Sunday, September 8, 2013

Singing For Our Lives (9/8/13)

Singing For Our Lives
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 8, 2013

Selections from
The Acts of Paul and Thecla

The Acts of Paul and Thecla 38:5
And the women all cried out in a loud voice,
as if from one mouth,
and gave praise to God, saying,
One is God who has saved Thecla!
So that the whole city shook from their voice.

                       The Acts of Paul and Thecla 5:1-6:7                         
And when Paul entered into Onesiphorus’s house, there was great joy and kneeling and breaking of bread, and the word of God concerning self-control and resurrection.  As Paul said,

“Blessed are the clear of heart, for the will see God. 

Blessed are those who observe purity in flesh, for they will become a temple of God. 

Blessed are the self-possessed, for God will speak to them. 

Blessed are those who set themselves apart from this world, for they will please God. 

Blessed are those who have wives as if they do not, for they will be heirs of God. 

Blessed are those in awe of God for they will become messengers of God. 

Blessed are the ones who tremble at God’s words, for they will be called. 

Blessed are the ones who receive the wisdom of Jesus Christ, for they will be called children of the Highest. 

Blessed are the ones who keep their baptism, for they will rest with the Father and the Son. 

Blessed are those on the journey to uniting with Jesus Christ, for they will be in the light. 

Blessed are the ones who have departed the form of the world through God’s love, for they will judge angels and, at the right hand of the Father, they will be praised. 

Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion and will not see the day of grievous judgment. 

Blessed are the bodies of maidens, for they will have favor with God and will not lose the reward for their holiness; for the Father’s word will be a work of salvation for them until the day of his Child, and they will have rest forever.”

Selections from The Acts of Paul and Thecla 

A certain maiden, Thecla-whose mother was Theocleia and was promised in marriage to a man, Thamyris—sat at a window close to the house and listened night and day to the message about holiness spoken by Paul.  She did not turn away from the window, but moved forward in faith, rejoicing exceedingly….

Thamyris…was filled with jealousy and wrath.   Rising early in the morning, he went to the house of Onesiphorus with the rulers, public officials, and a large crowd with clubs, saying to Paul, “You have corrupted the city of the Iconians and also my betrothed so that she will not want me.  Let us go to the governor Castellius.”  

…when the governor had considered the counsel he was given, he called Thecla, saying, “Why do you not marry Thamyris according to the law of the Iconians?” But she stood looking intently at Paul, and when she did not answer, Theocleia, her mother, cried out, saying, “Burn the lawless one!  Burn the one who refuses to be a bride in the middle of the theater so that all the women taught by this man will be afraid!”

And the governor was greatly moved and had Paul whipped and thrown out the city; but Thecla he condemned to be burned….

…when she made the sign of the cross, she climbed upon the firewood.  They lit it and a great fire blazed, but the fire did not touch her.  For God, having compassion, caused a sound under the earth, and a cloud, filled with rain and hail, darkened the sky from above, and the vessel poured forth all that was in it.  Many were in danger and died, and the fire was extinguished.  And Thecla was saved….

And Thecla said to Paul, “I will cut my hair short and follow you wherever you go….”

The president of the provincial council of Syria, a certain man named Alexander, saw Thecla and became enamored with her and tried to persuade Paul with money and gifts.  But Paul said, I do not know the woman of whom you speak, nor is she mine.” But Alexander, having a lot of power, embraced her on the street.   And she would not endure it, but sought after Paul and cried out bitterly, saying, “Do not violate the stranger!  Do not violate the slave of God!  I am important among the Iconians and because I did not wish to marry Thamyris I have been thrown out of the city.”  And taking hold of Alexander she tore off his cloak and took the crown from his head and caused him public shame.  But he at once, loving her and also being dishonored by what had happened to him, brought her before the governor. And when she confessed the things she had done, he sentenced her to the wild beasts….

And they threw in many wild animals as she stood and stretched out her hands and prayed.  But as she finished the prayer, she turned and saw a great pit full of water and said, “Now it is time for me to wash.”  And she threw herself in, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on the last day!”  And seeing this, the women and the whole crowd wept, saying, “Do not throw yourself into the water!”; so that even the governor wept because the sea lions were going to devour such beauty.  Then she threw herself into the water in the name of Jesus Christ, but the sea lions, seeing the light of a lightning flash, floated on the surface, dead.  And surrounding her was a cloud of fire so that neither the wild animals could touch her nor could she be seen naked….

And the governor called out to Thecla from the midst of the wild animals and said to her, “Who are you?  And what is it about you that not even one of the wild animals touched you?”  and she said, “I indeed am the slave of the living God.  And as to what it is about me, I have trusted in the Child of God, in whom he finds pleasure, and through whom not even one of the wild animals touched me.  For this one alone is the limit of salvation and the foundation of life through the ages.  For he is a refuge for those in a storm; freedom for the oppressed; for the despairing a shelter….

And taking young men and young women, she bound herself up and stitched together her garment—a robe in the fashion of a man’s and departed for Myra.  And she found Paul speaking the word of God and waited near him….

And Paul said, “Go and teach the word of God….”

She was cast into the fire when she was seventeen and to the wild animals when she was eighteen. It has been said that she was an ascetic in a cave when she was seventy-two, so all the years of her life were ninety.  And after accomplishing many healings, she rests in the place of the holy ones having fallen asleep on the twenty-fourth of September.  In Christ Jesus, our Lord, to whom be the glory and strength forever and ever.  Amen.

                The Acts of Paul and Thecla 42:2
God of me and of this house where the light shone on me,
Christ Jesus the Child of God,
my help in prison,
my help before governors,
my help in the fire,
my help with the wild animals—
you are God and you are the glory forever. 

The selections just read provide the basic plot of The Acts of Paul and Thecla.  The New Orleans Council voted to include this work in A New New Testament:  A Bible for the 21st CenturyCombining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.    Why did the council include this story in A New New Testament?   On one level it is a bit of an odd choice.  It is a campy romance that obviously is fiction.   It tells us little if anything about the historical Paul, although it does include a physical description of Paul.   According to this text, Paul was…

A man, small in stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, healthy, with knitted eyebrows, a slightly long nose, and full of kindness—for at times he appeared as a human being and at others had had the face of an angel.  3:2

Unlike the other texts we have looked at so far, The Acts of Paul and Theclawasn’t hidden and recently discovered.  We have known about it and have had the text all along.  In fact, Thecla is a saint in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.  Her feast day is September 23rd for  Roman Catholics and September 24th for the Eastern Orthodox.   Her burial place is a shrine that attracts pilgrims to this day.  

Even though The Acts of Paul and Thecla was not included in the canonical New Testament it was a popular work in the third through the fifth centuries and beyond.    In the fourth century, church father, Gregory of Nyssa, praised her for her sacrifice and “of giving death to the flesh.”   However, another church father, Tertullian in the late second century condemned The Acts of Paul and Thecla as it appeared to give women authority to lead communities, and to baptize.   

We are going to come back to that point when I address the significance of this work for today.   First, I want to say something about the genre and the storyline itself.    This is a romance.   It is also one of many  martyrdom stories.  There are thousands of them.    They begin with various “Acts” stories.   The Acts of Peter, The Acts of Thomas, The Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Philip, and more.    These are heroic romances that describe in detail the derring-do of the apostles and of the miracles they performed as well as their travels, persecutions and sufferings.    

We have an example of this literature in the New Testament itself, The Acts of the Apostles.     When you read the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, it, too, is filled with derring-do, exciting sea voyages, miracles, persecutions, and sufferings.     Far more fiction than history, all of these Acts stories, including theActs of the Apostles in the New Testament, want to press their theological point. Each one has an agenda.  They frame their heroes, the apostles, in such a way to give authority to the respective author’s point of view.   They want us to read Paul, the Apostles, and Jesus in a certain way.

The Acts of the Apostles and The Acts of Paul and Thecla are likely second century documents.   That is the time that many of the issues are front and center, such as
  1.  the place of women in these early Christian communities, 
  2.  love, marriage and sex, 
  3.  and martyrdom.   
To get our context here is another second century document in which Paul is supposedly writing:

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

That document is in the New Testament, 1 Timothy 2:8-15.   That is ultimately, the second century Christianity that won the day.   It wasn’t the only choice.   There were other choices, The Gospel of Mary lifted up Mary Magdalene as the one closest to Jesus and as such an example of a woman leading a community, leading even the apostles themselves.   

And of course, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which Paul preaches an exact opposite message from that found in Timothy and in which Thecla, a woman, refuses marriage and children, cuts her hair short, wears a man’s robe, speaks and teaches, and has authority over both women and men.    Paul not only blesses that but commissions her,

“Go and teach the Word of God.” 41:3

Neither the Paul of Timothy or the Acts of Paul and Thecla is the historical Paul.   Both works reflect the views of second-century communities trying to show that Paul was on its respective side.   The historical Paul who we know through his seven authentic letters, did have women in leadership.    Of course, there is that wonderful verse in Galatians, were Paul waxes eloquently about equality:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

I think a good case can be made that the Paul of The Acts of Paul and Thecla, at least in regards to this issue, is closer to the historical Paul than the forged document of 1 Timothy.    But who knows for sure?  In a sense, I am doing the same thing these second-century authors are doing, reading my issues back on to Paul and trying to get Paul on my team.    

Here is the story:

Paul is traveling and he has a couple of detractors in his entourage, Demas and Hermogenes.    They are out to get him.   Paul goes to the house of Onesiphorus and begins to preach.   The formula is the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus pronounces his blessings.     Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, etc.  The author takes that formula and puts it on the lips of Paul.    Paul’s blessings are for the most part about separating from the world, specifically regarding sex, “purity in flesh.”   

One of the issues of the second century had to do with family.  Should you get married and procreate?  If Jesus is coming again soon, is it not better not to bring children into this world, especially as the goal is to separate from the world?    Not only that, but the issue is also one of patriarchy and control of women’s bodies.    In the letter to Timothy, that Paul says women are saved through childbearing.   InThecla, this Paul says,

“Blessed are the bodies of maidens, for they will have favor with God and will not lose the reward for their holiness;  for the Father’s word will be a work  of salvation for them…”     6:7

Opposite views.   

Thecla, a maiden, is listening to Paul from her window.     She lights up when she hears this message.   She does not have to marry the guy to which she has been betrothed, other words, paid for.    Salvation is not through marriage and childbearing.   She doesn’t have to give her body to a man to be saved.   

Her mother, Theocleia, does not like this development.  Nor does the guy for whom the deal was cut for marriage, Thamyris.    Theocleia says to Thamyris speaking of Paul:

Thamyris, this person is threatening the city of the Iconians, and your Thecla as well—for all the woman and youth go to him and are taught by him.  He says that is necessary to fear God alone and live purely.  And my daughter, like a spider in the window, also is bound to his words, held sway by new desire and fearful emotions.” 9:1-2

Thamyris find the two travelers with Paul, Demas and Hermogenes and they develop a plan to get Paul before the governor.  He gets a crowd with him that says:

“Arrest the magician!  For he has corrupted all of our wives and seduced the masses!”  15:1

Paul’s “seduction of the masses” and his “corruption of women” is that he is challenging the whole brokerage system of marriage.   He is, to use language we often hear today surrounding marriage, destroying the foundation of marriage.  If women start making their own choices all hell will break loose. 

Paul gets thrown into prison. Thecla, in the middle of the night bribes the jailers to see him.    In the morning she along with Paul is summoned before the governor.  The governor asks her why she refuses to marry Thamyris.  She doesn’t answer. She looks at Paul.    Then her own mother says to burn her so she will be an example to all women.    It is hard to hear this story without making modern parallels.   Her own mother would rather have her burned to death than not to act in a socially and politically appropriate way.    Better dead than deviant.      

The governor has Paul whipped and sent out of the city and Thecla is condemned to be burned.   Odd ruling isn’t it?   If Paul is supposedly the bad guy, corrupting the women, one would think he should be executed rather than the victim of his teaching, Thecla. 

As they light the fire under Thecla, she is miraculously saved.    Paul, meanwhile, isn’t around.  Thecla later finds him and they celebrate and Thecla says she will cut her hair short and follow him.     She is challenging not only marriage but gender norms.   She asks Paul to be baptized, but he says, “Have patience, and you will receive the water.”

Then Paul and the entourage, now including Thecla, travel to Antioch.  There, the president of Syria, interestingly, Alexander, sees Thecla and becomes enamored. He tries to buy her from Paul but Paul says he doesn’t own her or even know her.   

Alexander sexually assaults her on the street, the euphemism is “embraced” and Thecla cries out to Paul for help and getting none takes matters into her own hands and tears Alexander’s cloak and takes his crown.    Alexander is dishonored but still in love so takes Thecla to the governor.    After Thecla confesses, the governor sentences her to the wild beasts.  Her charge is “sacrilege.”    Supposedly she did an unholy sacrilege by refusing a man’s advances.

The women of the city object, crying,

“Evil judgment!  Unholy judgment!”  27:2

Thecla is forced to fight the wild animals.  They bind her to a ferocious lioness, notice the gender, but the lioness licks her feet.    The next day bears and lions are released but the lioness defends Thecla from the bear and another lion is released and both the lion and the lioness kill each other.   More wild animals are unleashed but do not touch her.  

Suddenly we are told that below her is a pit of water.   Remember, Paul told her to be patient about baptism earlier, that she will “receive the water.”    Here it is.  Thecla says:

“Now it is time for me to wash.”  And she threw herself in, saying, “in the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on the last day.”    34:2-3

The women and the crowd tell her not to do it because of the ferocious sea lions.  But a miracle happens and all the sea lions die.   Then Alexander, who is behind all of this torture and exhibition, because he loves her, has her bound to wild bulls.  He sets fire to their genitals so they will be enraged, but the fire burns the ropes that bind her to the bulls and she escapes again.   

Finally the governor, exasperated, calls out to her, “Who are you?”  Even the wild beasts won’t mess with her.  She tells him that she has trusted in the Child of God.  The governor provides clothes for her and declares,

“God-fearing Thecla, slave of God, I release you.”  38:4

And all the women in the city cry out:

“One is God who has saved Thecla!”  38:5

Paul, meanwhile is nowhere to be found.  But Thecla searches him out.   She takes with her both women and men and stitches together a robe “in the fashion of a man’s” and finds Paul.    She tells him she is now baptized and Paul says,

“Go and teach the word of God.” 

She enlightens many with the word of God and lives to the ripe old age of ninety.   

It is a wild, campy story, but not unlike other fanciful tales in the New and Old Testaments and in other Christian literature.   It is included in A New New Testament because of its contemporary resonance.     

Here is a woman who does not want to follow the social norms prescribed for her.  She does not want her body controlled by a man or by society.  She hears from Paul a message of liberation and freedom.   But it is a message, if followed, that has costs.   

Her own mother disowns her.    That experience can resonate with many, far too many, lesbian and gay people.   It also resonates with those who choose not to marry and have children or those who choose to have children without being married.   Not everyone in the family approves.  Of course, we can’t know about Thecla’s sexuality.   Those are modern categories put on an ancient story.  But we do know the social costs for not following what is supposedly normal.

Thecla bends gender norms.  She cuts her hair short, puts on a man’s robe, and does a “man’s” work, teaching and preaching.   That experience can resonate with women who face sexual discrimination in the workplace today as well as transgender individuals who face the social costs for expressing their humanity.

The social costs for Thecla were quite extreme, burning at the stake and being torn apart by wild beasts.   Yet again, that resonates with those who have faced violent discrimination by mobs as well as at times at the hand of authorities who are sworn to protect them.     

Thecla defends herself against a sexual attack by a rich and powerful man.   It is a sexual attack.  It is not an “embrace” if you don’t want it.   She is the one, however, who has done the “bad thing.”   She is accused of dishonoring her attacker.  Again, her story resonates with those who have been victims of attacks and then not have been believed, or who have been blamed, or accused of disturbing the peace.

We should say something about Paul.  Paul is the inspiration for her.    Her devotion to him and his message never fades.   Yet when he could be of practical use, he isn’t around.   She faces the stake and the beasts by herself.  Paul is hesitant to baptize her.  He even distances himself from her when Alexander wants to purchase her.  Paul says he doesn’t even know her.  When she cries out to him for help after she is attacked, the text is silent regarding Paul. 

It is as though Paul offers this liberating message, and when someone picks him up on it, he needs convincing.   Really?  Someone is listening to me?   Guess who’s coming to dinner!   In the end, he does commission her to teach the Word of God.    By that time, it is beyond anti-climactic.  She has proven herself and been an authority unto herself.   She even baptizes herself.    Nevertheless, she seeks out Paul for his blessing and for his commissioning.    

To me that resonates with those people who have been shunned by the church, rejected by the church, or at most who have been given lukewarm treatment.  They have found in the church, despite its lukewarm practitioners, a message of equality, freedom, grace and hope.   In their beautiful, humble, and courageous way, they invite the church to live into its own creed.   They have shown themselves to be vehicles of the sacred and as such are lights and guides for the church even when it doesn’t recognize them.    

Finally, Thecla is a model for challenging unjust laws.   When she is condemned by the governor, the women see that this is wrong.   As Thecla faces the costs of her bravery, not only does the larger community see the injustice of it, but even the governor has a change of heart.   Of course, as Martin Luther King pointed out, the goal of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience is to face the costs of breaking unjust laws and in doing so change the hearts of those who are watching and even to change the hearts of the oppressors themselves. 

The one who does that is a martyr.  That is the meaning of a martyr, a person who with his or her own body is a witness, to what is true, just, and life-giving.   

So today, we honor Saint Thecla whose song continues in us.


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