The First Deacon

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Rembrandt’s sketch of Jesus and Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law

As I read my go-to resources in sermon preparation this week, I’m noticing an undercurrent of discomfort with the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law.  It seems to stem from a common misreading of the text, which has led it to be a straw-man argument for those would say that the role of women in the church (and, by extension, in the world) is in the kitchen, preparing meals, organizing receptions, and holding teas.  I’m not suggesting that this reading of the text shouldn’t make us uncomfortable.  It most certainly should.  Rather, I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t allow bad exegesis the power it holds over this text.  Instead of throwing this story away as an example of 1st century subjugation of women, perpetuated, and later enshrined in the Church, I want us to read this story with the wider Gospel narrative in mind.  I’d like us to dig beyond our discomfort with the modern English translations, and do the hard work of understanding what lies beneath.

Taken as a part of the larger story, the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed and then “serving” Jesus and his disciples is really a story about the impact that women had on the Jesus Movement from its very inception.  Throughout the Gospels and even into Acts, we are told of the role that women played in not just preparing meals and tending to the needs of Jesus and the disciples, but also how they gave of their sometimes significant financial resources to make sure the ministry tour could continue.  The Marys, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, Lydia, and the daughters of Deacon Philip all play integral roles in the spread of the Gospel during Jesus’ life and well into the first generation of the Church.

In Mark’s Gospel, this pattern begins with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and it begins in a very specific way.  While the NRSV translates what she did as “serving,” the Greek word diakonai is where we get Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story actually seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work.

It is, of course, only a beginning.  Much in the same way this text is used to keep women in the Church kitchen, it could also be used to keep them set apart only as Deaconesses.    This could be the great unintended consequence of my reading of this text.  In my own tradition, I can see how a text like this one continues to have a profound impact on how ordained women are called to leadership positions like Cardinal Rectors, Cathedral Deans, and the Episcopate.  Because of where this text falls in the Gospel narrative, and because, later, Mary Magdalene will be called to Apostleship by the Risen Christ, I see this text as a way to re-frame the conversation, to think in bigger ways about how God’s call is open to all people, and to name and repent of the ways in which the Church has used bad readings of texts like this one in abusive ways.  We can’t let our discomfort with a bad reading of this text keep us from living into how this text actually begins to show us the dream that God has for the Church.

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Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.

Some People!?!

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“Some people are saying…”

These words happen everywhere.  When things are good and when times are tough, it matters not.  No matter the circumstance, they are the four words every pastor hates to hear.  “Some people are saying…”  First and foremost, this is a clear indicator that what will follow will be a complaint of indeterminate validity and seriousness.  Let’s also be clear that “some people” always includes that person telling you, and more often than not (read 75% or more of the time) it only includes the person who has brought this “issue” to your attention.  There is no winning a “some people are saying” conversation. The pseudo-anonymity creates an immediate barrier to conversation.  Unless your pastor knows who those “some people” are, their context, their history, and what is happening in their lives, she has no way of knowing where this complain is coming from.  “Some people” always means that what “they” want is right and everything else is wrong.  Whether “some people” are talking about music, preaching, Christian education, or what donuts are served at coffee hour, the fact that they hide behind a wall of uncertainty is an immediate sign that nuance and negotiation are off the table.

I bring this up because Jesus seems to invite the “some people” response in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks, and the “some people” begin to speak.  “Elijah.”  “John the Baptist.”  “Jeremiah.”  “One of the prophets.”  Like it is in the parish, these responses seem to betray what is happening in the heart of the spokesperson.  There is, to be sure, no real clarity about who Jesus is at this point.

Until.

Until Jesus changes the question by asking, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter steps out from behind the protection of anonymity and declares, right there on the doorstep of “Philip’s Caesartown” that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter strips away all pretense, all fear, and declares with full awareness of the political ramifications that Jesus is the true Anointed One, and that Caesar can’t be the son of God because Jesus is.

When we move beyond “some people” and get to taking responsibility for ourselves and our faith, God will do remarkable things and, as it was for Peter, God will open our eyes to see that which is obscured by the rood screen of mistrust, fear, and anonymity.  In truth, what “some people” say doesn’t matter, instead, what really matters is, “what do you say?”