Let’s Go Exploring!

Here’s my last sermon from my Performance & Preaching class. It’s another fun one on some more controversial scripture. Good times had by all.

1 Timothy 2:9-15

            What are we supposed to think of this Scripture in the 21st century?  How am I supposed to make sense of this when some of my very best friends in the Presbytery of Arkansas are women who adorn their vestments and preach the Word of God every week? If this letter is actually written by Paul – and that’s debatable – then he’s saying not only that women have no authority over men, but that they cannot teach men – at all.

So let’s take a more concentrated look at this letter to Timothy. If you read it all the way through, you can pretty much figure out that this letter is focused on societal and church structure. There’s a lot of talk about how everyone should be behaving as well as how the polity of the church and society should be set up. And the major thing about this society is its patriarchal formation. The author of this text had to create rules and structures based on societal norms.

At least verse nine has some merit to it. When the author writes that women – and I would have put in everyone, not just women – shouldn’t be wearing gold, braided hair, or other expensive items, this was an attempt to bring the focus to the point of church, so that the early church wouldn’t become some social club. The church has more meaning than just gathering in your nicest clothes to show off – not that anyone would ever do that in today’s society.

Moving on, we get the author telling women that they should only be performing “good deeds.” Take that as you will, but many commentaries think this advice was for women to be focused on living their lives and keeping God at the forefront of their mind. Remember that society in those days put women in the crosshairs of blame for most, if not all, immoral actions – a viewpoint we find laughable today. If you go about your daily life and can’t see God in all the actions you do, you’re doing it wrong.

And in verses 13 and 14, this Paul completely redacts his argument about original sin made in Romans 5:15-19 and 7:11. Why would the original sin all of a sudden be solely blamed on Eve when Paul said it was Adam’s fault earlier? Did he forget what he wrote to someone else? How does that make sense? And looking at the whole “atonement through giving birth” argument probably makes a good deal of us unhappy or squeamish. “The only way women can be saved is by living good, virtuous lives and by suffering through the pain of childbirth!” Shut the front door!

Now let’s look at this from the context of their society. Remember, this is the first century, CE; churches are meeting in people’s homes. There are no sanctuaries or fellowship halls or youth rooms. There are only kitchens and living rooms at this point. People who were choosing to worship Jesus as the savior had to meet in a person’s home where paterfamilias was still rule of the day. The man was still the head of the household and there was no swaying that.

And none of that makes it OK to say any of this. Women shouldn’t have to be submissive to men. Women should be able to teach whenever and whomever they want. But keep this in mind: when did we allow women to vote, a hair over 100 years ago? This was the first century! What about domestic violence? When did it become the norm for that to be reported as a crime? Whether Paul is the author or not, don’t be too quick to shut the door on this text. It’s not awesome, by any means, but did you expect the early church, just getting on its feet, to really break the chains of conformity that much? In all likelihood, we wouldn’t be here if they had.

This week, I’m going to tell you about the very last Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. And thinking back, maybe I should have made last week’s sermon the very first in my series and this one the last, because they had to do with the very first Calvin and Hobbes and the very last Calvin and Hobbes, respectively.

The last published Calvin and Hobbes comic strip appeared in newspapers around the country on December 31st, 1995. I’ve told you before that in a winter strip, Calvin and Hobbes are doing one of three things: throwing snowballs, building snowpersons, or sledding. This strip focuses on sledding. As the scene opens, it has Calvin and Hobbes talking about how much snow had fallen the night before. “Wow, it really snowed last night! Isn’t it wonderful?” Calvin remarks. “Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand new!” marvels Hobbes.

“A new year… A fresh, clean start!”

“It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!”

“A day full of possibilities! It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” And the two of them race off down the hill into the woods on their toboggan.

What a great way to end this comic strip. Bill Watterson simply left it up to the readers to decide what Calvin and Hobbes would be doing next. There they go off the hill, into the distance, to explore what they can in the world.  There’s something new to be found every day, because every day is a new beginning. It is an affirmation of the possibilities in the world as well as a call to never lose that part of our childhood that draws us to the unknown.

Earlier I mentioned that it’s debatable as to whether Paul even wrote this text. A part of what scholars call the Pastoral Epistles, 1 Timothy has a completely different feel than what most scholars believe are the authentic letters of Paul. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon, all present a Paul that has some sort of radical sense that’s blunted by the ecclesiastical orthodoxy found in these Pastoral Epistles. In other words, the whole sense of Paul’s theology found in the real epistles is stunted here by focusing too much on the organization of the church. If they were actually written by Paul, why would the structure of the church be so important? The Pastoral Epistles are more focused on preserving faith than preaching faith.

So how do we reconcile this text to the rest of our idea of Paul? In a sense, it’s our turn to go exploring. If we go through the rest of the Bible, we can see that Paul had many interactions with women. He was just fine evangelizing with Priscilla in Acts 18. In Romans 16, Paul tells the Romans to accept Phoebe as his equal and even mentions Priscilla in his support for that idea. And what about Colossians 4:15 where Paul acknowledges the church that is meeting in Nympha’s house? Nympha’s house being the house of a woman, not the house of a man. These are all solid canonical examples of Paul affirming women in ministry during his time. But that’s not all the evidence we have of Paul’s interactions with women in ministry.

When I went home to Arkansas for Spring Break, my dad gave me a book called A New New Testament. This book is an attempt to take the traditional canonical books of the New Testament and combine them with texts of a variety of backgrounds. Some of these “new” texts were familiar to scholars, because they were mentioned in other places. Some had been repressed in the history of the church for whatever reason. Some were just discovered in the past century. All of these added texts, however, seem to be authentic documents from the early church. The contributors and editor of this book made sure to not add anything that appeared after the 3rd century CE. These books include texts like the Gospel of Thomas, the Odes of Solomon, The Gospel of Mary, and The Acts of Paul and Thecla.

That last book I mentioned, that’s another account of Paul’s evangelism, but instead of Paul being the main character, this account focuses on Thecla, a first-century woman from the city of Iconium. This story is a narrative of how Thecla comes to be an early evangelist and even gains Paul’s blessing to spread the word of Christ. In the early chapters, Paul inspires Thecla when he visits her city. She sits in the window as he speaks to a crowded room and wouldn’t move for days, even when her husband-to-be comes calling. She is determined to abandon her arranged marriage, because of Paul’s teachings. And not only does this happen to her, but other women all over the city feel the same way! Because of this, Paul is arrested and placed in prison in the city. Thecla hears of this and sneaks into his cell and learns of the Gospel from him in a one-on-one setting.

Soon after this, she’s found out and both Paul and Thecla are put on trial. He manages to be set free, but Thecla is to be burned at the stake. During the process in which they pyre is being prepared, God sends rain to save Thecla and she escapes to join Paul in the mountains, where he had been mourning for six days, thinking that Thecla was dead. Once she finds Paul again, they set out on the road together, ending up in Antioch, setting up another trial for Thecla.

In Antioch, Thecla’s beauty catches the eye of Alexander. He is determined to have her for himself, but Paul insists he does not know Thecla when asked about her – an effort to protect Thecla from Alexander. This inspires Alexander to approach Thecla himself, but when he does, she enthusiastically denies him in public, causing him much shame. Of course, he’s a powerful man, so he has the town on his side, and Thecla is to be put to death by wild beasts. Long story short, Thecla is entrusted to the local queen for the time before her sentencing, and this queen views her as a daughter sent by God because of the early death of a different daughter. When Thecla is saved time and time again from the beasts and then baptizes herself in front of the whole city, the queen convinces the city to set her free. The queen then joins Thecla to find Paul again, who had disappeared for whatever reason. And when they do find him, in chapter 41, Thecla tells Paul she is returning to Iconium to spread the Gospel and Paul replies, “Go and teach the word of God.” Again, Paul affirms a woman to spread the Good News, to teach the good news.

The point of the whole matter, mixing 1 Timothy, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Acts of Paul and Thecla is this: We shut the door on things we don’t like to hear. We simply close our hearts and minds and say, “I’m not listening to that any more.” But then something else happens. God presents something to us that gives us a new slate for our brain. A blanket of snow will fall overnight and the new day will be a brand new world, full of possibility and promise! At this point, everything new lies in front of us, and if we embrace our childhood nature that calls us out into it, we realize that it is a wonderful world, despite things that have closed us off! And we can go exploring! And we can find things that open up our hearts and minds again!

 

And the notes I received in class

  • Maybe Calvin and Hobbes narrative would have worked better in the beginning of the sermon this time. Would have given more ability to march through the other points.
  • There was more surprise about how Thecla was the hero, and not Paul.
  • This is a bit of a teaching sermon, but that’s not a bad thing.
  • “This doesn’t make it OK” was perhaps strongest point. Needs more here.
  • Thecla narrative was a bit long. What’s the reason for all those stories?
  • Again, be wary of the congregation. Maybe not as much freedom to approach such topics in a middle-of-the-road setting.
  • Lastly, but most importantly to me was this note, brought forward by a classmate, because I fouled up big time here.: Who was my audience? There were two African-American women in our class. So, when I say women gained the right to vote 100 years ago, I clearly wasn’t mindful of who I was preaching to this time.
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