2013-11-10 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
10th November 2013
Reading: Romans 16:1-16
1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 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.
3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, 4 and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 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. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
“When you get to the States, give our love to Alan and Ellie, who have given their lives to making disciples and caring for them. Say hi to Wayne and Leabell, Becky and Gerry, Jim and Lois, Ed and Phyllis, Barbara and Darrell, who have worked so hard to make a place of welcome. Don’t forget Peter Olsen, who ran that place single handed. Lots of love to Nelson and Ellen and their daughters, and Mark and Mary. Greet Jill Gerig, Dora-Marie and Sharon Kniss. Give Wayne and Lois a hug, and if you get to Canada, give our love to all the Thiessens, not to mention David and Julie. All these are our sisters and brothers in the Lord, and we value them. Have I missed anyone?”
The first half of Romans 16 sounds very familiar. Paul is sending his love to people who have walked and worked with him for a while, who have been sent out or travelled on to serve and proclaim Jesus in other places, but who still mean a great deal to him. As what I sometimes call a ‘foster parent’ church, we are very accustomed to having people here for a few years, loving them and learning from them, and then having to say goodbye. But the ties of baptism are stronger than those of blood, and these people are our extended family, still linked by faith and discipleship, and we don’t forget them.
And as this is Remembrance Sunday, we also remember those we loved who have died, not in war, but at the end, sometimes a very early end, of a life lived in and for for peace. We remember Eileen and John, Jocelyn, Petra, Bernard, Lesley, Esther. And we long to see them again, all of us transformed into our best selves, in the new heaven and new earth.
This afternoon, though, I want to honour the memory of the forgotten half of the church – often more than half – by focusing on the women Paul commends and greets here. At my count there are 25 people mentioned by name in verses 1-16, and a few more unnamed, and of these at least 11 are women. Just pause for a moment and think how remarkable this is, against the background of a Jewish culture where you needed ten men to hold a synagogue meeting, and women didn’t count; where a devout Jewish man would thank God every morning that he wasn’t born a Gentile, a woman or a dog. And this is Paul, the apostle who supposedly hated women and wanted them kept in their place. Really? This looks like a very different Paul from the one people think told women to be silent in church.
I want to look at each of these women individually, and in each case to say what they are not: to highlight the false beliefs we may have been taught or assumed about them, and show who they really were.
First of all, Phoebe, the bearer of the letter. Phoebe is not, as some translations would have it, a deaconess. The word used of her, ‘diakonos’, is exactly the same word used of Stephen, the first martyr, and his six colleagues who were in charge of redistribution of wealth within the church. There is no such office as deaconess within the early church. Secondly she is not just a postlady, and nor does her description as “benefactor to many” define her as some kind of aristocratic Lady Bountiful. The word ‘prostatis’, here translated ‘benefactor’, actually means something like ‘advocate, protector, or leader’. It’s the word used of the person who presides at a communion service. Phoebe is a leader.
Next there’s Prisca, or Priscilla, and her husband Aquila, the Ellie and Alan Kreider of the early church. They’re mentioned five times in the NT, and in three of these, Priscilla’s name is mentioned first – a custom which indicated that person was the foremost of the two. Priscilla is emphatically not an assistant or secretary to Aquila – if anything, it’s the other way around. It was this couple who instructed the eloquent convert Apollos, teaching him the way of Jesus more accurately. They also, according to Paul, risked their necks to save his life. Priscilla does not sound like a shrinking violet.
Next we meet Mary, who has worked very hard among the believers. Mary is clearly not a teamaker or an arranger of flowers. The word for ‘worked’ that Paul uses is the same word he applies to himself, and in 1 Timothy it’s used of those who preach and teach. Whether Mary’s role was pastoral or a teaching role, she is clearly a valued colleague.
Now for Junia, a relative of Paul. Junia is not a man. It’s important to say this because Junia was accepted as a woman and an apostle right up to the 13th century. However medieval scholars balked at this and changed her to Junias, a male name which is entirely unknown in the first century – and some translations still call her Junias. There is absolutely no reason for this change – it’s pure prejudice. Junia was a female apostle, just as Mary Magdalene was when she announced the resurrection to the male disciples (and according to to Luke’s Gospel, the men thought this was ‘an idle tale’ and didn’t believe them – hysterical women, no doubt).
Then there’s Tryphaena and Tryphosa, about whom I gather someone once preached a sermon using the first syllable of their names in English, labelling them as those who ‘tried’ but whose efforts were misplaced, and who should have just rested in God’s grace. Amusing it may be, but it’s hardly biblical scholarship. With Persis, they are described as “workers in the Lord”. I’m pretty sure they are not Sunday school teachers or creche leaders. These are women who spread the gospel and Paul regards them as part of his team.
Finally, there is Rufus’ mother, who has been a mother to Paul, and the undescribed Julia and Nereus’ sister. What can I say about these? Well, I suspect they didn’t spent all their time cooking lokshen pudding for Paul and darning his socks, if I may be a bit anachronistic. There is nothing here to suggest that they were anything but fellow Christians, ministering to each other in the church and treated equally.
When we read this list of women – and we rarely do – we are not talking about people who asked their husbands at home what the sermon meant, or women who baked Victoria sponges for the church lunch. We are meeting women who exercised significant leadership in the early church, and some of whom were in real danger by publicly declaring themselves as Christians.
On Remembrance Sunday, perhaps we should remember not just the unknown soldier or the glorious dead. Maybe we should use this as an opportunity for remembering all the dead, including those, these days largely civilians, who were and are killed by the actions of ‘our boys’. And can we extend this further by remembering all the women, biblical and otherwise, whom our biased history has forgotten?
Children in Sunday school, and adults in church, are taught about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon. If they are very lucky, they will get a mention of Naomi, Ruth and Esther. When are they taught about Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah? When do they hear about the civilly disobedient midwives Shiphrah and Puah, or the prophet Huldah wife of Shallum, the first biblical interpreter? And why when we preach on biblical characters, are the male ones held up as role models for both sexes, but the female ones only for girls and women? The Swedes have invented the ‘Bechdel test’ for whether a film treats women equally; to qualify, a film must have two women talking to each other about something other than a man. Few films qualify. I wonder if the Bible would – or is it just the way we teach it?
Paul in Romans gives us a picture of a church where women and men regard each other as equal brothers and sisters, where they serve in mixed teams, where mutual love prevents objectification of either sex. Is this a legacy of the persecutor Saul who, Luke tells us in Acts 8:3, dragged off both men and women of the new Christian sect to prison? Even before his conversion, he could see that women in the church were as significant as men.
In Wood Green Mennonite, we now find ourselves in the very unusual position of having more men in our little congregation than women. I’m now the only woman in my home group, which feels kind of strange. Some congregations would die for this situation. But is it healthy? Women, in spite of often being lumped in with ethnic minorities and the disabled, are actually slightly the majority of the human race, though not in countries where it is common to abort female foetuses. Incidentally in the Roman Empire, female infants were often left out to die on the hillsides, and one of the first social actions the early church engaged in was to rescue these girl babies and bring them up – the first instance of Christian feminism.
A church consisting mainly of men would be as unbalanced as a church consisting mainly of women. Do we actually need to recruit more women to our congregation? And if so, how? This might be a first task for our development worker when we appoint her or him.
This is our last sermon in our series on Romans and it might appear to have little connection to the others. But I think perhaps it goes to the heart of Romans as we’ve explored it. All of Romans tells us that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything for everyone, including, indeed particularly, those who have previously been excluded. Which is a good note on which to end. So I’ll leave you with Paul’s closing words, and note particularly the phrase “the obedience of faith” :
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.”