Acts 9:36-43; The Women; Delivered May 12, 2019

We are continuing with Acts, isn’t that great? Such a wonderful book. If you haven’t been here in the weeks previous, Acts is the history of the beginnings of the early church. It follows on the heals of Jesus’ crucifixion, the discovery of the empty tomb, and the several post crucifixion sightings of Jesus. As a way into this story for today, I would like for us to go back to Easter. On Easter Sunday, here in this place, we read in Luke that some women had come to put spices on Jesus’ body. These women are (and I’m quoting here), “Mary Magdelene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and some other women.” They find the stone rolled away from the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. The tomb itself is empty and they meet some strange looking men in white (angels?) who say that Jesus has risen. They run and tell the others, and all of Jesus’ followers are astonished, happy. The followers sing their allelujahs and eventually, with the high energy of the Holy Spirit leading them, inspiring them, they become something of a movement—people of the Way. What I want us to remember here, is that the women—Mary, another Mary, Joanna and some others are the very first witnesses. But as we know, their story line vanishes quick, like the tail of a jackrabbit being chased by that fox. Like the tongue of a humbingbird. There for a moment, then poof. Gone. The narrative immediately focuses on the other disciples. Next the author of Acts does a close up shot of Saul—that’s who we talked about last week, and now today, Peter. As we read in scripture, Peter has brought back to life a woman named Tabitha. The take away is, Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, has amazing abilities as a healer. Through the power of the holy spirit, he is picking up where Jesus left off.
But, since today is Mother’s Day, I thought we would turn out attention not to Peter, but to the women in our story. We are going to try to fill in what is missing in scripture about the women who have also become People of the Way after the strange happenings at the tomb. It almost most goes without saying that after the women’s experience, they had to share what they knew. I mean a body goes missing, you see a couple of men who might be angels (Glory BE!!!), and then you hear about Jesus sightings? Mothers tell their daughters, daughters tell their mothers, their sisters, their women friends at the well, at the temple, and at the market. Very soon, the story has spread all over Jerusalem, and today we read, it has spread even to Joppa. If we were to have our own church Jeopardy quiz right now, and the category was Biblical locations, would you be able to answer the question, Where is Joppa? I am embarrassed to say, this, but I had to look it up in a Bible Atlas. Joppa, today called Jaffa, is on the Mediterranean Sea. Today it’s a beautiful coastal port, which looks I am thinking, pretty much like it did in the first century—only today its ancient buildings have been transformed into trendy art boutiques and restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Fine place for your next vacation, right? Joppa, or Jaffa, is 43 miles west of Jerusalem. A person is capable of walking that distance-- in one day, depending on the terrain and the strength of that person’s legs, that is. We can imagine that plenty of Joppan Jews (man, that’s fun to say), wore a path between Joppa and Jerusalem, to worship at the temple during important holy days.
So, let’s put all this together, now. Some Joppan Jewish women had been in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. They had followed all the happenings since by listening to the tales of travelers from Jerusalem Some of the Joppan Jewish women had actually become followers of the Way, Now here I need to stop for a moment to give you some background as to how I study scripture. Just so you know, I read through our lectionary texts on Monday morning. That way, I can start thinking about what message I want to bring to you on Sunday. By this time in my career, I have a lot of different Bible translations. This past Monday morning, I pull from my shelf, my New Living Translation. What I like about it is, it is an easy-to-read contemporary language translation. No thuses and thous and very few four and five syl-al-ble words to twist my tongue and boggle my brain. Monday morning? Not ready for that yet. This is what I read in my New Living Translation last Monday morning: “There was a believer in Joppa named Tabitha. She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor.” Good, bad? No opinion? What do you think? Not much difference from what we read, just a few minutes ago, right?
If you were reading along with me, in your pew Bible as I read out loud, or if you were listening intently, though, you noticed that there’s an itsy bitsy difference in the New Living Translation. Stay with me now. We are walking into thick weeds for a few minutes, sorry. Pull out those weed whackers!
In your pew Bible, and some other translations, Tabitha is described as a disciple. In my New Living Translation, though? Tabitha is not a disciple, she’s a believer. Hmmmm. I’m on my second cup of coffee now, so I’m awake. I pull out my ancient Greek translation, That’s as close as we can get to the original Bible manuscript. According to that ancient Greek translation, Tabitha is a mathetria. That word, in fact, means disciple. In my New Livling Translation Tabitha is a believer, but in the ancient Greek, Tabitha is, in fact, a disciple. In my New Living Translation Tabitha has been demoted.
Hummmm. It’s not the first time I have run across this. I’ll just give you one more example. Ask me after the service, and I’ll give you others. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, at the very end of chapter 16, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchrae.” If you are using a New International Version of the Bible though? The line reads, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchrae.” Again, which is it? Was Phoebe a deacon or a servant? Well, the ancient Greek translation has it that Phoebe was indeed a diakana, that is, a deacon. Again, only this time in the NIV, a woman has been demoted. Why? Was this a malicious change made by nefarious Bible word police? You know, weird nerdish type people dressed in black who tiptoe into seminary halls late at night to erase all signs of female leadership in the early church?
My own take is that it wasn’t like that at all. Even 20th century modern translators had a prejudgment—not exactly a prejudice, but a pre-judgment—their thinking was, “Well, our poor readers will just get confused if we make a word-for-word translation of the Greek. Certainly the women in Joppa couldn’t have been disciples like Peter and like Paul. As regards the Romans’ text, their prejudgment was, “Certainly the early Christian Church wouldn’t have allowed women to serve as deacons.” And so, as those Bible interpreters sat hunched over their manuscripts, with a few strokes of the pen, or a few quick finger strikes at the keyboard, they changed history. They changed history to reflect their own pre-judgments. They discredited those early women of the Way.
To clarify: Tabitha was a disciple. She was a Joppan Jew, and she did many good deeds and helped the poor. Even Peter heard about this woman’s work, and so when she died? Well, Peter knew he had to revive her. Her passion, her spirit of service was critical to a budding movement—referred to as The Way. So there! And now as I so often do, I want to pull this sermon into the present. I want to talk with you about a young woman I knew hardly at all, when I was in college. Her name was Glenny Wade. She was a couple of years ahead of me in school. I knew her because she was in all the college drama productions. She was a stellar performer. And, I knew her because Glenny and I were in folk dance class together. Yes, you see before you an accomplished folk dancer. Not at all.
One day in folkdance class, I was standing with some other young women and the PE teacher walked over to us. She said, “You see that young woman there (pointing to Glenny). You mark my words. One day she’s going to be a famous actress.” And guess what? She is! Her stage name is Glen Close. In January, Glenny Wade, aka Glen Close, accepted her third, count them, three, Golden Globe Award—this one for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama. Maybe you saw her acceptance speech? She’s on stage, accepting the award. The tears are streaming down. I won’t repeat the entire speech here, (you’re welcome), but she says in part: “From the time I was little, I felt destined to be an actor.” Then speaking about her role in her acclaimed movie “The Wife,” she says, “Women are nurturers. That is what is expected of us. My mother sublimated herself to my father her whole life. And when she reached her 80’s she told me, “You know, I feel that I haven’t accomplished anything.” Glenny goes on to say. “We (meaning women) have to find personal fulfillment. Follow your dreams. We have to say to ourselves, ‘We can do that.’” By this time, her audience was on it’s collective feet, cheering, and crying along with her.
Tabitha and also Phoebe followed their dreams, which was to join in the Way and serve Christ. Their work wasn’t recognized in some circles, and is STILL not recognized in some circles. But their purpose wasn’t to achieve some fancy title anyway—disciple, schmisciple; deacon, schmeacon—who cares, really? They just said to themselves, “We can do that,” and they did that. They stand as examples of what is possible when women move in the Spirit.
May it be so for you as for me. Amen