Preached at First Congregational Church, Kalamazoo on April 29, 2018. You can listen to the recording here.
Text: John 20:11-18
My nine year old daughter attends many Sundays at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, since my spouse attends there. Her Faith Formation director there is a good friend of mine and has shared with me a few significant conversations that have come up during Formation hour, including one week when my daughter complained that all the readings for weeks and weeks had been about men and boys. “Where are the girls?” she asked.
My friend acknowledged that there are far more men in the Bible than women, but named a few who would be coming up in the readings from Genesis scheduled for the next few weeks. Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Rebecca. My daughter was not impressed. “But all those women are only important because they were someone’s mom. What about girls who are not anyone’s mom?”
I love my daughter. And I love that she has two faith communities in which she can have her questions taken seriously. Because that question: “what about girls who are not anyone’s mom?” is right at the heart of 2000 years of church history. We have scriptures that emerge entirely from cultures that were patriarchal. By which I mean societies in which women’s value is reduced to their function in maintaining male lines of succession–their roles as wives and mothers. Much of the way women are portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament reflects these assumptions. There is no way around it. That’s the culture in which the Bible was written.
And for far too much of Christian history, including what is taught in many churches in this country today, those patriarchal norms have been considered part of the tradition–part of the truth about God and the world that is passed on for our edification.
This is how we have youth groups that teach that preserving sexual purity until marriage should be a teenage girl’s highest priority. This is how we have pastors who tell women that fleeing domestic violence is against God’s will. And this is how we have churches that refuse to believe that women can be pastors. Because 2000 year-old cultural values are assumed to be God’s design for humanity and something we must continue to impose on society.
So what is a feminist to do? How do we, who seek to dismantle oppressive systems, find ourselves standing in this tradition? What do we do with scriptures in which there are far more stories of men than of women, and in which many of the admirable women are valued for their roles as wives and mothers?
Here’s what I do. I look for the exceptions.
I look for the women praised for being mouthy and subversive of authority, like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who lie to the Pharaoh instead of following his orders to kill Hebrew infants.
I look for women who exercise economic independence, like Joanna and Susanna, named in the book of Luke as women who funded Jesus’s ministry.
I look for women like Mary and Martha of Bethany, affirmed as disciples of Jesus in their own right, with no mention of husbands or children.
The exceptions are there. Scattered throughout scripture are these stories of women who do not conform to gender expectations, and who are celebrated for it.
These exception are important because, contrary to the messages of many evangelical churches, patriarchy is NOT part of the inheritance of our faith. It is part of our cultural baggage, but it has no part in the gift given to us in Christ or through the Spirit. The exceptions–those women who are remembered and honored in their own right–show us how the community of Jesus-followers pushed against the patriarchy of its day and carved out space for women to claim identity, agency and leadership outside of gender norms.
The story of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene is one example of this push.
The way that the gospel of John tells it, the resurrected Christ could appear in rooms when the doors were locked. There is no reason Jesus’s first resurrection appearance had to occur at the grave site and not in that upper room where all the disciples were already gathered. And, just minutes before Jesus appears to Mary in the Garden, there are two other disciples present–Peter and the disciple identified as the one Jesus loved. These disciples are part of Jesus’s inner circle. Peter, in particular, becomes a hugely significant authority figure in the early church.
If a core value of the early church had been maintaining hierarchy and male-dominated systems, this would be told as a story of Jesus appearing to Peter. Instead, we have a story of Jesus choosing–choosing very intentionally–to reveal himself to Mary Magdalene, an unmarried woman. A woman who has no standing or value in a patriarchal world. But as the Jesuit priest James Martin has pointed out, for the space of time between Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden and her announcement to the disciples in the upper room, she was the church on earth–the only person who witnessed the resurrection and had good news to share about God’s power to conquer death.
In choosing Mary as the first witness of the resurrection Jesus affirms that she has inherent value as a person. She does not need to be married or procreating to be worthy of his presence. In contrast to some men in more conservative Christian communities today, Jesus did not adhere to the “Billy Graham Rule”–the idea that a powerful man should never be alone with a woman. Jesus affirms that Mary has inherent value and does not reduce her to being either sexually available or a sexual temptation to be avoided.
Mary’s presence in this community of disciples also affirms her agency in choosing adult relationships of her own. This is not a small thing in the first century Roman Empire, and it is a marked distinction between the early church and the culture around it. In her book “The Cloister Walk,” Kathleen Norris talks about the virgin martyrs–women in the 3rd century church who were killed for their refusal to participate in arranged marriages. As Norris puts it, “Knowing that they were loved by Christ gave these women the strength to risk a way of life that was punishable by death (under Roman law, both a soldier’s refusal to fight, and a woman’s refusal to marry and breed for the Empire, were treasonous offenses).”
For a woman in the Roman Empire to refuse marriage and exercise agency over her sexuality and who she chose as family and community was a risky act of political subversion. And it was a risk many hundreds if not thousands of women took, because Jesus and the community of the church after him affirmed to these women that they could make their own decisions about the course of their lives.
And that course did not have to look like traditional gender roles–marriage and children. Following Jesus meant for many women the opportunity to be leaders. Mary Magdalene is remembered as the first preacher, because on that Easter morning she was the first to proclaim the news of Jesus’s resurrection. Numerous women are named in Paul’s letters as leaders in the first generation of the church. And ancient mosaics include images of women identified as bishops and priests.
Those women, hailed as virgin martyrs, were not refusing marriage because they thought sex was base or sinful. They were not preserving sexual purity in the way that patriarchal cultures demand. They were refusing to be confined to the domestic roles prescribed by their culture because they were empowered by Christ and by the early church to be leaders, public figures, priests, teachers, social reformers and church planters.
And one of the tragedies of Christian history is that within about a generation of the stories of these martyrs, the very empire against which they stood in defiance took on the mantle of the Christian faith and began to use the stories of Jesus to justify domination and undergird patriarchal family values.
So here we are, 1700 years later still living in this tension. Some use the scriptures and traditions of the church to uphold hierarchy and underwrite gender roles and patriarchal values, while others, like myself, find in these scriptures and in the history of the church resources for liberation from those same structures of domination.
And, increasingly, I am unwilling to engage in prolonged debate with those who read this faith tradition differently than I do. I find no honor in gridlocked intellectual game-play. Instead, I choose, and I commend to you the option of using scripture the way Jesus himself did–to empower people who are told they have no value in the world. As Jesus himself describes his ministry, “to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captive; to restore sight to those who cannot see and let the oppressed go free.
Our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to join in this push against every force that devalues human life. To proclaim that the person migrating without legal documents is valuable to God regardless of their immigration status or economic output; to insist that Muslim men and women are not a threat to our society simply because they worship differently than we do; to proclaim that Black Lives matter to God and must matter to the church; to affirm that a trans man or trans woman is inherently beloved by God in defiance of the voices that say they must conform to the gender assigned them at birth, and in defiance of those cultural messages that imply they are more valuable or more beautiful or more worthy of love if they can “pass” as cis-gendered.
There are many voices speaking lies about human worth. Empires and patriarchies and all systems of domination rely on fear and intimidation to control people. They use threats of death and threats of degradation and threats of humiliation to convince people that the only way to have worth is by participating in the status quo as a good mother, a good provider, a good consumer, a good protector, a good producer, a good fighter.
But Jesus, resurrected from the grave, demonstrates that the threat of death has no hold on God or God’s people. He appears in private to a single woman, looks her in the face, speaks her name, and gives her the most important job that has ever existed in the history of the church.
Kindred. That same Christ knows you, and chooses you. You are beloved. Your identity and value come from God alone. Resist those forces in our world that try to reduce your value to the roles you can play for others. May your choice to follow in the way of Jesus be a daily act of resistance. A daily affirmation of your agency in defiance of forces that are trying to tell you who you can or cannot love; how you can or cannot live. Every day you have the opportunity again to claim your purpose, to respond to God’s call in your life; to exercise the gifts you have for leadership. You are a vital member of the Body of Christ, and we cannot liberate this world without you.
(the featured image is a terracotta statue of a woman from the late 4th-early 3rd century BCE, from Greece. It is a public domain piece in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art found here)