Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 13, 2018
“Regarding the 12th Disciple: More Corporate Boardroom than Beloved Community”
Acts 1: 15-17, 22-26
During this time, Peter stood up in the company—there were about 120 of them in the room at the time—and said, “Friends, long ago the Holy Spirit spoke through David regarding Judas, who became the guide to those who arrested Jesus. That Scripture had to be fulfilled, and now has been. Judas was one of us and had his assigned place in this ministry.
21-22 “Judas must now be replaced. The replacement must come from the company of men who stayed together with us from the time Jesus was baptized by John up to the day of his ascension, designated along with us as a witness to his resurrection.” 23-26 They nominated two: Joseph Barsabbas, nicknamed Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “You, O God, know every one of us inside and out. Make plain which of these two men you choose to take the place in this ministry and leadership that Judas threw away in order to go his own way.” They then drew straws. Matthias won and was counted in with the eleven apostles.
Do you know how the Amish choose their pastors? When there’s an opening, usually because the previous pastor has died, church members come forward and whisper a name into the ears of the bishop. If a man’s name is whispered at least three times, he becomes a candidate. And then a large table is set with an equal number of hymnals to the number of candidates. In one of those hymnals there will be a piece of paper that reads “The lot is cast into thy lap.” The candidates come forward, oldest to youngest, and select a hymnal. The one who opens and sees that piece of paper is the new pastor – usually for the rest of their life.
It is a form of drawing straws, or casting lots, that comes directly from this passage in the Book of Acts. Amish pastors are not college educated or seminary trained. They’re regular folks in the pews. Shall we try it? In the hymnal in front of you, one of you will find a piece of paper that instructs you to do the rest of the sermon. No!? But if we did, would you be afraid to see that piece of paper? Relieved (whew!) or excited?
But note, “If a man’s name is whispered.” Obviously, one would ask: What about women? It’s the same question I have for Peter who listed the criteria to fill the position of 12th disciple left vacant by Judas Iscariot.
First, did you know that the Book of Acts is really just The Gospel of Luke, Part Two. Or Luke, the Sequel. It was written by the same person to the same person – Theophilus. So, today’s story is really a continuation of Luke’s story, moving from the life of Jesus now to the life of the church.
So, regarding the 12th disciple, according to Peter, it had to be someone who had been with Jesus from day one and who had been witness to the resurrection. Oh, and apparently, male. Except wait. No man fit either criteria. How do we reconcile this?
In the Gospel of Luke (First Luke!) it says, while Jesus hung from the cross, “those who knew him well, along with the women who had followed him from Galilee (where everything started), stood by and kept vigil.” I presume that among those “who knew Jesus well,” there would have been some men. But the Eleven are notably absent. And then it says, after his body was taken down from the cross, “the women who had been companions of Jesus from Galilee followed along. They saw the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed. Then they went back to prepare burial spices and perfumes.”
The next chapter, 24, begins with the very familiar words of Easter morning, “At the crack of dawn on the first day, the women came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared.” When they discovered he wasn’t there but had been raised, “the women left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women kept explaining these things to them, but they didn’t believe a word of it, and thought the women were making it up. Peter jumped up and ran to the tomb to look for himself. All he saw were a few grave clothes. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”
I bring this back-story up to say, “Hey wait! Only women fit Peter’s criteria.” Women never abandoned Jesus and were the only witnesses to the resurrection. And one in particular: Mary Magdalene, named in all four gospels.
In many ways the story of the early church is a story of a power struggle, a battle even, between Peter and Mary Magdalene. But not only did Mary not “win,” the church succeeded in creating a narrative that she was a sinful woman, a repentant prostitute even. Despite no word of this, no evidence of it in any gospel, the Church Fathers told this narrative and it stuck. Jesus, of course, wouldn’t have cared. After all, the very first person Jesus told that he was the messiah was the woman he met at a well during the hottest part of the day, a woman who had five husbands and was now living, unmarried, with another man. Jesus wouldn’t have cared whether Mary Magdalene was an adult film actress, porn star, or lady of the night. This was a smear job by the Patriarchy to create a narrative for why women cannot be priests because they were not among the 12, despite numerous times even Paul called women disciples of Jesus.
Mary was named in all four gospels, but you know, of course, there were a lot more than four. A lot more. Four were chosen for inclusion in the biblical canon, but among the others were Thomas, and even a Gospel of Matthias and a Gospel of Judas Iscariot. There was also a Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Fragments still exist. But obviously it was not chosen for inclusion in the Bible. Imagine if it had!
Who decided what was “biblical” and what wasn’t? More power struggles. Into the 3rd century, dozens of writings, perhaps hundreds of writings, circulated among Christian communities. Some of them, for example, had strong feelings about the divinity of Jesus and others didn’t. Eventually, those whose viewpoint didn’t prevail were called heretics. Efforts to create a uniform orthodox belief across the churches and a definitive biblical canon were largely settled at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, establishing the 27 books of the New Testament, though disputes about some books continued.
The Council of Nicaea included 318 men and how many women? It’s hard to judge them however, since we have to ask of ourselves, how many women were on the big committee that formed the UCC? Two. Did no one think that was odd? Not one person stood up to say, “What about…?”
Since this appears to have become a bit of a history lesson, let me tell you briefly the story of Antoinette Brown. Antoinette is regarded as the first woman ordained in the United States in 1853, in any denomination. As a young woman, Antoinette wanted to study theology at Oberlin College. She was admitted and finished her coursework in 1850, but they did not allow her to graduate. Women can’t have degrees in theology! And therefore, she also wasn’t authorized to preach. She became an itinerant preacher anyway, in upstate New York, along with being a fierce reformer for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. In 1853, the Congregational Church in South Butler wanted her to be ordained. They found one minister willing to consent, but her ordination was not recognized anywhere else. She may have been the first woman ordained, and she deserves to be honored as such, but no one beyond her church recognized this. Not to mention, she only stayed 10 months before resigning and becoming a Unitarian. Kind of a Debbie Downer end!
On the other hand, (what’s the opposite of Debbie Downer?), in the UCC today, not counting those who are retired, 51% of ordained clergy are women. 51%. Women are 40% of our pastors, up from 30% just 10 years ago. The others are chaplains and so forth. And this trend will only continue, as 65% of In Discernment candidates are women.
So, back to the power struggle between Peter and Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel of Mary there’s a scene of all 11 disciples sitting behind locked doors after Jesus was crucified. Sounds familiar so far. Mary stood up among them to encourage them and said, “Do not weep and do not grieve, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you.” The disciples were deeply affected and even Peter said, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember but we do not, nor have we even heard them.” And yet, in a later chapter, back to normal, Peter asked skeptically “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly with us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Mary was taken aback and asked, “Do you think I made all of this up, or that I am lying.” Levi came to her defense and said, “Peter, you have always been hot tempered. You’re contending against Mary like she’s an adversary. If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? That’s why he loved her more than us.”
That 12th spot really belonged to Mary Magdalene! According to the Gospel, Levi stood up to Peter. And even called him out as a bully. Or was that just the wishful thinking of Mary’s supporters? It comes down to “Who gets to tell the story?”
Hasn’t that been the gamer changer in the #MeToo movement? Whose stories have always been given the benefit of the doubt? Who gets to tell the story? Just like how cell phone videos have changed the narrative about police brutality. How often have videos told a very different story than the official line and proven what African Americans have been saying for decades? And yet, even now, whose stories are still given the benefit of the doubt?
Those already at the table get to tell the story, make decisions, and set the criteria for others. Peter could have said the 12th spot is for someone who didn’t abandon Jesus on the cross. Or if not Peter, another disciple could have spoken up. Like Levi. Or another one. In fact, it says there were 120 people gathered in that room to choose the replacement for Judas. Surely at least one thought, what about Mary?
But instead, Dr. Renita Weems said, “They chose what was expedient over what was prophetic.” “More like a corporate board room than the Beloved Community” they chose someone like themselves. Weems is an African American biblical scholar, author, and was a professor at Vanderbilt School of Divinity for 15 years and Spellman College. She’s also a minister, one of the first women ordained in a historic Black Church tradition, as well as a Black woman in the male dominated field of academia. She said she is used to being “the first and only one in the room,” but also, “You either grow or allow yourself to be diminished by the decisions of others. You learn to differentiate what’s happening to you from what’s happening within you.”
She reminds me of Shirley Chisholm when she campaigned for the office of the President of the United States in 1972 – the first African American woman to do so. She said “I chose to run for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate sheer will and the refusal to accept the status quo. And,” she wrote in 1973, “the next time someone runs for office that the rest of the country is “not ready for,” they will be taken more seriously from the start.” Unbought and Unbossed, she called herself.
So, back to choosing the 12th disciple. Liberation theologian Justo Gonzalez said “it never occurred to them to choose someone unlike themselves. It maintains the tradition.” But, with such closed thinking, can it be a surprise that the winds and fire of the Holy Spirit blew through town just one week later on Pentecost?
So, ultimately, what do we do with all this? What’s the point? First, I can’t read this text without lamenting how Mary’s gifts were rejected and the ways that her exclusion continues to shape and affect the church, causing power struggles still playing out today. In the face of such adversity, I give thanks for Antoinette Brown and Beatrice Weaver, the first woman ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed tradition of the UCC in 1948. And Yvonne Delk, the first African American woman ordained in the UCC in 1974. For all “the firsts and onlys in the room,” and for the tireless, but I’m sure exhausted, Shirley Chisholms of the world.
Secondly, I want to take seriously the statement from Dr. Weems about Corporate Boardrooms vs. Beloved Community. And that the disciples chose what was expedient rather than what was prophetic. Challenging that kind of thinking should be Church 101. As well as Discipleship 101. Regular Person in the Pew 101. How do we make choices in our own lives that are more prophetic than expedient? How do we make decisions that aren’t the least fearful option? Certainly, we could always draw straws or cast lots and leave decision making to either fate or the Holy Spirit. But, probably, mostly, that’s not such a great idea.
I learned a different method of decision making, or discernment, from The Benedictines Sisters of Erie called four-fold listening. It is listening with your heart, listening to scripture, listening to wise counsel, and listening to the needs of the world. Heart, scripture, wise counsel – like a good friend, or pastor, or spiritual director. And finally, the needs of the world. In so doing, you are attempting to make sure that you are not making decisions just because that’s what you want for yourself. It tries to make choices less self-centered, yet, it doesn’t leave the self out. We must still listen to our heart. The interplay of heart, scripture and counsel will challenge the status quo. But then adding, how would consciously asking “what are the needs of the world, of people in my community, my neighborhood”; how would asking that affect my decisions? Might we become more prophetic than expedient? Heart, scripture, wise counsel, the world.
In the chaos and divisiveness of our Trumpian world, I’m afraid exhaustion will increasingly cause people to step back and simply say, “let things play out as they may.” What good is being prophetic? Let’s just all get along. It’s more expedient. But perhaps it was the fear of being divisive that meant not a single one of those 120 people in the assembly stood up and said, “Hey, what about Mary?” The whole story of Christianity might have been radically different. We can’t change what happened then, but who can we speak up for today? Perhaps even ourselves.
 The Message
 It is a classic trait of Gnostic writings that she was privy to knowledge the others didn’t have.
 From her book The Good Fight, Harper Collins, 1973
 Gonzales, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001