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Radiance Revealed

Sermon - 8/07/11
Rev. April Oristano
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 8:18-28

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?

[Answer:  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 Capitol's jurisdiction.]

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 Church Library!

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. 

And the 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 Paul  -  

This 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 flames.

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 unharmed

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 word…  

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. 

This is 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! 

Paul’s 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.

Be assured that your love is worked into something good.

Can you feel that eager anticipation inside you?  Moving you?

God is 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. 

God radiance 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.

“The present 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.”

And Thecla, 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 despaired.”

“Look deep 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.“  

 


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