This sermon is titled “The Women of Easter”. And it is partially inspired by the idea from Rita Nakashima Brock when she considered the passion stories as inspired if not written by women. And it started to develop when I noticed how many women are found in the passion story including in today’s reading of Luke.
I believe that if we listen to the voice of women in this story, we can find something liberating in the account of Jesus death, burial and ultimate resurrection. In this, I’m not so worried at the literalness of the stories as much as what they tell us about those involved in them and what message could be had for us today.
So I want to start by painting you a picture of Roman society in the first century. There were two classes. The folks at the top. And the folks on the bottom of society.
Now you can subdivide that further. There were land owners who had extensive properties. But if they did not come from the right family they were not likely to make it into the Roman Senate and they were limited in what circles they could find themselves in. Wealth plus lineage mattered.
On the bottom you could be a slave, which at one point, constituted at least 30-40% of the Roman Empire population. Or you could be an artisan, having a trade. The Gospels tell us Jesus was in the latter class. Both lived a precarious existence.
What this schema does not include was the development of a middle class. Those artisans who found a niche such that their income had made them secure. They were locked out of higher society but their economic experience was very different from most people in the empire.
Doubly so for women who were locked out of being able to vote or hold office but who were not blocked from the world of financial matters and owning property. In fact women were often considered the financial managers of the household. It was included with the domestic responsibilities.
I painted this picture to indicate the role women had in the early church, which is reflected in the Gospels and in Paul. In Luke 8:1-3 we read that at the start of Jesus’s ministry. “The twelve were with Him, and also some women. Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.”
Most scholars agree that this was financial support rather than more domestic support, although the women probably did that as well. I want to mention Mary Magdalene. She led a a group of women providing that financia support. She was there during his ministry in Galilee and Judea, heard him teach, and may have dealt dealing with the practical details of sustaining a group of men and women. So women led the church household so to speak
And unlike Roman society they were recognized and given titles for the roles they provided.We know that many of the churches in the first century or two met in the houses that many women offered to the church for services.
Consider Lydia, who Paul thanks in the book of Romans, and calls a prophetess. Lydia was a wealthy business woman. She was engaged in the lucrative trade of dealing with purple cloth. The purple dye was rare, and the dyed cloth was very expensive. Only the elite wore purple clothes, so the cloth was a symbol of power and prestige.
As well as being a business woman, Lydia appears to have been the one in charge of her household. Lydia responded to Paul’s gospel ministry when he visited her town of Philippi. Subsequently, the fledgling congregation in Philippi met in her home.
In Romans 16:1-2 Paul speaks warmly of Phoebe and describes her as both a diakonos and a prostatis.“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a minister (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you assist her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she has been a patron (prostatis) of many, and of myself as well.” Romans 16:1-2.
Paul only ever used the word diakonos in the context of a sacred commission and ministry. Phoebe was a Christian minister in the church of Cenchreae. Phoebe was also a prostatis. This word and its cognates can mean “leader”.
So both Paul and Jesus relied on women, to manage the affairs of the church. They were leaders in the church and recognized as such. And that is your answer to folks who would question women’s leadership in the church today. And it was the answer given by the Congregationalists when they were the first Christian denomination to ordain a woman as a pastor.
But Jesus relied on women for more than material support though. We remember Joana. Joanna is known as the wife of Chuza, steward to Herod Antipas. She could have been one of Luke’s sources for information regarding the Herodian court. As the wife of an important court official, she would have had sufficient means needed to travel and contribute to the support of Jesus and the disciples.
And while there would have been a social stigma related to being a woman traveling with a group of men – something unheard of in those days, this doesn’t appear to dissuade Jesus nor the women from following them.
As this relates to Holy Week and this day of Easter we discover in all 4 Gospels, that while the male disciples had fled from the scene, afraid for their own lives, the women followed Jesus, literally to the cross. And they sought to provide burial material for the body for his execution. This develops into the tradition of the Myrrh bearers, the three women that are often identified as those who came to provide a proper burial though the names of the women change depending on the Gospel.
Rita Nakashima Brock goes so far to speculate that the Gospel writings seem to be mourning literature. And one written by or inspired by the experience of women. There really is something powerful in the experience of women, especially in the sharing of their grief. How many women have had that experience? Far far too many. Starting with Mary the mother of Jesus, we have a prototype of the all too common phenomena of women who lose their sons, in this case, to state sanctioned violence.
So we remember today Gwenn Carr, mother of Eric Garner, Lesley McSpadden mother of Michael Brown, Samaria Rice the mother of Tamir Rice. And we remember all the mothers who fear for their African American sons. And we remember the women who have seen their sons die in war time, or due to terror, or due to economic desperation, or to drugs, or to anything that says no to the full life and potential of every person.
We remember the mothers behind Mother’s Against Drug Driving. We remember the mothers behind PFLAG who stood by their LGBT children against harassment, violence and for their dignity and equality. We remember the mothers in Argentina who demanded that their sons, who had”disappeared” in the dirty wars of the 70s and 80s be named and recognized and the government held to account.
So if we take the Gospel stories, at least the passion narratives as an expression of women in mourning, what do the stories of the resurrection end up telling us?
It is the assertion that the power of Rome and its state apparatus would not have the final say. That the death and defamation meant for Jesus was overturned. That there had been a veto to the whole death dealing ways of the empire by God. And if women wrote or inspired these stories, then it is women saying that the God of life is on their side and that they in this would be redeemed.
The spirit of this is captured by Julia Ward Howe in her mother’s day proclamation
“! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears ! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. ..From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. Let…women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.”
May it be so.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman UCC, Oklahoma