This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel readings for today and last week paint a very interesting picture of what life was like for Jesus and his disciples. Last Sunday, we read about how Jesus went preaching in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. In Luke’s Gospel, we are told that he took a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah and directly applied it to himself as the promised Messiah. However, here in Mark’s Gospel, Mark doesn’t actually report what Jesus said. The most important thing is the reaction to Jesus’ preaching: they took offense at him. And Jesus says: A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household. So this is an incredibly sad event, where the Saviour of the world entered into the synagogue in his own hometown and they rejected him.
Now, immediately after this, Jesus then sends out the twelve apostles on a special mission trip. It says: He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. Now in Luke and Matthew, they even give the names of each of the twelve apostles. And these are the words that Jesus says to them: Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. What he means is that that they shouldn’t go from house to house, but stay in one house and spend a good amount of time with them, and then when they’re finished move to the next. But Jesus also says: And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.
You can see here that Jesus prepares the twelve apostles for a mission, but he also prepares them for disappointment and rejection. Not everyone will receive them, and so Jesus says that if people don’t want to listen to them, then he says not to spend time annoying them until they let them in, but to simply leave, and shake the dust off their feet at the gate.
Now, in today’s reading we see that John the Baptist is arrested, and he was arrested for a relatively minor thing: he told King Herod that his marriage was unlawful. Herod had his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own wife or mistress, and John told him that that was wrong. So he was put in prison, and then when Herod promised to Herodias’s daughter anything she wanted in the presence of his birthday guests, Herodias took the opportunity to get her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And so John was executed and beheaded.
And so in these three passages, we have three different instances of rejection of the message of Jesus: the people in Nazareth reject Jesus himself, Jesus prepares his twelve apostles and gives them specific instructions if people reject them, and then Herod and his household rejects the ministry of John the Baptist. And so the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: are we also in danger of rejecting the ministry of Jesus’ apostles, and his preachers? Actually, I think this is the greatest danger that Christianity faces today in the world, and it is the greatest danger that our church body, the Lutheran Church of Australia, faces.
Now, often when people study the passage where Jesus sends out the apostles two by two, people often look at it as a kind of example for mission work, and think of it in terms of us. But we have to also realise that the twelve apostles were particular people who had a particular task. In fact, the New Testament is basically the collected writings of the apostles.
Now, when the New Testament was gathered together in the time of the early church, the prerequisite for these books was that they were written by the apostles, or at least had the approval of the apostles.
And so, how should we treat these writings? We should treat them as the writings of those particular preachers chosen by Jesus. Jesus said to them: Whoever hears you hears me. John also writes in his first letter: We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. We treat these writings just as when Jesus sent the apostles out: we read their writings, just as if they were knocking on our door and coming to our house two by two. We should receive them into our house, and into our hearts, so that Jesus may say to us: Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
Now, in our sermon today, I’d like to talk about a part of the apostles’ teaching that is very sensitive in our church, which is the relationship between men and women, and the question as to whether women should serve as pastors. This is the topic we have been discussing all week at our national Pastors’ Conference in Adelaide, and will be discussed again at our upcoming synod in October in Sydney. Actually, this has been discussed in our church’s synods now since the year 2000. I was sixteen years old in that year! And so this matter has been debated in our church for well over half my lifetime.
Our church’s current position on the matter reads as follows:
Though women prophets were used by the Spirit of God in the Old as well as in the New Testament, 1 Cor 14:34,35 and I Tim 2:11–14 prohibit a woman from being called into the office of the public ministry for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. This apostolic rule is binding on all Christendom; hereby her rights as a member of the spiritual priesthood are in no wise impaired.
Now, it is my deeply held conviction that this statement is true, and I would like to explain to you why, even though this opinion of mine runs very much against our cultural climate. We pastors are suppose to tell you everything, even if deep down we don’t really want to. Jesus said to his disciples: I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. Jesus told his disciples everything, because he wanted to treat them as friends. And so, in the same way, I want to tell you everything that I believe as a Christian, because I don’t want to keep you in the dark, but I want to treat you as my friends.
So, first, I’d like to read something from the Qu’ran, which is the holy book of Muslims. In the section called “Women”, it says: Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other… Then it says, that if a wife is disobedient, then the husband should admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them.
Now, I’m not a Muslim, and I don’t believe this at all. In my ministry as a pastor, I have served many Christian people who came from countries that were ruled by Islam. And among some people from these countries, they consider it cultural to beat their wives. And sure, I don’t want to say that all Muslims beat their wives—I’m sure they don’t. But if a young Muslim man is having marriage difficulties, and doesn’t know what to do, he’ll go to the Qur’an and the passage that I read is what he will find.
Some Muslims water down the word “beat”, and say that really it means, “hit”, or “chastise”. One Muslim man on a plane once explained to me, that it just means a little tap on the wrist, just to show her who’s in charge! I asked an Arabic-speaking Christian about this, and he said, “No—the word is “beat”!” And just to be sure, I asked him about the passage in the Old Testament where Balaam strikes his donkey. We looked the word up in the Arabic bible, and it was the same word.
So what do the apostles in the New Testament teach about how husbands should treat their wives?
Well, Paul says in Ephesians 5: Husbands, loves your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
In Colossians, St Paul says: Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. And then Peter says in his first letter: Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. This last passage often brings feminists out in hives, when it says that women are the “weaker vessel” in a marriage. It simply points to the normal situation where men are just usually the physically stronger one, and they shouldn’t use their muscle power against their wife. But then it says that their wives are heirs with you of the grace of life. Men and women are equal before God. So in light of those three passages, how could a Christian husband abuse his wife? Christ doesn’t abuse us, his followers, and so in the same way, husbands should love their wives, and not be harsh with them.
The contentious aspect to this is that to wives, St Peter and Paul say that they should submit, or be submissive, to their husbands. Sometimes, these passages have been misused by abusers, as if to say, “I’m the man around here, and you have to submit to me, so shut up or else.” That is not the behaviour fitting to a Christian husband.
In dealing with people from Islamic countries, in encouraging men not to beat their wives, they often said, “But, pastor, if I don’t beat her, she won’t respect me, and she’ll laugh at me, and say, If you even touch me, I’ll go to the police.” Then I had to go to the women and say, “Listen, if he promises not to beat you anymore, you also need to be respectful, and nice, and friendly.” That’s what it means, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” In the beginning, God created us male and female in his image, and we’re equal in God’s sight. But men and women are different, and the Christian teaching on marriage here shows how Christian men and Christian women live together with their differences not in a relationship of force and violence, but in a relationship of mutual love and respect.
Now, we come to the topic that our church body has been discussing. In 1 Timothy chapter 2, St Paul says: I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and become a transgressor.
Now, at first, this passage sounds like Paul is saying, “Men are better because Adam was created first. And women are no good, because Eve ate the fruit, and women are more easily tempted.” That’s not true, and that’s not what St Paul teaches here.
Rather, if you go back to the book of Genesis, we read that the command not to eat the fruit from the tree was given to Adam, before Eve was created. This means that it was Adam’s job to pass this word of God on to the human race, but then first of all to Eve, his wife. The only reason why Eve knew not to take the fruit is because Adam told her. But then when Eve took the fruit and ate it, it says: She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Did you hear that? He was with her. So what was his sin in all this? Adam’s job was to pass the word of God firstly to his wife, and then when she was deceived, his sin was that he didn’t say anything, but he remained silent.
And so St Paul connects this order of things to the ministry, and he wants the pastoral ministry to reflect this original order that was in the garden of Eden. Just over the page, in 1 Timothy 3, Paul says that a pastor (or a bishop, or overseer), must be the husband of one wife, assuming then that he would be a man, and says that he must be able to teach. The word “teach” is here both times: A bishop must be able to teach, and yet he does not permit a woman to teach. Teaching here is referring to the public teaching ministry of the church.
Now this is not the only passage where Paul mentions this. In 1 Corinthians 14, he says: As in all the churches of the saints [he says, this applies to all churches] the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.
So, these two passages are quoted then in our church’s statement, which says: Though women prophets were used by the Spirit of God in the Old as well as in the New Testament, 1 Cor 14:34,35 and I Tim 2:11–14 prohibit a woman from being called into the office of the public ministry for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. This apostolic rule is binding on all Christendom; hereby her rights as a member of the spiritual priesthood are in no wise impaired.
This last part is very important. It says: Her rights as a member of the spiritual priesthood are in no wise impaired. This means that both men and women are part of the priesthood of all believers. Women are therefore not second-class citizens in the church, but like men are created in God’s image. There have been many wonderful women in the church who have done wonderful things, and have been great evangelists in bringing many people to Christ. Jesus treated women with the utmost respect at a time when many people didn’t, and there are many wonderful women in the New Testament who also did wonderful things. Mary Magdalene and the women who went to the tomb were the first people to tell others that Jesus was risen from the dead. What St Paul prohibits is not speaking in general, or evangelising, or serving, or whatever, but the public ministry of preaching. Jesus himself was not a misogynist, but for some strange reason, even though he changed so many customs and challenged so many social conventions, his twelve apostles were all men. When they replaced Judas, even though Mary Magdalene was probably the most obvious candidate, Judas was replaced by a man, Matthias, about whom nothing more is said in the whole New Testament. St Paul teaches that this ministry is to reflect that relationship between Adam and Eve, but then more importantly the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church. Jesus is our wonderful bridegroom, and the whole church is his bride, and this picture then is reflected in the relationship between a pastor and the congregation.
There’s a lot more that I could say about this topic, but I’ll leave it there.
Now, why did I choose to preach on this today? Well, the question about women’s ordination is not a central or foundational doctrine of Christianity. There are much more important things, like the teaching about the Trinity, that Jesus is true man and true God, that we are justified by grace through faith, and all kinds of things. And yet, when John the Baptist was arrested, he was put in prison not because of his preaching of the Gospel, and telling people that Jesus was the Lamb of God, but because of a completely non-foundational, non-central teaching. He told the king that he couldn’t have his brother’s wife. That’s all, and yet we say that John died because he was a Christian preacher.
In a similar way, the question of women’s ordination is not central to Christianity, but it is still very important, like the rule that people shouldn’t pinch their brother’s wife, like Herod did. If an apostle came to our house, and told us this stuff, would we kick them out of our house, and then would they wipe their feet at our doors? I’m not saying this because I want to be manipulative, but I want to tell you how I came to think about this topic. I didn’t always think like this, but somewhere in my life I changed my mind. We need to make sure that we let the apostles be our teachers, and not the spirit of our age.
Jesus is our wonderful bridegroom, he is waiting for us to share with us the wonderful wedding banquet. He laid down his life for his bride, and he is our Good Shepherd, whose voice we delight to hear. Amen.
Dear Jesus, bless our church, the Lutheran Church of Australia, at this troubled time in its history. You have laid a great test upon us at this time, and we pray that you would lead us safely through it. We commend our hearts and minds to you, and strengthen your church in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.