If you’ve been following the international church news this week, you’ll have noticed that the General Synod of the Church of England has been preoccupied with the question of women bishops, an issue which the Episcopal Church settled in 1976. The Church of England has ordained women priests only since the 1990s, and in 2008 it agreed to proceed to the ordination of women bishops. Since that time, Anglican conservatives in England have threatened to leave the church if women are allowed to exercise episcopal authority.
As I have followed this story over the past week, I’ve wished that some of the opponents of women bishops had spent some time thinking about the ministry of St. Thecla, a first century Christian missionary and evangelist who exercised as much ecclesiastical authority as any contemporary bishop—male or female—you could name.
In the early days of Christianity, Paul was accompanied on his missionary journeys by a young woman named Thecla, a virgin of noble birth from Iconium in Asia Minor. Thecla met Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey there and became an important leader in the Christian missionary movement, accompanying them to Ephesus and beyond. She was apparently dedicated, fearless, and beautiful. She is not mentioned in the New Testament but is discussed at length in many other contemporary texts, including an early Christian document, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”.
Because the Thecla story is so interesting to modern biblical scholars, many Christians have dusted off “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” and given it a try. It’s not so compelling a read that you should adjust your summer beach novel plans, but it’s very interesting, especially in the light of England’s current flap about the authority of women. I cannot get very far in the Thecla story without being arrested by this line: “And Thecla said to Paul: I shall cut my hair, and follow thee whithersoever thou mayest go.” Perhaps cutting her hair was Thecla’s way of making herself less appealing to the male population of Ephesus-- thus removing, by this first-century makeover, an impediment to her apostolic effectiveness.
But maybe physical beauty was only part of Thecla’s problem. Maybe she desired to cut her hair not so much to deter lustful advances but more as a support to her ecclesiastical authority. Because the Roman world in which Thecla worked could not imagine authoritative women, Thecla gave herself a leadership image that her followers could understand. Cutting her hair was the early church equivalent of wearing a power suit.
Several years ago I read with interest John Dominic Crossan’s and Jonathan Reed’s book, "In Search of Paul". The book shows how Paul and Thecla worked as a missionary team and exercised equal authority in the churches they founded. Not surprisingly, as Christianity became more “established”, the memory of Paul’s role grew as that of Thecla’s shrank. Roman culture, which organized itself entirely around hierarchies, could not imagine a church in which women held positions of authority. Crossan’s and Reed’s book thus poses a larger set of questions. As they put it, “Does a search for Paul . . . bring Thecla, women, and equality back steadily and inevitably into the light until female and male stand together side by side in the full life of the center?” ["In Search of Paul", p.xiv]
What these scholars are showing us, of course, is the way in which the story of the authentic authority of women in the apostolic Christian community has itself been systematically erased over time. It seems as if what conservative Christians might, in another context, call “revisionists” have succeeded in rewriting the history of the roles of women and men in the apostolic church. No wonder Thecla wanted to cut her hair.
It is in the light of reflecting on this restored story of Thecla that the Gospel for today—Luke’s familiar story of Mary sitting and listening at Jesus’s feet while her sister Martha busies herself with the tasks of hospitality—makes sense to me. As Jesus says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." [Luke 10.42]
I have long given up the practice of either praising or blaming Martha and Mary for being “active” or “contemplative”. This is not a story about work and rest. It does not contrast the life of ministry with the spiritual life. It is very much a story about the equality of women and men. The hard-working Martha upbraids her more reflective sister not because she is taking it easy. Martha’s critique of Mary is far more serious: by taking her place at Jesus’s feet instead of in the kitchen, Mary is acting like a disciple rather than a domestic. In other words: she is behaving like a man. In Jesus’s day, women absented themselves from the living room and worked in the kitchen. But here Mary stays in the living room and so takes her place in the public discourse of religious life. In the Palestinian Jewish houses of the first century, men had one sphere and women another. Mary has crossed a boundary and so has offended her more traditional sister. When Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part,” he is not telling Martha simply to take a chill. He is, instead, telling Martha that Mary’s assuming the privileges of a male disciple is a good thing. He is saying that it is all right for women to take their places in the councils usually reserved to men. He is, in a deep sense, validating Thecla’s decision to get a haircut. The Jesus movement will not be beholden to cultural norms or stereotypes. Inside the circle that gathers around Jesus, the roles our culture assigns to men and women no longer matter. The Jesus community insists on the radical equality of all people before God.
In this morning’s reading from his letter to the Colossians, Paul gets at the egalitarian implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Christ event has erased all human distinctions. As he says, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.” [Colossians 1.2—22] Therefore, Paul is announcing what he calls “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” [Colossians 1.26] And the center of this mystery concerns the way God has called a community together called the church that assigns Jews and Gentiles absolute equality with each other. In the ancient world’s terms, such a community was unimaginable. The Roman world lived and died by hard fixed categories: Roman/Greek, slave/free, male/female. Those categories were seen as part of the fabric of reality itself. But now reality seemed to be changing. God was calling together a body whose members left their categories at the door. So the existence of the church is itself a sign of the new thing that God is doing. If God can erase the boundary between Gentile and Jew, God can do anything.
I have never heard a sermon on this Gospel story of Mary and Martha that didn’t make somebody mad. The old version of the “Mary and Martha” sermon was infuriating because it seemed to make Jesus say that people who work hard aren’t as spiritual as those who sit back and relax. It’s clear, at least to me, that Jesus is not saying that. But what he is saying—about the radical equality of all people before God—can be equally infuriating, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture where you assumed that some kinds of people were made to work in the kitchen and others to sit at the Master’s feet.
The longer I live and work and pray in the church, the longer it seems to me that the deeply egalitarian thing that Thecla and Paul were on to was the sign that they got what Jesus was talking about. If you enjoy certain advantages bestowed by your culture, it is at first challenging to hear that people unlike you in their external markers might also be called to share your status. Jesus did not come to reinforce our cultural habits. Instead, he proclaims the reign of God as a creative alternative to “the way we’ve always done it”. Because the way we’ve always done it usually deems somebody a winner and somebody else a loser. But the church, says Paul, doesn’t work that way. It’s a community where people can explore their gifts and exercise their ministries regardless of where they fit in the world’s social hierarchy. One of the first Popes [Callistus I] was a household slave.
Human categories, as important as they are to us, finally mean much more to us than they do to God. Accustomed as we are to describing ourselves in certain categorical ways, we are always surprised to learn that, when God looks at us, we are seen not according to what social, ethnic, or other category we fall into but in the light of the divine image which each of us uniquely reflects. Mary and Thecla dared to see themselves as beloved human beings made in the image of God and bearing the image of Christ. And seeing themselves that way they offered themselves to God and the world. It was their self-offering, not their category, that finally mattered. And that’s why we remember and honor them to this day.
It was Mary’s shrewd critique of Palestinian Jewish culture to take her place with the men, where the teaching was going on. It was Thecla’s apostolic insight that she needed to cut her hair so she could exercise her own God-given authority. As we gather this morning to give thanks at God’s table, let us celebrate the life and ministry and of Thecla, of Mary before her, and of the countless Theclas and Marys who have striven to live out their response to Jesus in the way that fits them best. And let’s celebrate the Marthas—those who find their authentic existence living within the confines of established roles. The good news that Mary and Martha and Thecla bring us this morning is that God sees and knows us as we are. Regardless of how others would define you, when God looks at you all those other status markers mean nothing at all. You are free to live your life in ways that may puzzle the world or may even surprise yourself. In spite of what their culture told them, Mary dared to sit at Jesus’s feet and Thecla dared to preach the Gospel. They refused to let their cultural roles or family expectations define them. Male or female, what might their witness mean for you? How might you be set free from roles and expectations not authentic to who you actually are?
It is o.k. to be who God has made and called you to be—even if being that surprises and shocks the world. It is o.k. to be a woman with authority, a man who does the household chores. Surprising as it may sound to English men, it is even o.k. to be an English woman bishop. Thecla and Mary have shown us how God calls us to live our lives beyond categories. Let us pray and work for the courage to live into the equality and freedom of that blessing. Amen.