Why did it take our Methodist Church some 1956 years to live into Jesus’ Easter commission of women preachers? How do we square Paul’s teachings about women with the words and spirit of Jesus ? Why are we so slow to follow?
Luke chapter 10 begins with Jesus sending out 72 disciples healing and proclaiming that “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Jesus says, “go without purse, bag or sandals,” telling these disciples to rely on the kindness of strangers (Luke 10:3). When returning, the 72 rejoice, sharing how God’s Kingdom came on earth in power. Near the end of the chapter we learn that Martha “opened her home” to Jesus and the disciples. Did Martha welcome Jesus and the twelve or Jesus and 72 disciples? Jesus travels about without much more than the clothes on his back. (Luke 9:58) Imagine feeding and lodging Jesus and 12 to72 of his shoeless and wallet-less band of intenerate preachers. Do you wonder what Martha’s neighborhood association thought when the disciples spilled out onto her yard? It is little wonder Martha is worried and preoccupied about many things!
A lot of preaching about Mary and Martha omits Jesus’ point. We pit Martha against Mary. We pit type A Personalities against contemplatives. We pit active Christian service against study and worship. Our pitting misses the point.
When we meet Martha’s sister, Mary, she is “sitting at the Lord’s feet listening to what Jesus is saying.” Who sits listening at Jesus’ feet? Disciples do! Sitting the Teacher’s feet is the role of a student, disciple or pupil! “Sitting at the feet” indicates discipleship! Dinner guests sat in chairs with low slung pillows. Disciples, preparing to teach, sat at the Master’s feet soaking up every word.
Luke reports, “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made,” after all there may be 13 to 73 extra folks for dinner. She comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Tell her, Jesus. Tell him, Jesus. We love for God to do our bidding! Have you ever stewed “God don’t you care that I am doing all the work?”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed —or indeed only one.” Jesus is not saying that the meal does not matter- clearly we must eat. You can be a disciple cutting up carrots or in the pulpit. Being a disciple matters! Perhaps, John and Peter, who prepared the Last Supper, might help. In the previous chapter, Jesus fed 5,000 with a few fish sticks. Diner will be fine! “The One Thing” is a metaphor for life not dinner.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed —or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary has chosen to sit in the one place that matters more than anything else- it matters more than the food- it matters more than hospitality- it matters more than serving- it matters more than being a preacher. Mary has chosen the seat of a disciple. Jesus pledges not to take her disciple spot away from her!
That Mary is sitting as a disciple shocks the ancient reader. The culture prescribed different gender roles for women. Disciples become teachers! So Martha beckons her sister to get back in the kitchen.
The culture devalued women. A Jewish man’s daily prayer included thanking God that he was not born a gentile or a woman! The Jewish Temple restricted females to the Court of the Women. Luke’s Easter account tells us that when Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the other women come preaching that “Jesus has risen,” the disciples consider it an idle tale like the pejorative “wives’ tale” (24:11). Jesus moves Mary into the circle of disciples. She has chosen the disciple’s seat and her place will not be taken from her! Jesus breaks cultural stereotypes and stretches the biased boundaries.
I wish the idea that women fully belong seemed an obvious and antiquated point. Even 2,000 years later, our culture resisted equal opportunity and rights. Consider that the University of Tennessee awarded baccalaureate degrees to Elma Ellis and Elise Ogden in 1895, becoming the first women to graduate. In 1909 UT awarded the first female law graduate in the South. Not until 1964 would an African American woman graduate from UT. Our nation has not yet crossed the 100th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote! Francis Willard and other Methodist Women led this reform! We Methodist ordained women to full clergy rights only in 1956.
You see, discipleship is a preparation for leadership and proclamation. Remember Easter! Matthew 28 tells us “the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised! Come, see the place where Jesus lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” So the women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples. Suddenly Jesus appears to them saying, “Greetings!” And the women take hold of Jesus’ feet, and worship him. Jesus commissions them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Sent by angels and Jesus, the women let go of Jesus’ feet, stand up and preach “Christ is Risen!” (Matthew 28:1-10). I will take Jesus’ direct commission over my ordination any day!
How is it that we waited 1,956 years to live into Jesus’ full inclusion of women? Why did the church love cultural comfort more than our Lord’s iconoclastic words? Is the answer the Apostle Paul or our preference for status quo comfort over justice and righteousness?
Paul writes, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Timothy 2:11-14). In the passage, Paul employs some fairly creative exegesis. I have never heard a preacher defend or adequately explain what Paul says about childbirth. But let’s just consider the plainer parts! If Paul says, “I do not permit.” Does Paul speak for Paul or God? If I, Pastor Paul, say, “I do not permit a bride to wear an orange wedding dress!” Why would you assume God banned orange dresses? If I said, “First Methodist prohibits Rocky Top as the bridal march,” would you think that a rule particular to our church or to all Christian weddings? Paul says, “I do not permit,” not “God does not permit”!
Paul’s apologists site 1 Corinthians 14 in opposition to Jesus’ commission of female preachers. Paul writes, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:34). It puzzles me how Paul the great champion of Christian freedom and grace gets stuck here. How does Paul, who writes Christ “has abolished the law,” argue from the law? (Ephesians 2:15). How does one who writes “in Christ, there is no longer male and female,” defend excluding women? (Galatians 3:28). Why does “the least of the apostles,” blinded by a holy light, sent by an unintelligible spiritual voice, grow so mean spirited and defensive as to write, “Or did the word of God originate with you?” (1 Cor. 14:36). What do we do with this? We might need to think about chapter 11, where Paul calls gender roles “customs” and appeals to tradition, ending his argument “judge for itself” (11:13&16).
We might think about Paul contradicting his Corinthian prohibition writing in Romans 16. Paul instructs the church to listen to “our sister, Phoebe, a deacon.” Paul praises the clergy couple of Prisca and Aquila. Paul greets “Mary, who has worked very hard among you.” Paul calls Junia “a prominent apostle.”
You may choose to follow Paul’s words on women. I will follow Jesus. I will follow Jesus, who promised, “Your sister has chosen the better seat- it will not be taken away from her.” Will you follow Jesus who commissioned Easter women to preach, “Go and tell my brothers, Christ is risen from the dead and going ahead of you”?
Today’s sermon would have shaken me up as a teenager clinging to a rickety hand-me-down wooden literal faith. It is hard to think! But dear friends, we do not worship the Bible. The Bible did not speak creation into existence- it simply shares how the Divine Word spoke creation into being and how God shaped Adam from clay. The Bible was not born in a manger– it simply retells the Christmas story. The Bible did not divide the Red Sea or raise Lazarus from dead- the Bible simply helps us remember God’s power. The Bible did not hang on the cross for the sins of the world- the Bible points us towards our Savior. After three days the Bible did not raise from the dead triumphant over sin and death. No, that was Jesus who we proclaim as Lord!
We Methodist “believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” (EUB Confession of Faith)The Bible tells us about who Jesus is. The Bible holds Jesus’ Word that judge and guide our living! But Jesus is bigger than the Bible.
John’s Gospel ends, “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). Jesus is still writing books in our lives today! The Spirit is writing new chapters in our living today! We sing our belief in the unfolding story of Jesus. “And he talks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own and the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”
I am not preaching to provoke- but to help us open the Bible. But as a College Junior, my literalist faith collided with my experience of Jesus Christ, who “emptied himself of all but love” (And Can It Be). Psalm 137 chaffed against amazing grace. Some Sunday School teacher long ago impressed upon me the idea “if any part of the Bible is not true, then throw the whole thing out.” Churning inside, I tossed the Bible across the room. I cried out something like “God, if you are there, you have to…”. Then something like a wall of love washed over me. No answers just Love. Peace and Love beyond my understanding (Ephesians 3:19). Seminary, helped with a few theological details, but Love is the answer!
Jesus is not locked up in the pages of the Bible- Jesus still comes to college juniors churning inside. As Jesus came to Paul on the Road to Damascus, Jesus comes even today!
So hear the Good News friends. Jesus has called our sisters to preach! That may shake up those who worship the Bible. But the Good News is that, “Jesus Christ is Risen from the dead, and indeed, is going ahead of us” even today! May your Jesus be bigger. May Jesus rule our hearts, souls, and minds. May the Spirit guide our steps! May the Bible reveal to us The Word of God. May Jesus shatter our cultural boundaries and sinful biases leading us into grace, goodness, righteousness, justice and love! Amen