Judges 5:1-18, Acts 2:1-21, Matthew 28:1-10
As most of you know I follow the daily lectionary for my morning devotions. All three of today’s readings have women playing a prominent role in God’s mission.
Granted, the Bible as a whole is a fairly patriarchal book. God’s revelation of his will in Scripture and history is both gradual and progressive. Yes, there are lots of passages that reflect cultural stereotypes about men and women.
But God can also be a culture-buster. He is forever challenging our most basic assumptions about people and about himself. So in the Old Testament readings the last two days the prophet and judge Deborah functions as the main leader of Israel. She is the one who calls the tribes of Israel to arms and leads them in battle. The opposing commander ends up being killed by a woman named Jael when he tries to hide in her tent.
In our Acts reading Peter quotes a passage by the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” Later in this same book Philip’s daughters are called prophets. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul acknowledges and affirms women who are prophesying in worship. He even describes prophecy as the most important of the spiritual gifts (14:1). When the wife-husband team Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in Acts, Priscilla’s name is almost always mentioned first (e.g. Acts 18:18).
Our gospel reading contains Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection. Again, women play a prominent and strategic role as they become the resurrected Christ’s first witnesses. They are the first to be told that Jesus is alive, and then he actually appears to them. (Maybe this is their reward for not abandoning Jesus but being with him when he was crucified — unlike…uh, the men.)
One woman in the New Testament, Junia, is described as “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). Scholars debate whether Junia was an actual apostle or just known by the apostles. Grammatical considerations suggest that she was actually an apostle. Early church Fathers like Chrysostom and Jerome assumed that she was an apostle (even though Chrysostom was no great supporter of women in leadership).
A couple of observations. First, when reading Scripture it’s important to realize that what is normal is not always normative. In other words, what is descriptive is not always prescriptive. The word “normal” refers to common practice. The word “normative” means what is required or commanded.
So even though it’s normal for leaders to be men in the Bible, it’s not normative. In other words, there are exceptions. Sometimes what is normal is also normative – for now. For example, slavery was normal in the ancient world. While churches were first being planted in the first century, it was not only normal but normative that slaves remain slaves – unless they could become free through legal means like paying off their debts. Christians had other battles to fight. Opposing slavery would be a battle for another day and another century.
At times, the New Testament contains contradictory testimony about the role of women in the church. For example, in the same letter in which Paul affirms the role of women as prophets in worship, he later says that women should stay quiet in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). (We aren’t sure what problem Paul was addressing. It may be that because many women were uneducated or unfamiliar with the dialect of the speaker, they were constantly asking their husbands questions during the sermon.) Women are also told that when they prophesy, they should have some kind of head covering. So how much of this was “normal” for that time, and and even “normative” for a time or season, but not necessarily for all time?
The second thing I want to highlight is how valuable women are not just to the life of Christ’s church in general but to our particular congregation. Some women are in leadership, while others aren’t, just like with the men of our church. I, for one, am grateful for all of their contributions, and I know that you are too.
So Sisters, thank you. Thank you for your labor of love. Thank you for leading and challenging me to be more faithful to my own call as your co-minister. I celebrate your gifts and your leadership, your hard work and devotion to Christ. I feel blessed to know you, be taught by you, and to be able to serve alongside of you.