“The Women who Saved Paul’s Life”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 8, 2023
Reading: Romans 16:1-7 & 25-27
A friend of mine’s daughter had the good luck to grow up in a church where all the pastors were women: a senior, the musician, some discipleship folks, the lot of them sisters. So, she was confused one Sunday when a guest preacher turned up who was male. She turned to her mom and whispered, “wait, can men be pastors too?”
As you heard in the passage this morning, women can do a lot more than be pastors in the Bible. They can be business leaders. They can be ambassadors across the seas. They can save Paul’s life, sticking out their necks for the apostle. They can be heads of churches that meet in their homes. And they can be apostles, like the twelve themselves. There have been times and places, including the churches most Christians belong to today, that discourage women seeking pastoral leadership. You’ll find even in those churches women run most everything else. In the Byassee household, no one would get anywhere on time, clothed, and prepared for the day without Jaylynn. We boys try to do better. One day I did an extra portion—got the groceries, cooked dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and one of our kids looked at Jaylynn and said, “wow, mom you sure do everything around here.” I’ll never catch up.
Here's why Christianity is good news for women... because it’s good news for people. Christ’s resurrection raises all humanity, and not a one of us yet has managed to get born without a mom. If you have a mom, Christ came for you. Paul insists in Galatians 3:28 that baptism washes away distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. All are made one in Christ Jesus. There is no hierarchy of race, class, gender, or servitude in the body of Christ, or if there is, it’s turned upside-down. Christianity is a family in which water is thicker than blood.
Now as soon as we say all that, we see the old divisions creeping back in. Enslavers have been Christians, as you heard last week. So have sexists and misogynists and every other kind of “ist” there is. Christ still has work to do on all of us even after baptism it seems. Never be surprised that there are terrible sinners in the church. I mean, where else would you want them? I mean us. Where else would you want us?
We live in a strange cultural moment with regard to gender. Pronouns are fluid. Roles are all up for grabs. There’s been backlash over this. Let it not come from the church, please. Because in the church, gender has always been fluid. Male Christians have to become part of a female body: the bride of Christ, the church. Female Christians have to think of themselves as part of a male body of Christ. Jesus says in the kingdom there is no marriage, we’re all like angels. Well, angels have no gender. And monks and nuns take on features of gender-lessness. Neither marries nor has children. Male monks, no matter how wealthy or mannered their background, grow their gardens, make their food, do their domestic work—that’s all “women’s work” in many cultures. Female monks run powerful abbeys and order bishops and popes around—there’s no husband to tell them not to. Monks and nuns are married to Jesus, and no one else—who can get control of these women? Only Jesus, who seems to be egging them on. And male monks have a male spouse, none other than Jesus Christ. Gender has been weird in the church for a long, long time. I guess the rest of the culture is catching up to that. My kid came home with his nails painted this week. Something subconscious stirred in me, uh, is this okay? And I had to stop and remember, in Christ, no male and no female. Plus, he’s proud of them. They match the colour of his glasses.
In baptism our old self is drowned. And Christ is resurrecting a new self, gathering up all people, the mistreated first.
Our passage for today is the kind that many of us fly right past. Like all the begats. Our eyes glaze. Most of us westerners have to strain to remember the names of our great-grandparents. But most indigenous peoples say who they are by their family trees, going back quite a ‘ways. It’s a modern thing not to know where your great-grandparents are buried, or to care. It means someone moved for work, likely from a village to a factory in a city. Nothing wrong with that, but scripture remembers like aboriginal peoples, giving us Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam. That’s also a very Jewish thing. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was asked what he tells young Jewish kids when they’re tempted to marry outside the faith. He said he just shows them their family tree back to Abraham and Sarah, the hundreds of generations of a family they’re a part of. And that’s a matriarchal line by the way: what makes you Jewish is having a Jewish mom. And there are great women in our family. Sarah. Rebekah. Rachel. Miriam. Deborah the judge. Jael the warrior. Hannah the prayer. Naomi and Ruth, the tenacious in-laws. The first prophet in Israel, Huldah. Countless more.
So, it’s no surprise that Paul has women in his life and ministry, it’s a very Jewish thing to do. And he brings them all up in this chapter. Romans 16 is like the envelope of a letter. Paul greets 24 people by name (we spared you some of the harder names. You’re welcome). And one-third of them are women. He’s not naming just anybody. He’s naming co-workers in the gospel. Those who have worked hard for the kingdom. Those who have saved his skin more than once. Those who have provided for his ministry. Powerful women, without whom there is no apostle Paul, and there is no church.
There is St. Phoebe, a deacon in the church at Cenchrae. We don’t know what ordination was like in New Testament times, or even if it existed. But a deacon seems to have been an office, a position of official leadership. Paul also calls Phoebe a benefactor. In Rome that means one who puts her private wealth at public disposal. The greatest benefactor in Rome is the emperor, the one with the greatest wealth, who builds the most. Benefactor is a powerful term in the empire, more like a mafia donna than a church mouse. Deacons’ primary responsibility was to care for the poor. Think of Phoebe as running our foodbank—with her own money and organizational skill. Scholars think Phoebe carried this letter to Rome and read it to the church gathered there. Just think: the first time anyone heard these words from Romans, Paul’s greatest work, it was in a woman’s voice. She was likely on the way to Rome for her own business interests and tied the church together by passing on Paul’s words. And reading a letter in antiquity usually meant you stopped and commented on it, clarified the obscure points. In other words, she preached.
Then Paul greets Prisca and Aquila:
“My coworkers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but also all the churches of the gentiles. 5 Greet also the church in their house.”
These two show up elsewhere in the Bible—check Acts 18 and read it for homework. And every time they show up, Priscilla, the woman, is mentioned first. It’s her house. He married in. These two are the leaders of a church that meets in their home. So, she’s more like a bishop than pastor or priest. Not only that, but Paul also says, they “risked their necks” for his life. We don’t know what he’s referring to, but it sure sounds like we would have no Paul without Prisca and her trusty husband what’s-his-name.
In the rest of this chapter there are a total of five house churches named, including the one in Prisca’s house. There are no public buildings for churches yet and there won’t be for 300 more years. Churches started out meeting in living rooms, and when we were in trouble we met in secret places, or in cemeteries where our saints are buried. We think of a church as a building. Our forebears thought of a church as a group of people in a circle, passing kids to one another’s laps, plates of crackers balanced on knees. And though Rome was the greatest city in the ancient world, it was smallish by our standards, maybe 500,000 people, about the size of London Ontario now. To count up all of Paul’s acquaintances here in five house churches, there might have been 120 Christians in the whole city. You don’t need a lot of people to bear witness powerfully to the resurrection. Jesus says you only need two or three. Paul seems to have no anxiety that only some .0002 percent of Rome is Christian. Jesus is Lord. One day everyone will see. For now, one or two, or 120, will do.
Then Paul’s most interesting greeting, in a chapter of very interesting greetings:
7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Israelites who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was…
Junia. That’s a woman’s name. Here she’s depicted the way our ancient forebears prayed: standing, hands up. Try it sometime. It feels really vulnerable. Some ancient manuscripts change her name to Junias, a male name. But we have no record of a man named Junias anywhere in the ancient Mediterranean. But there were lots of women named Junia. Why does this matter? Because she was “prominent among the apostles.” That is, she’s an apostle herself. Like the twelve. Like Paul. What does that mean? In the New Testament, it means she saw the risen Lord with her own eyes. Talked with him. Touched his wounds. And told others about it. Eventually these apostles died off and were replaced by ordained people, bishops, pretty quickly all male. But not before Junia made the list. Mary Magdalene was the first ever apostle. The Orthodox Church calls her “the apostle to the apostles,” because she told the twelve about the resurrection. Junia is also among the apostles. When women ask for ordination, they’re not innovating. They’re asking to join the ranks of Mary, Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, and countless more whose names we don’t know.
Why am I going on about this? I don’t want to suggest the early church some sort of feminist paradise. By the latter writings of the New Testament this openness to grace seems to have been already closing down and leadership limiting itself to men. It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the gifts God gives through women started to be recognized with ordination again. By then women were already running business empires and charities and countries and international organizations, it seemed ridiculous not to invite them to lead churches. But we did accidentally lose something in that move to ordain women. Before the mid-20th century churches knew of Phoebe the deacon. But they usually translated that word “deaconess,” and had a separate position, deaconess, for women. Many protestant denominations had legions of deaconesses who ran Sunday schools and children’s ministry and served as parish nurses. But also, far beyond the church they ran hospitals, they invented social work, founded schools to train fellow healers. They went around doing good with all their energy. They were basically Protestant nuns, though married. It was right to ordain women starting in the mid-20th century (earlier for Pentecostals), but with that office opened, deaconesses vanished. I never met a Methodist deaconess, but I heard the legends. One who mentored my mentor Will Willimon said to him once, “young man, you’re gifted. You just might have what it takes to be a Methodist minister one day.” Might. Willimon’s published 90 books, been a bishop and is teaching full-time in his 80s. Might. Lord, give us such high-demand women again.
We have days to honour women in church. Mother’s Day is one. I’m a little skeptical. It was started by a Methodist lay woman in West Virginia, but by the end of her life, she tried to take it back. Cancel her own holiday. It’d become a grotesque commercial spending spree. She wanted a day to give God thanks. She wrote a letter of protest to the US President, who ignored her. Sorry, Congress already recognized the holiday, and the flower industry counts on it to unload carnations. But mothers’ day is a mistake for honouring all women quite obviously because not all women are mothers. And one strange thing we Christians have always said is the holiest among us don’t have children at all, biologically speaking. We’re married to Christ alone. We have lots of children spiritually-speaking: kids we pray for and bless and educate and send out into the world. Among our three powerful women in the passage today, one is a benefactor with no husband mentioned. Another is a house church leader with a husband mentioned second. The third is an apostle with no husband mentioned. If any of the three have children they’re not mentioned. Are you getting the point? In Christ femininity is not there for marrying or childbearing, it’s there for Jesus Christ’s glory, like everything else. Some express this as mothers. Some express it as single women or married with no kids. And all reflect God’s goodness. Women with no children show that we don’t have to have kids to give the church a new generation. God will give us a future via conversion. Women with children have a little church in their household, rearing those they adopt or birth as disciples.
I wonder about you. Who in your life has been a powerful woman without whom you wouldn’t be you? Lots of us would say mothers or grandmothers or aunts or chosen family like that. But Paul doesn’t mention biology much—someone named Rufus has a mom he mentions, but that’s all. The other women are hard workers for the kingdom, those who bear faith to others. So, we should give thanks for the women without whom we wouldn’t believe in Jesus. For example, women teachers. From grade two to grade six every teacher I had was an African-America woman. The smartest, toughest, tenderest, and toughest (and did I mention toughest) woman who I spent the most time with every day for five years was black, thank God.
An ethicist friend of mine was asked to write an encyclopedia entry on gender. That’s what we do in institutions like the academy: hey, you’re a gendered person, would you write on gender? She decided to write it on masculinity. It was around the time when The Lord of the Rings movies were coming out every ten minutes. I love them all, my kids can quote them in Elvish. And she asked, so, what’s with all these men with these ridiculously long swords? This fetishization of killing legions of dark, grotesque enemies? This fantasization of women as either ethereal other-worldly beings or else just as deadly as the boys? In a way Game of Thrones was the naughty riposte to Tolkien’s more noble images. George R. R. Martin responded to Tolkien by making his women cruel and more cruelly sexualized. We live in a cultural moment of backlash against women’s empowerment. Whole media empires have been built by saying, hey, men should be back in charge, women are only there to serve them. That’s anti-Christ nonsense.
What I think my friend was saying is simply this: maybe let women speak for themselves. They don’t need me to define femininity for them, they’re doing that just fine, thanks very much. But men, we may have work to do amongst ourselves about masculinity. The male we follow is an unmarried rabbi who, it seems, never had a house or proper job, never grew old and died a torturous death. To listen to Paul here this morning, a real man goes around giving thanks, especially to women who stick their necks out for him, provide for him, gather churches in their houses, and are great among the apostles. Here’s the point: don’t let the Bible be on the side of the reactionaries. It’s on the side of the women apostles, fierce prophetesses, magnanimous donnas, the women without whom we wouldn’t have life, or life in Christ.
I was speaking to one of our female leaders at the church, encouraging her to speak out about her faith, to pray in our gatherings. She sounded unsure, like her prayers weren’t good enough. She said, “you know, most of my prayers are just thanking God for things.” Uh, right, so, you know, that couldn’t be more perfect. Another longtime female leader here told me of a friend with a wrist injury. She wasn’t sure why, but she asked to pray for her. Placed hands on her wrist, asked for God’s healing. No lightning struck, nothing dramatic. But she did ask how it was next she saw her. “Better,” she said. No miracle there, but there is something to healing touch that just seems holy, feminine, tender, brave. A small, good thing. On second thought, maybe that is a miracle.
It’s Thanksgiving. I grew up celebrating it in late November in the US with football. Shorter growing season here in Canada, so earlier harvest festival, plus three downs in Canadian football, which I’m still getting used to. But we North Americans didn’t invent Thanksgiving either. There are harvest festivals in many places around the world, I’d wager, anywhere where anyone plants anything. Seeds go deep in the earth, gestate, and up comes amazing new life. Without that none of us can live. Native Christian friends say that when they call the earth our mother, they’re saying not just an aboriginal thing, but a biblical thing. Any day when we gather for food and friends and strangers it’s a Christlike day. Happy holy day everyone. Hug the women in your life extra tight.
Jaylynn reads everything I write, bless her. She changed more in this sermon than most, being a woman and a preacher like the Magdalene, Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia. She pointed out I don’t do what I normally do: engage the text’s depths, uncover its hidden treasures. That’s because there’s more that we don’t know than that we do. We don’t know much about these women. One day we will. So, I’ll close with a quote from George Eliot, 19th Century British author who wrote under a man’s name to be taken seriously. Her wisdom hangs heavy on the vine here in her great work Middlemarch.
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Tombs like Phoebe’s, Priscilla’s, Junia’s, and countless women and men whose names we don’t know, tombs raided by Christ, awaiting resurrection. Amen.