Saturday, May 12, 2012

Resurrection Women – Happy Mother’s Day

For me, a strong signpost of the resurrection is the record of the first encounters at the empty tomb. According to all four gospels, the women were the first to see evidence that Jesus was risen; three of the gospels record that women were the first to speak with Jesus; all say they were the first to spread the good news of the resurrection.
Women at the Tomb, Jesus Mafa

You can pass this over as just a small detail in a fast-paced story. Or you can count is as one more hallucinatory scene in a mythical retelling that has little to do with actual fact.

Or you can wonder, as so many have: why would anyone trying to gain credibility for a strange new faith trust the story to the mouths of women?

As N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham and leading New Testament scholar, has noted in sermons, lectures, and books, the role of women in the resurrection story is itself part of the great reversal of Easter morning:
"And who is it that carries this stupendous message, this primal announcement of new creation, this heraldic proclamation of the king of kings and his imminent enthronement? It is Mary from Magdala. . . she is someone who has been cured of terrible multiple demon-possession. But the real shock is not Mary’s character. It is her gender. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the resurrection narratives, granted the universal beliefs of the time in the unreliability of women in a lawcourt or almost anywhere else. It is one of the things which absolutely guarantees that the early Christians did not invent these stories. They would never, ever, ever have invented the idea that it was a woman – a woman with a known background of emotional instability, but the main point is that it was a woman – to whom had been entrusted the earth-shattering message that Jesus was alive again, that he was on the way to being enthroned as Lord of the World, and that – this is the significance of the emphatic ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ – he was opening to his followers, as a result of his victory over death itself, that same intimacy with the Father of all that he had enjoyed throughout his earthly life. It is Mary: not Peter, not John, not James the brother of the Lord, but Mary, who becomes the apostle to the apostles, the primary Christian witness, the first Christian evangelist. This is so striking, so unexpected, so embarrassing to some early Christians – Origen had to refute pagan sneers on this very point – that it cannot be accidental. It cannot be accidental for John and the other writers. And I dare to say it cannot be accidental in the purposes of God.
Mary Announces the Resurrection, Mary Charles McGough
"Something has happened in the renewal of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus which has the result, as one of its multiple spin-offs, that whereas before Jesus only ever sent out men, now – now of all moments! – he sends out a woman. And though the church has often struggled – to put it mildly – with the idea of women being called to genuine apostolic ministry, the record is clear and unambiguous. "

In the great resurrection reversal, we are all set free from the second-place status ascribed to us by tradition, culture, or patriarchal law. Jesus said “the truth will set you free,” and across the centuries resurrection people have experienced that reality in the face of prejudice and unjust laws and every voice that continues to insist freedom is for those born in the right place, with the right skin, the right body.

I first saw this resurrection life in my grandmother, Elda Meech Capra. Born in Oklahoma in 1912 to a poor family with too many daughters, she attended two days of ninth grade then quit, ashamed of her one hand-me-down dress. She left home at thirteen, was married weeks after she turned seventeen to a man ten years older, a man who preferred she stay quiet and do what she was told.

In her late twenties she encountered the resurrection on a street corner in Enid, Oklahoma, where an itinerate preacher led her to Christ and gave her a Bible. He told her “start with the gospel of John,” and she did. When she got to John 8, it was as though Jesus himself was speaking to her: “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

I have her old Bible, pages falling out, tiny notes scribbled in the margins. John 8:31 is underlined, with little check marks in the margin. And just down the column, the verse she repeated often: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

That freedom blossomed in many ways, but without the encouragement or blessing of any church. A network of strong women, missionaries and teachers, helped Elda learn her way through scripture, pointed her to useful resources, discussed and prayed and invited her to test her gifts leading small group Bible studies. I grew up in my grandmother’s home, watching her study her Bible early every morning, listening to those treasured conversations with missionary friends home on furlough.

Noli Me Tangere, Maurice Denis, 1896, France
Those missionary women planted churches in countries I could only imagine, cast out demons, witnessed miraculous healings, and held us spellbound in Sunday school with their stories of God’s work. But they couldn’t speak from the pulpit.

Over the years, my grandmother shared the resurrection with many people, but was never permitted, in her church, to teach men, or teen boys, or speak in any public way. When a group of women she’d led to Christ asked her to explain the Christian faith to their husbands, she agreed to do so in someone’s home. When the husbands asked if she’d lead a weekly Bible study, she again agreed, in someone’s home. When that study grew and divided, she found herself teaching two nights a week, invited often to other homes to meet other seekers, to lead yet others to Christ. Marriages were healed, parents and adult children were reconciled, new life sprang up in visible ways that drew even more to the good news of resurrection.

Elda encouraged all of those new believers to find churches, to worship regularly, to find their way into households of faith. But she never invited them to her own church, and that new resurrection life never became part of her own local congregation.


Despite all the declarations of freedom, unity, new life in Christ, many church leaders, then as now, allowed two puzzling passages to determine the roles of women: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says “women should remain silent in the churches,” and 1 Timothy 2:11-15: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

I’m not sure what my grandmother made of those two passages. In her Bible, there’s no note or mark on the Corinthian passage, while many parts before and after are underlined. In Timothy, while the rest of the letter is riddled with small notes and references, that one passage is bracketed, with a short indecipherable note in the margin.

What I do know is that my grandmother believed firmly in the priesthood of all believers: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”

Matin de Pâques, Maurice Denis, 1893, France
In her Bible, the whole passage is underlined, with “priesthood of believers” heavily, repeatedly underscored.

New Testament scholars have spent much time, and ink, exploring the passages about silent women, and trying to understand how those passages fit with Jesus' interactions with women, New and Old Testament descriptions of women in ministry and leadership, and instructions to us all to be more and more like Christ. I list some links below.

But here’s the question that has troubled me since childhood:

What happens to the message of freedom when the church says “That’s for men. The rest of you, stay quiet”?

What happens to the message of unity when the church says “We’re all one, but some of us more than others”?

What happens to the call to witness, to use our gifts, to be like Christ in every way, when as soon as we start, someone says “um, well, no, that gift isn’t for you,” or “you can witness over here, but you can’t speak over there,” or “Jesus wasn’t really talking to you when he said that. But we need someone to serve coffee.”

What stirs our hope in the resurrection, and makes our faith strong?

What stands in the way of faith, and feeds our cynicism and doubt?

I began this series on resurrection with this reflection:
"Those who have seen, experienced, become part of a living community convinced of resurrection power begin to live that power in their own lives, to share it with others, in ways that build hope, and faith, and deepen love. As walls fall down between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, racially and ethnically divided, as God’s people demonstrate the freedom that comes from full forgiveness and the compassion that springs up from the knowledge that all that’s needed is provided, as gifts are affirmed in women, children, the marginalized, the previously ignored, resurrection becomes visible, inescapable.
"If the truth of the resurrection is held in doubt, it’s not our apologetics that needs attention, but our lives together as visible community of love."
What does the resurrection say to women? And to those who love and want the best for women?

Maybe it’s time to go visit the empty tomb, and hear what Jesus has to say.

Jesus Appearing to Mary, Jesus Mafa

For more on the role of women in the church:

Christians for Biblical Equality

N. T. Wright: Women's Service in the Church
Scot McKnight: The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible and Junia is Not Alone

This is the sixth in a series about the resurrection:
Risen Indeed: The Hermaneutic Community 
The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People 
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  
Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep
Resurrection Laughter
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the ___comments link below to see comments and to post your own.