The glory years begin with a king with tears in his eyes.

And our glory years, also begin with a king – King Jesus – with tears in his eyes. Luke writes that in the middle of the Palm Sunday celebrations – while the crowds were shouting ‘hosanna!’ – Jesus was weeping. And he was saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…” (Luke 19:42)

Palm Sunday is the beginning of our glory days as Christians: a day when the cross was only days away, and the resurrection only a couple days after that. But no matter how you slice it, it seems ‘glory days’ never feel all that glorious when you’re in them.

So today if we look at the world around us, and our neighborhoods around us, and all the people who are hurting around us, and all the angry voices, it may not look like it or feel like it, but (like David) we are in the beginning – just the beginning – of the glory years. God has promised to redeem these years. And as Peter says in his first letter to the churches, “our faith… [which is] tested by fire—[will] result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:7)

Our Promised Land still lies ahead.  Till then… praise God for the glory years.

AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/8/18

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I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

John Wesley

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“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Romans 8:1-9

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Luther

500 years ago this week was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To be exact, 500 years ago on Oct 31, 1517.  On that day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, hoping to inspire reform in the Catholic Church, but instead his words inspired thousands of people to join in the protest, and these people became known as ‘protest-ents’ or ‘Protestants’.

This 500th anniversary, then, is not so much something to celebrate as it is to remember. We don’t celebrate division in the church, because we believe in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ and one eternal destiny for all who love God. There is no division in Jesus.

So Reformation Day for us is kind of like Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day we don’t celebrate war because war is not a thing to celebrate; but we honor those who served, and especially we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom.

In the same way, when we remember the Reformation, we honor those men and women who stood up for God, who stood up for truth and justice, who stood up for God’s word, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could know God.

So it is fitting to remember the events that happened 500 years ago.

By the time Luther was born, the church in Rome had held practically unquestioned power over the churches in Western Europe for nearly 1000 years.  (Eastern Europe and Asia were led by the Orthodox Church, and Africa by the Coptic Church, but neither of these had much influence in western Europe.) And, as often happens, power corrupts.

Luther was a Catholic monk and priest who wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church from the inside.  At the same time there were many other monks, nuns, and religious scholars who loved God and studied the scriptures, and as they studied – and as they did their best to bring their lives into line with God’s will as they understood it – the more they ran into difficulty with Rome.

The issue that finally sparked the Reformation, at least in the public eye, was the issue of selling indulgences.  (Like most issues, even today, there’s what’s happening in the public eye and then there’s what’s really happening behind the scenes. The issue in the public eye was selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were – and to some extent still are in the Catholic Church – ways “to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after one dies. This has nothing to do with salvation. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, even a person who is saved still needs to be cleansed (or “purged”) of their sins before entering heaven.  So a person passes through purge-atory or purgatory. And indulgences were meant to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. In our day indulgences can be earned by (for example) making a pilgrimage to a holy place, or by performing good works; but in Luther’s day indulgences were for sale and the money was used for things like repairing the Sistine Chapel or furnishing the Pope’s living quarters.

Martin Luther first became aware of this when he traveled to Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery.  At that time Luther was a young and idealistic monk, and he couldn’t wait to see the Holy City with his own eyes.  When he arrived, he fell to his knees and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here!” – referring to Peter and Paul, who had been martyred in Rome.

But what Luther discovered in the church in Rome shocked and disillusioned him. He witnessed gluttony, and gambling, and any number of vices, and very little concern for the poor.  Later on Luther described his visit this way – he wrote: “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell…”

And indeed history tells us the Catholic church was in deep trouble at this point in time. There were many people inside the church at that time trying to work for reform; Luther was by far not the only one.

But Luther returned home to Germany in a spiritual dilemma. The question he was asking himself was not ‘how can I be a part of this corrupt organization?’ – in those days a person didn’t simply walk away from the Roman Catholic church – there was nowhere else to go. But Luther’s dilemma was this: how can any person be good enough for God?  When Luther saw sin in others, he was humble enough to see it in himself as well.  And he knew God’s standards were impossible for any human being to meet.

Luther wrote:

My situation was that, although [I was] an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy] (assuage) [God]. Therefore I did not love a just, angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.

 In other words, Luther was angry at God for demanding the impossible.

But when Luther read Romans 1:17 it stuck in his mind. In that verse Paul writes: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Luther wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean… that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. […]

Let me step aside here for a second, because Luther’s interpretation, Luther’s understanding – that the “righteousness of God” had to do with God justly punishing the unrighteous sinner – was the common understanding of God’s righteousness in those days.  This was the definition taught by Thomas Aquinas and other leading theologians for 400 years before Luther was born. Righteousness by grace through faith had been almost completely lost, and it had been replaced by church traditions like making pilgrimages or buying indulgences.  It calls to mind the words of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Matt 15:6)

As a result Luther took no comfort in the very words that Paul had written to comfort imperfect people.

Luther continues in his writing:

Yet I clung to Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”

It is my prayer for all of us, myself included, that we will hold onto God with the tenacity that Martin Luther did, and never let go.  Because all of us, at one time or another, will have issues with God, or with the scriptures, or questions we can’t find answers to.  I pray we will keep on holding onto God and keep on digging for answers, and not give up, until (as it did for Luther) doubt becomes certainty and faith becomes sight.

Martin Luther later wrote that this moment of revelation was the true beginning of the Reformation; the ‘real story behind the scenes’. This was the moment when Luther took God at God’s word, and it’s what made all the difference.

With his new understanding of grace and faith, the selling of indulgences – which before had looked like a simple injustice – now is understood as actually blocking people’s access to God’s forgiveness.  Luther could no longer remain silent.

So he brought the issue to the church’s attention on October 31, 1517.  And the church would not tolerate what it saw as heresy and mutiny. Luther was excommunicated and probably would have been martyred if he had not been kidnapped by his friends and carted off to an old castle.  While in hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (which was also not permitted by the church, because Latin was the only language permitted in the church). But Luther believed the people should be able to read the scriptures in their own language, and so he made the translation.

Luther survived all the death threats and legal actions that were taken against him, but not everyone who supported him did.  In 1523, two years after Luther’s “kidnapping”, the first Lutheran martyrs were burned at the stake. Two years after that, Luther was visited by the English scholar Tyndale, who (at Luther’s encouragement) published the first English translation of the New Testament. Tyndale paid for it with his life: he was hung and then burned at the stake.

I think it’s important to remember, whenever we pick up our Bibles, that people have given their lives so we could have this.  Just like we give thanks for those who have died for our freedoms, even more so we give thanks for those who died so God’s word and God’s promise of eternal life could be ours.

So in the coming week as we think about the Reformation:

  • When you have a moment look over the Reformation Timeline. There was a lot happening in the world during Martin Luther’s lifetime, and this helps make sense of the events that were happening during the Reformation.
  • The Reformation reminds us God takes sin seriously – as true today as back in Luther’s day. Luther was on the mark with the questions he was asking. He understood what the scriptures were saying.  God does require righteousness, and the requirement is  But rather than leading us to despair, scripture leads us to…
  • … God’s gift of righteousness by grace through faith. Two hundred years later, give or take a few decades, John Wesley was as firm and clear about this as Luther was. Wesley wrote:“All the blessings God has bestowed upon men and women are of his grace, his free, undeserved favor. We have no claim to the least of His mercies.

    “It was… grace that “formed [people] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into [them] living souls,” and stamped on [those souls] the image of God. The same free grace continues to us… And whatever righteousness may be found in us… is also the gift of God.

    Wesley continues: “With what then can we atone for even the least of our sins? With our works? Even if our works are many and holy, they are not our own, but God’s. Therefore, having nothing — neither righteousness nor works… our mouths are (utterly) stopped before God. If, then, we find favor with God, it is “grace upon grace!” “Christian faith is a full reliance on the blood of Christ; it is a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection.” “By grace you have been saved through faith.”

Wesley understood where Luther was coming from.  And in the 500 years since Luther, the message hasn’t changed, and the faith hasn’t changed, and God’s grace and mercy haven’t changed.  Our job is to be true to the faith we have received, from the saints who have gone before us, and pass it on to the people we know and to the next generation.

With thanks to God for His great grace and mercy, AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/29/17

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This week marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenburg, in hopes of inspiring reform in the Catholic Church. Instead he inspired the Protestant movement.

As with all events in history, context is critical in understanding the events that were unfolding, and the century Luther lived in was stunning in its creativity and genius. With this in mind I put together a very basic timeline of events in and around the Protestant Reformation, to give some background to Luther’s story. Enjoy.

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Reformation Timeline

1452 – Leonardo daVinci born

1455 – Gutenberg invents the movable-type printing press. Gutenberg Bible printed.

1473 – Copernicus born

1473 – Michelangelo born

1481 – Spanish Inquisition begins

1483 – Martin Luther born

1492 – Columbus sails to the New World, discovers corn

1494 – earliest record of Scots making whiskey

1495 – daVinci begins The Last Supper

1496 – Michelangelo begins the Pieta

1502 – Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, founds the University of Wittenburg

1505 – Luther becomes an Augustinian monk

1507 – Luther ordained priest, celebrates first mass

1508 – Luther appointed to teach at the University of Wittenburg

1509 – John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, is born

1509 – Henry VIII becomes King of England

1510 – Luther walks to Rome (approx 1000 miles) on a pilgrimage for his order (the Augustinians). He arrives with high hopes, but is “shocked by the lack of morality and piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of the Pope Leo X”

1513 – Luther’s “Tower Experience”: the meaning of Romans 1 (salvation by grace through faith) dawns on Luther’s heart and mind. For Luther this is the moment when the Protestant Reformation begins.

1517 – Pope Leo grants indulgences for rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica

October 31, 1517 – Luther nails 95 Theses to Castle Church door in Wittenburg protesting indulgences

1518 – Luther is charged with heresy in Rome, defends himself in Augsburg using Scripture rather than church doctrine. He is protected by Frederick the Wise.

1521 – Luther is excommunicated. He appears before the Diet of Worms. On his way home, Luther is “kidnapped” by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle and placed in hiding. He spends the next 10 weeks translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

1522 – Luther’s translation of the New Testament is published

1522 – Zwingli begins reformation in Switzerland

1523 – First Lutheran martyrs, Heinrich Voes and John Esch, burned at stake in Antwerp

1525 – Frederick the Wise dies; Luther marries the former nun Katherina von Bora

1525 – Tyndale visits Luther from England; under Luther’s influence the English translation of the New Testament is published and smuggled into England. Owning a Tyndale Bible in England carries a death sentence. Tyndale is declared a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake.

1527 – The Plague strikes Wittenburg. Luther’s home becomes a hospital. Luther writes the hymn A Mighty Fortress

1530 – Augsburg Confession presented to Charles V at Diet of Augsburg

1533 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated

1534 – Luther’s complete German Bible is published.

1536 – Henry VIII allows English Bible to be published in England

1539 – Catholic Counter-Reformation begins

1546 – Luther passes, age 63

1555 – the “Peace of Augsburg” gives the reigning prince of a country the right to determine the religion of his subjects (authors of this Peace hope to put an end to religion-based violence. Some days it works better than others.)  Reformation continues for the next hundred years or so.

 

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“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.  2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.  4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.  10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.  11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.  15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:1-19

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Over the past month we’ve been working our way through Philippians, and today is our final installment.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians has been, and is, a letter filled with joy.  It’s probably one of the few letters Paul wrote (that’s published in the Bible) where he’s not addressing some kind of crisis. (He addresses a few issues, but no major crises).

Before I dig into chapter four, I wanted to share something I read by theologian N.T. Wright this past week, which has a bearing on Paul’s message.  Wright was talking about Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and he commented, “I know churches where there’s a great… window with a picture of the Ascension… and all you can see [of Jesus] is a cloud with two feet sticking down.”  Wright goes on to say first-century Jews wouldn’t have seen the Ascension that way.  They would not have conceived of heaven as being somewhere in our universe.  Wright says in the New Testament, when people talked about Jesus coming back again, often the word used is “appears” rather than “descends” – “as though [Jesus is] behind an invisible curtain and one day the curtain will be removed and we will discover he’s been there all along.”

That ‘other reality behind the curtain’, as Wright puts it, is the reality of the Kingdom of God – and we are going to catch a couple of glimpses behind that curtain in the fourth chapter of Philippians.

So turning to the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter.  Like any letter from a loving father, Paul’s letter is full of advice.  And in this chapter, Paul’s advice falls into one of two general categories: (1) advice on generosity and giving; and (2) how to live the faith in daily life.  In this chapter living the faith comes first and giving comes second… but since it won’t be too long before we’re in stewardship time, let’s look at Paul’s comments on giving first.

As Paul is writing his letter, he has just received a generous gift from the Philippians to help support him while he’s in jail.  And Paul’s initial response is somewhat surprising. He says: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly for your concern for me” but then he immediately follows with “not that I’m in need, for I’ve learned to be content with whatever I have.” Paul says he knows how to live with little or plenty, how to be well-fed or how to be hungry. He says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me; in any case it was kind of you to share my distress.”

Kind of an odd thank-you note isn’t it? It almost sounds like Paul is saying “thanks for the gift but I really didn’t need it.”

But then Paul calls to mind the other times when the Philippians have been generous with him.  When Paul left Macedonia, they were the only ones who supported him; and when he was ministering in Thessalonica, they helped out more than once; and I’m sure there were more times that Paul doesn’t list in his letter.

Paul then adds:

“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough… the gifts you sent are a fragrant offering and a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

I think we could do with a bit more of this mind-set in the church.  Too often I’ve heard messages that say (or hint at) “without your money this ministry is in danger of shutting down”.  This is an attitude of fear rather than faith. We may be rich, we may be poor, but if God’s will is being done the church will continue.  For those who give, I pray for God’s blessing, as Paul prays for God’s blessing, for ‘the profit that accumulates to your account’.

Because for Paul the focus of verse 17 is “the profit that accumulates” (or in the Greek, “super-abounds”) to the accounts of those who give.

This is not a give-so- you-can-get kind of thing – that’s another mistake I often hear from a lot of pulpits. We don’t give so we can test God’s generosity.  We don’t give $100 hoping to get $1000 back. But in God’s economy, the oiko-nomos, the rule of the house, is one of continual giving and receiving, back and forth like in the dance of a relationship; except that as the giving is happening, it multiplies as it goes around. This is how it is in God’s economy – this is God’s doing – and it’s a glimpse behind the curtain of the Kingdom breaking into our reality.

Just about the entire letter of Philippians describes this Godly economy in one way or another: In chapter two, Paul talks about how “Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” and then when all was said and done, “God exalted him and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  First Jesus gives, and then God gives… and both are blessed.

In chapter three, Paul talks about how he himself, whatever he gained from being raised a Jew and a Pharisee, he “counts it all as rubbish… for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Paul gave up his past, his heritage, and God gave him a future.  And both are blessed. In short, in the words of missionary Jim Elliot, we as Christians give up what we cannot keep in order to gain what we cannot lose.

Paul’s second subject in this chapter – advice on how to live the faith – is also scattered throughout the letter, but the one theme that keeps coming back is the command, “be of the same mind”.  And again as we listen to Paul’s words we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom behind the curtain:

  • Phil 1:27 – stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the gospel
  • Phil 2:2 – be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind
  • Phil 2:5 – Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
  • Phil 2:14 – Do all things without murmuring and arguing
  • Phil 3:15 – Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind
  • Philippians 4:2 – I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

Euodia and Syntyche were not, as has sometimes been suggested, a couple of troublesome neighborhood gossips who had gotten on each other’s last nerves.  Paul describes the two women as “co-workers in the gospel”, two people who have struggled alongside Paul in his ministry, “together with Clement and the rest of Paul’s co-workers”.  These two were no spiritual lightweights!  It is possible for two deeply spiritual lovers-of-God to disagree on something.

Paul’s solution to the problem does not include sitting them down and teaching them proper church doctrine, or holding a conclave to allow the majority to decide which of the two of them is right.  Rather, Paul says in Greek, “Euodia, parakaleo; Syntyche, parakaleo”para as in parallel, and kaleo as in call – “I call you together”. And then he says to the disciples, “help these women, whose names are in the book of life.”

Christian unity is not the same thing as agreeing on everything.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a picture – a blueprint – for how to be one in Christ: how that unity is built, what it looks like.

And it all comes back to where we begin: with God’s love. Human love is imperfect; God’s love is perfect.  And here we catch a glimpse behind that curtain again.  Paul says, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)  What we’ve known here on earth is “rubbish” compared to knowing Jesus.

So how do we start? Paul says:

“finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable (or venerable), whatever is just, whatever is pure (or holy, or innocent), whatever is pleasing (or lovely), whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (or virtue) and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Why? Because of such are the Kingdom of Heaven.

Interestingly, the phrase “think on these things” in the Greek is taken from the language of accounting. A better translation might be, “Keep track of these things”. Stick them on your refrigerator. Track them on am Excel spreadsheet and give a monthly report.

Can you imagine if we actually did that? Keeping a list of all the good and lovely things around us on a spreadsheet? We’d start looking for spreadsheet-worthy things in everything around us: even in people whose points of view differ from ours… even in our enemies.

It may sound a little Pollyanna-ish; and there are certainly times when we need to talk about difficult issues.  But in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the Pharisees:

“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure…” (Matt 12:34-36)

If we fill our minds and hearts with good things, then good things will come out of our mouths. And then words become actions, and actions become unity.  Not that we’re ever going to see perfection in this life – but it will lead us in the direction of the Kingdom.

It’s kind of like the old Christian comedian said: “If you do all the things scripture says to do, you won’t have time to do the don’ts.”  In the same way, if we strive to think about and speak about “good stuff” – we won’t have time to be complaining. And life will change. And so I lay down the challenge, for all of us, myself included.

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Share these things. And the God of peace will be with you – right there on the other side of that curtain, closer than the air we breathe.

And so to wrap up his letter, Paul says to the Philippians: you have done well and are doing well. Stand firm and don’t allow yourselves to be divided or distracted or misled by false teachers.  Keep on loving God, keep on loving each other, and God will abundantly supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.

May this blessing be upon us all. AMEN.

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The Leadership of Women in the Bible: One Protestant’s View of the Ordination of Women

By Grant LeMarquand, Anglican Bishop for the Horn of Africa, Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies, Trinity School for Ministry Ambridge, PA USA

Reprinted with permission (and thanks!)

This paper will argue that godly women should not be barred from ordination as deacons, priests and bishops simply by virtue of their gender. This may sound, in this context, like a bold statement, so allow me to make a few preliminary remarks before we turn to the biblical material.

First, let me assure you that I actually do know where I am – I am aware that this is a paper for the Pan Africa Association of Catholic Exegetes. I am aware that I am a bit of an anomaly here. I am not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican, and a rather Protestant Anglican in many ways. I know that what I am about to propose is, shall we say, in some ‘tension’ with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning ordination. However, I also believe that you tolerate me here in your gathering (much more than ‘tolerate’ actually – you have always welcomed me warmly!) partly because you know that I will bring a somewhat different perspective. I have found an openness to ecumenical insights in this gathering and so it is my hope that this paper will, if it does nothing else, give you an idea of how some other groups of Christians approach the question of the ordination of women. At the very least my musing may lead you to a better understanding of your ‘separated brethren’ as the Second Vatican Council called the non-Roman churches.

I must also mention a caveat. The subtitle of this paper begins with the words “One Protestant’s View.” Protestants, as you probably know, have a difficult time agreeing on anything. This is, I am sure, one of the curses (or blessings) of not having a magisterium. Protestants, at least until more recent years, have generally argued that Scripture takes priority over Tradition and that only what could be proved by Scripture should be believed by Christian people. For example, the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Reformation states, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (Article VI. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation). Although the priority of Scripture has been normative for most Protestants since the Reformation, it cannot be denied that a new source of authority (one perhaps implied by the very idea that Scripture can be interpreted by any Christian) has emerged in modern and postmodern discussion, that new authority being so-called “Experience.” Indeed for many “Experience” is now seen as the trump card and many feel no guilt or unease about throwing aside the clear teaching of Scripture if it contradicts their own personal Experience. Of course this new reality has brought not only a crisis in authority, but also much more difference of opinion: Protestants (and some Catholics I must say) no longer differ only in the interpretation of Scripture, but in what constitutes the foundation for interpretation itself. At least since Schleiermacher much Protestant interpretation has been sadly individualistic and anthropocentric. These hermeneutical issues are well beyond the scope of this small paper. It is enough to say at this point that by no means will all Protestants or all Anglicans agree with the opinions in this essay. The Anglican Communion, consists of thirty-eight autonomous Provinces, all in Communion with but not under the authority of, the Archbishop of Canterbury. We are not agreed on women in Holy Orders. Some Provinces (or dioceses within Provinces) do not ordain women to any order. Some ordain only to the diaconate. Many now ordain women to the priesthood, but not the episcopate. Several (Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England) now have women bishops. So my paper is the opinion of one Anglican Protestant. Other Protestants or Anglicans should not be judged according to my views!

Finally, I must say a word about the Holy Spirit. Some in the Western world have attempted to short cut the hard work of exegetical and theological thinking by asserting that the Spirit has led the church in such and such a way. I am not saying that we should neglect the work of the Spirit in our midst. In fact I think we need more, not less dependence on the Spirit in our corporate life as Christians. Certainly, I consider myself a “charismatic!” And if anyone has a claim to be a charismatic – I have more: a charismatic of charismatics, converted to Christ at a charismatic revival meeting, filled with the Spirit as a teenager in a Pentecostal church, a witness of healing (and other!) miracles, a speaker in tongues (“I speak as a mad man” – let the reader understand). My concern is that the claim to being led by the Spirit has been made by many who seem to have been led in opposite directions. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church of The United States, for example, claimed (in her 2010 Pentecost letter) that The Episcopal Church was led by the Spirit to its liberal position on homosexual practice. It seems to me, however, that if one claims to be led by the Spirit, one is saddled with the burden of proof to demonstrate how the alleged movement of the Spirit coheres with the Word of God. Any claim to the Spirit’s inspiration or guidance must be consistent with what God has already revealed in Christ and in the scriptures.

I propose, therefore, that on this issue of women’s ordination, as with any issue in the church, we examine the biblical text in order to discover what God would have us think and do. In this quest I believe that Tradition can also be helpful in clarifying the biblical message, but I must confess at the outset that I am one of those Protestants who believe that the canon of Scripture trumps Tradition and that if we must chose, it is Scripture which must prevail. I believe that the church must always be reforming (semper reformanda) because God continually puts new situations and issues before us which require careful, patient discernment, but also courageous action.

And so, to Scripture.

Scriptural Foundations

Creation

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

   So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

These verses from the first Genesis creation story make it clear that God not only made human beings in his image, but that a major part of the concept of being in God’s image is that humans are male and female. Orthodox theology has always affirmed that God is not male but beyond gender. Only a humanity which is both male and female can adequately image God in his world.

Closely related to the statement that humanity, both male and female, is created in God’s image is the mandate given to humanity – the mandate to have authority over God’s creation, to rule as stewards of God’s world. We should note that the text of Genesis is clear that authority to rule is not given to the man alone but to both the man and the woman: “let them have dominion.”

Some will argue (on the basis of the second creation story) that since the women was created second, and (according to Genesis 2:18-23) since she is called his “helper,” (the KJV says “helpmate”) that some kind of leadership is given to the man, implying that an unequal relationship between the genders is built into creation itself. It is true that the Hebrew word (ezer) can imply a hierarchical relationship. Of the 128 uses of the word in the Old Testament, approximately 70% describe the “helper” as an inferior helping a superior. This is certainly not always the case, however. At times the “helper” and the one helped are clearly perceived as equals, and in other texts, the “helper” is the superior partner.[1] In some texts it is even God himself who is described as our “helper.”[2] The context of a given passage must provide the interpretative clues for making a decision in a case like this, not the word itself. And in this case, it seems clear that the man and the women, after they are put together by God, are not put into a hierarchical relationship, but are described by God as equals – they are made in his image and together they are given the authority to rule the earth.

Fall

The third chapter of Genesis describes the Fall, the entry of sin into the world through the human rebellion. Among the many implications of the entry of sin and death into the world is the reality that relations between the genders are now damaged. Although the curses pronounced by God to the man and the woman differ, they are balanced – both are cursed with ‘labour’: the man with labour in his work in the field, the woman with labour in childbirth.

But along with the balanced curses comes an unbalanced hierarchy. The woman is told: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” We should take note: the hierarchy of genders which is so ingrained in most cultures of the world in various ways is not a part of the created order, but a part of the fallen state. Patriarchy, the authority of males over females, enters into the world as a consequence of sin. This pronouncement of the ‘rule’ of women over men by God is clearly embedded within in the context of the curses given to the serpent, the man and the woman. Just as the curse on Adam has the effect of bringing a curse on the ground (Gen 3:17), so the curse on Eve has the effect of bringing a curse on the relationship of husband and wife: “he shall rule over you”, Gen 3:16. The curses are as balanced.[3]

Israel

The story of Israel takes place in the midst of the world’s fallen reality. Unequal gender relations characterize the life of Israel as well as its neighbours. In the midst of this situation, laws were given which protect women, especially widows, from the power of men. The laws of Israel are not only commands to be obeyed, they are a revelation of God’s compassionate and merciful character. The Torah reveals a God who cares for the weakest in society – the stranger, the slave, the indebted, the poor, the orphan, the widow. Among other effects, God’s Torah provides a context in which, in spite of living in a fallen and a patriarchal world, women would be given a community in which the women are respected and protected.

But even in the context of patriarchal Israelite society not all leaders in Israel are men. A multiplicity of leadership roles is given to women by God throughout the Old Testament narratives. Miriam is one Israel’s first prophets and a leader of worship; Deborah is called to be a judge; Hannah is shown to be a faithful pray-er in the house of the Lord even though the male priesthood has become corrupt; in the Song of Songs we hear the voice of a female author, a theologian-teacher; the “woman of worth” in Proverbs 31 has a clear gift of administration; the courageous actions of Naomi and Ruth are used by God as part of his plan to give his nation a just king.

There are of course no women priests in the Old Testament. We must keep in mind, however, that in the Old Testament period there were also no priests who were gentiles, no priests who were eunuchs or had any physical disability or deformity of any kind, and no priests from any tribe except Levi. As the book of Hebrews makes clear, even Jesus would not have been qualified to be a priest of Israel. We cannot simply argue that on the basis of the Old Testament priesthood being male, that ordination to ministry in the Church ought to be restricted to males.

In fact, I would argue that the Old Testament priesthood is a very different form of leadership from any new covenant ministry. The Old Testament priesthood was responsible for that set of things which characterized Israel as a nation under the old covenant: sacrifice, food laws, and so forth. Now that Israel has been redefined around the crucified and risen Christ, there is no need for a sacrificial system presided over by “priests” in that Old Testament sense, that is, priests who function as mediators between God and human beings. In fact one could argue that this is one of the main arguments of the letter to the Hebrews. I will say a bit more about the possible meaning of ‘priesthood’ later.

Ministry of Jesus

Mary the mother of Jesus was not simply a vessel for the incarnate Son of God. Mary was not merely a passive recipient, but an active and willing servant of the Lord, following the pattern of the suffering servant in Isaiah, exemplified, of course, by her Son. Mary’s willing participation in the incarnation provides a model for discipleship: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary the willing servant is also a theologian. An examination of the Magnificat reveals a brilliant, carefully constructed re-working of the Song of the Sea in Ex 15 and Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel which ties together the hopes of the people of Israel with God’s new work of salvation for whole world. Because of Mary’s unique, pivotal role in the history of salvation, we have, perhaps, been distracted from her ministry as a teacher, a theologian who has provided us with one of the most beautiful pieces of poetic theology in the history of the church.

Another woman mentioned in the infancy narratives is the prophet Anna (Lk 2:36) who is paired with the prophet Simeon in what is one of at least thirty instances in the third gospel in which Luke pairs a story of a man with a story of a woman. It is a commonplace in New Testament scholarship to note Luke’s pairing as a characteristic of his composition which functions to draw attention to the central roles played by women in the ministry of Jesus. According to Luke 2, Anna fasts and prays and gives thanks to God in the temple (vv. 37-38), but she also prefigures the work of the early Jerusalem church in the book of Acts who use the temple as the primary locus of proclamation. In Luke 2:38 “she spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” That is, in the gospel of Luke a woman is the first person to publicly proclaim the gospel of Jesus, in function paralleling the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

“The twelve and the women.” Another characteristic feature of Lukan style is his inclusion of summary statements which form points of transition in the action of his narrative. One of these transition/summary statements is found in Luke 6:12-16, which functions in the text to bring the story up to that point to a conclusion and introducing a section of teaching (Lk 6:17-49) and healing stories (Lk 7). Luke 6:12-16 portrays Jesus praying (another prominent theme of Luke’s gospel), and then choosing “from” his disciples. The implication here is that the disciples were a rather large group from which “the twelve” are chosen and named. The consistent impression we have from the third gospel is that most of Jesus’ peripatetic ministry is carried on in the presence of a large group of disciples who travel with Jesus from place to place, the twelve being a special group called out from among the disciples for a special symbolic purpose (as representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel now being renewed in Jesus’ ministry), as well as for some unspecified leadership role or roles among the larger group of disciples. That Jesus chose only males to be a part of the group of twelve does not necessarily imply that the church after Pentecost is bound to ordain only men. We noted in the case of the Old Testament priesthood that Gentiles and even Israelite non-Levites were excluded, as well as many other categories of men. Similarly, although Jesus disciples were all male, this does not mean that ordination must be restricted to only Jewish believers in Jesus.

The very next Lukan summary statement specifies another group of disciples, some of whom are also named:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.  (Lk 8:1-3)

It seems clear that some of the women among Jesus’ disciples were benefactors – they “provided” for this large group of disciples “out of their means.” Joanna, wife of Chuza, may have been a key figure in this group. The translation used above says that Chuza (the name is Nabatean) was Herod’s “household manager.” A more accurate translation would be “minister of finance,” probably sent to Tiberius (Herod’s Galilean headquarters) as part of a political treaty arrangement, where he met and married the daughter of a Jewish aristocrat. He may have converted to Judaism or he may have been a god-fearer. Perhaps he was the “royal official” mentioned in John 4:43 whose son (and, on this theory, also Joanna’s son) was healed by Jesus and whose entire household came to believe in Jesus. Such an historical reconstruction would explain how Joanna had become a disciple and how she was able to provide for Jesus and his followers (perhaps with funds from her husband, perhaps from her own personal finances).[4]

The women who followed Jesus, including but not limited to the ones named in Luke 6 were more than just the servants and benefactors. These women were most probably members of the 70 (or 72, there is a textual variant at that point in the manuscript tradition) whose mission of preaching the kingdom and healing is described in Luke 10:1-24. Note that this group seems to grow. In Luke 10 it is 70 (or so). At the triumphal entry it is a “multitude of disciples” (Lk 19:37); on the day that Judas is replaced at least 120 gather to deliberate, pray and cast lots (Acts 1:15-26), a group which seems to include the eleven, and also “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers” (Acts 1:14); it is presumably this same group who “are all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) on the Pentecost, and therefore preach in tongues and aid in the baptism of the thousands who believe that day.

The women, according to Luke, accompany Jesus during the time of his ministry, follow him into Jerusalem at the beginning of passion week, and become witnesses of,

  • his death: “And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things,” (Lk 23:49),
  • his burial: “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then returned, and prepared spices and ointments,” (Lk 23:55-56),
  • and his resurrection: “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8And they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Lk 24:1-11)

The significance of these female disciples of Jesus is often missed or glossed over. They were with Jesus throughout his three years of ministry, they heard his teaching, witnessed his mighty acts and were full participants in the mission work which Jesus sent his disciples to do. (Note the words of the angels at the tombs: “remember how he told you when he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered…” [24:7; italics added] – the women, in other words, were present for Jesus’ passion predictions.) At least some of them made a significant contribution to the support of the band of disciples – especially Joanna, wife of Chuza. They were the primary witnesses of the saving events of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. All four of the gospel writers are careful to mention the presence of the women at these events, even when most of the twelve, except for the beloved disciple (according to John’s gospel) have fled the scene. Mark’s gospel, indeed, underlines the courage of the women as opposed to the flight of the twelve.

But what is the significance of women “disciples”?

The story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany helps to clarify the women’s role. The story is well-known; Martha is working in the kitchen while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet.” (v. 39) Although many have attempted to portray this story as exemplifying two kinds of good and helpful dispositions towards the Lord (service and contemplation), there is much more significance to Mary of Bethany’s behaviour than simply to exhibit an example of a godly woman at prayer. Two things are to be noted. First, Mary is transgressing into male space. In the first century world, the kitchen is the place for the women when there are male visitors in the house; the gathering room is male space. Second, the phrase “sitting at the feet” is code language for the behaviour of a disciple who is learning from a Rabbi. Note that the same phrase is used in the book of Acts to describe Paul whose credentials include that he had “sat at the feet of Gamaliel.” (Acts 22:5) Far from being the archetype of the submissive woman, Mary of Bethany is acting with great presumption – she is in male space, and taking upon herself a male role, that of training as a disciple of a Rabbi in order to become a Rabbi herself. (To be a disciple is to take on an apprenticeship to be a Rabbi; one does not become a disciple merely for one’s own personal spiritual benefit!) Martha is scandalized about Mary not just because she needs an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, but because Mary is transgressing gender roles – and Jesus is encouraging it. Women disciples of Jesus, in other words, were in training to be missionary preachers and healers, Rabbis of the good news of the Rabbi Jesus.

And, in fact, the female witnesses of the resurrection, especially Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), become the first preachers of the message of the resurrection. The disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (a married couple, perhaps?) say: “Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive” (Lk 24-22-23). They become the apostles to the apostles.[5] Mary Magdalene herself, according to John, used the phrase “I have seen the Lord.” (Jn 20:18) Bauckham’s comment is pertinent:

This is exactly what the other disciples later say to Thomas: “We have seen the Lord” (20:25). In Paul this is the defining content and terminology of the apostolic witness: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1).

The work of witness and proclamation by Mary and the other witnesses of Jesus ministry, death, burial and resurrection is apostolic work, apostolic work which continues past the first post-resurrection days into the post-Pentecost period.

Early Church

We must turn now to the practice of the earliest church, and especially to the letters of Paul where we find texts often used and misused by advocates of both sides of this discussion of women’s orders. There are some obvious texts that we must examine, but let me begin (having spoken of the women at the tomb as ‘apostles to the apostles’) with a text that may seem perhaps a bit more obscure – the list of greetings in Romans 16.

Several women are named in the greetings of Romans 16. This is significant in itself, since Paul’s usual practice is to greet the leaders of the congregation to whom he is writing. The first person named in the list is Phoebe, who is described as a deacon (v. 1) of the church of Cenchreae. It is difficult to assess exactly what the function of deacons was at this stage in the church’s history. The book of Acts, of course, has them set aside as administrators who perform a particular ministry for which they need to be filled with the Spirit – but at least two of them, Stephen and Philip, have significant preaching ministries. As well as being called a “deacon” Phoebe is also described as a ‘”benefactor” (v. 2: prostatis). The RSV has the very weak translation of “helper” at this point. A benefactor, rather, is one who provides the material needs for a person or organization. Phoebe is the ‘patron,’ (or, rather, ‘matron’) it seems, of her church in the suburbs of Corinth. As such it would have been expected for her to preside at the community meal, which for Christians was the Eucharist. Certainly, other benefactors in the Greco-Roman world, who hosted organizations in their homes, would have been expected to host the meal.[6]

The next people named are Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila, also known to us from the book of Acts. Significantly Prisca is named first, as she is three out of the four times the couple is mentioned in Acts. This may be because she has had the more significant ministry. The two are known to us as the teachers of the already eloquent Apollos (Acts 18:26). Apollos has sometimes been suggested as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews – a suggestion which led Adolf von Harnack to argue that since Priscilla was the teacher of Apollos, perhaps she was the actual author of Hebrews. Harnack’s suggestion has not always been followed of course (since it lacks any real evidence!) but it might explain why Hebrews is an anonymous work – who would have believed the work of a woman? What we do know, whether Priscilla authored Hebrews or not, is that she is known as a woman with a significant teaching and leadership ministry.

There are several other women mentioned in Romans 16, including Mary (v. 6). Sadly we don’t know which Mary this is. The gospel writers are always careful to distinguish between women named Mary since at least a third of all the women in Palestine in the time of Jesus had that name. Sadly, for us, Paul does not help with this question.

Of great importance to us for our discussion is v.7. The RSV is now widely regarded as the worst of translations on this verse. It reads:

Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (RSV)

Several things should be noted about the RSV translation. In the RSV the second member of the pair is given a masculine name (Junias) even though the masculine form of this name is completely unattested in the ancient world and is found in no ancient texts. Most scholars have abandoned any attempt to argue that Paul was referring to a man.[7] Most likely Andronicus and Junia were a married couple. The RSV makes it worse, of course, by calling them ‘kinsmen’ and ‘men of note,’ terms which (wrongly) emphasize the masculine gender.

Correctly, however, the RSV says that these two are “of note among the apostles.” The ESV corrects one problem of the RSV translation, only to introduce another:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (ESV)

The ESV leaves out the second masculine note, but keeps one. ‘Junia’ (a feminine name rightly included in the ESV) is still (surprisingly) called a “kinsman.” Of course what Paul means is that these two are both Jewish – an interesting piece of data since neither name is Jewish – but then neither is the name “Paul.” Most Jews living in the diaspora were given or adopted Greek or Latin names which were similar to their Jewish name (thus: Saul / Paul; Cleopas / Clopas; Simeon / Simon; Joseph / Justus, etc, etc).[8]

The ESV describes Andronicus and Junia as “well know to the apostles” thereby implying that they may not be apostles themselves. The exegetical question is whether the Greek preposition “en” should be considered inclusive (“among”) or exclusive (“to”). Aside from the observation that Paul would probably have used a different preposition if he had wanted to make it clear that his meaning was exclusive, perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the inclusive meaning is found in one of the early Greek fathers (who, after all, spoke the language fluently and would have understood the nuance intended). The father I have in mind is Chrysostom, who, in a sermon on Romans 16 stated the following,

“Greet Andronicus and Junia…who are outstanding among the apostles”: To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was deemed worthy of the title of apostle.[9]

Paul had a wider view of what apostolic ministry was than is portrayed in Acts 1. In Acts 1 the term apostle is limited to the twelve. The criteria for replacing Judas, however, (including it seems that the replacement should be male) include that the person has been a member of the wider group of disciples from the time of Jesus’ baptism until his Ascension, and was a witness of the resurrection. Paul’s use of term seems to be similar in that an apostle (like Paul himself) should have “seen the Lord.” Junia (whether or not she is the same person known in Luke as Joanna) must at least have been one of the “more than five hundred” (1 Cor 15) to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection. More likely, she and her husband were probably followers of Jesus before the passion and have now become missionaries to the church in Rome.

For Paul to call a woman an apostle has important implications. First, it is clear that for Paul apostles are in a special category. They are the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as Luke puts it. (Lk 1:2) If the New Testament says that a woman was an apostle it is difficult to see how we can refuse ordination to any order of ministry to a woman. This might especially be true for more Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans who see continuity between the apostles and their successors in the episcopate. A more evangelically minded person might not see apostolic succession in those terms at all, seeing the true apostolic succession to be a succession of teaching rather than persons in episcopal office. In either case the presence of a woman apostle in the pages of the New Testament appears to remove all objections to the ordination of women. I think it is already clear that the New Testament calls Phoebe a “deacon” and that she probably presided at the Eucharistic table in her Corinthian house church. That women are, in the New Testament, leaders, presiders at the communal table, preachers, eyewitnesses of the saving events would, to my mind, remove any objections to the ordination of women as presbyters.

But what of the texts in Paul that are often used to argue against the ordination of women?

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

On any account this is a difficult passage. Does this mean that women must not preach? Many argue that, especially those who believe that ordination is the setting aside of a person to preach and govern, which is common among Reformed Christians.[10] However, a surface reading of this text actually seems to say much more than ‘women shouldn’t preach.’ It seems to imply that women should not be lectors, or give announcements, or lead the prayers of the people.

The text has other problems. Numerous scholars (not just liberal ones who want to avoid the ordination of women question) argue on good grounds that this text is not an original part of Paul’s letter. These verses do not appear in all of the ancient manuscripts (see Fee’s commentary for a vigorous argument excluding this text from the New Testament). I tend to agree with that evidence.

However, even if it was not written by Paul, some will still say that it is canonical on other grounds, as part of the textus receptus. So it needs to be discussed (just as the story of the woman caught in adultery needs to be discussed).

But it is highly doubtful that the text means that women must be silent all the time. In 1 Corinthians 11 (another difficult passage – on the subject of head covering), Paul is clearly talking about the correct way for women to ‘pray’ and to ‘prophesy’ in church. If Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 says that women may pray and prophesy (and the term prophesy itself probably includes preaching as well as other more spontaneous Spirit-inspired speech[11]), how can he turn around three chapters later and say they must always be silent. The answer appears to lie (as it always does) in the context, in this case, the cultural context. Ken Bailey suggests (based on years of experience in the Middle East) that some of the women in Corinth and other places, would have been less educated and therefore have had a more difficult time following the teaching in church. If the sermon was long (Paul’s sometimes were – remember Eutyches, falling dead from the window!) the women may have become impatient and begun to ask their husbands questions or to talk among themselves. Paul’s answer (if this is a Pauline text) is that they should ask at home. Here is the important point: Paul wants them to be taught so that they will be able to pray and prophesy and participate more intelligently in the future.[12]

1 Timothy 2:8-15

I suggest that a similar situation is behind Paul’s (yes, I think Paul wrote the Pastorals!) words in 1 Timothy: “I permit no women to teach or to have authority (or “be authoritarian”) over men; she is to keep silent.” (v. 12) There are some who take heart from Paul’s words here because it sounds as if he is reinforcing and giving (literally) sanction to their prejudices against women. There are some, therefore, who argue that Paul’s words reinforce the view that men are strong, macho leader types, and women are air-headed, shallow, indecisive and must be led. Women should stay at home and take care of the children and the house work. I have heard these views expressed in my classroom by students from time to time (and certainly on the internet!), and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is sometimes used as the proof text.

The key to understanding the text, once more, is to understand the context. Verse 11 says the issue is that women “should learn.” Learning, Paul says, precedes any teaching. Verses 13-14 seems at first to make things work against those in favour of women in the pulpit, because Paul’s admonition ‘to learn in silence and not to teach’ is given biblical (Old Testament) sanction as Paul’s provides the theological reason – Eve sinned first. For many, this means that Paul is appealing to the order of creation (Adam came first, then Eve) and the order of the Fall (Eve sinned first, then Adam) to bolster an argument to have only men in teaching authority in church. Paul’s argument would then be: ‘Eve sinned first, therefore, if we allow women to be in charge, we will be back in the same trouble we got ourselves into in the garden.’ This would imply that, according to Paul, women are weaker not just physically, but morally and spiritually, and that they are, therefore a danger to men.

But we must pay careful attention to the purpose of Paul’s admonition. The issue which Paul is addressing has to do with those who have the qualifications to teach in church. Those who do not know must learn before they can teach. The problem that Paul is addressing is that most women (not all – see Joanna, Junia, Priscilla, the Corinthian women prophets, and Philip’s daughters) in his day lacked the appropriate education to teach. So they must learn first (v. 11). The problem that Eve had was that she was ‘deceived.’ (v. 13) What women need, therefore, is the opportunity to study and learn – and therefore not be deceived as Eve was.[13]

I would argue, therefore that Tom Wright’s translation of this passage is the most accurate and helpful:

 So this is what I want: that men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing. In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly. They should not go in for elaborate hairstyles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes. Instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works. They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I’m not saying that women should be allowed to teach men, or try to dictate to them, rather they should be left undisturbed. Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve and Adam was not deceived    but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass. She will, however, be kept safe     through childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence.[14]

We may conclude, therefore that, like the Gospels and the book of Acts, Paul has no objection to women serving in any leadership positions in the church, so long as they are appropriately called, gifted and trained.

Theological concerns

Christ and culture

We can agree, I believe, that many churches in the West have become conformed to a certain spirit of the age. The Zeitgeist which has made idols of self-expression, unregulated so-called freedom, have led us to the point that some churches support freedom of choice to abort babies over the need to protect the most vulnerable, and support complete freedom of sexual expression. I am deeply aware that many who would call themselves theologically conservative believe that the ordination of women fits into this same basic category. There are bad arguments for the ordination of women – arguments based on particular ideas of freedom or notions of human rights or ‘equality’ (I myself have never believed in the equality of men and women – I have always considered women to be superior beings in almost every way!).

Africa is not immune from these philosophical and theological currents. The trends of modernism and postmodernism are not confined to Western culture. The mass media is now a global phenomenon, the internet comes from everywhere and goes to everywhere. There is no place isolated of insulated. It is crucial, therefore that the Africa churches examine proposed cultural changes carefully and thoughtfully. Africa has traditionally had quite defined roles for men and women. One might argue that some of thee roles have not benefitted women. In 2013 I led a retreat for male and female Anglican theological students in Juba, South Sudan. At one point we were examining Genesis 3 and the ‘curses’ placed on Adam and Eve. I pointed out that both the man and the woman received a penalty for their sin described by the same word – pain, labour. The man is told that by ‘labour’ he would work the earth; the woman is told that by ‘labour’ she would bring forth children. A woman’s hand went up: “If this true,” she said, “why is it that in Africa the women get both?”

At the same time, women in Africa have never been completely shut out of religious leadership roles. Women have been prophets, evangelists, worship leaders, teachers, both within traditional religions and within the church. I believe that it is time to look again at the roles that women play in the church and ask whether they have been too restricted, not because of what Scripture says, but because parts of our culture have kept women confined to certain roles and tasks.

Tradition

By far the strongest argument against my position is that I have not demonstrated how the tradition of the post-New Testament church came to exclude women from ordained ministry. The answer to this question is beyond my area of expertise, but let me make a few suggestions. First, as I have said before, for me the Bible is a trump card. If the Bible teaches that women were ministers of the gospel in the New Testament period, then the church must restore that ministry.

Second, there do seem to be some indications that women were ordained in the post-apostolic period. Let me just mention three.

The first is the early church father Chrysostom. We have already seen his expository comment of Junia, the woman apostle of Rom 16:7. The quote from the silver-tongued bishop is worth repeating here:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia…who are outstanding among the apostles”: To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was deemed worthy of the title of apostle.[15]

It seems clear that at least this early church father believed that there could be a woman apostle. If Junia could be an apostle should not other women be called to apostolic orders?

Second, a late second century Orthodox document, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, probably from Asia Minor, but which circulated widely in the early church (texts are found in Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian) and was even found in some of the early biblical canons of the Armenian and Syrian Churches, portrays Thecla as baptizing and as being sent by Paul to teach and evangelize. A fresco (from near Ephesus, dated around the 4th c) of Thecla (or Theoclia) was defaced when, at a later date, it became clear that women were not going to be ordained, or continue to be ordained. It should be noticed that the fresco which portrays Paul and Thecla together, defaces only Thecla (her eyes are gauged out and her right hand is marred). As John Dominic Crossan notes, “Both the right hands of Paul and of Theoclia are raised in identical authoritative teaching gestures.”[16] If the partial destruction of the fresco was the work of an iconoclast Paul would also have been de-faced. It must have been done by someone who believed that Thecla, as a woman, should not have been so honoured.

Similarly, the alpha at the end of the word “Episcopa” in the icon of “Episcopa Theodora” in an early 9th century mosaic in Rome has been defaced, probably because the iconoclast understood the word to mean “a (female) bishop.” Some have argued that the word meant that she was “the wife of a bishop,” but the fact that it was defaced would surely imply that the term was understood to mean “bishop” and that this was found offensive. This is evidence is certainly far from sure, of course.

There is, of course, much more evidence that women’s ministry has been accepted in Protestant, especially holiness traditions. John Wesley commissioned women preachers, General Boothe of the Salvation Army said that his best men were women, the Pentecostal movement has long ordained women pastors, the 19th century missionary movement sent at least as many women to the field as men. This too, I would argue, is a part of the ‘Tradition’ which we must consider.

Although it is clear that women could not be ordained during most of the post-apostolic and medieval periods, I have not yet seen any convincing arguments from those periods as to why women are excluded.

What is ordination?

I think it is clear that I have barely touched the issue which is the important one for many of you here, which is that limiting the priesthood to males is seen as right and proper because the priest stands in the place of Christ as a sort of mediator figure between God and his people. I have not addressed this, except perhaps by implication in a few places in my paper, because I do not see ordination referred to in those terms in the pages of the New Testament. This is, of course, a major issue for Roman Catholic doctrine and so let me add just one alternative possible view. Most Protestants, myself included, have some difficulty accepting a mediatorial role for the Christian priesthood. The English word priest is closely related to the Greek word ‘presbuteros’ (elder) rather than the term ‘hieros’ (sacrificing priest). For Protestants, “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5) Even if it should be accepted that a Christian priest has some mediatorial role, should we speak of the priest standing in the place of Christ? There is an alternative view. Until recently the Eastern churches rejected the idea of the priest standing in the place of Christ, preferring instead to see the priest standing in the place of the Church. Surprisingly, although the Church is the bride of Christ, the Eastern view did not lead the Eastern churches to insist that all priests be female in order to fulfill that role. Why, then, should we insist that only a male priesthood could stand in the place of Christ. For me, of course, these are moot points since I see ordination primarily as the setting aside of a person for ministries of equipping, leading and teaching. But if we must speak of a mediatorial role for the priest in Christ’s church, would the female priesthood not remind us all of the church as Christ’s bride; would the female priesthood not also remind us that God made us all in his image – male and female he made us (Genesis 1:27); and especially would the female priest not remind us all that actually Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity?

[1] See W. J. WEBB, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IVP, 2001) 128.

[2] See for example Psalm 46:1. Cf. P. TRIBLE, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1978) and M.J. OBIORAH, << Insight into the Community’s Faith in Psalm 46: Its Relevance for Africa >>, Bible et sujets pastoraux en Afrique – Bible and Pastoral Issues in Africa. Proceedings of the Sixteenth Congress of the Panafrican Association of Catholic Exegetes (ed. M.A. ADEKAMBI) (Abidjan, APECA / PACE 2015) 110-45 [especially pp. 129-30].

[3] What is more, the next chapters of Genesis detail the many other ways in which the sin of Adam and Eve has repercussions in every area of life: the whole world is now broken. The natural world is effected (“cursed is the ground because of you”, Gen 3:17), patriarch enters (Gen 3:16), the family of the first ancestors experiences jealousy leading to murder (Gen 4:1-16), the life span of the ancestors decreases (compare Gen 5:1-31 with Gen 11:10-32), the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds are disrupted (Gen 6:1-4), and after the flood we see the emergence of Empire (Gen 11:1-10). Patriarchy is merely one of the many ways in which sin infects the fallen world.

[4] For much more corroborating evidence, see R. BAUCKHAM, Gospel Women. Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002) chapter 5.

[5] For the history of the use of this phrase, especially as regards Mary Magdalene, see R. BROWN, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York, Paulist, 1979) 190.

[6] For more on patronage and the role of Phoebe as a patron see, B.W. WINTER, Roman Wives, Roman Widows. The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003) 193-99.

[7] Exceptions are M.H. BURER and D.B. WALLACE, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16,7”, NTS 47 (2001) 76-91; for a clear refutation see, R. BAUCKHAM, Gospel Women. Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002) 166-86 and E.J. EPP, Junia. The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2005).

[8] As an aside, it may be the case (and it has been argued cogently by Richard Bauckham) that this Junia’s Hebrew name may have been the sound-alike name Joanna, that woman from Galilee who was a prominent member of “the women” among Jesus’ disciples and a witness to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. See R. BAUCKHAM, Gospel Women. Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002) chapter 5.

[9] In Ep. Ad Romanos 31.2; PG 60.669-670.

[10] This is why, by the way, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney opposes women’s ordination, but is in favour of lay presidency, even by women, at the Lord’s Supper. They don’t consider ordination to be ordination to the table, but to the pulpit, or to governance.

[11] For this discussion see the commentaries by: G. FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987) and A. THISELTON, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000).

[12] See K.E. BAILEY, “The Women Prophets of Corinth: A study of aspects of 1 Cor 11:2-16”, Theology Matters (Jan-Feb 2000) 11-14; “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View”, Theology Matters 6/1 (2000) 1-11. A similar argument can be found in D. WILLIAMS, The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church (Los Angeles, BIM, 1977), and in C. S. KEENER, Paul, Women & Wives. Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Hendrickson, 1992) chapter 2.

[13] I am grateful to Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, for this basic line of reasoning. See N.T. WRIGHT, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis”, a conference paper for the Symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’, St John’s College, Durham, September 4, 2004, which can be accessed online on the “N.T. Wright Page”: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm&gt;. Accessed September 1, 2015.

[14] T. WRIGHT, Paul for Everyone. The Pastoral Letters 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (London:SPCK, 2003) 21-22.

[15] In Ep. Ad Romanos 31.2; PG 60.669-670.

[16] J.D. Crossan, “The Search for the Historical Paul: What Paul Thought About Women”, The Huffington Post (November 8, 2011), online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/historical-paul-gender_b_921319.html. Accessed September 16, 2015. The article includes a clear photograph of the fresco.

 

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“[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” – Mark 4:26-34

The New Testament lesson for the day – II Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 – is also referred to briefly.

Today’s sermon is for all you gardeners out there.

I’m just an amateur gardener myself. What I lack in knowledge I make up for in persistence. But I love gardening, partly because working in the garden brings to mind thoughts about God. The Bible itself begins in a garden, the Garden of Eden; and the turning point of all of human history happened in a garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed ‘not my will but yours be done’.

Have you ever heard the old saying about being ‘nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth’? That thought comes to mind a lot when I’m working in the garden, and the other day I decided to find out where that came from. It’s from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney called God’s Garden, and the poem goes like this (in part):

THE Lord God planted a garden
In the first… days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,–
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

At the moment, in the middle of June, we’re kind of in between planting and harvest (with the exception of the strawberries, which are just finishing). Planting season in Western PA begins in mid-May, and harvesting begins around July, so most of the garden work this time of year is weeding. As I’ve been working in the gardens the past few weeks I’ve been putting together a theology of weeds.

In the Bible weeds represent sin (sometimes ‘sinners’ but usually ‘sin’) and weeding has to do with getting rid of sin and doing things God’s way. Here are some things I’ve noticed about weeds:

  • Weeds are persistent. Pull up three and five more grow in their place. It gets discouraging sometimes and sometimes it makes me want to give up… but I know if I stop weeding even for a week the weeds take over completely!
  • Weeds are tougher than the plants I’m trying to grow. They have thicker stems, they have deeper roots, they have more prolific seed-pods. I mean, look at the dandelion – those seeds come equipped with their own little parachutes! Good luck getting rid of them all.
  • Weeds are sneaky. They hide under bushes. They wrap themselves around good plants like vines and try to choke them. They grow real close to delicate little flowers, so that I can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. I look at those weeds and I say ‘you are taking advantage!’

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows wheat and gets up the next day and finds an enemy has sown weeds in his wheat, so that when the wheat grows up so do the weeds. The farmer’s servants come and say, “Sir, didn’t you plant wheat? What’s up with all the weeds? Do you want us to tear them out?” And the farmer says, “no… you’ll tear up the wheat with it. Let them grow together until the harvest and then we’ll separate them out.” With those precious little flowers of mine that’s what I have to do: I have to at least let them grow bigger and stronger before I can weed around them.

So that’s been my meditation in the garden for the past few weeks, about weeds and sin and how much alike they are.

Jesus talked a lot about gardens in his parables. He talked about vineyards, and he talked about fig trees that don’t bear fruit, and about seeds that fall on the path, or on rocks, or among thorns, or in good soil. He said, when talking about the Pharisees, ‘every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.’

Today we have two parables where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a garden.

In the first parable Jesus says the kingdom of God can be compared to a farmer who scatters seed and then goes about his business: he gets up, goes to sleep, does whatever he needs to do. The seed sprouts and grows on its own and the farmer has no idea how that happens. The wheat grows up out of the earth, first a stalk and then a head and then the full grain (remember that Thanksgiving hymn – “first the stalk and then the ear/then the full corn shall appear”), and when the grain is ripe the farmer immediately puts in the sickle because the harvest has come. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.

Verse 34 of Mark chapter 4 tells us Jesus “explained everything in private to his disciples” but this is one of those parables where the disciples didn’t write down what Jesus said. So we’re not sure exactly how Jesus might have explained it, and we could come up with a number of interpretations.

For example, the gardener could be God, scattering God’s word into peoples’ hearts. In a way this makes sense because God can be seen as the Gardener and in Jesus’ parables the seed always represents the Gospel. But in a way it doesn’t make sense because God is not like the farmer in the parable who goes about his business ignoring the seed and letting it do its own thing. God does know how the seed sprouts and how growth happens. So that interpretation only fits partly.

Another possible interpretation is that gardener represents those of us who share the Gospel with others. That’s not just clergy, that’s anybody who shares the faith. When we talk to people about God, we are tossing the seeds of the Gospel out there. Like the farmer, we have no idea what’s going to take root, or when it will start to grow, or how fast it will grow, or how long it will take to mature. We scatter the seed in faith and we go about our business.

I think this interpretation fits pretty well. The only thing that doesn’t fall into place with this interpretation is the harvester… and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But I wanted to share a third interpretation from an old English preacher named Charles Simeon. Simeon was an acquaintance of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Simeon was young enough to be Wesley’s grandson, and the two theologians were… well they had their differences. Simeon was Calvinist and Wesley was Arminian; Simeon was a Cambridge man while Wesley was at Oxford; and the rivalry between those two schools was worse than the rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens. Wesley and Simeon are a powerful example of how two religious leaders can disagree without dividing a church. The two men only met twice in their lives, but they actively searched for common ground, and they found it, and they stood on it. And if the leaders of the Anglican Church at the time had listened to Simeon (who was just a young pup in those days), the Methodist movement might still be Anglican. It’s one of those interesting moments in history.

Anyway, Simeon interprets Jesus’ parable is an illustration of the inner workings of grace in a person’s soul. He says God’s grace, like the sprouting of a seed, is spontaneous, gradual, and inexplicable. Spontaneous, because there is something in the nature of a seed that causes it to sprout – not by itself, but with help from (as he puts it) “the Sun of Righteousness and showers of the Spirit”. The growth is gradual, because the blade, the ear, and the full corn don’t happen all at once… and likewise Christians grow from being newly converted, to a more solid and hopeful walk with God, to having real experience in dealing with good and evil. And growth is inexplicable, because we can’t explain how a seed grows or how grace works. It just does. They just do.

And then when the grain is mature the harvester immediately puts in the sickle and brings the grain into the barn.

In all of Jesus’ parables about gardening there is no other way to interpret the ‘harvester’ except as God, bringing God’s faithful home. When the fruit is mature, the harvest comes. God has eternal purposes in mind, and everything we live through in this life is aimed toward that goal.

The psalmist prays, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) Paul writes to the Corinthians saying “we walk by faith, not by sight; we have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord; but whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (II Cor 5:7-9) If we are living by faith our journey home to God is a continuation of what we’ve already begun; a continuation of the grace God is already working in us.

Jesus immediately follows up this parable with the parable of the mustard seed. If the grace working within us sometimes seems to us small and easily overwhelmed by weeds, we can rest assured growth will happen. If the church herself sometimes seems to us to be too small to take on the evils of the world around us, this parable is for us too. Do we wonder what difference our little church can make in the world? Do we fret over small numbers, remembering the days when the churches were packed every Sunday? Jesus says, ‘look how small the mustard seed is, and how big the mustard tree is’.

So what can we take away from these parables today? Two things. First, God is a wise and experienced gardener and we can trust God’s ability to work with us plants. From planting to harvest, God is in control. So fear not! As I’ve mentioned before, so much in our world is designed to make us afraid, so that our actions are motivated by fear. I believe with all my heart one of the greatest ways we can bear witness to God in today’s world is to live fearlessly.

And second, keep on being faithful in scattering the seed, even when we don’t know what becomes of it. God will take care of both the growth and the weeds. And with a tip of the hat to Simeon, ‘let us wait for the former and the latter rains… and expect a variety of seasons…’. Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church in the Strip, 6/14/15

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