Impossible Possibility

1 Timothy 2.8-14 

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Galatians 3.19-28

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.

We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.

It was awful.

It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.

And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”

It was perfect.

I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon. 

It was perfect.

But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”

I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.

Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.

The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do. 

I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.

But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible. 

Well, sort of.

There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.

Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy: 

Men should pray, Paul says. 

Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.

Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.

Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.

Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

Wow.

Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.

And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…

However, scripture says other things as well.

Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.

And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible. 

And the Gospels are no different! 

Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.

Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!

Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.

And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.

And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.

And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.

It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.

Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.

God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.

It’s really as simple as that.

And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.

Which leads us to Galatians.

Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.

Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us. 

Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.

The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each. 

In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way. 

The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it. 

Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.

But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.

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