Readings Romans 16:1-16 and Matthew 26:6-13
Easter approaches… the cross and the tomb loom on the near horizon, the clash between the Jesus movement and Imperial Rome intensifies, the cosmic battle between Christ and Death sweeps into view, The Light of the World’s descent into Hades and harrowing of hell shall be attended… and yet, here we are, one week before Palm Sunday, listening to Paul give the biblical equivalent of an Oscars speech - listing name upon name with gratitude and greeting.
Why this pause, why all these names on the eve of the most dramatic narrative events of our liturgical calendar? Well, before we answer that, let us consider the gospel reading.
Jesus, reclining at table, is anointed with a costly perfume, an act which raises anger in his disciples, yet he rightly interprets as preparing him for his death. This woman demonstrates, in her lavish act of respect, that she has grasped what so few have yet grasp: When Jesus has been predicting his betrayal and death, he has meant it. She has grasped the words that begun this Lenten season: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Her beautiful act is an act of preparation, one which signals she has realised the path of the Lord, which will take him to Calvary.
Like John at the Jordan, this woman exemplifies the calling of the disciple – to bear witness, to point to Jesus, to (in action and devotion) direct the gaze of the world to him and his work. It is because she has grasped the significance of Christ and his death, that Christ offers the highest praise: Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
Wherever the gospel is proclaimed what she has done will be remembered. The role of Christian witness can never be severed from the good news, which, as a matter of pure coincidence, leads us back to our opening question about why we are pausing to spend time with Paul’s greetings and gratitude before the good news of Easter.
In this reading we are introduced to a range of Christian witnesses, and the importance of their work in the life of the church. And like the gospel reading, one thing that is noticeable is the vital and robust role of women in the church.
Phoebe, a deacon in the church, is the one entrusted with Paul’s letter. But her role does not end at delivery. She would have read it, but reading also involves interpretation, requires her to answer questions of clarification and application. Her responsibility is thus to teach the church. Prisca and Aquilla run a church together in their home and risked their necks for Paul in the past. There is no sense that one is above the other, and so we have on display female church leadership and church planting. And then there’s Junia, a woman, an apostle. And not only an apostle, for Paul says she is prominent and eminent among the apostles. Evidently, for some Christians the idea of a woman apostle was so confronting that some translations added an s to the end of her name so it appears masculine. But despite such linguistic gymnastics, indeed despite the many ways that the church succumbed (and succumbs still) to patriarchy and gender inequality, Paul’s letter to the Romans preserves for us the history of women leading the early church in a range of offices, ministries, and roles.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is often treated as this systematic, theological treatise – which, compared to Paul’s more incidental letters, lays out his fuller, mature thought, more applicable to the church universal than concerned with local issues. And yet, here we are reminded, that Paul, as always, has many particular people, churches, and households in mind. We are reminded too, that the growth and shaping of Christianity is not a one-man-show. Paul’s teaching, learning, and witness emerge from within a community. It evolves out of relationships, it is learnt from others, it reflects more than him. The church’s proclamation, worship, and witness, does not happen in a vacuum. It is the work of a people infused with the Holy Spirit and committed to the way of Christ. The gospel is something witnessed to, and so it is not unnatural to pause at this moment of the church’s year and remind ourselves that the reason we celebrate the big story of Easter is because it has been witnessed to us by others (family, churches, friends). We celebrate Easter today, because of disciples like those Paul names, because of women like the one Jesus commended, who recognised him and responded with lavish and abundant devotion.
I want to end with a small point of irony… Jesus says of the woman who anointed him, Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. What’s her name? This woman? Interestingly, despite Jesus’ recognition and commendation, Matthew didn’t think to record it. We know Jesus was in the home of Simon, we know the names of the twelve male disciples who grumbled… but we do not know her name (at least not from this gospel). At one level, such an omission reflects the aforementioned patriarchal background and attitudes that permeate Scripture and shaped the church. And yet, despite (and without erasing) that, there is a way that her namelessness points to a deep truth. Her anonymity allows her a symbolic role – she is who we are all called to be… she is a picture of a disciple, an exemplary witness to Christ, she is Christian… In her very anonymity she reminds us that we are also called to be one whose actions and devotion point to Christ, whose work and witness is performed in such a way that (as John the Baptist captured) Christ must increase while we decrease. We are called to prepare the way of the Lord, point to Christ and the freedom he brings, and to do all this with no intention of seeing our names preserved in the history books, with no intention of being named among the notable (should it be that we are remembered among the witnesses this is a grace and a gift, but never a goal). We do this out of sheer love and devotion for who Christ is and what Christ has done, so others might know the story. Our goal (if it may be characterised as such) is simply to join the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before and surround us still, who found their life in the name of Christ.
Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Road to Calvary, 1564
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