Confirm the Gospel

Confirm the Gospel

Exodus 3, Romans 12, Matthew 16

September 3, 2017

Steve Hammond

Mary and I were talking the other day about how there are some people who are finally starting to look for stories of women in the Bible. But that’s kind of last century. What we need to pay more attention to, we decided, is the women’s stories that aren’t in the Bible. You get these hints in the Bible that stories are missing that people used to know.

I first heard of Shiphrah and Puah when Nancy Sehested called these two women to our attention at the very first Peace Camp back in 1985. We all know the story of Moses who has become such a hero in several religious traditions. But Shiphrah and Puah were unknown to me even though their stories are in the text. That same text also makes it clear that it wasn’t just these two women who were important in the story of Moses. It was his mother who saved his life by putting him in the basket where Pharaoh’s daughter rescued and raised him in the palace. All four of those women put their lives on the line for his sake. And, of course, his sister Miriam, who was also essential in Moses’ rescue, became one of his chier advisors when he was called from the desert to help deliver the children of Israel from their bondage.

The story makes it abundantly clear that these women were quick to do what God was calling them to do, while Moses went into it kicking and screaming and suggesting that God find someone else. Yet Moses is the hero while the stories of these women have had to be rescued before they are completely forgotten. We’ve lost the names of his birth mother and the woman who rescued him from the river. How many more names have we lost? How many other stories that were originally about women, not only in the Bible, but in cultures far distant and present have become stories about men?

It has become a joke about how at a meeting a woman will suggest something which everyone else in the room ignores until a man brings it up and then it’s a wonderful idea. Even in our own congregation it is interesting to see how things Mary does get attributed to me. People will thank me for recommending a book that was a recommendation from Mary. They will express appreciation to me for something in an email or said at a Community Meeting or in a sermon that came from Mary and not me.  It is no wonder that one of my grandmother’s oft spoken proverbs when something like this came up was, well, it’s a man’s world.

 Some of this dismissal of women is a very conscious misogyny, even when we are assured by the misogynist that he really loves women. Some of it is the patriarchy that under girds just about every culture. So we have this nearly forgotten story of Shiphrah and Puah and the others. We have gospel stories that practically scream that Jesus could not have done what he did without the women who followed him. We have plenty of evidence of women taking active leadership in the life of the early church. But they were disappeared. And it is still happening.

Remember those videos on the Friday night when the White Supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, VA? Those hundreds of torch bearers with their Nazi slogans and signs proclaiming they would not be replaced were just about all men. It’s not only that they were going to guard their privilege against Jews, Blacks, and immigrants, but most fundamentally, women. The White Supremacists movement is, at its core, about guaranteeing the superior place of White men in this society, even for the women in the movement. White Supremacists are not looking to give White women and White men and equal place in society.

The church has had a long, sad history of not only refusing to challenge patriarchy, but endorsing it. And many Evangelical and Catholic leaders, in particular, are adamant about upholding a theology that fosters a patriarchal hierarchy, not only in church but all of society. This is what we read, though, at the beginning of Romans 12. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

 Misogyny and patriarchy are the poster children of how the church has too often conformed to this world. In Romans 12, though, John van de Laar writes that we are challenged to confirm the Gospel rather than conform to the world. And as you read on in Romans 12 the Apostle Paul writes about how all our gifts, brought together, is what makes us the Body of Christ. There is no mention of the gifts being limited to specific people or genders. There is no hierarchy of gifts. It all matters, no matter who is offering it.

I know I talk about this a lot, but when the Apostle Paul offered up the metaphor of the Body of Christ, for me that may be the most important insight he left with us. It’s not just what we do as individuals in responding to the call to follow Jesus Christ that matters, but what we do together.

First of all, none of us are going to figure out what it means to follow Jesus by ourselves. Secondly, you can’t build this new world Jesus talked about with yourself as the only brick.

Do you remember that story we read about in a couple of places in the gospels when Jesus is talking to the disciples and asks them what everybody is saying about him? Then he asks them about what they are saying about him themselves. I think there is another way to look at that story other than as some kind of test where Jesus is going to grade them on how good their answer is. Rather, it seems he is genuinely curious about all the different ideas about Jesus they are talking about with each other and everybody else. What are they learning from each other in those conversations? How are they helping each other try to figure Jesus out?

I want to do a thought experiment. Think about the pictures or illustrations you have seen of the disciples gathered around Jesus. Think of your own mental images of Jesus walking down the road and asking the disciples what the buzz is about him. If your image is of Jesus talking to a bunch of bearded, rugged to handsome white men, imagine the scene with several women in it. That would have been more likely the case. Several women disciples are mentioned in the gospels. Mary and Martha, Joanna, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and as the texts say, the other women who followed Jesus from Galilee. We have stories and names. But when we talk about Jesus and his disciples it’s by far the names and stories and images of the male disciples that come to mind.

 It’s all of us who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the Body of Christ. We have to put everybody in the picture, including ourselves. The Spirit gives us gifts to bring to the Body, and is promiscuous in who they are given to so, together, we can confirm the gospel rather than conform to the world.

Right at the first of Romans 12 Paul calls us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. As we build these communities that confirm the gospel rather than conform to the world, we are showing people a way to God that doesn’t require the old ways of religion like sacrifices. Nothing has to die to appease God, rather it’s about something coming alive. And as we are told over and over, God is a god of life, not death. We are living sacrifices, living offerings to God with each other, presenting our bodies, ourselves as sacrifices that have come alive to be the Body of Christ, confirming the Gospel with each other.

Shiphrah and Puah were women, but they were also slaves. It’s not only women who have been disappeared from the stories. Thankfully, though, there are hints and suggestions that they have gone missing. Confirming the gospel means looking for those stories because they need to be heard. All of our stories need to be heard, just like all of our gifts matter. Sure Moses gets the credit, but he would have gotten nowhere without his mother and sister, Shiphrah, Puah, and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Those women stood up to Pharaoh long before Moses did. And they didn’t have miracles and plagues to back them up. They simply refused to be conformed to the world.

That is what God is asking from us. To learn from the stories of women and men, slave and free, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, immigrant, indigenous, and settler about what it means to confirm the gospel rather than conform to this world.  We are following Jesus not to simply get ourselves into heaven, but to build a new world together that brings heaven to everybody. God not only asks that of us, but Jesus was convinced, that with the power of the Holy Spirit behind us, we could do it. We’ve got our own stories to tell, our own Pharaohs to confront, our own ways to follow Jesus. But we do none of that on our own because it is together that we confirm the Gospel and are transformed into living sacrifices.