Called under God’s rule and reign to know we are all one in Christ Jesus
So there it was on the magazine rack: a special edition of Newsweek magazine all about SPIRITUALITY. I pick it up and it’s about all sorts of mystical eastern religions and new age teachings etc.: experiences to participate in, books to read, spiritual teachers to follow. The real zinger? Not a single word about Christianity and our own very real and ancient spiritual traditions. My point is that it wasn’t so much about what was written in the magazine as what wasn’t written in the magazine. One of the things you begin to interpret life with greater maturity and experience is there’s usually a story within the story. Case in point: “Eastern mystical religions are spiritual”. But the story within the story is that Christianity is not spiritual, it’s in a total different category of religion of ‘words and books’. For some reason, Christianity is not known for our candles, prayers, spiritual readings (or incense or chanting) OR even most importantly, knowing the loving God who created the universe!
Again, if you’re interpreting life well, there’s usually a story within the story. Which is exactly what’s going on with today’s passage from Acts 1:12-26. On the surface it appears to simply be about prayer and the selection of a substitute to take Judas’ place.
However, the author of Luke, also has written a story within this story that was meant to grab the attention of the original ancient Middle Eastern readers. Obviously in Acts 1, Luke was not writing a doctrinally prescriptive passage, “This is how it shall be, thus saith the Lord”. Instead, Luke was writing a story within a story that was meant to be descriptive of Christianity in way that was totally different than the upside down world in which they were living. As the original Middle Eastern inhabitants read Acts 1, the passage was written so they would slam on their reading brakes and exclaim, “What did I just read? That’s impossible! No way!”
First in vs. 14, the men AND the women were together with a single focus on prayer. Additionally the phrase translated “and His brothers” really means Jesus’ brothers and sisters. If you look at the notes in your ESV Bibles, you’ll also see the mixed company in vs. 15 when it was time to select a replacement for Judas – it was the men and the women together who were involved in the process, NOT just the men.
Maybe it seems like nothing to some since the 1970’s, but this narrative in Acts 1 depicts the fact that originally women were a vital, important part of the Church. They prayed together and were also part of the administration of the early Christian community in Jerusalem and all throughout the Empire. It’s the story within the story here in Acts 1, part of the Reknewing of the Church, that women were no longer to be ignored or devalued or separated from the men or just supposed to take care of the children and be silent. In Acts 1, women were depicted as involved and just as well-regarded as the men!
You see, Acts 1 ties back into OUR future because too many folks still think Biblical Christianity is anti-women. Today, I want you see that’s so far from the Biblical record, that all women and men were/are valuable in the Kingdom of God. Only later on was this distorted into a false loyalty for one’s own gender as a power move to keep some from being used by God in the later medieval ages forward.
Understand, at this point of Acts 1 in Judaism of the Second Temple Period, men and women typically did not pray together! So for Jews of this period to read this description in Acts 1 just blew their minds. The background in Judaism was “men who spend too much time talking with women, even one’s wife, neglects the study of Torah and will at last inherit Gehenna” (Talmud Mish Aboth 1:5.) And what’s the most famous example of gender separation at this time for the Jews? The Second Temple of the NT era with its inner court for all the Jewish men to worship and pray…but the women were only allowed into the court of the women, separated by a wall from the men. Just as the Gentile converts were only allowed so far into the temple, so were the women. Even in the Jewish synagogues, women were separated from the men by a screen and allowed no part in the Sabbath service, except, at most, on one occasion yearly, to read one of the lessons.
Understanding then for a Jew of this time to read or listen to Acts 1 must have left them staggered that the women and men prayed together and ran the church together, because that’s just how you don’t do things!
The most dominant force of religion and state was the Roman Empire and they didn’t treat women any better. Unfortunately, the overriding force in the Roman Empire was still that of the patriarch male. As men ran the various institutions in the Empire it was because of social position, age or wealth not because of the appropriate qualities. Life in the Roman Empire was divided in a way that God never intended life to be divided. In documentaries, we hear about how the Romans lived in their colonial cities in their villas, with markets full of food, household slaves, private bathing facilities and physicians to care for them. YET it was the common folk who lived everyday lives cramped in small apartments without water or sanitary conditions; everything opposite of the wealthy. Everyday folk were rarely clean, frequently ill and subject to all sorts of stress, disease, and violence. It was a world of structured dominance, meaning that unlike the Titanic, women and children came last, not first. In fact, women and children were equals. Sadly, the average woman was defined by her position as either wife, mother, slave, or concubine. First women served their fathers and then later their husbands. Women barely had an elementary education and were married off by the ages of 12 to 14. Men had all the power, even down to the point of enforcing abortions or deciding which of the newborn infants to keep (as most of the girls or the deformed were set aside for “disposal”). Everything about being a woman was regulated and therefore they were barely treated as human. Women weren’t even thought of as worthy to testify in a court or legal setting.
SO as any of the 1st century citizens of the Empire heard Acts 1, they immediately heard the story behind the story. The 1st and 2nd century listeners immediately recognized the difference between the rest of the world and the Christians. The Christians obviously valued women and treated them as equals in the Church. The pagan women immediately wanted in on this in order to have a higher status in life, exactly as God intended.
The description in Acts 1 IS the way God the Creator meant for things to be like for all time! Remember, who were the first witnesses and evangelists of the resurrection? Women. This is actually one of the reasons historians are so intrigued by the Gospels. If women weren’t meant to testify in court, why would the Gospel writers use them as the first witnesses of the resurrection….unless it really did happen that way! No ancient writer would ever have fictionally used a woman in that role because their book would have been considered a sham instead of historical fact. (What do you think story is behind the story? In God’s realm, we believe and trust women’s words)
Luke continued this theme in Acts chapter 1. The women weren’t kept separate at prayer time. Everyone prayed together seeking God’s rule and reign and trying to figure out the coming promise of the Holy Spirit. The women were involved just as equally in the selection of Matthias to replace Judas. Both of these ideas went completely against the stream of ancient Roman and Palestinian culture. (Again, what’s the story behind the story? We need women to pray and seek God as our equal partners)
All throughout the rest of the narrative of Acts we see Luke highlighting the valued service and ministry of women. It wasn’t flaunted, but women were simply involved in working for God’s Kingdom as He directed them and called them to live out their callings and ministries. Need something to do this afternoon? Go home and study Romans 16 and look at the women the Apostle Paul commended for their ministry in the church. It wasn’t just nursery or Sunday School, it was very real service, up front in the church, right alongside the men. Unfortunately, I can tell you from the very specifically controlling translation of the KJV forward, some of the Rom. 16 ministry words have not been translated as literally as possible. Paul in 16:1 didn’t just call Phoebe “a servant of the church”, even the ESV in its textual notes from the Greek calls her a deaconess, a female deacon serving right there in the Church with the male deacons, no separation. The same with verse 7 where Paul also has very good words for Junia as well.
The point is, Romans 16 also constitute a story within a story. Paul doesn’t turn ch. 16 into a doctrinal statement on how to do church or how not to do church. Instead, more carefully, St. Paul just lays out his belief, trust, and confidence in the ministry of women in a way that runs totally contrary to the way women were treated in Judaism or the Roman Empire.
Why? Because all of these stories within the story are simply the way God intended things to be, going back to creation and the idea of it all in Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Meaning we’re not all the same or have the same callings or capabilities in life. But the story within the story of Scripture is that behind it all, we are ONE in Christ Jesus and the dividing walls that exist are created by humanity in hunger for power in our seeking to dominate one another. And that’s not good news, that’s bad news!
App time – what does this mean for us today in our thinking and our working for God’s Kingdom? Like I said already, we often have to interpret the story within the story. And all of these texts refute the lousy treatment that women have received in culture or even in the name of God. Acts was written by Luke for many reasons. One of the reasons was to say, we don’t appreciate the way women are treated in our temple and synagogues AND we don’t appreciate the way women are treated in the perspective of the Roman Empire.
Instead, we believe all are welcome here, women and men; and all are welcome to serve as God has called them and as we see God’s calling in them. This is not about opinions or idols of power but valuing ALL of God’s creation. I love how in the book of Acts we see God reknewing His people and breaking down all humanly created or enhanced barriers.