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Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

It’s Memorial Day weekend!  I hope you’ll have a chance to relax a bit with family and friends this weekend. Tomorrow we will remember all the men and women who served our country and gave their lives so that we could live in freedom and safety. It’s comforting on a holiday like this to hear the words we just heard from Revelation, where God says: “…he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”  We worship a God who is not ashamed to know, and to enter into, our pain and our grief; and who promises us one day all things will be made right.

I sometimes wish we Christians had a Memorial Day for the faith: a day to remember those who have given their lives so that we could have eternal life. Some of the people we would honor would include people we met in our scripture readings today: the apostles Paul and John, the disciple Timothy, and of course Jesus. All of them gave their lives so that we could know the joy of knowing God. It is fitting that we should remember them today.

What I wanted to focus on today is the vision that guided these men of faith.  All three of our scripture readings today have to do with vision (or visions), each in their own way.  In Acts, Paul has a literal vision of a man from Macedonia; in Revelation, John shares with us a vision of heaven; and in the gospel reading from John, Jesus shares a vision of God.  Today I’d like to spend a little bit of time with each of these visions, in hope they will be an inspiration to us as well.  I’ll be working chronologically backwards, starting with the vision in Revelation.

The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  In other words, if this world is all there is, and we have been following a Messiah who talks about a different world, when there really isn’t one – then we will have lived our one and only life caught up in a lie. BUT! If Jesus’ words are true, then our hope and our joy begin now, in this life, and carry into the world to come.

Revelation gives us a glimpse of that world to come.  (One of these days I’m going to preach a sermon, maybe a whole series, on the book of Revelation because there is so much good stuff in here, and so much that is relevant to our time, but for now just a glimpse.) Bear in mind Revelation was written to a church going through tough times, to encourage them and to remind them God hasn’t forgotten them.

In these verses from Revelation, John shares with us a vision of the eternal city, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven, prepared and decorated like a bride for her husband; and God says, “behold, God’s home is with mortals… they will be his peoples (and that word is plural: many peoples) and God will be with them.”  And he will wipe away every tear; he will make all things new. God will give to the thirsty a drink from the fountain of the water of life.

The Holy City

In John’s vision, this beautiful, radiant city is also called the wife of the Lamb. When I hear the words ‘holy city’ what I usually see in my mind’s eye is white stone skyscrapers and city walls glowing in the sunlight… but I think that’s the wrong vision. The city is people, not buildings; just like the church is people, not buildings. The wife of the Lamb is not real estate; she is a living, breathing bride, made up of all of us together.  And it will take all of us together to make a bride worthy of Jesus.  How that will all work out, I don’t know. Revelation is an allegory, it’s not meant to be read literally; but it begins to give us a vision.

John continues to share his vision, and he says: in this city, running through it, running through the middle of the main street, is the river of the water of life. The river’s source is the throne of God and the throne of the Lamb. On either side of that river is the tree of life, with twelve kinds of fruit, one fruit for each month.  And the leaves of the tree of life are to be used for “the healing of the nations”.

When you consider how much violence is done every day in our world, and how many days there have been since the world began… that’s a lot of healing to do. How great is God’s healing power! And God Himself will be the light in the city; there’s no need for lamp or sun, and God and the Lamb “will reign for ever and ever.”  But that’s not all: this scene includes the Bride – us – God’s servants, elevated to the throne as well. Or perhaps more accurately, restored to the place Adam and Eve were originally given before the fall of the human race.

What will make this city different from all others is that, as John says, “nothing accursed will be found there”.  Anyone who has denied or abandoned God – the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars – these will have been removed and they will no longer trouble us.  We will enjoy God’s presence, as the Bride of the Lamb, always.

This vision, this future, is a great part of what makes the Christian life worthwhile. But it’s still a ways off.  In the present, being a servant of God can sometimes mean a life full of curve balls. Paul’s vision in Acts is a great example of this.

Just before our reading in Acts, Paul was traveling and evangelizing with Silas and Timothy throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia, which is in the center of what is today known as Turkey. From where they were, the logical next step would have been to either turn right (north) and preach in Bithynia, or turn left (south) and preach in what is now western Turkey – both of which were highly populated areas. But scripture tells us Paul and his companions were “prevented” by the Holy Spirit from going in either direction.

This is unusual. Usually the idea, speaking as a preacher, is to preach in all the places one possibly can, so as reach as many people as possible.  I’m reminded of John Wesley (I’m reading his memoirs right now) who often preached three or four sermons in a day, in three or four different cities, and then rode on horseback to another city and did it all over again the next day! Or remember the Billy Graham crusades: would Billy Graham ever say ‘no’ to a city that asked him to preach? Not that I ever heard of.

But in this case, Paul is clearly told ‘don’t go there’.  And he sees a vision of a man from Macedonia, pleading with him and begging him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.”  This vision is not a figment of Paul’s imagination, and it’s not a dream; it is a supernatural experience, and it most likely came to Paul while he was praying. But the vision’s instructions are not detailed: how to interpret and obey the vision was up to Paul and his companions. God in His wisdom chooses to invite mere mortals to help flesh out the plans.

By the way, this is not the only time God used a vision of a messengers to communicate an outreach strategy. Paul’s story reminds me of the story of St. Patrick, who had a similar experience. Patrick had a dream in which he saw a man coming from Ireland. The man handed him a letter with the heading Vox Hiberniae – ‘the Voice of the Irish’. And as he read the letter, he heard the people he had known in Ireland (when he was younger) calling to him: “…come and walk among us once again.”

St. Patrick was British; he had been a slave in Ireland when he was young. He escaped from Ireland and made it home to Britain, where he became a priest, and then he had this vision.  I imagine St. Patrick’s first reaction must have been surprise, at the very least: God wants him to go back to the land where he had been a slave? It’s probably not what Patrick had in mind for his ministry. And Macedonia was probably not what Paul had in mind for his ministry.

Both Patrick and Paul had dreams and plans for their ministries that ended up going by the wayside because God had something else in mind. And it must have been frustrating at first. But as Patrick and Paul followed God’s lead, opportunities for ministry opened up like they’d never dreamed of. St. Patrick spent the rest of his life ministering to the people of Ireland, and he is credited with single-handedly bringing the Christian faith to Ireland. (He did have some help but he did the lion’s share of the work.)

Back in Turkey, Paul and his friends got on a boat and sailed to the region of Macedonia, to the city of Neapolis, which was the main harbor for the nearby city of Philippi.  Once in Philippi, life continued to take unexpected turns. Ministering there would eventually bring them close to the heart of the Roman Empire, because Philippi was a Roman colony. But at first, nothing happened.  They were in the city a number of days doing nothing in terms of ministry.  Then, on the Sabbath, they went to look for people who believed in the God of Israel – who (if there were any) would be gathering outside the city. And they went to the banks of the river, probably expecting to run into a Macedonian man, and instead they meet a Thyatiran woman!  Ironically, Thyatira is one of the cities God had told them not to go to when they were in Turkey.  Turns out the Thyatirans got to hear the message through her.

Lydia was not just any woman: she was “a businesswoman” and “a dealer in purple cloth”: she was a successful person with influence. Paul and his companions had come on this journey planning to give to others – which they did, preaching the good news of Jesus – but they also found themselves in the position of needing to receive: specifically, food and shelter. So after Lydia and her whole household were baptized, she urged them to come to her house and stay.  The word ‘urge’ in Greek has the same root as paraclete, which is a word used to describe the Holy Spirit: it means ‘to come alongside’ and stay alongside. Lydia didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and it’s a beautiful expression of her new-found faith.

All of this happened as a result of a vision that started out with the message, “don’t preach here – preach over there instead”. We never know where God’s vision is going to lead us.

The final vision in our readings today is in the gospel of John. In this passage Jesus gives us a vision of our amazing God.  As we read and hear this passage I think it’s important not to try to understand it literally, that is, with an analytical mind.  This passage is more like a song, and it needs to be interpreted from the same part of our hearts that music would be.

In this short passage, Jesus is (as they say on the TV show The Bachelor) “putting himself out there.”  He’s saying ‘I love you and here’s what I have to offer: will you accept me, will you be mine?’ And he’s letting us know the road ahead with him won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Listen to Jesus’ words as he tells the disciples – and through them, us – the plans he has in mind. Jesus says:

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But [when I’m not here on earth with you any more] the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it does happen, you will know and believe.

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” – literally translated, ‘we will share your tent’.

I love that phrase, ‘sharing a tent’. Back in those days, tents were large and well-equipped, big enough for a family, and the words stir up images of cozy family life. It also speaks of our share in the Holy Spirit while we are here in this earthly tent. When the heavenly tent comes… well, that can only happen if Jesus goes back to the Father and gets it ready. And so we rejoice because that’s where Jesus is, and that’s what he’s doing right now: getting the tent ready.

The question then remains: Jesus has ‘put himself out there’ for us; will we ‘put ourselves out there’ for Jesus?  Loving Jesus may take us on some very unexpected paths and journeys. But do not let your hearts be troubled: His peace and his Spirit are with us.  So will we love him back? Everything in life – everything – hinges on our answer to this question.

Let’s pray.  Lord, thank you for the visions you share with us, and for the future you have promised us.  Thank you for loving us and ‘putting yourself out there’ for us.  Guide us now, as you guided Paul and John. Stir up our hearts to love, and give us a vision for the future you have in mind, to your honor and glory. AMEN.

 

May 26

Easter 6

Memorial Day Weekend

Acts 16:9-15

Rev 21:1-10, 22:1-5

John 14:23-29

“Visions”

 Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church

 Acts 16:9-15  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,  12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21:1-10, 22:1-5  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.  8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”  10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;  4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

John 14:23-29  Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

~

 

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Luke 1:26-38   In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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Welcome to the second week of Advent, and also to Week Two of our series called The Christmas Dilemma.  When you think about it, there are a lot of things in the Christmas story that might raise questions, or at least raise eyebrows, and each week during Advent we are looking at one part of the Christmas story that might challenge our faith a little.

Today we look at the story of Mary, in a sermon called “The Dilemma of Saying Yes”.  As we look at Mary’s life and her choices we will see that saying ‘yes’ to God does not always lead to an uncomplicated life.

But before I talk about Mary I want to broaden the topic for a moment and include the events of this past week, in a sidebar that I call ‘the dilemma of saying ‘yes’ to service’.  This past week our nation laid to rest former President George H.W. Bush.  Looking at his life, we can easily see how saying ‘yes’ to serving others can be a costly thing. Bush postponed college in order to serve in WWII, he survived being shot down, and he served for many years quietly behind the scenes before being elected to office.

After being elected president, the thing I remember most about his presidency (and yes I am old enough to remember…) was the almost constant negativity from his critics. And over the years I have found in general, no matter where one stands politically or how one serves, one of the dilemmas of saying ‘yes’ to service is that so many other people seem to want to say ‘no’.

But for those of us who watched the funeral on TV, the faith foundation of President Bush’s life could not have been more clear or more winsome. The whole day pointed to God and to Jesus, to the word of God and the faithfulness of God, toward those who say ‘yes’  to service.  And I couldn’t talk about the ‘dilemma of saying ‘yes’’ without mentioning that.

So taking a look at Mary’s life and the dilemma of saying ‘yes’…

It has been said that saying ‘yes’ to God involves “finding out where God is at work and joining in.” For a young woman named Mary, though, she didn’t have to look very hard to find where God was at work. God sent an angel to her to fill her in on the plans, and to invite her to take part in the greatest event of history. God invited Mary to give her life in service to her family, her country, and to the whole world, to each one of us – because without her we wouldn’t be here today.

After meeting the angel, Mary would be faced with a situation full of challenges. The beginning of her Christmas Dilemma is found in the passage from Luke which we just heard a little bit ago. In this passage the angel Gabriel tells Mary that God has chosen her to bring about the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. The hope was that someday a king would come, a Messiah, and reclaim the throne of King David and re-establish God’s kingdom.  And Gabriel’s message was: “Mary – you’re it!”

But God’s plans presented some difficulties for Mary. How could a betrothed virgin become pregnant without being with a man? Mary quickly saw that she needed more information (at the very least). So she asked Gabriel, and he explained that the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that the child would be called the ‘Son of God’. And he confirmed this by saying Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who had been barren all her life, was six months pregnant.

Mary took this all in, and replied, “behold, I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” And with the angel’s words now becoming reality, the first Christmas would be only nine months away.

But Mary soon found that saying “Yes” to God did not necessarily mean a carefree life with no worries or problems. On the contrary, saying “Yes” to God sometimes meant being misunderstood, having one’s character called into question, and having life take unexpected twists and turns.

As I look back over my own life and the lives of my family and friends, this is still very true today.  I remember one friend back in the 80s who was particularly good at evangelism, who was admired by some people for his ability to communicate God’s word, and hated by others for the same reason. I have never, ever heard anyone say about this person, “Oh he’s OK”. People either love him or hate him. In the New Testament people’s reactions to the apostle Paul were similar: some people mistook Paul for a god, while other people threw him in jail. When we are God’s people, our reputations are no longer entirely up to us.

I also remember a friend in high school, who, when God got a hold of her life, took off for the mission field, overseas. When I was a teenager I wasn’t as fond of travel as I am now, so I spent a good part of the next few years praying God would not send me to Africa! (Of course, nowadays I would love to go to Africa… but you get my meaning.) I think all of us have had moments in our lives when we realized being part of God’s plans might mean that some people weren’t going to like us, and/or what we had in mind for our future might not be what God has in mind. There’s a cost to being a follower of Jesus, and that’s part of the dilemma of saying ‘yes’.

So back to Luke’s gospel.  While all this is going on with Mary, six months earlier on the southern end of the country near Jerusalem, God sent the angel Gabriel to give another message to a man named Zechariah. Zechariah was serving as a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, and Gabriel was sent to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a son in her old age, and that his name would be John, and that he would prepare the way for the Messiah. But unlike Mary, Zechariah doubted. And doubt is another kind of dilemma.

But Zechariah being from Jerusalem, and Mary being from Nazareth, raises still another dilemma – at least in the eyes of the world. From a worldly point of view, it makes sense for God’s messenger to go to Jerusalem: Jerusalem was the center of power, and the center of religious faith, and the center of communication, for the whole nation of Israel.

But God sending a messenger to Nazareth – not so much. Nazareth was out in the sticks, off the beaten path. Nazareth was surrounded by Gentile lands, that is, by foreigners. And Nazareth had (and still has to this day) a reputation for being a rough place. As one of Jesus’ disciples once asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

So for God to do something great in Nazareth seems to pose a dilemma. But sometimes God chooses to do big things in the big places like Jerusalem, and sometimes God chooses to do big things in out-of-the-way places like Nazareth. As someone once said, “God can work out his plans through Wall Street or Wal-Mart.”

So Gabriel was sent to Nazareth, “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” (Luke 1:27)  Betrothal, in biblical days, meant that the couple was legally married but hadn’t had the actual ceremony yet and hadn’t moved in together yet. But once the betrothal was agreed on, the marriage was legal in the eyes of government and in the eyes of God. So Mary was a teenager, betrothed to Joseph, but not yet fully married, when Gabriel came to visit.

Gabriel greeted Mary with the words: “Rejoice O favored one!” – which was a fairly formal greeting, and made her kind of scratch her head and ask herself “what’s he talking about?”

Gabriel was identifying Mary as the recipient of God’s grace.  There’s only one other place in Scripture where the exact same word is used: in Ephesians 1:6 where Paul talks about the “glorious grace” that is freely given to those found in Jesus Christ. The reason this is important is that Mary is favored and full of grace because God makes it so. And the same is true for all of us: favor and grace come as a gift from God. Neither Mary nor anyone else can earn it.

This grace of God helped to sustain Mary as she grew to understand what Gabriel’s words would mean – that God wanted to send His Son into the world through her. Such an honor was the hope and dream of every young Jewish woman.  But in becoming reality, it brought a dilemma. In the months ahead, it would be difficult to explain to people about the baby bump showing up before her wedding day.

Luke says Mary was “greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s greeting, and anything less would be surprising. Most people in scripture, when they meet angels, tend to faint dead away.  Mary managed to keep her wits about her.  Verse 29 says she “tried to discern” – she tried to understand – what was happening so that she could say “Yes” with her whole life. Mary gives us an example to follow when God invites us to join in the work God is doing.

Mary’s “yes” to God’s plan was not passively made or lightly made. As she continued to question and listen, she came to the conclusion the angel’s words were worth saying ‘Yes’ to.  “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’” Luke 1:38

Mary consoles Eve

Mary was not paralyzed by fear. She moved past any doubts with a desire to know what was happening and what was being said. As we try to discern how God is at work around us or in us or through us, we also need not be paralyzed by fear or by a troubled heart.

Of course generally speaking God doesn’t communicate with us through angels these days.  So how can we understand God’s plans for our lives?  Five thoughts:

  • Find out what God already has said. God would never lead a person to do something that is contrary to what’s in the Bible, because the Bible is God’s word. While our personal situations may not be specifically addressed in scripture, the Bible does offer general principles and truths that can help guide us.
  • Pray and ask God to make things clear. God is never offended if we need to ask questions.
  • Seek counsel from trusted spiritual advisors.
  • Take a look at the circumstances of our situation. God often speaks to us through the circumstances around us. Look for doors that are opening rather than trying to force open doors that are closing.
  • Ask yourself: what do you want to do? David wrote in Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  If we delight in God above all else, the desires of our hearts will lead us in the right direction.

God created us to worship Him, to be in relationship with Him, to love Him, to talk with Him in prayer, and to enjoy Him forever. As God invites us to join in God’s plans, may we respond as Mary did.

Mary’s Christmas Dilemma was met with her enthusiastic YES!  She knew she would face criticism, and ridicule, and maybe worse. But she also knew: what God calls us to, God sees us through. Whatever dilemma she faced, she would not face it alone.

The beautiful truth of Christmas is that God is not only with Mary but is also with us – “God with us” – when walk through life in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we move forward toward Christmas, let’s respond to the dilemmas in our lives with a “YES” to God… and give God all the honor, glory, and worship each step of the way.  AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/9/18

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[the day’s scripture verses are reprinted at the end of the post]

A number of decades ago one of the first Christian rock bands called The Imperials (they actually started out as a backup band for Elvis, it was that long ago) recorded a song called Praise the Lord, and one of the lines in that song said “praise the Lord / for our God inhabits praise.” **

In other words, when we praise God, God’s word comes to life in us in a unique and powerful way.  It’s one of the reasons why worshipping together is important and singing hymns is important.

Those of us who have had ‘mountaintop experiences’ have some idea of what I’m talking about.  Wonderful things happen on mountaintops: the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount. We may spend the majority of our days trudging through the valleys, but every now and then we have a ‘mountaintop experience’ that reminds us how much God loves us and how wonderful God is.

We may experience this at places like Jumonville (which is a good reason to go there) or maybe when we walk into the church when it’s dark and empty and we sense God’s presence in the stillness. These ‘mountaintop experiences’ make us aware of God being with us, and the memory sticks: it stays with us for a long time.

When we praise God with our whole hearts, or when we sing praises, we become aware of God’s presence in the same way, and it can give us the same encouragement and uplifting feeling that we get at places like Jumonville.  That’s why it’s important for each one of us to find our own voice (so to speak), our own way of praising God, whether it’s in prayer or in song or some other form of expression.

In our scripture reading from James today – which is the final reading in our series on the book of James – James starts out by saying “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”

We usually do the first part well.  If people in our church are suffering we are quick to pray for them. James does not tell people who are suffering just to be strong and ‘tough it out’ – we’re supposed to pray for each other, and we do.  But do we remember to praise God in the good times?  This is just as important. Just as we share both good and bad news with our families and friends, we also need to share both the lows and the highs with God. James highlights this, and I want to highlight his highlight.

Our sermon title for today is The Power of Prayer but we could also call it Prayer, Power, and Praise:  because the three go together and are the focus of both our readings today.

Let’s start with James.  James says prayer has the power to:

  • ease people’s sufferings;
  • heal the sick;
  • restore sinners;
  • forgive sins.

Did you know you have that power as a Christian?  Not that we can heal the sick or forgive sinners ourselves, but that God has given us, through prayer, the ability to ask God for these things on behalf of others.  Through prayer, as God’s children, we can ask our Father to take away suffering, or to heal, or to forgive.  And God will hear us and will answer.  And if that seems like a lot, James says: ‘Remember the prophet Elijah? He was a human being just like us, and when he prayed for no rain there was no rain for 3 ½ years. And then when he prayed again for rain it rained. If a mere human being can do that, you and I can pray for the sick and the hurting.’ That’s what James is saying here.

We also, like Elijah, can pray for things happening in the world, not just for the sick. (BTW I’ve found the more specific our prayers are, the more we’re aware when prayers have been answered. For example, if we pray for peace in general – which is a good thing – how do we measure God’s answer? But if we pray for an end to hostilities in a specific location and for God to turn the heart of a specific ruler – then we’ll recognize when God is working.)

For those of us who have been on prayer teams here in the church, or who have been involved in prayer ministries of some kind, we can bear witness that God answers prayer.  The power to heal is not ours; the power to set things right is not ours; all the glory goes to God.  But prayers are answered.  Just this past week a woman I know was told by her doctor to go have a biopsy done because they suspected her cancer had returned.  She was troubled, so the people of the church prayed over her, and the next day she got a phone call from her doctor saying he’d read the films wrong and had mistaken an old scar for a new lump.  I think the doctor probably would have found the mistake eventually but to get a phone call the next day?  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

I knew a wise woman many years ago who said she didn’t believe in coincidences. She believed in God-incidences.  I like that word. God-incidence.  That’s exactly right.

Some people might say, “well, but prayer doesn’t always work. Not everybody gets good news, not everybody gets healed.”  And that’s true. There is a mystery here we don’t understand: why some people are healed and some aren’t.  When Jesus walked this earth, anyone who came to him in person and asked, was healed; but not every sick person in Israel was healed.  Jesus didn’t put all the Israeli doctors out of business.  Why are some people healed and not others? We don’t know, and we may not know in this lifetime.

(By the way the answer to the question of why some people don’t experience healing is not ‘lack of faith’, as in, ‘we didn’t believe hard enough’ or ‘we didn’t pray hard enough’. I’ve heard people say that sometimes and it’s hurtful and it’s simply not true. God answers prayer the way God chooses to answer prayer, because God is God and we’re not.)

Even James doesn’t say in this passage that everyone we pray for will be healed.  What he does say is that the sick will be saved, and that the Lord will raise them up, and that their sins will be forgiven.  These things may happen in this life or they may happen in the next life.  We can be confident that one way or the other it will happen. So we pray; and God hears and answers.

Which brings us to our reading from the book of Esther.  This is kind of an unusual story to mix with our James reading, isn’t it?  And then the passage we heard read is from the end of the book of Esther, so we heard the end of the story without hearing the beginning.  So we’ll need to back up and fill in the story. But the story of Esther is a story that talks about prayer, and the power of prayer, and the praise that results from prayer. Let’s dig in.

Esther’s life was a hard life, not unlike the lives of the people James was writing to.  Esther lived with the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon, which is present-day Iran.  The people James was writing to were mostly Jewish people under persecution who were fleeing Jerusalem.  So in both cases the people were not in their homelands. They were not at home, they were strangers in a strange land. They were, basically, refugees.  The people James was writing to, some of them were experiencing illness – and can you imagine what it would be like to be sick in a foreign country, and not be able to go home?  Or imagine Esther, living in a land where at least some of the people wanted her dead simply because she was born in a foreign country.

So Esther was living among a captive people. She was an orphan, having lost her parents at a young age, and she was raised by her uncle Mordecai.  As a young woman she (along with hundreds of other women) was forced to enter a beauty contest when the king decided he wanted a new queen and was going to hold a nation-wide competition for the job.  Esther and the other young women were rounded up and kept in the palace for a year and fed special food and given beauty treatments every day. (And if you’re thinking ‘well that doesn’t sound so bad’ – personally I can’t imagine too many fates worse than being cooped up in the same house with hundreds of women all competing for the same man! This was like The Bachelor, ancient-style.) Anyway all this activity was in preparation for the night when the king would choose her name from the list of hundreds he had to choose from.  And Esther would go and spend one night with this foreign king she’d never met – and if he didn’t like her, she would have to spend the rest of her life living in the palace doing nothing; but if he did like her, she would be forced to marry him whether she liked him or not.

As it turned out, Esther won the contest and became queen.  Some time after that, the king’s top advisor, Haman, was offended by Esther’s Uncle Mordecai. And Haman thought, rather than just kill Mordecai, he would wipe out all of Mordecai’s people – all the Jews who had been brought captive to Persia.

So when this news broke, Mordecai sent a message to Esther saying “talk to the king and ask him to spare our lives.”  And Esther wrote back saying “there’s a law that says anybody who goes to see the king without being asked will be put to death – unless the king extends the gold scepter to let them live.”  Mordecai wrote back and said, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for just such a time as this?”  (Mordecai didn’t believe in coincidences either.)

So Esther wrote back and said, “tell all our people to fast and pray for me for three days. And I and my handmaids will do the same. And then I will go to the king, and if I die, I die.”

So all the Jewish people prayed and fasted for three days. Prayer – unleashing God’s power – which resulted in praise. And look at how God answered those prayers:

  • When Esther went to see the king, God moved the king to hold out the gold scepter and let her live.
  • When Esther invited the king and his adviser Haman to a banquet, he said yes.
  • At that banquet, when Esther invited them both to a second banquet, again he said yes.
  • The night in between those two banquets, the king was not able to sleep. So the king ordered a servant to find the scroll of the history of his reign – all the things that had happened since he became king – and had the servant read it out loud to him. And listening to the history the king was reminded of a man named Mordecai who saved his life a number of years before by exposing an assassination plot. That the king should be reminded of this, on this particular night – coincidence? I don’t think so.
  • So the next day, at the second banquet, when the queen told the king what Haman was doing, and how he wanted to kill Mordecai and all of Mordecai’s people, the king was outraged.
  • God’s people were spared, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that he’d built for Mordecai.
  • The kingdom was spared a civil war – which was what Haman had planned. The king ordered peace between the Persians and the Jews.
  • According to the Apocrypha (ancient religious writings that didn’t quite make it into our Bible) the king’s orders to the nation contained the following words: “we find that the Jews… are no evil-doers, but live by just laws; and that they are children of the Most High and Most Mighty God…” That’s a pagan king talking about the God of Israel. Did the king come to faith through all this? We don’t know for sure, but these words seem to indicate that he at least had a healthy respect for the God of Israel.

Prayer, power, and praise.  The day the Jewish people were saved by Esther is celebrated, even today, every year at a holiday called Purim.  As the book of Esther says, “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.” Today the Jewish people celebrate Purim with feasting and by giving gifts to the poor (so that the sorrow of the poor can also be turned into gladness).

Prayer, power, and praise.  Prayer is the lifeblood of our relationship with God.  It’s how we communicate with the Lord we love. It’s how we grow in faith.

And like the old hymn says: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit/ O what needless pain we bear /
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”*

Prayer, power, and praise. May the story of Esther and the words of James encourage us in prayer and in praise. These are the gifts of God for the people of God. AMEN.

 

(*What a Friend We Have In Jesus)

**Lyrics for Praise the Lord by the Imperials:

When you’re up against a struggle that shatters all your dreams
And your hopes have been cruelly crushed by Satan’s manifested schemes
And you feel the urge within you to submit to earthly fears
Don’t let the faith you’re standing in seem to disappear

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him

Now Satan is a liar and he wants to make us think
That we are paupers when he knows himself we’re children of the King
So lift up the mighty shield of faith for the battle must be won
We know that Jesus Christ has risen so the work’s already done

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him

© 1979 Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

~~~~~~

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.  – James 5:13-20

~~~~~~

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 20-22

~~~~~~~~

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/30/18

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“We are watching one of the most horrendous human rights crises of our generation.”

Try to imagine that your government wants to harm you and your family, maybe even take your life. You desperately seek refuge in another country, only to be turned away. With effectively no citizenship in any country, no place to legally live, what are your options? That is the situation for thousands of refugees at this very moment. We are watching one of the most horrendous human rights crises of our generation. I know firsthand the fear, dejection and hopelessness they feel. I’m receiving a constant flow of calls from refugees served by Gateway of Grace. Each one filled with fear and hopelessness, evoking doubts of worth and dignity.

There is no shortage of political discussions and media’s coverage of it, and that certainly has its place. But, what has been among the most unsettling comments is the reactions of some Christian leaders. I won’t enter the political wrangling of the matter, but I accept the obligation to correct a gross denial of Biblical authority on God’s love for the refugee.

I have yet to hear a more theologically inaccurate statement from a Christian leader than the one given a few days ago by Franklin Graham in which he stated that the refugee crisis is not a Biblical issue. From the brightest Biblical scholars to the Christians who faithfully read the Holy Scriptures daily, it is clear that God cares deeply for the refugee. And, how we respond or not respond reveals a lot about our knowledge of God.

We became refugees and were expelled from the presence of God the moment we sinned. God in His mercy reached out to us, repeatedly and lovingly to welcome us and bring us back to himself. God gave his only son WHILE we were still sinners, far from Him. He did not wait for us to convert before He loved us.

The theme of exile and finding refuge is undeniably the most prominent theme of the Scriptures. Acts 17 and 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 are very clear about the reason for welcoming the stranger. God’s desire is to bring ALL people to himself and restore them into the fullness of His image. God does not have a favorite nation and He has called us to be His redeeming, loving, and restoring presence to those who are hopeless. If as the Psalms point out over and again, God is our refuge, as little christs, we are the representative of that refuge to those in need.

For the sake of the Gospel, we are also called not to live with the spirit of fear.

We share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our loving actions and loving kindness and by obeying the commandments of Christ that fulfill that purpose. As Pope Francis poignantly said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” he continued, “You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.” This is a reference to Christ’s injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do not do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

As I write this, I see faces of our refugees, their tears as they share their stories and prayer requests, their hopes for the future, and their hard work to make a new life out of the ashes of the old one. As my friend Pastor Paul Wheatley puts it, “We are only as good as our ability to help the least of these.” And, that is what we will be held accountable for by our Lord.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Author Samira Page is Executive Director of Gateway of Grace, a multi-denominational church-based ministry to refugees in the Dallas, TX area. She is an Anglican who studied at Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Ministry. She is herself a naturalized American citizen.

Samira adds: “Gateway of Grace will hold a cross-denominational prayer vigil to seek God’s wisdom, mercy, direction, and healing, and to pray for all who are involved in the refugee process. Consider this your personal invitation. The prayer vigil will be held next Monday at 6:30 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. A reception will follow. Please RSVP to samira@gatewayofgrace.org”

(reposted by permission)

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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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“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.” – Proverbs 31:10-31

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Proverbs 31 is probably one of the most controversial Bible passages in contemporary American Christianity. Books upon books have been written about it, seminars have been taught about it, Bible study groups have focused on it.

Over the past 100 years or so, as women have gained the right to vote and to work outside the home, churches have looked to Proverbs 31 to reflect on these events. Generally speaking – and this is painting with a broad brush – but generally speaking, the arguments have gone something like this:

Conservative churches focus on the fact that the woman in Proverbs 31 does everything she does at home – and they use this to defend a sort of ‘separate but equal’ kind of thinking: while both men and women have equal gifts, women are meant to exercise those gifts within the home, while men exercise their gifts outside the home.

Liberal churches, on the other hand, point out that the woman in Proverbs 31 runs a business, and buys and sells real estate… she’s a professional woman, she’s ahead of her time, and she’s a clear indication that God supports a woman’s right to have a career and do what she chooses to do with her life.

Meanwhile the average woman in the pew often gets caught between the two viewpoints, and she also gets caught between the hope of becoming more like the Proverbs 31 woman and the frustration of falling short of the ideal.

As I glanced over websites and chat rooms dedicated to the teaching of Proverbs 31, I read comments from women like these:

  • “You mean I’m not the only one that isn’t the perfect Proverbs 31 wife?” (in response to a book called My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife by Sara Horn)
  • “This [Proverbs 31] woman… is… skillful in everything… she wakes up super early, has great biceps, buys property, wears a lot of purple, cares for her kids, cares for the poor, keeps her home warm at night and doesn’t eat carbs. […] Is every woman supposed to try and fit this mold? […] What if she can’t sew or cook…? What if she never even gets married?” (from Relevant Magazine)

The problem is, the Proverbs 31 Woman, as understood and taught in postmodern America, is not real. ALL of these viewpoints miss what the author of Proverbs 31 is saying.

So what is Proverbs 31 all about?

It’s a piece of Jewish wisdom literature, written about 3000 years ago, probably during the reign of King Solomon. More than that, it’s a poem. And like most poetry it’s not meant to be read as an instruction manual. The poem speaks in the voice of a queen mother speaking to her son the king, giving him the benefit of her wisdom in seeking a wife – who will be the future queen. (We can almost imagine Queen Elizabeth having a chat like this with her grandson Prince William before he got engaged.) The poem is also an acrostic – each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order – which indicates that it’s universally applicable… it covers everything from A to Z.

In the first nine verses of Proverbs 31 – which we did not hear today, and which often get skipped – the queen mother essentially tells her son to avoid strong drink and fast women, and to remember to look after the poor and disadvantaged… surprisingly contemporary advice!

Then, in verse 10 (where we began today) she says to him: search for a woman of quality: someone who can be a true partner, someone he can trust. The woman a king marries must be able to raise children, look after the welfare of the palace and those who live there, command servants and delegate work… these all reflect the realities of palace life. That’s where all these qualities listed in Proverbs 31 come from. A poor man’s wife would not have been expected to do all these things… any more than any of us can do all of them. We don’t have the servants and we don’t have the economic opportunities.

So what does Proverbs 31 have to say to people today? For an answer to that I’d like to take a look at contemporary Jewish use. Three thousand years after Proverbs 31 was written, these words are still being read every week, week in and week out, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. This adds layer upon layer of meaning, far more than I have time to go into today. But I will back up and give this much context:

As Christians many of us have lost the practice of Sabbath. We still do Sunday morning worship, but that’s only a small part of the Sabbath. In a nutshell, the Sabbath is a 24-hour period, from sundown to sundown, during which people (and animals) rest from all work. The Sabbath was meant to be one day a week when a worker could legally and legitimately say to his or her boss, “Not right now, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

So as a Jewish family prepares for the Sabbath, as the sun goes down on Friday night, the woman of the house lights the Sabbath candles. The children are blessed, and then the man of the house either reads or sings the words of Proverbs 31 to his wife. It is a blessing, in praise of all she does for the family. It’s more like a love poem than a laundry list.

“The woman of worth”: the first words of Proverbs 31:10 are different in every English translation. In Hebrew the opening words speak of the eshet chayil, which is better translated woman of valor. An esh chayil, a man of valor, often refers to a warrior, a military man, although it can also refer to a man of exceptional character. King David, for example, is described as an esh chayil. So Proverbs 31 gives advice to the king to search for an eshet chayil, a woman of valor.

The best example scripture gives of an eshet chayil is Ruth. Ruth was widowed and had no children – which proves Proverbs 31 is not a laundry list. Being a woman of valor does not necessarily mean being married and raising kids. What’s more, Ruth was a foreigner and had been raised to believe in foreign gods. But Ruth put her trust in the God of Israel. And when her husband died, and when her mother-in-law’s husband died, Ruth adopted her mother-in-law Naomi, and said to her:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” – Ruth 1:16

Boaz, the man Ruth eventually married, heard about this – and that’s why he calls Ruth an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. Boaz, by the way, is also called an esh chayil, a man of valor, even though he’s a farmer and not a warrior.

So what would an eshet chayil look like today? One Jewish woman is quoted by author Rachel Held Evans saying:

“’eshet chayil’ — ‘woman of valor!’ — is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing in Jewish culture. Friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice… battles with cancer… brave acts of vulnerability… or difficult choices, [all of these celebrated] with a hearty ‘eshet chayil!’—woman of valor.”

So combining this Jewish understanding with a New Testament viewpoint, the eshet chayil is first and foremost a woman who is loyal to God, who seeks to do God’s will – which is the definition of wisdom. She is courageous and strong in the face of everyday challenges and adversities.

Which leaves us with the question, what exactly does Proverbs 31 tell us to do? The only ‘to-do’ item in the passage is in verse 30: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” And the same is true for a man, an esh chayil. Men and women of valor are to be praised.

All of you here know far better than I do how many acts of valor have been done in this congregation, in this church… how many acts of mercy, or acts of justice, or missions, or battles with cancer, or difficult choices, or acts of loyalty to God. Proverbs 31 challenges us to speak of these things… to acknowledge the esh chayil and the eshet chayil when we see them.

We are called to be women – and men – of valor. As Christians this means primarily seeking God’s will and God’s wisdom for our lives, both individually and as a church. And as we do so, we are called to encourage each other with the words eshet chayil, esh chayil. Women and men of valor! AMEN.

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/20/15

 

~ Author’s Postscript: If you know of an example of a man or woman of valor, and would like to honor them, leave a comment describing briefly what they’ve said or done that is worthy of praise. (Use first names only please.) ~

 

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“After the death of Saul, David returned from defeating the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days. […] David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and ordered that the men of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights.
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain,
nor fields that yield offerings of grain.
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul– no longer rubbed with oil.
From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan– in life they were loved and gracious,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!””
II Samuel 1:1, 17-27

“When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.
When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.” – Mark 5:21-43

~~~~~

Today’s scriptures are a bit unusual in that they don’t talk directly about God. Jesus takes part in the New Testament reading, but he’s not talking about God, and the people around him don’t know yet that he is God. The people see Jesus as a prophet and as a healer. Except for a few of the disciples, no-one knows yet that Jesus is the Messiah.

So our readings today tell us three stories about people of faith.

I think sometimes when we read about people of faith in the Bible we tend to see them as sort of like super-saints, but they’re not. They’re everyday people like you and me. In this case, they are: a shepherd, a housewife, and a lay leader from the local synagogue.

What makes the people we meet in the Bible exceptional is they share everything with God. They hold nothing back. And God honors that.

As it happens, in today’s readings all three people we meet are facing some kind of crisis in their lives. In the Old Testament we see David dealing with the death of his best friend; and in the New Testament we meet a woman who has been sick for a long time, and a man whose daughter is dying.

Let’s take a look at each story.

Our reading from II Samuel – the reading itself – is a song of mourning, written by David on the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan. These two men lost their lives – in the prime of their lives – in a battle defending Israel. (If we go back into the history of Israel we find out the reason David was not fighting alongside them and defending them had to do with Saul’s disobedience to God and David’s subsequent estrangement… but at a time like this it would not be appropriate for David to point that out.) Saul was David’s father-in-law, and Jonathan was David’s best friend. David and Jonathan were like Butch and Sundance, or like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. They were inseparable, the very best of buddies.

If you’ve ever had friend like that you know friendships like that are rare. Men and women who have fought in battles together sometimes find this kind of friendship. Co-workers in the mission field, or in medical care sometimes find this kind of friendship. Every now and then it ‘just happens’. But most of us only get two or three friends like this in a lifetime, if we’re lucky. To lose a friend like this is devastating, because they leave a hole in your heart and in your life that can never be filled. When a friend like this dies we wish the world could stop turning just for a moment, to acknowledge that someone important is gone.

So what do you do at a time like that? David sang out his pain. David was a songwriter for many years. He used to sing to King Saul when Saul was troubled. He composed many of the psalms, which were the hymns back in those days.

David sings out his grief, praising King Saul as a mighty man of war, and grieving for Jonathan who he calls “brother”. David is not glorifying violence and killing here. What he’s doing is expressing honor to those who served their country and gave their last full measure in its defense. And in doing so he gives us a song that touches our hearts across the centuries, touching anyone who’s ever lost a good friend. ‘How the mighty have fallen!’ David cries. ‘Men of glory, worthy of love and honor, lie slain on the field. How the mighty have fallen!’

I’ll come back to David in a moment, but in the gospel of Mark we meet two more people. The first is a man named Jairus, whose daughter is very ill. Any of us who have ever sat up with a sick child know his pain. He’s worried, he’s spending sleepless nights, he’s praying, he’d give anything to make her better. He’d even change places with her if he could.

Being a lay leader in the synagogue, Jairus has heard of Jesus. He knows Jesus is miracle worker, and he needs a miracle right about now. He just has to get Jesus to where his daughter is before it’s too late. He begs Jesus to come. Some translations of the Bible say he begged Jesus ‘repeatedly’. Apparently Jesus wasn’t moving very quickly… which is understandable considering the size of the crowd.

And then, on the way to Jairus’ house, there’s a delay! We meet a third person, a woman whose name we don’t know, though some people in the early church felt she deserved a name and called her ‘Veronica’. For twelve years she has had some kind of medical condition that causes her to bleed – based on the description, most likely a menstrual period that won’t stop.

Anyone who has ever been through serious illness or surgery knows how frightening is, and the frustration of missing out on life, and all the expenses involved. Illness disrupts a person’s life in a way that nothing else does. In this particular woman’s case, her condition makes her anemic, and she’s getting progressively weaker, and most likely suffering from depression because of a low energy levels. And on top of that, she has a social problem. Under the Law of Moses, her condition makes her ritually ‘unclean’. According to the law she shouldn’t be going out of the house, and she certainly shouldn’t be mixing in a crowd this large! But she’s desperate. For twelve years – as long as Jairus’ little daughter has been alive – she’s been in pain. She has spent all her money on doctors and she’s only gotten worse.

And now she hears that Jesus can heal people with a touch, and she’s convinced he can heal her. Somewhere deep down she knows that what is impossible with human beings is possible with God.

So she makes up her mind to sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. She says to herself, “all I have to do is touch his garment and I’ll be well. I don’t have to say anything to anybody, I don’t have to disturb anybody, I don’t have to make anybody unclean from coming into contact with me.”

And things work out just like she planned. She touches Jesus’ robe and immediately the blood stops, and she can feel energy and health beginning to return to her body. After twelve years she’s finally well.

Except that’s not the end of the story. Jesus stops. Something has happened, he knows, and he calls out over the crowd, “who touched me?”

The disciples look around at a crowd that’s as tightly packed as Times Square on New Year’s Eve and say to Jesus, “How can you say ‘who touched me’? Everybody’s pressing in all around you.”

I suspect Jesus already knows who touched him, but he also knows the woman needs to share her story. And there are people present who need to hear it. So he creates a space in which she can speak. And scared and trembling, she falls at Jesus’ feet and tells him everything – every detail, the whole story. And when she’s finished, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

She came looking for physical healing, and she got that, but she got far more: healing of the heart, and healing of the soul. This is the meaning of the word shalom – holistic well-being and peace.

While all this is happening, and in fact as Jesus is still speaking, people come from Jairus’ house and say, “don’t bother the teacher any longer. Your daughter is dead.”

I can’t begin to imagine what Jairus felt in that moment. But before he can say anything, Jesus says to him, “don’t be afraid, just believe.”

And taking Jairus, Peter, James, and John, Jesus tells the rest of the crowd to stay put. The deathbed of a child is no place for curiosity-seekers and hangers-on. When they get to Jairus’ house Jesus chases out the mourners, who make fun of Jesus when he says the girl is not dead.

Jairus and his wife enter their daughter’s bedroom and look at their little girl. Gently Jesus takes her by the hand and says, ‘little girl, get up’. And she does. And grief turns into joy.

I find it interesting that at the end of this great miracle Jesus says to Jairus ‘don’t tell anyone what happened’ when in the previous miracle, Jesus makes public something that happened in secret. God’s ways are not our ways! At any rate, we’ve met three people who are very everyday people, living everyday lives. They don’t preach, they don’t quote the law… but where it comes to God they hold nothing back.

David shows us is how a person of God grieves. A person of God is open-hearted toward God. As people of God, when pain comes into our lives, we do not despair. We can hurt very deeply; but we pour out our grief to God. David is not afraid to be passionate in God’s presence. And neither should we be.

The woman with the flow of blood gives us an example of confession. Confession is not sitting in a box talking to a priest, or even necessarily admitting sin. The word confession simply means to speak the truth. Telling God what we see and what we’ve experienced and how we’ve felt and what we’ve lived through. Yes, God already knows it – so did Jesus in our story. But Jesus knows this woman needs to tell her story, and so he listens… and he knows other people need to hear it, and so he asks her to speak. And the same is true of us. We all, each one of us, have a story to tell, and we all need to share it, and there people who need to hear it.

Some of you know I was doing some training in a retirement home recently and as part of my training I interviewed four residents and basically wrote their histories. I listened to their stories and wrote them down and illustrated them with photographs from ‘back in the day’. What started out as something kind of fun became a lot more as one resident found forgiveness for something that had been bothering him for decades, and another resident, in the early stages of Alzheimers, lost her husband and she now has something that will help her children and grandchildren remember. Our stories need to be told, and they need to be heard, and that’s part of God’s plan.

And Jairus gives us an example of how to ask God for what we need, and keep on asking, trusting God in spite of what we hear and see around us. Ask, and then trust. Jesus knows what he’s doing.

So as we walk through life, we seek to be open-hearted and passionate with God; completely open with God about our lives and our experiences; asking God for what we need and trusting God’s provision.

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, open our hearts toward you more and more, and open our lives to you, and build up faith in us, for our joy and for your honor and glory, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 6/28/15

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