Sermon preached for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaenaand Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
Can you imagine hearing the Book of Romans for the first time?
Can you imagine you are alive in 56AD, in the greatest city in the world, the heart of the empire, a place teeming with people, a place teeming with religious faiths and shrines of every description, a place where the spoils of nations are paraded through the streets, where a few coins will buy you a spot to watch gladiators kill each other for fun, where emperors are worshipped as gods?
Can you imagine that you are gathered together with a motley crew of compatriots, some wealthy and some poor, soldiers and serving girls and socialites, some with Jewish roots and some Gentile, because you’ve heard a letter from Paul—the Paul, the one whose letters are prized across the empire—is on its way?
Romans has some of the most gorgeous, intricate, compelling theological language in our Bible, including one of my personal favorites in Romans 8: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Can you imagine hearing those words for the first time? Whose voice did you hear them in?
Hold onto that.
The other week I was looking up audio versions of the Bible; I was thinking about using one for our video worship. Quite frankly, I’m sick of the sound of my own voice. But as I searched, I realized all I could find were men reading the Bible—and, in fact, in all but a few cases, Britishmen. Now, I have nothing against men reading the Bible—I highly encourage all you men out there to do so—but I was surprised that I couldn’t find a single female voice.
When you imagined hearing Paul’s words in Romans for the first time, did you hear a male voice in your head?
If so, it’s only natural. Paul was a man, and it’s his letter. But scholars have strong suspicions that the person who read the letter to the Romans, the person who carried it from Paul’s hand through dusty roadways and crowded cities, the person who first spoke aloud those words of triumph in Romans 8, was Phoebe.
A woman. Unexpected.
At the end of his letter, Paul commends Phoebe to the church in Rome, asking them to welcome her and assist her in whatever she needs in Rome. It was common practice to introduce the person you sent with your letter to the community you were sending it to, as a way of proving their authority to speak, and even interpret, your words. Paul is saying that he trusts Phoebe, and the Romans should too.
Now, imagine you are back in that church in Rome. Perhaps you were surprised to see a woman show up at your door with Paul’s letter. If so, the next few sentences are going to astound you.
Paul goes on to list about thirty of his co-workers in Christ, people across the empire who have accepted Christ’s message and are working to spread it far and wide, even in the face of massive resistance and hostility. He wants the church at Rome to know they’re not alone; but one member among many in the body of Christ. And in that list of thirty or so names, ten of them are women.
Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosis, Julia, and the unnamed sister of Nereus and mother of Rufus. These women are hardly “incidental”—Phoebe a deacon, a supporter of the cause, and Paul’s messenger to Rome; Prisca risked her neck for Paul and leads a house church; Mary has worked very hard; Junia went to prison with Paul and is “first among the apostles”; Persis is another hard worker and “beloved;” Rufus’ mother is like a mother to Paul, too. Some of the women work in teams with husbands or brothers, but Paul finds them important enough to be named in their own right, sometimes even to be named first.
Perhaps, sitting in that church in Rome, you are surprised to hear so many women on the front lines of gospel work.
Or perhaps it’s actually more surprising looking back.
The inherited story of Christianity is that it has not, until the last hundred years perhaps, allowed women within the ranks of its leadership. But history is always more complicated than that, and when Christ calls, unexpected leaders have always found a way to answer.
Women did lead in the early church—and not just the Christian church, but in their synagogues and pagan cultic religions as well. Here we catch glimpses of Phoebe the deacon, Prisca the pastor and educator, and Junia the apostle. Gravestones capture an even more complicated picture. Inscriptions on gravestones refer to Jewish women “as “head of the synagogue,” “mother of the synagogue,” “leader,” “elder,” and even “priest.” Epitaphs to Christian women in every corner of the ancient church, East and West, paint a similar a picture, providing evidence that they were memorialized as apostles, prophets, teachers, presbyters, widows, deacons, and even bishops” (Frances Taylor Gench, Leadership—NT, p. 7).
I’m not trying to argue that early Christianity was some kind of gender equality utopia, or feminist matriarchal fantasy. The vast, vast majority of religious leadership came from men. Yet these unexpected leaders—women are our focus today, but also slaves, tradesmen, rural hicks, city slickers, even the former religious terrorist Paul—shaped the faith we have inherited today in ways we will never know.
Some of that is intentional. As Christianity became more structured, more institutionalized, rules forbidding women from preaching or teaching—which itself suggests that it was happening—begin to appear. And in time the church was able to forget, and argue that women couldn’t lead because women had never led—a circular argument that short-circuited thousands of years of gifted, called leaders from leaving their mark on the church.
Sometimes you can still see the eraser marks in our scripture. Let’s take Phoebe. Phoebe, whose name means bright or radiant. Phoebe, who carried Paul’s message to the Romans, who worked in that great bustling city to connect the churches of Rome to churches across the empire. Phoebe, who Paul called his benefactor—meaning she supported him both with money and with her connections, along with others who sought to spread the gospel. Phoebe, whom Paul calls a deacon in the church at Cenchreae, which was a seaport town in eastern Corinth. In fact, Phoebe who is the only person explicitly named as a deacon in the New Testament.
That word—that title—gets erased.
When the Bible gets translated, more often than not, that word deacon gets softened to servant. Now, a deacon is a servant, but a revered and important leader serving the cause, not a housemaid. Every other place that word appears in the New Testament, those same translations maintain the word deacon. But not for Phoebe. Her ministry, her authority, her leadership gets translated out.
Even more dramatic is the case of Junia, further down in the letter. She is mentioned as a relative of Paul (although its hard to know if Paul is being literal or figurative), and as someone who came to Christ before he did. Paul signals her passion for Christ by letting the Romans know that she was imprisoned with him, for the crime of being Christian, we assume. He also calls her, alongside her partner Andronicus, “prominent among the apostles,” a word Paul uses only for the most dedicated and most called who share God’s message of the good news of Christ.
And throughout the centuries, translations have made this fearsome and fierce woman into a man.
You see, because of some complicated Greek that I’ll spare you, you can read the name Junia as Junias—a man’s name. But it’s a man’s name that appears nowhere in ancient literature, while Junia is relatively common. Maybe more importantly, the earliest commenters on the Bible assumed that Junia was a woman; it took a while for this misgendering to catch on. By the reformation, however, Bibles were routinely printed with the name Junias, and theologians argued that the name must be male because women couldn’t be apostles! And so translators imposed their sexism onto the Bible, rather then let the Bible impose on their sexism.
Junia herself was erased.
And yet even with their roles and names scratched out, God continued to call and equip unexpected leaders in God’s church. People you wouldn’t expect to be pastoring, preaching, gathering folks together around the Word.
Perhaps, in the last few months, those unexpected leaders have been you.
I said it last week: we have all been worshipping house churches this year. You probably did not think of yourself as a leader of the church as you set up the Facebook to stream to your family room TV. You probably did not think of yourself as a leader of the church when you brought your spouse a cup of coffee to sip during worship. You probably did not think of yourself as a leader of the church when you yelled up the stairs for your kids to come watch. You probably did not think of yourself as a leader of the church when you typed in prayer requests on behalf of your friends. You probably did not think of yourself as a leader of the church when you lit the candles on your desk. You probably did not think of yourself as a leader of the church when you sang along to the hymns.
But you were.
Paul didn’t lead the church at Rome. He only spoke to it. And I have been so grateful for the technology to speak to each of your house churches over these last few months, but it’s each of you who have stepped up to lead, to make the space to worship, to lay out the values of your house, to support God’s word preached in new ways.
You are the unexpected leaders of this church, sixty member households of the one body of Christ.
For the God who called Phoebe and Paul, Junia and Andronicus, Mary, Rufus and his mother, Charlie and Sarah, Meaghan and Craig, Eileen, Susie and Chris, Karen and Beverly, I give thanks, and thanks, and endless thanks. Amen.