Something for Sunday (Proper 25)

21 October 2014

1 Thessalonians 2.1-8

There have been some dubious winners of the Nobel Peace Prize over the years, just as there have been truly remarkable people. Those who have risked their own lives to challenge injustice and bring hope to others are counted amongst the very worthy.

The announcement that this year’s winners are Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai will bring much joy to many people and will be criticised or ignored in some quarters. Only those who have much to lose, and they should lose, will be in the latter camp.

Kailash and Malala are amongst the most outstanding people of our age and rightly deserve every award they receive for their respective extraordinary contributions to human society.
Religion continues to be seen to play a negative part in the suppression of women’s rights. Bigots play into the hands of bigots when scriptures, ancient texts and preaching that shouldn’t have even belonged to a past era let alone the present are used to uphold misogyny.

Today women are as unsafe as ever in parts of our world where rape is a weapon of war, where girls are carried off by terrorists who see them as spoils of their ‘success’ and where virgins are the reward for being a suicide bomber. But before the finger is pointed elsewhere we in the Christian Church have much to repent from. For generations women have been second class disciples in so many people’s eyes, and they often remain so.

‘How long must we sing this song?’ cried the psalmist long ago, so many continue to cry today at the gender injustice not only of society but the Church too. For sure strides have been taken over the past century but we are still nowhere near where we should be.

It has long been the claim of many within the church that Jesus came to set the prisoner free, including women from a patriarchal society. At intervals this has been an excuse to claim that Christianity is somehow superior to the Judaism from which it grew but a cursory glance at the teaching and practice of the Christian Church over two millennia will dent the confidence of anyone who seeks to uphold such a claim. The truth is that the Christian Church has often been no better than any other religious movement in its treatment of women.

It goes without saying that this should not be so, and yet we have to say it loud and clear, from the pulpit, the conference podium, the pew and in the church meetings.

So often Paul and his colleague apostles have had the blame laid squarely at their door for setting the agenda of the Christian Church. But we have had almost two thousand years to interpret their teaching in the light of subsequent knowledge and understanding. In any case I can’t help but feel the apostles were often misinterpreted by many over the centuries in order to protect the power of a male dominated society.

Take one of this Sunday’s readings for example. Tucked away in 1 Thessalonians 2 is verse 7 ‘We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children’. Now before anyone immediately jumps to attack me by claiming that a female nurse could be a gender-stereotypical image, and they may well be right in a certain context, in this instance Paul is seeking to express the femininity of ministry, it balances the preceding verse that appears to speak of a masculine approach ‘though we might make demands as apostle of Christ.’ The Jewish Annotated New Testament (every preacher should have a copy!) reminded me that Paul’s use of the term ‘nurse’ is to conjure up the image of a wet nurse, one who feeds infants from her breast. In the wilderness when things were going a little awry Moses had asked of God whether he should be a nurse to the infant people of Israel (Numbers 11.12); Paul acknowledges that such ministry is indeed the answer to the question posed by Moses, this time on route to the promised land that is the life found in Christ.

Of course there remain some very disturbing texts in the Christian scriptures that insist on women being subject to their husbands and these have been used all too often to oppress and abuse. But 1 Thessalonians is amongst the earliest in the Christian canon, indeed it may well be the very earliest and cannot be dismissed lightly. Here is Paul, early on in his days as an apostle, espousing the need for a ministry that is balanced, one that can only be truly effective when that balance is achieved. Later of course he will have developed his thinking and would write ‘There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.3.28).

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