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The Apostle Paul: Slave or Free
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 22, 2010
Text: Paul’s letter to Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As we have been digging deeper into the letters Paul wrote to Churches and fellow Christians in the Greco-Roman world, Paul’s controversiality feels in some ways never-ending. Even those topics we might never have expected to be controversial, something such as slavery, Paul seems to make it so. Our text this morning is an entire book of the bible (though a short one) and remains perhaps the only personal letter written by Paul in our New Testament. The letter to Philemon in many ways exemplifies much of Paul’s ethic, that is, Paul’s understanding about how the gospel should effect our daily life, and so it does us well to spend some time with it.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is the one personal letter in our New Testament that is unquestionably written by Paul himself. I won’t go into detail about how scholars determine these things, but the letters to Timothy and Titus don’t seem to have the marks of true Pauline writing. However, this short letter, so often passed over in our New Testament, is Pauline through and through.

In it, Paul writes to a leader in the church in Collosae named Philemon, whom he seems to know quite well. The letter is brought to Philemon in the hands of a man named Onesimus, formerly a slave belonging to the household of Philemon, a runaway. As I mentioned last week the caste system was quite elaborate and culturally supported in the Greco-Roman world which Paul writes. A runaway slave was at the very bottom of the heap. The act of Onesimus returning to his former owner’s household would inevitably and necessarily result in severe punishment, even death. In other words, Paul is sending his dear Onesimus, his heart, into the lion’s den.

But why? What is Paul doing?

Once again Paul leaves us hanging. We want our scriptures to stand up for what we know to be right and true. We want Paul to say that slavery is an abomination. We want him to say, outright, that Onesimus should be freed, or even to say something like. “I’ve met your former slave and he’s staying with me.” But he doesn’t. Instead he says something more like: “I know you know what you’re supposed to do and I expect you to do it…”

While we don’t read this text very often, you might see quickly that it was read and preached quite frequently during the time of the Civil War in our country. Both sides had their opinions. The South preached that Paul allowed for slavery, pointed out that he sent Onesimus back to his owner to continue in his former life. The Northern anti-slavery preachers instead read between the lines of what Paul says and doesn’t say, and suggest that Paul “implies” that he expects his friend to be set free. He all but threatens him when he tells Philemon to prepare a bed for him, I’ll be there in a week. “Charge me any debt he owes you,” he says, “I expect you to do this…” But whatever we might try to argue – Paul’s inference is not as clear as we would like.

Is he ever? What is the deal? Is Paul against slavery or not? Why doesn’t he make things clear? Then again – Jesus didn’t make too much clear either.

This past week I got into a short conversation with a beloved family member about scripture. The conversation was familiar, since I’ve had it many many times before with many different people, and in that way I felt somewhat on edge and exasperated. It began in reference to my sermon last week, and my tendency throughout this series to speak of what Paul says, rather than what God says through our Holy Scriptures. “Aren’t these the words of God inspired by the Holy Spirit?” he asked…

The question of the divine inspiration of Scripture is a tricky one, particularly when it comes to Paul. There is much of what Paul says that seems heavily loaded with his cultural context. His assumptions: that women are in the image of man, that slavery is an institution we should accept rather than rebel against, that the purpose of marriage is to quell our enflamed passions. Paul contradicts himself often, leaving much of what he means somewhat unclear. The reality is there is much in our scriptures – even beyond Paul – that is hard to swallow. Stories sometimes called “texts of terror,” stories for which we should have no tolerance, texts which contradict themselves. None of this is easy to sort out.

So as thinking, believing people, how do we read these texts? How do we live out a life of faith that accepts some but not all of our scriptures as divinely inspired? How do we determine which to follow and which to leave out? It’s a good and necessary question for any faithful Christian.

The truth is, all Christians make these choices. We make choices, like I did in this conversation, about whether or not to engage or to look away. We make choices about whether or not we’re going to read the whole bible or just the parts we like. We make choices about which text will be our guiding principal, the text through which all other texts are read. Will it be – “Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one can come to the father except through me (John 14:6)”? Or will it be “God is love. Whoever loves knows God.(1 John 4)”?

The point is that it is a conversation. Divine inspiration means not that the texts were inspired once a long time ago and now we’ve got the truth in our hands. It means that the Holy Spirit speaks in and through our texts again and again if we only read them. And so as we discover new truths about gender equality and slavery and homosexuality we read our scriptures with new insight and new questions. They are the living word. A word that is not static but elastic, growing and revealing new truths at every turn.

As we look back at Paul’s letter to Philemon, we could point out that Paul does not explicitly say that Onesimus should be freed. In fact, the truth is that if he were freed, Onesimus would likely have been worse off than he was as a slave. With no protection and possibly no way to earn power for himself in his world. Please know that I am not, in any way, suggesting that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was like modern-day slavery; I am not suggesting that any slave today is better off. But in the Greco-Roman world, freed slaves were exiled and ostrasized, and their survival was often only through even more abusive and disgraceful means.

But Paul has said there is no longer slave or free. And if he truly means that, then how can he send a newly baptized Onesimus back to Philemon acting as though nothing has changed?

Everything has changed. Whereas we might fault Paul for coming up short, we miss Paul’s understanding of just how far the gospel of Christ goes to change the world in which we live.

Paul does not suggest that Philemon should free his slave, instead Paul suggests that he should treat his slave as a brother. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” he says, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

This is no small thing. Brothers in the Greek and Roman Social systems were supposed to have close bonds of trust and affection. Slaves, on the other hand, were orphans. They may have been born to slave parents, but their familial connections were unrecognized. As one commentator puts it, “A deep, broad, menacing chasm cut slaves off from legitimate children and free blood siblings. A slave was a filius neminis, a son of no one.”

Paul’s suggestion was outrageous. It was a joke. In Philemon’s cultural context, bringing this slave into his family tree makes any sense whatsoever. And yet, Paul suggests not only that Philemon can, and should take his former slave in as a full member of his family, but that it already is so. Paul suggests that in Christ these two men are already brothers, with those close bonds of trust and affection, and merely asks Philemon to act accordingly.

When Bill Nathan appeared on the stage at Purdue University during our Triennium worship, he already had us in the palm of his hand. We had just watched a video produced by ABC News about how one of their writers, Ben Skinner, had put everything on the line to charter a plane to Haiti in the first few days after the earthquake to save Bill’s life

Bill and Ben had met years before, when Ben was writing a book on modern-day slavery; Bill was one of the directors of an orphanage that took in former child slaves. During his time in Haiti Ben contracted a severe case of malaria and Bill tracked down the medicine he needed and nursed him back to health. Bill saved Ben’s life.

And so, when he learned Bill had been severely injured in the earthquake, Ben chartered a plane, got himself to Haiti, and evacuated Bill to Florida for treatment. Bill would not have survived if Ben had not made such a daring move.

The story of the earthquake is only half of it. As Bill Nathan walked back and forth on the stage he told us his own story of slavery. Bill had been orphaned at the age of five. Like many orphans in Haiti, had been given to a family who at first assured the nun who knew him that they would take him in and treat him as family. They lied. A few weeks after Bill’s parents died he began serving his new family as a slave. He slept on the dirt floor of a shed in back of the house. He ate only what was leftover and only alone in the dirt, never at the family table. He worked dusk until dawn, and if he resisted he was beaten severely.

After a few years the nun who had cared for him at the death of his parents rescued him and brought him to Saint Joseph’s orphanage, where they continue to help former child slaves. Bill grew up there. He was educated. He was hired. Now he works at the orphanage that saved his life. He spends his life returning the favor.

Both men in the story were visibly moved by their connection. The debt of life is a hard one to put into words. The newscaster asked Ben why he went to all these lengths to save his friend. “It was a debt I owed him,” he says… His pilot and friend in the rescue operation said, “When your family is in need – you show up.” Bill said, “God was watching over me.”

Brothers. Beloved. Free. What we see as impossible, God makes possible. Where we see no bond, God sees family.

Somehow, in Christ, these two men have been changed. Yesterday they were slave and master. But today, something new has formed. The old has gone, the new has begun. Today they are beloved family members. They share food at the same table. They share inheritance.

Paul’s ethic tells us that we are to go above and beyond what is required of us for one another. We do more than the minimum. We do more than write the check; we make the meal with our own hands and sit down and eat with together. We do more than put the welcome sign out; we sweep the floor and make the bed and put on the tea. We do more than forgive; we become family. We do more, more than we imagined, more than we can spare, much more.

We don’t always have the opportunity to save another’s life. We don’t always have the opportunity to bring another up out of slavery or poverty or hunger. But Paul’s ethic is one of boundless, irrational love. A love that is from God. A love that has already been set in motion through Christ. What he shows through his letter to Philemon is that the rules have changed even if the landscape has not. We are a part of a family that is beyond our vision or understanding. And when family is in need, you show up.

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The Apostle Paul: On Keeping Silent
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 14, 2010

Galatians 3:26-29 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

1Cor. 7:1   Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a
man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

1Cor. 11:2   I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

1Cor. 14:33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
 (As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

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Imagine with me: a world in which people have been divided into a very elaborate and tiered caste system. Men born free and citizens are the rulers of this world. They have the power to do what they want to whom they want, with very few normative rules to restrain them. Theirs is the power for which all strive or covet. Next come freed men, only slightly less powerful. Then free-born and freed women, but the power that remains with them is limited severely. Women are good for only one thing: to give birth to strong, healthy boys, who will grow into the men of power. When they cannot accomplish this task they are viewed as mostly worthless. Slaves, both male and female are last in this caste system, and their status is next to that of an animal. They are to be used, in any and every way, and once they are no longer useful, they are discarded as such.

The tiers are further extended by career choice, attractiveness, wealth or political status, which contributed to where one might fall on the scale of power – how influential a man or woman could be. Status is everything: it follows a person everywhere. Not only is it a part of who they are, but it must be worn like a banner; Respectable women were allowed to wear head coverings, prostitutes or slave women were not. For all hair was a status symbol: both men and women with full heads of hair were more powerful or attractive. Clothing matters, schooling matters. What’s more: it is easy to slide down the scale. Advantages are taken of young women and men that can change the course of their life and status forever.

In addition to the layers of power differentials, the normative behavior when it came to relationships between men and women can be described as transactional at best and violent and abusive at worst. There is no expectation of equality, no assumption that the purpose of relationships are anything more than servicing the needs of the powerful, no sense of give and take, only take.

This is the world in which Paul writes. As we heard in the various passages I read from the letters of Paul, Paul says a lot about women in his letters to various churches. Much of which doesn’t sit to well with our 21st century sensibilities. It may be obvious to you that these passages from 1 Corinthians are the verses from which Paul gains his reputation as a misogynist. These represent the bulk of what Paul says about women, excluding the passages in the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus.

Now might be the best time to illuminate why I am focusing on Corinthians and not the Pastoral letters. There are some here who have read extensively on Paul and some for whom Paul is fairly unknown, so it’s important to get some textual issues out in the open. Paul, as we discussed last week, was one of the early apostles who spread the news of the death and resurrection of Jesus throughout the Greco-Roman world. He was known for getting into trouble with folks of all sorts, and was the founder of church communities in several different cities and towns throughout the ancient world.

Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 14 have traditionally been attributed to Paul. However, scholars have determined that it is more likely that Paul wrote only 7 of those letters, the rest likely written by another author who wrote in Paul’s name, a common act in the ancient world.

The letters most scholars agree were written by Paul are: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and the letter to Philemon. The other letters are commonly referred to as Paul’s “contested letters.” Even more closely related to our texts for this morning, the last passage on women keeping silent in church is hotly debated as to whether or not Paul actually wrote it, the reason being because the verses appear in various places in different copies of the text – meaning that it was likely written in the margin of a manuscript, either by Paul or by another interpreter of Paul, and scribes disagreed as to where or whether to keep it in the text.

The struggle with all this debate is that it is unlikely that we will ever truly know whether these texts were written by Paul or not. These statements fit in some ways with Paul’s cultural context as a Jew and a Greek, and in some ways they contradict some of Paul’s other statements – in particular the Galatians passage read prior to the 1 Corinthians texts. How can Paul say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor Female, Slave nor Free for all are one in Christ Jesus, and then say that women should be silent, or that men are the head of women? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as readers in our modern context.

But in the context of Paul’s world, perhaps it did. Paul was speaking in a world where the norms of behavior between men and women were so different from our own it is hard to imagine. When Paul says that all women should worship with their head covered, what we don’t understand is that during Paul’s time, head covering was a sign of respect, and some women were denied the opportunity to recieve that respect. Prostitutes and slaves would have been severely punished for having their head covered – it showed that they were acting higher than their caste allowed. But Paul says all women should cover their heads in worship – what might this have meant for those who would be denied respect in a world so tiered with power dynamics?

What’s more, in the Greco-Roman world, there was absolutely no place that allowed men and women to assemble together in public. Women present in public assembly was presented as a farce in poetry and Greek writings. But from Paul’s letters we know that women and men gathering together was common in the early church. We also know from Paul’s letters that in some of these churches, women were permitted to prophesy out loud even as he tells them to be silent in Corinth.

Paul’s statements on marriage also contributed to what might have been the very earliest beginnings of a women’s movement, when women were given by Paul grounds on which to refuse marriage for religious reasons. The upset this seemed to cause was enormous – women were martyred for choosing celibacy. Perhaps, even, Paul’s words were the precursor to understanding marriage as a mutual engagement. While Paul’s rationale seems misogynist, he describes marriage as a reciprocal relationship. How radical this might be in a society where the purpose of women was to be used by a man for childbearing and nothing else.

Paul names in many of his letters (particularly the letter to the Romans) a long list of women: Phoebe, Prisca and Aquila, Mary, Junia are only a few of those he names, calling them apostles even greater than himself as well as deacons, sisters in the faith, saints, and mothers and benefactors. He commends them to churches, honoring them publicly even as more valuable than himself – something that Free-born citizens would rarely do in writing. In fact, much of what Paul says about women would have been radically feminist for the times in which he lived.

But the few verses in Galatians suggest that Paul was interested in something far beyond equality. Paul understood the gospel of Christ Jesus to have shattered the world that we know, replacing it with a new creation. When he says that there is no longer Jew or Greek, Male or Female, Slave or Free, he is naming the major power battles in the Greco-Roman world. This is no small thing for a world defined by the haves and the have nots. It is no small thing for us today.

In contrast with Paul’s world, let’s imagine our world: a world where the word “relationship” itself connotes a certain level of reciprocity. Violent behavior between two people, any two people is almost always unapproved and illegal. Power dynamics have changed significantly. Slavery is no longer acceptable, men and women both participate in virtually every career available and thrive in all realms of society. The norms of what is acceptable for men and what is acceptable for women – in vocation, at home, in marriage are very different than the world I first described.

There are some things that are similar, though. While we can’t relate so much to the more obvious power dynamics, we can certainly relate to the subtle ones. We still live in a world where the type of car you drive or your career choice effects the way you will be received by another. We still live in world that splits people into categories: citizen, immigrant; married, single; working, unemployed; wealthy, poor… We still live in a world where clothing matters, along with hairstyle and beauty and political contacts… Power is still at reign in our lives and in our world = who has it, who can get it, who can use it to their own advantage.

What might it be like if we stopped striving for equality in power and started striving for Christ? What might it mean for us if we did not see in each other the things that give us power in this world: race, gender, wealth, background – but instead we saw the Christ who calls us and loves us and binds us together. There is no citizen, no immigrant, no woman or man, no parent or child, no skin color or jail time – but only Christ that binds, only Christ who shines through us. As many of us were baptized in Christ are clothed in Christ, Paul says. Put on Christ who makes us one.

Paul’s words are Utopic and eschatological, which brings up another aspect of Paul’s writing. It is clear that Paul thought the second coming of Christ was immanent. He speaks of the crisis of our present age, the glory about to be revealed, the time when we will be caught up in the heavens. He thinks the time is near when he and other believers will be brought together in God’s glory in the end times. As his life goes on, this intensity dissipates in his letters as we would expect. But Paul continues to straddle the gap between two worlds: One world in which Christ’s salvation and grace has already made all things new, and another in which the world has not yet caught up with God’s new creation. Paul lives in the Already, but not yet of the Gospel.

He is both provisional and eschatological. He is both practical and utopic. He is present and future tense at the same time. And so are we.

Pastor Martin Copenhaver tells a story about his grandmother, who at the age of 15 knew she was called to be a preacher. She told her father, who brought her to their local pastor to inform him of his daughter’s calling. The year was 1905, well before any church even considered letting women speak in church. They gave no thought to that fact, no thought to the fact that it had never been done before, no thought to the ways in which the world must change to accommodate her calling. No thought to the powers of the world – only to God’s power to call whom God wills and equip them for the work of the gospel. This is what it means to live in Paul’s world.

If we as women (and as men…) are to look to Paul to help regulate or appease our power-driven relationships we might be missing Paul’s primary message: that God’s power is the only power that matters. Paul urged us to see in all people the love of God, the grace of Christ. He urged us to put away the powers of this world: put away sexuality and race and citizenship and gender.

Put away what you think God could do in this world of power struggles and battles over land use and discussions of who you think deserves to be in or out and who you might allow to do what where. Put it away. See Christ. Put on Christ. Understand how Christ binds you and compels you. Strive toward what is greater – strive toward God – and you will find a power beyond this world.

With God’s help may it be so.

(This sermon and my study of Paul have been greatly helped by Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Dr. Sarah Ruden)



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From Demons to Disciple
Texts: Luke 8:1-3, Luke 23:44-49, Luke 23:55-24:3
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At The Larchmont Avenue Church
On March 14, 2010

Luke 8:1-3 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Luke 23:44-49 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Luke 23:55 – 24:3 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

What’s in a name, really? I mean, a name is both truly ours – it is who we are – and yet not ours at all but given by another. Women in my day were given the name of their fathers…or their husbands. But with my father long dead and no husband to take me because of my afflictions, I was given the name of the town in which I was healed. Mary of Magdala. Each of us lives into it in some ways…and lives out of it in other ways. At least that’s what happened to me.

It’s strange to get confused with others who have the same name. Mary of Bethany looked entirely different than me and would have never been able to provide for the disciples for those years of traveling from place to place. She was the one who sat at his feet and seemed planted there for hours… or days. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame her…it’s just that it’s a bit of an insult to be confused with someone who wouldn’t even get up to help her sister cook.

And then there is the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment. You remember her: the one with the tears and hair and no shame, no modesty. The one who infuriated Judas and the other men. They were so focused on her wastefulness.

But the women, we blushed and turned away at this act, embarrassed, ashamed of the intimacy in a place so public… Even if we understood how this man and the power of his words could move each of us to do such excessive things, things we would never imagine doing before.

Have you ever had words strike you as if a bell, ringing again and again in your body? Have you ever met someone who seemed to dance with truth as if they heard the song of life? Have you ever encountered someone so filled with Spirit that the air around them seemed lighter, easier to breathe..? It makes you sing it makes you laugh, it makes you live a life until then you only dreamt of…

This is what it was like to follow Jesus.

And so, while it was not me who broke the alabastar jar and poured it over him, not me who took down my hair and wiped it over his feet. It was not me, but I understood.

That story wasn’t mine but became mine much later. Thanks to Pope Gregory’s speech in 591 – the three became one… (how very Trinitarian of him.) Mary of Bethany, the woman with the jar, and myself – no longer three distinct stories but instead one woman branded converted prostitute (although Luke never really said that either), forever marked as sinner made saint.

Throw in some beautiful works of art and a few pretty verses by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice and then a bestseller that hints at marriage and a lineage of Jesus and you have quite a compelling story. A story difficult to overcome…I should know…

The real story is both more ordinary and just as spectacular. It is one of demons and healing, one of feeding and following, one of death and life, one of spices and extravagant love.

I was one of many that Jesus healed along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, afflicted as I was with the demons of my day. Let’s be clear: demons are not the same thing as sins. When Luke names seven demons he means only to say there were many. What Luke called my seven demons your doctors and psychologists might call today epilepsy, depression, mania. Perhaps those doctors today would name them differently but still medicate me, label me, set me aside.

I was left mostly alone after the death of my parents. They left me with resources but not much else. As my afflictions worsened they forced me into isolation and fear.

But this man from Nazareth took pity on me, cast out my demons and made me whole. Made me free follow him; to fall into a life of excessive, embracing love.

Not my excessive love but God’s. A love that reunites communities and the outcast, a love that casts out fear along with demons, a love that welcomed brother and sister, stranger and friend to sit at table together.

I never imagined when that woman shamelessly interrupted that meal and covered his feet in ointment that just a short time later it would be me; that I would be a myrrh-bearer, walking to the tomb, to the broken body of my healer, my teacher, my friend, my Lord. Never imagined how much my life would change – again.

It has been many years since that morning when dawning light revealed empty tomb. Many breaths have passed since mine caught in my chest upon hearing my own name spoken by a man I had watched die on a cross.

My story you have heard but you may not believe. That he was risen. That he died and then lives. How could anyone believe such a story?

I only know what I felt and I can only say this: there was a man named Jesus, who cast out all my demons – and there were many. His words were life. His life was truth. There was a moment, a brief darkness of days when I thought that all was lost, that demons returned, that grief would consume.

And then there was light. hope. laughter.

He spoke gently, but firmly. “Go and tell them,” he said. To me, a woman! “Go and tell them,” he said, knowing they would not believe me.
“Go and tell them,” and so here I am – telling my story

You may never understand, you may never believe. But the truth is this: beyond the grave, life prevails; beyond your demons there is healing and peace; beyond your grief is laughter and even joy. The one who knows my story knows yours as well.

Go and tell them… and you will live.

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