(Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; John 14:23-29)
This is one of those Sundays when there’s a whole lot going on: a whole lot going on in the readings, and a whole lot going on in the church and community. For the Church, this is Christian Family Sunday, a day to celebrate all aspects of family – traditional, non-traditional, our families of birth, our families of choice, our spiritual families. It’s also, of course, Mother’s Day, a day set aside as “Mothers for Peace Day” – a reminder of the need to end all conflict so that parents needs not send sons and daughters off to war. Now, of course, it’s a day to celebrate motherhood in general. It’s also the last day of the season of Easter in the church – a time of transition between the days when Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the days when his physical presence was replaced by the coming of the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot going on, but I want to pull out a few threads. These threads are loosely connected in and of themselves, but they’re part of the tapestry that is our heritage as Christian people.
First we hear the story of Paul meeting Lydia and a group of women by the river outside the city. Studies of this period tell us that this was a common place for a synagogue in Gentile territory, so it’s interesting that this synagogue appears to be made up of women – there’s no mention of any men. After Lydia responded to the good news of Jesus, her home became the mission base for Paul as he preached and taught in Philippi. Often the role of women in the early church is down-played, but the reality is that neither Jesus nor Paul could have done what they did without the help and support of women. There’s evidence that women were the financial backers of both Jesus’ and Paul’s ministries – that they provided food and shelter and money so that they could do what they needed to do. Think of Mary and Martha, Joanna and Salome, the Marys, Prisca, Lydia, Dorcas and Julia.
Women were equal partners in the mission – offering pastoral care, tending the sick, widows and orphans, and those imprisoned for their faith – even in some cases journeying like Paul did to congregations and teaching the contents of the apostles’ letters to the local churches. Those churches mostly gathered in homes – the place where women had the most power and authority in Jewish, Greek and Roman culture. It wasn’t until later, when the church moved into the public arena and began to feel the need to be more accommodating of social norms, that women were forced to take a backseat in the life of the early church.
And so it went, throughout history: as spiritual movements became more established, developed rules and dogma and had to figure out how to not rattle the neighbours too much, women’s roles became more and more restricted. But here and there throughout the course of history, the Spirit broke free, and that early freedom, where (as Paul says), “There is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free” came again to the church. One of the fascinating phenomena of the Holy Spirit is that where there is a vivid, powerful in-breaking of the Spirit, old rules and social norms break down, and a new freedom and equality often emerges.
A few years ago a good friend of mine was ordained in the Assemblies of God denomination in the States – the world’s largest Pentecostal organization. I was surprised when she first told me she was studying for the ministry, because I had been under the impression that because it is a conservative, literalist denomination, women would not be able to exercise that kind of leadership. It turns out that because the Assemblies of God believes that both male and female Christians are baptized in the Holy Spirit, and that this confers equal strength and power to testify to Christ, many Pentecostal denominations now teach that if God calls a woman, a woman ought to be allowed to answer the call. The Holy Spirit has a way of loosening up the rules, and unbinding what has been bound.
In the Gospel Lesson, Jesus also calls the Spirit the Advocate – which is sometimes translated as the Comforter or the Teacher. When you hear those words, what do you picture? What do they mean? At least two out of those three words conjure up feminine images for me. What about you? In fact, I always find it jarring when the Holy Spirit is referred to as a He. For me, the Spirit is the most feminine aspect of God. The choir director back in Shoal Lake used to joke that “The Holy Spirit must be a Mother – she’s in so many places at once doing so many different things!” The way the Holy Spirit is described is also very similar to the way Lady Wisdom is described in the book of Proverbs – moving over the waters at creation, giving life to all things. Both Spirit and Wisdom are feminine in the original Hebrew: Ruach and Sophia. Perhaps it’s no accident that where there is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, women often experience more freedom.
While I was on Study Leave, I read a book called “The Great Emergence”, by Phyllis Tickle. Her thesis is that about every 500 years, the church goes through a period of chaos, when everything gets shaken up and new forms of church emerge while older forms continue in a reformed fashion. The last great shake-up was the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 1600s. According to Tickle, we’re in the middle of one of those periods right now. She believes the Holy Spirit is hosting a great big “rummage sale” – clearing out what is no longer useful to make room for the new. She also groups these 500 year periods into bi-millenial periods that correspond to the visions of the mystics of the medieval period. (p. 164, footnote 8) They imagined the history of God’s action among the people of Israel and the Christian church as three great eras: the era of the Father – in which we would focus primarily on the aspect of God that brings forth life – running from 2000 BC through to the first century; the era of the Son – from the first century to the 20th century; and the era of the Spirit, in which we are now living. If that is so, then we can expect the shake-up to continue for quite some time!
Another way that Jesus refers to the Spirit is as the Spirit or Teacher of Truth. One of the shake-ups we may be seeing in the Christian church is the return to the home as the primary place of spiritual teaching. With Sundays no longer being set apart from work and organized activities, many families find it hard to make a regular commitment to be present in the churches. They come when they’re able, but it’s not every Sunday for many people anymore. More and more, families are needing to be responsible for their own children’s religious education. Children won’t learn the Lord’s Prayer in the schools; they won’t hear Bible stories at most daycares or libraries; they won’t hear anyone say grace in public; they won’t know about bedtime prayers. One of the things we churches need to do is find ways to help families raise their children in the faith – and not just with the pre-packaged, glitzy, simplistic stuff that’s so often presented to children, but with the kind of teaching that is part of our heritage as United Church people: encouraging questions and new ideas; teaching a trusting relationship with Jesus; the importance of making a positive difference in the world in Jesus’ name; including those whom others might choose to exclude; being open to others’ experience of faith while feeling grounded in their own. A child I know was told by a friend, “I hate Christians!” She replied, “Well, I’m one!” “I didn’t mean you,” the friend replied. This child knew who she was, and to whom she belonged, and her friend got a little lesson in stereotypes and prejudice. I think that’s pretty fantastic!
More often than not, it has been the women of most families who have been the keepers of the faith – who have been the ones who have read the Bible stories, and sat with the children in the pews, and taught the Sunday School classes. Without the women of the church, generations of children would have grown up completely without any knowledge of our traditions and without faith in anything but themselves. My dream is that these tasks will be shared by men and women in families – that we won’t have arguments about who is the spiritual head of the family (as so many denominations do ) but instead focus on the responsibility of both parents to give their children a spiritual grounding. I know that some families feel they need to leave the choice of religious up-bringing to their children – but how are children to choose if they do not know what the options are?
I’ve said before how deeply grateful I am for the heritage of faith I received from both my parents. I’m also grateful for the Sunday School classes I took with my friend Kathy’s mother, Barb Dawson, who made faith come alive for a classroom full of bored teenagers. I’m grateful to all of the women – and yes, they WERE all women – who taught me Sunday School and led youth groups and directed the junior choirs and kept me interested and involved in the life of church and the life of faith.
Now I know, guys, that some of you feel that when we’re lifting women up in the church, we’re putting men down. That just isn’t true. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why we celebrate this day as Christian Family Sunday – because men never seem to get as much attention on Father’s Day as women do on Mother’s Day – and we want to celebrate the whole family, and all the forms it takes. And so do we need and celebrate all the members of the Christian family: the Pauls and the Lydias, the Reverend Dons and the Mrs Barbs, the children that Heidi and Andrea and their brothers Ken and Lance once were, the children like Nola, and Benson, and Lucas, and Claire and Natalie, and Olivia and Sadie, and Anthony and Tanner, and Brendan and Alison and Regan, and all of the members of our family.
We need you more than ever, as we participate in the great Emergence, the birth pangs of a new and renewed church. We need everyone, young and old and middle-aged, male or female, gay or straight, parent or child or childless, married or single or widowed. The Holy Spirit does not discriminate between categories or varieties of people. The Holy Spirit will move where She will and will give gifts and talents and skills to whom She chooses – and we need everyone, together. After all, what is family for, if not to support and uphold one another through the challenges life sends us? We need each other – all of us. Together, we will love God – Mother and Father of us all; we will discern the Spirit’s leading; we will follow Jesus. That’s what this Christian family is for. Amen.
Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.