On Monday I
began to read over the communication slips, see which classes
you would like to take in the fall – and one member suggested,
“Why don’t we offer a class on the Apocrypha – or those books
written in the same time periods as the other biblical books but
were left out of the canon? Perfect timing, my friend, you know
who you are, because today I want to tell you a story, (been
waiting for my next preaching opportunity to do it) about a
woman that many of you may have never even heard of. She is not
in the New Testament but there are records of her story as early
as the 2nd century, about 190 CE, and her legacy lives on in
eastern churches, throughout Greece and even some parts of
Europe, particularly Spain.
Her name is
Thecla. Has anyone read the Apocryphal book The Acts of
Thecla and Paul? Yes, that Paul. She’s sort of an early
prototype of Katniss Everdeen, who knows Katniss?
Katniss Everdeen is the hero of the Hunger Games Trilogy by
Suzanne Collins). [It introduces sixteen-year-oldKatniss
Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world
in the country of Panemwhere
North America once existed. This is where a powerful government
In the book, the Hunger Games are an annual televised event
where the Capitol chooses one boy and one girl from each
district to fight to the death. The Hunger Games exist to
demonstrate that not even children are beyond the reach of the
The Acts of
Paul and Thecla – written in small chapters – it’s really a
short story - you can find it all online or go to your local
library – or you might consider purchasing a copy for our own
Thecla is a
saint of the early Christian church and a follower of Paul. Now
I will start off by saying that this is not the traditional
picture we have of Paul, and that’s ok, most of what we have to
hear of Paul is in his own words, so I don’t expect him to
criticize himself, but that one of the first things you might
notice when you read it. Paul’s message is the same basically,
that’s good, gives it some street cred. – but Paul is the
catalyst here, not the hero.
message is short – this is summary Paul – so it comes across as
more like – stay a virgin and have faith. Paul walks into
Iconium and preaches abstinence and resurrection – in a series
of beatitudes… “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see
God. Blessed are those who are self-controlled for God will
speak to them. Blessed are those who have received the wisdom
of Jesus Christ, for they will be called sons of the Highest.
And Blessed are the bodies of virgins, for these will be
pleasing to God and will not lose the reward for their chastity…
” Not the ones we are used to… this is the next generation of
preaching takes place in the house of Onesiphorus.
And Thecla, a young virgin, betrothed to a guy named Thamryis,
and she lives next door to Onesiphorus. She listens to Paul's
preaching from her window. She’s enraptured, she doesn’t move
for days. The life of an ascetic is not really an option for a
1st and 2nd century woman. And her mother is no fool; she
knows what Paul is preaching, calls for the fiancé to come over
and persuade her to do anything besides listen to this
stranger. It becomes clear that she will not be persuaded to
leave the window and plans to call off the wedding so the family
is left with few options – and they choose to form a mob to drag
Paul to the governor and throw him in prison.
While in the jail Thecla bribes a
guard to gain entrance to the prison, and sits at Paul's feet
all night listening to his teaching and kissing the chains
that bind him. Here’s my second observation – Some have
claimed that this is nothing more than a romantic fiction. A
little steamy at times – again, making it pretty clear why it
wasn’t included. (I think it makes it even better – stuff we
don’t think about.)
She and Paul
stay in the prison together – and in the morning both she and
Paul are again brought before the governor. It says that Thecla
comes willingly, and full of joy. Paul speaks before the judges
and urges everyone to place their hope in Jesus, God’s child.
Paul is sentenced to scourging and expulsion from the city, and
when Thecla still refuses to marry, her mother screams for
Thecla to be burned at the stake, that "all the women who have
been taught by this man may be afraid."
Thanks a LOT, mom.
Thecla is put on the fire, but is
saved by a miraculous storm which God sent to put out the
From here her devotion is clear
and she becomes a disciple and travels with Paul.
They then travel to Antioch,
sharing the preaching and teaching duties. She wants to be
baptized but Paul asks her to wait. He says to her “Be patient
and you will receive the water.”
And in Antioch a man named
Alexander is smitten with her – Alexander desires to take Thecla
as his wife, his mistress, his whatever and she says no. I like
this girl. He then proceeds to assault Thecla in front of the
whole town. When she defends herself and talks back to him,
calling him on his own inappropriate (to say the least) actions,
his clothes are ripped, his ego is shamed, and he takes her
straight away to the local authorities. We know where this is
going. She is put on trial for assaulting him.
But now the
story changes - at this trial all the women have found their
voice. Married women, mothers, virgins, they all come to her
aid, speak on her behalf. Even the Queen.
Still, she is
sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts. We can’t let this go on,
people – we can’t just let everyone willy nilly be feeling the
presence of God! Sent into the arena with lions and bears (She
does not get eaten by the lions at this time. I’m telling you
because you look nervous…) a lioness comes and licks her feet,
defends her and kills the other animals. When that didn’t work
Alexander sends in his own lion to fight – Thecla is spared but
both contenders die in the battle. There is a third and fourth
round of beasts sent into the ring - Thecla turns to prayer,
calls upon the name of God. When she finishes her prayer she
sees a pool of water and she goes for it. In this climactic,
cinematic moment the crowd knows wild seals and water monsters
wait for her in the pool. They are screaming at her NO! but
she is now full of the glory and radiance of God. She blesses
herself and jumps into the water, baptizing herself. And is
I mean this
is straight up Hunger Games. The weak, powerless individual
revealed to have strength, cunning, and faith in something
bigger than the self. The ability to persevere. And In racing
into certain death, willingly, she finds new life. Both I think
are the Easter story, retold, re-lived, re shaped.
Thecla returns to Paul’s side
unharmed and resumes her work as an apostle. She later returns
to Iconium to convert even her mother!
Here the legends diverge –
Thecla is described as either fighting for her life one day
after the next and another version ends with her living in a
cave for 72 years, and another staying in her home town and then
travelling to Rome to be buried with Paul.
So I love
this commentary quote from one biblical scholar in about the
1920’s – “It is difficult to account for the very great
popularity of the cult of St. Thecla…”. Uh, I’m sorry, I have
NO trouble whatsoever seeing how the story of a woman, who
defied every boundary set for her, a disciple who embodies so
powerfully the message of Christ, of whom it is said that the
governor cried at the sight of the power within her.
would have an
effect on women and every other marginalized population in the
world. Who we are effects how we read these stories. And they
are stories. Stories to help us get it. Get in touch with God.
How we hear this story, is shaped by our whole upbringing, all
the messages, all the circumstances, all the factors that make
up you, even the message (maybe you’ve heard it too) – that
stories not in the bible are not as authentic, are not God’s
but they too
are most informative, and truly spiritual experiences to read.
Everybody faces adversity, struggles to live authentically, and
everyone can experience God – by god I mean the manifestation of
love, compassion, justice. It is the message of Jesus’ life
story, and Katniss Everdeen too as she fights for her life and
the life of the people in her district in the Hunger Games.
Peter’s story too – just in a different setting - but it is a
story we are more familiar with – Matthew 14 - . The disciples
go on ahead in the boat – after the feeding of the 5000, Jesus
knows that the kingdom is alive within them – it’s been revealed
– of course the disciples don’t know that. And so they go on
ahead, without Jesus, and when the storm comes, they are afraid,
and Jesus comes to them on the water– Peter is swept into the
power of that moment and responds out of his faith by walking
toward Jesus on the water– he feels Jesus reaching out for him.
The message to learn here is that God is with them, with us, all
the time, comes to you in the storms of your life.
It is a very
short story to help us get it.
And get it we
do. It all works. The oral stories worked for Paul. The
Gospels reached so many – still do. The stories multiply. From
Paul to Thecla and now from both of them to us.
What does all
this have to do with Romans? I mean how long will this sermon
be, April? You haven’t even read the scripture!
message to the Romans is such a beautiful, confusing, alluring,
upsetting work. Every passage of Romans has the potential to
bring a “message from God” to the reader – siphoning out a
message from this letter is a very subjective endeavor. But
this time in Rome - this is Thecla’s time – well thereabouts –
so I want you to take this otherwise convoluted passage from
Paul (weekly bulletin and staff meeting) and think of yourself
as Thecla waiting in the window, listening for the good
word. Chapter 8: 18-28:
I consider that the
sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with
the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation
waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children
of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of
its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in
hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its
bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of
the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has
been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the
creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the
Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the
redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now
hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is
seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for
it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit
helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as
we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too
deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows
what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit
intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things
work together for good for those who love God, who are
called according to his purpose.
that your love is worked into something good.
Can you feel
that eager anticipation inside you? Moving you?
waiting, eagerly, for you to have your walking on water moment –
your self-baptizing moment. Waiting to prayerfully feel or
literally see you reach your hand out into the violent abyss of
the world and making something good of it. You are being called
into action to restore justice, to live compassionately, to
speak words of love, of peace and hospitality to one another.
was revealed In Jesus, in Paul, in Thecla, and God is still
speaking, still acting, still waiting for each and every last
one of us. Let this good news take hold inside you, let it
catch fire and spread – let it grow into joyful deliverance for
you and for this world.
Are you ready
to face the storm in your life? Make a storm? Do something,
help someone, address that health crisis, financial crisis? Sit
with someone in their prison? Because when you are – God is
there – waiting - inside you but in the friend, the stranger,
the co-worker who offers to listen and help.
sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be
revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for
the children of God to be revealed. “
Jesus said to
Peter : “Come, Don’t be afraid.”
after seeing God appear in the arena in her time of need said:
“God you are the refuge to those caught in the storm, a rest for
those who are afflicted, a shelter for those who have
within, and you will find a brilliant light. Too many squint
and turn away from the shine. Do not be afraid. Let your eyes
adjust and bathe in the radiance.“