During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim Bridges & Sophie Blackall.
Scripture Reading: Galatians 3:26-4:7
Women in Ministry
Just this week, I was in conversation with someone. The subject of deacons came up, and they were shocked that we would have female deacons.
The day before, I was in a clergy group and three female pastors shared experiences they’d had last Sunday.
One was told to her face by a church leader that her “rack” was distracting–his word, not mine.
The second–who has a non-gender-specific name like “Alex”–was promptly dropped from consideration as a pastoral candidate when they learned she was female.
The third has been getting stalked by a church member and the church refuses to do anything about it.
These are not problems that are normative for male clergy like myself, but every single female pastor I’ve met has a story like this–and usually more of them than she is willing to share.
It pains me that the Church of Jesus Christ is still having these conversations……and doing such harm to itself and one another.
Jesus brought women into the closest circles of discipleship–even entrusting the first proclamation of the resurrection to Mary Magdalene (John 20). As it turns out, the first preacher we could clearly identify as “Christian” was a woman named Mary who was tasked with preaching the Good News to a group of men.
Paul names at least one woman to be a deacon (Phoebe, in Romans 16:1-2), at least one woman considered to be an apostle (Junia, in Romans 16:7), and countless women who headed house churches or are named alongside their husbands as the leaders of a house church.
Even those texts about women not speaking or not teaching men–when read in their appropriate historical and textual context–are not limiting who can be church leaders; they are rather advocating spiritual education for a group of people that society didn’t believe were worth educating (cf. Cynthia Westfall).
It continues to amaze me that even though the scriptures clearly state that in Christ “there is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28), we continue to define some as categorically unfit to be called by God. It is rubbish.
But you know, I didn’t always realize this.
Despite a series of serious crises of faith through my college years, some of that patriarchal language of fundamentalism continued to infect my faith. I was less and less a biblical literalist–I discovered (like others before me) that I took the Bible too seriously to take it literally (usually attributed to Karl Barth, but actually originating with Madeline L’Engle)–but I continued to read a few select verses in an exceedingly literal way that ignored historical and even textual context.
The tipping point came for me in seminary, as I theologically sparred with a friend. We were debating women in ministry–specifically in the role of pastor. I argued against; my opponent argued for. I’m certain there were other people involved as well, but my memory has telescoped the event into its crucial parts.
For me, such debates were recreation, like a hobby. I have since realized that for my friend in this story, the stakes were far more serious–it was a matter of living out the calling that she was convinced God had placed on her life.
I remember almost nothing about the conversation as a whole until we got to a single point–and then my memory snaps into crystal-clear, technicolor focus: “So what you’re saying,” my friend summed up, “is that there are second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God?”
That blow struck me heavy, as though I had been physically hit in the chest. And I realized almost immediately: that is exactly what I had been arguing
that some people are inherently incapble……
that there are some that even God cannot empower……
that God cannot overcome the biological hurdles required to gift certain people……
that the same divisions of society that have been so destructive on earth are supposed to be that way……
Without realizing it, this was my argument.
My life has never been the same.
In God’s Kingdom……
There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.
In God’s Kingdom, there are no impediments to anyone. The divisions that we experience in this realm are not reflected in God’s realm. And in fact, if we are going to pray with Jesus “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” then it’s going to be the other way around–we are going to be working to make this realm reflect God’s realm.
And in our scripture lesson today, the apostle Paul couldn’t be more clear:
“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.” (Galatians 3:27–28 NRSV)
In this world, gender divides us.
But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of preachers like Mary Magdalene, deacons like Phoebe, apostles like Junia, and the many women like them throughout God’s Story. In God’s Kingdom, we even tell stories of people who don’t fit into our normal categories, like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 who (because of his castration) didn’t fit into either the male or female categories of his world.
In this world, race and nationality divide us.
But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories like that of Cornelius in Acts 10, who wasn’t thought to be the right ethnicity. But God intervened, and–through a series of visions and experiences–led Peter to conclude that the doors to God’s Kingdom were thrown wide-open in Christ. “Who?”–Paul later asks church leaders in Jerusalem–“who are we to think we can hinder what God is doing through the Spirit?” (Acts 11:17b).
In this world, our religious backgrounds divide us.
But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Paul–a man who zealously persecuted those he believed were wrong. Yet in spite of–or perhaps because of this–he was able to serve as the greatest unifier and missionary of the early church.
In this world, our ages and generations divide us.
But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Timothy. He was young enough to be disregarded (Paul even says “despised”) by those he was sent to lead. Yet Paul encourages him to remember that it is God who calls and empowers him. The church apparently thought he was too young, but God clearly disagreed.
In this world, our social statuses divide us.
But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Joseph and Daniel–who, through their own unique journeys, ended up as slaves at the absolute bottom of the social ladder……statuses that were redeemed in ways that brought deliverance to countless others.
Of course–in the biblical world as in the “real world”–there are many with several strikes against us; we are divided and divided again.
But in God’s Kingdom, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome. In God’s Kingdom, we tell stories like that of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7. She’s the “wrong” gender, the “wrong” race, the “wrong” nationality, the “wrong” religious background, and she behaves and speaks improperly and disrespectfully. I’m not sure whether there’s a category for which she isn’t in the exclusion column. Yet she has a pivotal role in the shape of Jesus’ ministry; as Mark tells the story, it is this encounter that turns Jesus’ consciousness toward the salvation of non-Jews.
And we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how the women in the Bible defied social customs to live out God’s calling: warriors like Deborah and Jael, matriarchs like Sarah and Rachel, prophets like Anna and Huldah, figureheads like Miriam and Esther–to say nothing of the women who aren’t named: Jepthah’s daughter, the woman of Thebez, the wife of Manoah, the daughters of Zelophehad, and on and on.
There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Not you, and not me.
In God’s Kingdom, all those barriers that the powers of this world use to divide and conquer us have been overcome. The differences between us as individuals are not abolished, but are rather redeemed in amazing and unexpected ways in order to advance God’s Kingdom.
This is, after all, the point of our calling and giftedness as members of the Body of Christ. Paul insists repeatedly that our calling comes from God and should be affirmed by the church. He stresses that our giftedness–however similar or different–comes from the same Spirit and is given for encouragement, for consolation, and for the building up of God’s redemptive project (the drawing all people to Godself, or to put differently: the building up of the church).
If we are following Jesus in this dynamic project of God, then we will be living the Kingdom way here on earth. We will be living out God’s commitment to encouraging unlimited lives–believing that God does not call or gift all people to the same tasks, but also recognizing that no one is limited in their Kingdom roles by the things that divide this world.
In the second letter to the Corinthian church (5:18ff), Paul describes the ministry God has entrusted to every Christian as the work of reconciliation. Reconciliation (by definition) involves bringing together things that do not seem to go together: that which is broken is made whole again; that which was divided is united; that which didn’t add up is zeroed out. By living these things into the world, Paul says we are “ambassadors for Christ” and “God…makes his appeal through us” (2Corinthians 5:20 NRSV).
In that way, we fulfill a part of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: God’s kingdom comes closer, as God’s will is done on earth, just as it is already done in heaven. In this we see again that the Christian life is not about knowing the right things; it is about following the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we are called to be activists who advocate for the unlimited potential of each person made in God’s own image.
That, then, is our challenge this week. The powers of this world spend considerable resources to put us in separate little boxes and keep us there:
men on the right, women on the left
older over here, younger over there
rich and poor
republican and democrat
those who know the right things and those who do not
……one group against another, infinitely smaller and smaller until we each are isolated and alone inside our own little prison…… each ashamed, thinking everyone else to be free.
It’s a house of cards of lies, and it crumbles as soon as any one of us chooses to trust God and break out of the boxes that define and confine us. The whole system falls apart when we really let God be God in our lives and allow the Spirit to empower us to serve God no matter who we are or what the world tries to tell us. All these walls that divide prove to be little more than illusion when we begin to advocate for the unlimited potential that resides in each person made in God’s image–when we discover together how great is the power of God’s love.
Because what we learn is that the system is not real……not like you or I are real. What is real is God’s kingdom and the freedom that is opened up when we are opened to God’s love. Everything else–to paraphrase the preacher of Ecclesiastes–proves empty and without any real substance at all.
That’s why Jesus insists his followers “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 RSV). We have to prioritize the ways of God’s kingdom over the ways of this world. Making God’s kingdom come isn’t about aligning state with religion, or pursuing misguided policies in the Near East intended to “force” God’s hand into sending Jesus back.
Making God’s kingdom come is about embodying God’s liberating love in our relationships and life. In doing so, they–and we–discover the unlimited potential we have in God’s kingdom.
Give us the courage, O God, to change.
May you and others forgive us
for how we have sinned against others,
holding them back from the vocation you intend for them.
May we discover the richness
of the Body of Christ
as we advocate for the full participation
of each called, redeemed, and gifted individual.
But may we also discover,
the beauty of how their expression of gifts and calling
enriches our own lives,
for the enriching of the Church
and the advancement of your Kingdom
is the reason you gift and call any of us.
To You, O God, be the glory,
and the honor, and the power,