Women in the Early Church:  Apphia

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 3, 2022. Scripture: Philemon 1-6.

Philemon 1-6: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister [and/or beloved], to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.

The book of Philemon is the New Testament’s one true letter, in that it was written primarily to one individual.  Those other “letters” in the New Testament are, as I was taught many years ago, epistles, written primarily to groups of people.  Philemon was written by Paul to a particular person, who was conveniently named, Philemon.   The whole letter is a very short piece of writing, so short that it isn’t even long enough to break into chapters.  It’s just a series of verses.

Philemon also happens to be one of the trickiest and most difficult of New Testament pieces.  Many a preacher has held it at arm’s length, and maybe even further.  It’s a complicated and difficult situation, with a really problematic history.

The basic story is this:  Paul was in prison and learned of a situation in which a slave belonging to Philemon, Onesimus, had run away.  Somewhere along the way, Onesimus was converted to the faith. Paul was fond of Onesimus, so he wrote the letter to advise Philemon on how to receive Onesimus upon Onesimus’s return to the household, presumably maintaining his slave status.  The letter became something of a favorite of slaveholders in the United States in trying to bolster their claim to maintaining that vile institution in the United States. 

We don’t have time, in this small space, to take up the issue of slavery, and the misuse of Philemon.  Instead, we focus in on the woman mentioned in Paul’s greeting to Philemon:  Apphia.

While the Orthodox Church made Apphia a saint, she doesn’t get much attention in the Western Church—probably because her name comes up only once.  And, so it is that we don’t know much at all about Apphia, but we can gather a few hints from the text.

The way through which she is named is a good place to start.  There are real differences in the texts that survived and were circulated.  In some places, she is referred to as “sister” and in other texts as “beloved.”  These may not mean much to us, but they convey a sense of significance, that Paul regarded her as an important person.

Start reading commentaries and the general gist of Apphia is that she was “just the wife.”  She must have been Philemon’s wife.  Clearly, she was a woman and her name appears near the name of a man.  Therefore, she must have been “just the wife.” The end.  For Paul she was a “sister” or a “beloved.”  To commentators, she can be ignored.  She was ”just the wife.”

Take a look at commentaries written by women (and, to be fair, a few men) and the situation begins to alter.  Apphia and Philemon are not named in the same way as other couples that Paul knew and worked with, like Prisca and Aquila.  Notice the difference. Prisca and Aquila are mentioned with a clear “and.”  Philemon and Apphia are not:  “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister [and/or beloved], to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house.”

 Does it matter that they are not directly connected in the text?  Maybe.  It’s certainly worth considering—and hauling Apphia out of the “just the wife” dungeon.

It’s quite possible that Apphia was a ministry partner of some kind, a beloved coworker.  We should note that the term “sister” was not just a casual reference to a sibling in the faith.  Apphia—whether she was indeed Philemon’s wife or not—had a special role and that is why Paul addressed her.  He needed her to pay attention, perhaps alerting her to help in conveying the message that he was trying to get across to Philemon.

The label of “sister” is an important one.  Clement of Alexandria  referred to those called “sister” as women who were not merely companions, but co-ministers of the apostles. These “sisters” played an often crucial, and sometimes difficult and dangerous, role in taking the gospel into new territory. In places that were influenced more by Greek culture than by Roman culture, “sisters” were needed to minister to other women, such as widows, who lived relatively secluded lives.[see the work of Marg Mowczko at https://margmowczko.com/apphia/]

As we seek to appreciate a bit more this mysterious woman, a co-worker of some kind for Paul, it’s worth taking a brief moment to lift up this word, “sister,” or “coworker,” and to consider our own status as “coworkers” in the faith.  What are you up to in living out the Good News, in making the blessings of God’s love manifest in the life that you live? 

How do each of us and all of us together seek to be about this holy work of sharing God’s love?  From the small things to the big things, how are we showing our connection to our Savior?  Like Apphia, we may not be well-known, or understood, but what we do, and how we live, matters.  And, in a world with so much division and violence, our willingness to share the good news is crucial.  So, may we step up, as surely Apphia did, as coworkers in the faith.

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Women of the Early Church: Chloe (including thoughts on the overturning of Roe)

The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, June 26, 2022. Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

What do we know about Chloe?  What do we know about Chloe’s “people”?

Unfortunately, not as much as we would like. Still, there are a few clues worthy of consideration.

Was Chloe deeply invested in being one of those at the center of the quarreling in the church at Corinth?  Was Chloe part of the problem in the church at Corinth?  Or, is it possible that she wasn’t even involved in the church—and perhaps, instead, that it was members of her household that wished to be a part of the church, but were stopped by Chloe, and then managed to find a way to report their issues to Paul?

Or, could it be that Chloe was a leader of significance in the church at Corinth, with people and/or a household (family members as well as servants), who had enough clout to be able to reach out to Paul herself and to seek his guidance and assistance for a church that was falling apart from the inside, arguing and fighting over a variety of issues.

That this letter to the Corinthians identifies Chloe and Chloe’s people as the source, or at least an important source, of information regarding the crisis in the church at Corinth, ought to lead us to a place where we consider Chloe to be a woman of significance that church, the sort of person to grab Paul’s attention.

The issues involved were substantial.  At the heart of the issue was the fundamental understanding of the central foundational allegiance of the community itself.  Those in the church had come to believe that they needed to be aligned with a certain apostle—Apollos, Cephas, Paul.  Or, aligned with Christ, as if Christ were on the same level as one of those apostles. 

Paul teaches clearly and forcefully that the church cannot continue in this way.  He essentially tells them to get their act together and understand Christ as the center of the faith community— that the gospel, or good news, of Christ must be at the heart of the church.  No one else, not even one of the apostles, can be in that place.

Because of reports from Chloe’s people, outlining the disagreements and quarrels in the church, Paul sent this important letter, stressing that the church must re-center itself around Christ. And, through that reconnection to Christ, the church should seek to be in agreement, ridding itself of divisions.

It doesn’t take much thought to begin wondering about this, as we gather in this particular church, just down the road from another church, and down the road and up a block from yet another church and down the hill and over a couple of streets from still another church, and we haven’t even made it to the boundaries of this small city in this one state in this large country.

What is unity in the Church?  And, what does it mean to be in agreement?

What would Paul say to us now?  What would Paul teach?  What would Paul offer as guidance and assistance to us in these days?

I’ve wondered about this in the past, and I wonder about it still.

And, I wonder about it especially as a woman and as an ordained pastor in a church.  What is unity and agreement if my call to ordained ministry is not recognized by other denominations and expressions of the Church?  What is unity and agreement when the denomination that recognized my call to ministry is one of only a few that not only recognizes that women can be called to ordained ministry and other forms of pastoral leadership, but that women have autonomy, the right to have authority over their own bodies?

There are plenty of churches, Christian churches, that today, on this Sunday, are celebrating with joyfulness and gratitude, the decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, declaring that women do not have authority over decisions regarding their own bodies, that women essentially have fewer rights than guns.

I don’t think I need to say that I’m very glad that I don’t belong to one of those churches.

And, with this in mind, how do we ponder these important questions: What is unity in the Church?  What is agreement?  What does it mean when individual churches and denominations have such profoundly different views, experiences and understandings of the good news of Christ?

What is unity in the Church when so many churches do not recognize nor appreciate the significance of women leaders in the early church, like Chloe, and Phoebe, and Junia, Priscilla, Tabitha and Lydia, etc, etc? What is unity to the Church Universal that does not recognize that Chloe was very likely an important leader in the early Church, one who felt it necessary to seek guidance from Paul for the quarreling and struggles within the church? 

I grieve the reality of the divisions in the Church, while I also grieve the stubborn grip that so many churches, and their leaders, have in refusing to appreciate and acknowledge that women are full human beings, capable and called to leadership in the Church, capable of making decisions regarding their own bodies and their own reproductive capacities, deserving of privacy when making important decisions about motherhood, how to deal with violent acts that result in pregnancy, and what to do when the catastrophic news arrives that a pregnancy has gone horribly wrong and there is no good way to proceed.

In so many different ways, this is a season of grieving—grieving for the continued divisions, divisions so deep and profound that we really don’t even quarrel about them anymore.  They are unfathomable chasms.

And, in this season of grief and foreboding for what is next in stripping women of their autonomy and dignity, I look at my little church assembled in this small place and I know that I am with my people. For that, I am deeply grateful and, through my faith, I trust that we will find our way to a better place.

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Women of the Early Church:  Junia

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, June 19, 2022. Scripture: Romans 16:1-7.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

Romans 16:1-7

To consider Junia is to enter into a rather tangled web.  There’s what we can gather from the text as it is presented to us.  And, then there’s the consideration of how this little part of the New Testament has been handled, shaped, and twisted by translators and scribes.

For a long period of time, Junia found herself in sort of gender switch.  Junia is a woman’s name, but here she is—not only an apostle and coworker of Paul’s, but also a fellow prisoner.  At some point in history, an assumption was made that Junia couldn’t possibly be a “Junia.”  Junia must have been a male.  So a handy “s” was added to the end of the name, so the name became Junias.  There’s a problem, though.   There is no evidence whatsoever that Junia was really a Junias, and still more than that, Junias wasn’t a name.  No other person in antiquity was known by the name “Junias.”  It simply didn’t exist.  But that didn’t stop whoever it was who changed Junia to Junias.

Now, the Junia to Junias happened not so long ago as you might think, having such a situation put in front of you. 

At the risk of getting a little too far into the weeds, you should know that the ancient church recognized Junia as a woman.  The first commentator on the passage, Origen of Alexandria (2nd century), assumed the name was feminine.  And, through the years, Junia was Junia.  She was female to Jerome in the later 4th/early 5th century, Hatto of Vercelli (10th century) and Peter Abelard (11th century).  All of this affirmed by biblical scholar, Bernadette Brooten, who, just so happened, to teach a course on the New Testament that I took when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.

Professor Brooten found that the switch from Junia to Junias happened somewhere around the 13th or 14th century.  Then, after the Reformation, the switch became authoritative, with a much more general assumption that Junia was actually Junias. 

The correction to return Junia to “Junia” and no longer Junias took awhile.  For some translations, the change did not happen until the late 20th century.  And, for still others, like the New International Version, the change didn’t happen until the 21st century—2011.

So, we have here a fairly complex problem and a thorny one in dealing with this woman, Junia.  She may only be mentioned once in the entire New Testament, but the mention is a powerhouse of a verse.  Paul declares:  “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7)

Junia—an apostle—a prominent apostle—and once imprisoned with Paul at some point, and a follower of Christ before even Paul became a follower. Junia may appear in only one verse, but that verse is full of information and packed full of potential.

This is yet another passage that is not a part of the Revised Common Lectionary.  It’s another place where a prominent leader among the early followers is left to oblivion, and, depending on which translation you read, she may appear to be a man.

So, what do we do with this bit of new information, a new awareness of this woman, a prominent apostle with whom Paul worked?

Well, first let’s absorb that Junia was a prominent leader in the early church, prominent among the apostles and a co-worker with Paul.  Why is that important? 

One reason is that, while this verse may not be read in churches that follow the lectionary, there are plenty of other churches, many of them among the larger and the growing churches, that do read this passage and, if YouTube videos are any indication, these churches and their male leaders, seem not so impressed with Junia and very much not convinced that she’s anything to be concerned about.  While I didn’t watch a lot of videos (there’s only so much I can take), I did watch a few and it was remarkable to hear things like Junia really was Junias, or another male name, or that the translation that she was prominent among the apostles really ought to be understood as prominent to the apostles, so that she herself was not one.

Watching YouTube videos put me in a rather sour mood.  It’s troubling to see and to hear those who are so quick to dismiss Junia and other women like her, to argue essentially that “there’s nothing to see here,” while they engage in some rather astonishing translational and interpretative gymnastics to try to stuff Junia back into oblivion. 

As those of us in mainline Protestant churches continue to experience the decline and sidelining of the mainline, we may very well be in the process of losing the churches that understand the significance of Junia and the other women like her, that women belong in pastoral leadership.

Junia has inspired a group, called the Junia Project, that advocates for the equality of women in the Church.  The work they do is very much in line with the work that I’ve been doing in worship at Old South and through my blog and podcast over the last few months, in lifting up the women in the New Testament and learning more about them, that we may be better informed about the story of God and God’s faithful people.  Engaging with these women encourages us to explore and encourage God given gifts for God’s church and for the common good, regardless of gender.

Along with the long list of women that has already been assembled, we now add Junia, recognizing her role as leader, apostle, co-worker of Paul, in the efforts to share God’s love with others and to help people see and understand the Divine in a new way.  May we not only remember her, but appreciate her witness to share God’s love offered through Christ and the Spirit in a bold and courageous way. 

May we too feel the movement of the Spirit in our midst, that we may share in hope and in trust, through bold service and ministry.

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To Focus on Women of the New Testament

Since the beginning of Lent this year, almost every single Sunday worship at Old South has focused on a scripture passage that features at least one woman. In Lent, we considered the “Women Around Jesus.” For the Easter Season and now into Pentecost, it’s “Women of the Early Church.” While many New Testament women are mentioned only briefly, there’s a veritable treasure trove of new things to learn about Jesus, his followers, and the early church.

Except that not everyone is interested.

A few weeks ago, one of Old South’s most faithful parishioners came to tell me that it was time to take a “vacation” from the church. And, that vacation would likely become permanent. A long list of complaints was shared. The first bunch were about the church in general. And, then, we moved on to me. While my prayers are very good, I was told, this parishioner was tired of the focus on women and my feminist claptrap. To be fair, the word “claptrap” wasn’t used, but the word feminist was used, and it was used in a derogatory fashion.

That this particular parishioner happens to be a woman has left me feeling deeply unsettled. Her words roll around in my head almost every day. While I’ve certainly taken what can fairly be labeled a “feminist” attitude in dealing with these women and their stories from the New Testament, the stories I’ve highlighted are stories from our holy book, clearly laid out and right there to see, to read, to consider. I’m not making anything up or trying to introduce non-canonical texts. I’m just trying to illuminate stories that are too often ignored.

How can it be that a good woman of faith, a lifelong parishioner in the “mainline” Protestant tradition, can look at these stories and simply relegate them to the category of “feminist claptrap”? Quite simply, it’s heartbreaking. And frustrating.

Among the several reasons I took up this long stretch of focusing on New Testament women, is that as mainline Protestant denominations decline, one of the things that is fading away is the pastoral leadership of women. As someone who felt the call to ministry as a young woman and who has mostly experienced welcome (though not always), it is alarming to think that the Church Universal could very well lose the voice of women in pastoral leadership, in preaching and teaching, that the Church may very well slide into those dark days of consigning women to support roles, since so many of the dominant expressions of the faith do not allow women in pastoral leadership.

It’s hard to get my head around how we got here, especially since women clearly held positions of authority in the circles around Jesus and in the early church. Christianity would not even exist had it not been for the telling of the good news of resurrection by a woman. Mary Magdalene was the first Apostle, even recognized by Augustine in the 4th century, who declared her “Apostle to the Apostles.”

The earliest church communities included important female leaders and benefactors. The Gospels contain many stories of prominent women and Paul refers to and names many women who were leaders and co-workers in ministry with him. Paul may have written other material that diminished the status of women (much of that material was likely not actually written by Paul, but that’s a subject for another day). At the very least, we have a decidedly mixed perspective.

So many of the women of the New Testament, though, have been ignored or discounted. Take Phoebe, for instance, who is named in Romans 16 as a “deacon.” The passage that contains her name never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary and therefore, is not ever read in Roman Catholic churches and in Protestant churches that follow the RCL. And, then there’s the problem of translation. Phoebe is clearly labeled a “deacon” in the Greek text. In English translations of Romans, though, she is called: a “key representative” (The Message); a “servant” (King James); or, a “dear Christian woman” (The Living Bible). Even if one is reading on their own, it may seem that Phoebe is not a person of much significance, since the word that Paul used, “diakonon,” is translated in such a way as to lessen the meaning of her role. What’s still worse in ignoring this passage is that the text itself may very well convey that Phoebe herself had been the person entrusted by Paul to deliver the letter to the church in Rome.

For me, focusing on these women has been especially meaningful and empowering. And I have found myself captivated by this material in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. But, now I hear this other voice— the voice of a significant woman, no less— who seems much more interested in leaving these women of the New Testament to their oblivion. I realize that this is just one voice, but I hear it over and over again. And, I feel the voice now in other ways, like when I consider our diminished worship attendance over the last several months.

I will continue on, lifting up these important women, for their names and their ministries are worthy of consideration— and not just for feminists. These women have much to teach and much to show, as they cast new light into the truly remarkable things that were introduced through the ministry of Jesus and in the beginnings of the Church gathered in his name. I can only pray that those women (and men) who claim, or seem, not be interested in the women of the New Testament will find their way to opening their hearts and minds just a bit to something new, something significant, in the ongoing work of the Church, in the continually unfolding story of God and God’s people.

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Women in the Early Church: Phoebe

Based on a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: Romans 16:1-2

Romans 16 contains greetings for a whole host of people from various places.  The first person named in this section of the letter to the church in Rome is Phoebe.

We don’t know much about Phoebe.  This is the only place that mentions her and the only time that Paul refers to her.  There’s a good chance—a very good chance— that most good church-going people have never heard of Phoebe at all.  This is yet another Bible passage that never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of readings followed by the Roman Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant churches.

In addition to the interesting nature of the absence of this part of Romans 16 in the lectionary, the mention of Phoebe also provides an interesting view into translation issues. Who exactly was Phoebe and what role did she play, as a co-worker of Paul in the early church, connected to the church in Cenchrea the eastern port of Corinth? Looking at a few translations, you might find yourself a bit perplexed:

From The Message:  “Be sure to welcome our friend Phoebe in the way of the Master, with all the generous hospitality we Christians are famous for. I heartily endorse both her and her work. She’s a key representative of the church at Cenchrea. Help her out in whatever she asks. She deserves anything you can do for her. She’s helped many a person, including me.”

From the King James Version:  “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:”

In the Common English Bible:  “I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a servant[a] of the church in Cenchreae.”

From The Living Bible: “Phoebe, a dear Christian woman from the town of Cenchreae, will be coming to see you soon. She has worked hard in the church there. Receive her as your sister in the Lord, giving her a warm Christian welcome.”

The New Revised Standard Version:  “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

Servant, a key representative, a dear Christian woman, a sister, or deacon?  For those who love a little Greek in your day, the correct answer is “deacon.”  Or, more precisely, “diakonon,” which is the word that Paul uses—a generic male word that Paul uses to refer to his own ministry in Romans 15.

We may not know much about Phoebe, but we do know, or ought to know, that Paul considered her a “deacon,” a person who served, ministered, in and to the church.  A “deacon” was a leader, someone who provided guidance and counsel, someone who worked with Paul not only to share the good news, to increase and build the church, but to encourage and strengthen those who had become a part of the church.

Phoebe was a deacon, an important leader and a co-worker with Paul.

In this section of the letter to the church in Rome, the last of Paul’s letters to survive the first century, Paul is commending Phoebe to the church.  Why?  What does that mean?  Well, it’s quite possible, very possible, that it is Phoebe who was entrusted with carrying the letter and delivering the letter to Rome and to the church leaders in that city.  And, still more than that, Paul may have relied on Phoebe to explain parts of the letter to the leaders in the church in Rome.  She also very likely brought verbal greetings, messages and instructions.  She was trusted and respected for her good work and her ability to be Paul’s messenger on behalf of Christ.

According to Paul, Phoebe was also a benefactor, a woman of means who shared her wealth in the church.

We may think that we do not know all that much about Phoebe, but we can glean quite a bit from the references to her in this letter, so long as we are careful and conscientious about what translation we read.  There are plenty of translational issues in converting Greek into English.  When it comes to women in the Bible, and women’s activities in the early church, we also face the issue of bias in how the Greek texts are translated.  Phoebe is not simply a sister, a dear Christian woman, a key representative.  She’s the sort of servant called a deacon.

And, appropriately, her name—Phoebe—means bright or shining.  In lifting her up, we shine a light on this important woman, highlighting her significant role in the life and growth, the well-being and the strengthening, of the early church.

As we learn a bit about her, may she and her work and ministry as a deacon in the early church serve as a shining beacon for us as well, as we seek to follow in her footsteps—serving, ministering, sharing the good news of God’s love today and every day.

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Women in the Early Church:  Priscilla

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 29, 2022.  Scripture:  Acts 18:1-11, 24-26

*My thanks to the Rev. Tim Breen for his Bible Study on Priscilla and Aquila. It can be found here.

In researching information on Priscilla, I was especially drawn to a Bible Study that I found online, written by the Rev. Tim Breen, that considered Priscilla in terms of her working relationship with her husband, Aquila, labeling the two of them a “dynamic duo.”

The Bible has other dynamic duo couples—Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, etc.  For each of these couples, both persons were significant.  Both contributed in meaningful and important ways.  It’s actually hard to think of one without the other.  That’s true for Priscilla and Aquila as well.

As a pair, they worked together—with Paul—to spread the good news, to share love and hope, to make real the Risen Christ in the lives of many, many people.  They were critical to the success of the early church.  If they had been writers whose letters or other written material had been treasured and kept, perhaps we would know them just as well as we know Paul. 

Priscilla and Aquila were tentmakers native to Rome. After the persecution of the Jewish people under the Emperor Claudius, they made their way to Greece, where they encountered the Apostle Paul and tutored the dynamic evangelist Apollos. Their impact on these Christian leaders – and the bravery they demonstrated within the early church—became legendary, and Priscilla and Aquila are referenced in four different New Testament books. [Breen]

When I was reading up on Priscilla and Aquila, I found myself thinking about a documentary that I watched recently, about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Throughout the Supreme Court Justice’s long career, she pointed out and lifted up the significance of her husband in creating a partnership that allowed her the opportunity to be a wife and mother and a very successful lawyer, professor, and judge.  It’s too bad that this is not the model for every couple.

In Priscilla and Aquila, we encounter a couple from the first century who appear to model an equal partnership in marriage, a relationship that allowed each one to utilize fully their God-given gifts and talents, without suppressing any because of gender.

Why in the world does the Church Universal, in so many of its expressions, continue to practice in opposition to New Testament text, example and witness?

In Romans 16:3, Paul wrote, “Not only I, but all of the churches of the Gentiles are grateful for [Priscilla and Aquila].” Their lives were testimonies of God’s faithfulness to the refugee, the worker, the obedient, and the wise. And around the Mediterranean, their work was recognized. [Breen]  Perhaps “all the churches of the Gentiles” should be expanded to include the churches of Europe, Africa, Asia, the United States, and even Maine.  Perhaps all of us owe a debt to the powerful and creative work of Priscilla and Aquila.

This work, this ministry, was done in partnership. We may look to Paul as something of an amazing, miraculous one-man build-the-church-spread-the-church show.  But, he wasn’t a one-man show.  He had partners.  And, one of those partners was Priscilla.  From what we can gather in Acts and in those of Paul’s letters that survived, she was a remarkable woman who, in collaboration with her husband and other colleagues in this new faith, in this new way of life, was able to discover and fully put to use her gifts and talents, unhindered by any judgement regarding her gender.  She was a full partner, not part of the support crew.

And, in this way, she models for us what this work in the church is all about—partnership, collaboration, identifying and encouraging gifts and talents, building up the sense of the presence of Christ here, now and into the future, and beyond life itself.

In so many ways, this isn’t really dramatic, life-altering news for us in our little church in this little part of the world.  We already utilize whatever gifts and talents come our way, without regard to who exhibits those gifts and talents.  We are not the sort of Christians who go about suppressing the gifts of women while cheering on the talents of men.

Still, it’s important that we take time to acknowledge just how important this issue is, as we live in a world that has very much been influenced by the problematic practice and belief systems of Christians and Christian leadership that treat women as second-class citizens, who deny the full partnership of women and men in the Church, who ignore profoundly significant and clear examples of the leadership of women in the early Church.

I’ve asked it earlier in this series and I will continue to ask: How would things be different?  How could things not be?

Recently, we’ve learned the deeply unsettling extent of sexual abuse in churches and in the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and one that denies ordination and pastoral leadership to women.  Would such rampant and wide-ranging abuse happen/Could such abuse happen, if women were equal partners in ministry and in leadership?  It’s hard to imagine that such abuse on such a huge scale could happen, if women shared in ministry and in leadership, if women were partners as lifted up and outlined so clearly by the New Testament.

Let us hold in prayer our sisters and brothers in faith, and trust that they will soon recognize the biblical witness of equal partnership, as Paul did in his work with Priscilla and Aquila.

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Women of the Early Church: Lydia

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, Sunday, May 22, 2022. Scripture: Acts 16:9-15

After a few months of focusing on the women in the New Testament, the women around Jesus and now the women of the early church, what is it that pops out in reading about Lydia?  What is it that we notice about this particular woman?

One of the first things to stand out, of course, is the purple cloth.  And, that as a dealer of purple cloth, that she was a businesswoman—an independent business woman.

We probably also notice that she traveled from where she was from originally to Philippi. Why?  We don’t know.  But, we know she was the head of her household, and that she was generous and open to this new thing.

Our passage today finds Paul traveling, spreading the Good News.  But, he’s encountered some difficulty, as he finds himself, and his traveling companions, not always welcome.  In a vision, he sees a man from Macedonia, so that becomes the next place. 

And, that means that Paul has ventured to Europe.  And, though he is looking for a “Man from Macedonia,” he instead encounters a group of women.  And, in that group, the first person in Europe—male or female—to convert to the new faith, to receive and accept the Good News.

Lydia—a woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor, but living in Philippi (in Macedonia)—becomes a sort of Mary Magdalene in Europe.  The first person to hear and respond to the Good News.  Then, she is baptized into the faith, along with her household, bringing them all onboard this new thing.

Yet, again, it’s first a woman who hears and responds to the message of Christ, through the mission of Paul.

And, then the work begins.

We have today not only yet another example of the leadership of a woman in the early church, but a reminder that to be in the midst of this faith, to find ourselves in its mystery and its embrace, offers unexpected twists and turns.  We should not fret when the unexpected happens, but to find in those moments the realization that God indeed is with us and working through us. 

Paul thought he had been beckoned to Macedonia by a man he saw in a vision.  Instead, he found not only one woman, but a group of women.

Get used to the unexpected.  That’s how, time and time again, we see God at work.

Our short passage for today also contains other important reminders. Living the faith is not a solitary, private enterprise. Rather it’s a group thing. And, it’s a mixed thing, with a mix of class, skills, life experience and life perspective.  Lydia, as a businesswoman, was likely well-off and perhaps even wealthy.  In the dominant society of which she was part, she would have been expected to stick to that class.  She would have had servants, but she likely wouldn’t have considered them friends, or colleagues.  In fact, she would have been expected to see them as inferior to her.

The early church broke all sorts of boundaries and norms of society.  Men and women served as leaders and those men and women came from various walks of life.

Through Paul’s sharing of the faith, allowing himself to carry the mission of sharing the Good News, open to where that voice led him, he found himself in the midst of quite an interesting array of humanity.  It’s one of the gifts of the Church, from the very start.

Paul thought he was looking for a man, but instead found a woman, along with her household.

Through Paul, God is at work, and on the other end, Lydia displays an openness of heart, a willingness to absorb and allow it to change her life, her perspective.  And, her household as well.

And, then comes the hospitality, another crucial component of what this new thing was all about, a willingness to share and to welcome.  Come, stay at my house.  Come, let us do this work together.

This is a group thing.  It was at the beginning and it is now.

We are part of a long, long story.  What story will we tell, as a church today, tomorrow and into the future?  What unexpected place is God calling us to?  In what ways are being asked to show hospitality and welcome?  How are we, like Lydia, called to listen in and to allow our lives to be changed, over and over again?

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Women of the Early Church:  Mary(mother of John) and Rhoda

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 15, 2022.  Scripture:  Acts 12:1-19

For those who attend mainline churches (and the Roman Catholic Church) and count on attendance at Sunday worship to make their way through the Bible, the focus scripture for this message will be unfamiliar.  The twelfth chapter of Acts is not ever read in worship services at churches, like “mainline” Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, that use the three-year cycle of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary—because it has been completely left out.  

It’s a difficult passage, to be sure, including the execution of one of the twelve disciples/apostles, James, and the imprisonment of another, Peter, who then escapes from prison with the aid of a heavenly being.

You might wonder, then, how this passage fits into a series on women in the early church.  How can an executed apostle and then a jailed one have much of anything to do with women in the early church?  If you went looking at commentaries, you would probably remain confused, since most commentaries seem to focus exclusively on what happened to James and to Peter in the passage.  In fact, commentaries seem to title this section of Acts with headings like, “Persecution of the Church by Herod Agrippa I—the Martyrdom of James and Miraculous Delivery of Peter.”

Such headings leave the impression that there are no women at all in the passage, or certainly, no women worthy of attention.

And, yet.  This story, so conveniently left out of the lectionary, containing the troubling stories of the execution of James and the imprisonment of Peter (and his amazing escape), also manages to convey an important story when it comes to women in the early church.

Let’s begin with a little background and context.

The reality of the early church has very little to do with the church that we know so well, especially in the United States, in the twenty-first century.  Our experience as Christians is dramatically and significantly different than those who were a part of the beginnings of what would become known as the Christian Church.  It’s important to absorb an awareness of how different our experience is as followers in the Church than what it was at the beginning.

Acts 12 offers a little window into just how difficult it could be to be a follower of Christ in the first century, just how precarious it was to live one’s life in the midst of the new faith.  At the same time, though, the remarkable courage and commitment of those very early followers offered a compelling witness for many.  And through that witness, all sorts of people came to join this new group, despite the very serious issues and dangers that were associated with the new faith.

This short passage from Acts 12 reminds us just how violent the authorities could be in trying to derail the new movement, in trying to quell any enthusiasm for this new thing. James was put to death, “by the sword,” the passage reports.  That means that he was most likely beheaded. And, Peter was thrown into prison (but set loose miraculously, presumably by an angel).

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with women and women in the early church?  After the terrible news of what happened to James and then the amazing tale of Peter’s experience, the story continues with remarkable details regarding two specific women in the early church.  What happened when Peter found himself sprung from prison?  Where did he go?

He went someplace he knew he would be safe.  He didn’t head for the closest church building, the building on the street corner with the tall steeple, because there weren’t any of those.  He didn’t head to the nearest large sanctuary, with enormous pillars and a commanding organ.  Such things didn’t exist.

Instead, he headed for the safest close place he could think of:  the home of Mary, the mother of John.  He went to the home of a woman.  Her name was Mary and she was known as the mother of John.

That this home is labeled as a home belonging to a woman is significant.  And, an extra bonus is that there’s not only a maid, but one who is named—Rhoda.

Women were a critical part of the early church, in a variety of ways.  One of those points of significance was the offering of their homes for the gathering of those who were part of the movement.  There were no church buildings, at least not as we know them.  There were homes and part of being in the midst of the network of believers and followers, was knowledge regarding who could be trusted and whose homes were available for those who had come to believe in Christ.

Clearly Mary, mother of John, could be trusted.  Clearly her house and her household were very much a part of the organizing and worshiping of those early believers, including a certain maid who was so completely overwhelmed at the sound of the voice of the man everyone believed to be in prison (and who was very likely next to be executed after James), that she left Peter on the other side of the locked gate, running off to share the news first before letting him in. 

That this detail is included in the story, this moment of so much joy for the maid named Rhoda that she left Peter on the other side of the locked gate in order to announce the unbelievable news that Peter was no longer in prison probably means that this little story was shared often and freely, among those who witnessed the event as well as those who didn’t.

Remember that Acts was written many years after this event occurred.  But, this captivating and enchanting detail remained, suggesting an authenticity to the story.  Can’t you hear it?  “Hey remember that time when Peter miraculously escaped from prison and Rhoda was so overjoyed that she forgot to unlock the gate and let him in?  Remember that?”

Women were important, significant, crucial, critical, for the life of, well-being of, and the flourishing of the early church, especially in the midst of persecution, which, at times, became violent unto death.  Women were there, not simply recipients of the grace of Jesus, but trusted leaders in this new movement.

The challenge for those of us who are part of this movement so many years later is to find ways of sharing the stories of these women of the New Testament.  How will we honor the joy of Rhoda?  How will we endeavor to live with the courage of Mary, mother of John?

How will we not only honor and recognize the lives of these women, but seek be about the same sort of holy work, of sharing love and hope, hospitality and generosity, trusting in and lifting up the leadership of women?

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Would Things Be Different? Women in the Early Church: Tabitha

Based on a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 8, 2022. Scripture:  Acts 9:36-43

On so many levels and for so many reasons, this story from the ninth chapter of Acts is a remarkable one.  It’s a story about the early Church, the gathering of people around a new idea and concept, importantly and significantly without a few things:  no helpful handbook with policies and procedures, like the Top Ten Things that Every Church Should Have or Do; no library of systematic theology, not to mention no books on liberation theology or feminist theology; no “How to Be a Church for Dummies”; no internet and no Google.

How in the world did they do it?  How in the world did they go from that fearful group locked in a room to what eventually became the Church?  It’s mind boggling.  And, here we have this amazing story from the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s not a surprise that the story usually invokes a great deal of curiosity regarding Peter.  What’s going on here?  When did Peter develop the ability to resurrect people?  Why?  How?  What for?  Did he know that he could do this?

There’s certainly plenty here to consider and reflect on.  What is going on with THIS resurrection story?

But, let’s not do that.  Let’s not focus on Peter.

Instead, let’s consider the very first phrase:  “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha.”

Tabitha, whose other name was Dorcas, was known for her good works and acts of charity.  She was also a disciple.

Disciple.  This isn’t some translational attempt at making her into something maybe she wasn’t.  She is clearly referred to, in the Greek, as a disciple.  She’s the only specific woman in the entire New Testament with this designation.

Tabitha was a disciple.  And she was definitely not a man.  But, there’s not much attention paid to this little tidbit offered by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles—as if she’s just that someone who offers Peter a great opportunity to show some of his new-found abilities.

But, Tabitha was a disciple.  And, she’s right there in the text.  Not hidden away.  Not buried in a long narrative stretch.  She’s right there.  There’s not a lot about her.  She doesn’t even get to speak.  Still, that the word “disciple” is attached to her should get our attention, our full attention.  As a disciple, as someone known for her good works and acts of charity, surely she was one of those who helped form and frame the early church, one who, through her own leadership, contributed to making the Church and drawing people into this new thing, this new faith, this new way of being, of knowing oneself, one’s relationship with others, and one’s connection to the Divine.

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time recently in wondering, letting my mind cast itself off in imagining.

What would it be like if we took Tabitha more seriously?  What if her significance had extended beyond the early Church?  What if the Church Universal held a decided claim on Tabitha, on her as a disciple?  What if the Church through the centuries had a more active and engaged connection to Tabitha, a disciple, and more than that, a disciple so important that Peter felt compelled to resurrect her after her death?

I’m perhaps more attuned to thinking along these lines after Old South’s Lenten theme this year of the Women Around Jesus.  But, I’m also wondering in relationship to recent events, like the leaked Supreme Court decision that signals that the Court will overturn Roe v Wade, with Justice Samuel Alito commenting on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.  Well, maybe that’s because there were no women who participated in the writing of that document, and surely at least part of the reason no women were there was the influence of the Church, which had surely gone astray in leaving behind and ignoring the women of the New Testament, women who were profoundly significant to the gathering of, the expansion of, the forming of, and in the leadership of, the early church.  That women were then so neatly and thoroughly cast aside and kept cast aside is a huge and problematic issue for the Church and for its profound influence on culture and society over the centuries. 

I stumbled upon a page online, as I was thinking about all of this, a page that championed the wives of the writers of the Constitution.  The page noted and listed the wives left behind, supporting the Founding Fathers by taking care of their affairs while they were away.

It’s too bad a few of those women didn’t work their way into the process of the writing of the Constitution, demanding to be heard, demanding to speak up for the women.

Would things be different, if the Church recognized not simply the contributions of women, but their leadership, their partnership, in the framing and forming of the Church, from the very beginning?

Would things be different?

The Church has had a huge impact on culture and society in this country.  Would things be different if the Church had kept the leadership of women active throughout the life, practice and development of the Church and its many expressions?

Would the leadership of women ensure that women were treated as full human beings, with a clear understanding of rights over their own bodies?  I’m not sure, but I would hope so.

Would anyone be thinking that women’s reproductive rights be left to the whim of voters, when we don’t act in the same way regarding the reproductive activities of men?

Would things be different if we kept in the forefront of our understanding of relationship with the Divine, and the gathering of the Church meant to continue the life and mission of Christ, if we kept faith with Jesus’s treatment of and relationship with women, and then the early church, and the discipleship not only of men, but of women, women like Tabitha?

Would things be different? How could they not be?

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The Women Around Jesus: In Remembrance of Her, The Anointing

Scripture:  Mark 14:3-9. This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, April 10, 2022 (Palm/Passion Sunday). I apologize that this post, and its theme, is out of order with the rest of the series.

There are not a lot of places in and through which the Gospels of the New Testament line up, offering variations on common stories.  Except for the last week of Jesus’s earthly life—and even there, considerable differences exist—the Gospels of the New Testament offer little in the way of overlap.  Only two of the four contain birth stories and those two stories are quite different, despite our best attempts every Christmas season to smoosh them together. 

Some of the biggest and most well-known of Gospel stories are found in only one Gospel.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, appears only in Luke.  Same for the Prodigal Son.  The Sermon on the Mount is only in Matthew.  The Transfiguration story, the story that is featured in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, appears three times—Matthew, Mark and Luke—but not in John.

And, speaking of the RCL, it’s worth considering how the stories of the Gospels are utilized in the three-year cycle that is “intended” to take Christians who follow the lectionary through most of the Bible, with 4 readings for every Sunday—usually one from the Hebrew Scriptures, a psalm, a Gospel, and an epistle. 

The Feeding of the 5000, one of the rare stories that appears in all four Gospels is featured in each year of the three-year cycle.  The Transfiguration, which is in three of the Gospels, appears in all three years.  The Good Samaritan appears once and the Sermon on the Mount, given that it’s a very long piece, appears over the course of multiple Sundays in Year A, during the season of Epiphany.

In our focus passage for today, Mark’s version of the Anointing of Jesus by a woman, we have what may be referred to as an “Anointing Story.”  Each Gospel has a story about a woman anointing Jesus, either on the head or the feet.  The stories differ considerably, but each Gospel has one.  Yet, unlike the Feeding of the 5000, most Christians don’t know much at all about the anointing of Jesus by a woman.  That’s no surprise, really, considering how it’s treated by the RCL committee.

Matthew’s version of his Anointing Story does get a lectionary slot, all on its own.  But, Mark’s doesn’t.  Mark’s is part of the long Passion section in Year B of the lectionary.  Luke’s version isn’t in the lectionary ever.  And, John’s version gets a lectionary slot—although John’s version is very different from the others, given that John gives the anointing to Mary of Bethany.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman is unnamed.

Remember that hermeneutics of suspicion from a few weeks ago?  It’s time to utilize it once again.

Why is it that this story is not treated with the respect that it deserves, given its attention by the Gospel writers?  Now, I know there are difficulties with this story and chief among them is that the story is really different Gospel to Gospel.  Matthew and Mark’s versions are very similar, but they differ from Luke and they all differ from John.  Still, it ought to give us pause that this story is not highlighted in the lectionary, especially given the words that are on Jesus’s lips in our focus scripture for today: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

And, yet for almost all of Christendom, she has been forgotten.

As we begin the road into Holy Week, into the difficult and treacherous stories of the end of Jesus’s earthly life, we encounter this unnamed woman who, in the midst of these closest of followers of Jesus, who seems to be the only one—besides Jesus himself—who understands what’s happening, who appreciates where the path is going.

We begin this Holy Week with a remarkable example of witness.  It’s not the witness of Peter or James or John or any of the other male disciples.  It’s the witness of an unnamed woman.

For John, the anointing seems to fit neatly into the story that he tells of the sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and their brother, Lazarus.  But, for Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman has no name and it feels especially poignant that she remain nameless for, in her courageous act of witness, she also stands in for any one of us.  She could be you, or me, or someone we’ve never met or heard of.  She could be anyone whose life has been changed by Jesus, someone whose life has not only been changed, but someone who’s been paying attention and knows where this story is going—even as painful as it is to contemplate.  She must act.

And, so she does.  She could be you.  She could be me. 

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Today, we recognize the significance of this woman, of her life so remarkably and wondrously changed, and we find ourselves with an invitation—an invitation to follow her into this week, knowing full well where this story is going, yet still following, because we know that even in the turmoil, even in the struggle, even in the deep grief and sorrow, that that is the way to experiencing new life.  To follow Jesus is to do our best to actually follow, to let go of our preconceived notions and desires and follow.  We remember her and remember her powerful witness, praying for the grace and courage to live our own lives as witnesses of what Jesus has done for us—each of us and all of us together.

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