Nevertheless, She Persisted

Preacher: Amy Norton
Date: April 8, 2018
 
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Both text and audio versions are available for this sermon.

 

Scripture: Luke 21:12-19

 

The image on your bulletin this morning is an icon of Saint Thecla.

 

There are three churches in the United States that are named after Saint Thecla. One is in
Chicago, one in Clinton, Michigan, and the third is in Pembroke, Massachusetts, one
town over from where I grew up.

 

In Spain, Thecla is considered the patron saint of…computers…because her name sounds
like the Spanish word tecla, which means keyboard. Fascinating, huh? I’m not exactly
sure what the system is for how saints get associated with various causes, but to me,
Thecla is the patron saint of female persistence.

 

In the Eastern Church, Thecla is designated as “equal to the apostles,” a term that serves
as recognition of these saints' outstanding service in the spreading and assertion
of Christianity, comparable to that of the original apostles…with this designation she is in
a cohort with Constantine the Great, St Patrick of Ireland, and others. Thecla was a
martyr, an evangelist, a woman who followed her call no matter what obstacles men put
in her way. I’m curious, is anyone familiar with her story? Yeah, not many hands. How
many of us have heard of Emperor Constantine? St. Patrick? A lot more hands…

 

You know, I spent a long time trying to find a way to turn this sermon into some
overarching idea, with a neat little take-home message that you can fit into your pocket
and carry with you throughout the week, and I kept coming back to the fact that despite
growing up Christian, I had never heard about Thecla until 2 years ago, as a side note in a
New Testament class. I kept coming back to sad truth of just how often women’s stories
get lost in time, lost in history. So, I want to let Thecla’s story speak for itself.

 

Her story appears in a text called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a component of the Acts of
Paul. This text was written in the second century and takes place in what is now Turkey,
following Paul around as he evangelizes about Christ and how to live a Christian life as
he anticipates Jesus’ return to earth within a generation or so.

 

I find Paul an interesting case because while he acknowledges that he never met Jesus in
person, he did have a vision of Jesus, which he claims as the basis for his apostolic
authority. Clearly Paul doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome.

 

But…this isn’t a sermon about Paul. This is a sermon about Thecla. This isn’t a sermon
about how the patriarchy harms people; this is a sermon about how those harmed by the
patriarchy have persisted, risen up, and kept on going. This is a story about the stories
that we rarely hear about. This is a story about Thecla; and what did Thecla do? Thecla
violated the rules. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she
persisted.

 

Thecla lived with her mother, Theocleia, and she was engaged to a man named Thamyris.
Paul arrives in her town to preach, and his message is one of celibacy. Now you see, Paul
was convinced that Jesus’s return was going to happen any day…or at least within his
lifetime, and he figured folks oughta just stay as they are until that time. You might

remember him saying this in 1st Corinthians- if you’re unmarried, stay celibate. If you’re
married, well, don’t divorce on my account. Just remain in the state that you are.

 

So this is a somewhat similar message that Thecla is hearing from Paul out her bedroom
window, and she can’t draw herself away. She decides that she, too, is going to remain
celibate, and breaks off her engagement with Thamyris. Thamyris and Thecla’s mother
think that she’s been essentially brainwashed by Paul and his teachings, but I think that
Thecla had a pretty good idea of what she was doing. Perhaps she felt she was meant for
things bigger than what the social constraints of the time would allow a married woman
to do.

 

For second century women, celibacy not only delivered them from the risks of childbirth,
but also provided them with opportunities for work and service that married women did
not have access to. Celibacy was a way that a young woman could retain her agency in
society. A life of intentional virginity meant that she was not subject to any husband, she
was her own person.

 

Thecla’s mother and fiancé, were not happy about this. They alert the governor that this
Paul guy was brainwashing all the young women, depriving men of wives, and Paul is
thrown in jail. Thecla, wanting to hear more of Paul’s teachings about Christ, visits Paul
in jail, bribing the jailkeepers so that she can enter into Paul’s cell and sit at his feet.
This is the last straw for Thecla’s mother, who decides that her daughter should be made
an example of, and calls for her to be burned at the stake so that other girls may know
what happens if they follow Paul, (Paul, mind you, escapes with a mere banishment).
Thecla, determined to neither renounce her faith nor renounce her celibacy, bravely steps
up to the pyre, is encouraged by a vision of God, and crosses herself before they light the
wood below her…but before she can be consumed by the flames God sends a storm that
puts out the fire.

 

Now freed, and with the help of a local neighbor, Thecla locates the banished Paul,
expresses her desire to travel with him and learn and preach… and Paul basically tells her
that he doubts she’d be able to withstand another test of faith (even after she withstood
the test of faith of being burned at the stake, mind you). Thecla implores Paul to baptize
her, arguing that that is all the protection she’d need, and Paul defers, ‘Not now. Later.
We’ll get to that. Be patient’.

 

Nevertheless, she persists and ends up accompanying Paul to Antioch, cutting her hair
short in an attempt to disguise herself as a man. But the disguise doesn’t work, and when
they enter the city, a nobleman named Alexander spots her and is instantly smitten. He
first offers to bribe Paul in exchange for Thecla, but Paul, in a great moment of bravery,
denies even knowing who she is, and assures Alexander that Thecla isn’t one of his
associates. So Alexander attempts to take Thecla, and, abandoned by Paul, Thecla
successfully fights Alexander off by herself. Unfortunately, dishonoring a nobleman like

that was not something you could just do and expect to get away with it, self-defense or not.

Alexander goes to the governor, who condemns Thecla to be thrown to the beasts in the arena.

Death sentence number two. Once in the arena, the women of the city begin to protest Thecla’s

death sentence, they yell that the governor has made an evil judgment, they curse their own

city for allowing this ordeal to happen…but they fail to move the governor.

 

Thecla is stripped down to a loincloth, and the beasts are set upon her. In a miraculous
display of sisterhood, one of the beasts, a lioness, fights off all of the other beasts in an
effort to protect Thecla. It’s like Daniel in the lions’ den, only fiercer.

 

But the lioness’s protection only lasts for so long, and she eventually dies in battle with
another beast. Thecla, now left completely to fend for herself, spies a pit of water filled
with hungry, angry seals. She steps up to the pit, decides that since Paul had dragged his
feet so much about baptizing her this would have to suffice, and throws herself into the
pool crying out “in the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize myself on my last day!”

 

As soon as she plunges into the pit, God sends a lightning bolt that kills the seals (but not
Thecla), and then sends a cloud to hide Thecla from the other beasts. At this point, the
women in the crowd start throwing incense, ointments, perfume, all sorts of strongsmelling
things into the arena, confusing the animals by masking Thecla’s scent, and
causing them all to fall asleep. So. THEN Alexander suggests tying Thecla to two
enraged bulls, but the flames from the torches used to anger the bulls burns through the
ropes, thus freeing Thecla.

 

Tryphaena, a local woman who had looked after Thecla while she awaited the arena, and
had bonded with her as a surrogate daughter, is watching the spectacle from the gates of
the arena. She suddenly faints, and is mistaken for dead… and THIS, of all things, is
what spurs Alexander to ask the governor to halt the execution. You see, as it turns out,
Tryphaena is a relative of Caesar, and Alexander is afraid that if Caesar finds out that
Tryphaena died because of this spectacle, he would destroy the city in anger.

 

So, the governor brings Thecla over to him and asks her how she managed to survive so
miraculously. This is Thecla’s moment to testify. She takes a deep breath,:

 

“I am a slave of the living God! As for what I’m about, I have come to believe in the son
in whom God was well pleased – it’s because of him that not even one of the beasts
touched me. He alone is the goal of salvation and the foundation of immortal life! He is
refuge for the storm-tossed, relief for the distressed, shelter for those who despair.”

 

Hearing this, the Governor releases Thecla, declaring her to indeed be a servant of God.
Tryphaena, recovering from her fainting spell and overcome with joy, formally adopts
Thecla and invites her to come and teach the Word of God to her household that they
may all come to believe.

 

 

After a time, Thecla again disguises herself as a man and sets off to find Paul. When she
does, she informs him of her baptism, and Paul gives her this simple missive: “Go and
teach the word of God”.

 

According to the earliest version of the story, Thecla then returned to her hometown,
reconciled with her mother, traveled to Seleucia, and had a long career as an evangelist
and teacher. The story ends by informing us that “after enlightening many with the word
of God, she slept a good sleep”.

*****

 

There are two things about the story of Thecla that jump out at me. The first is her
dogged persistence to learn and preach the works of God and the Good News of Christ,
conventions and status quo be damned. The second is the way that her story touches the
various other women in her life, who become her supporters and often come to her
defense, even, as was the case with the lioness, at the cost of their own lives.

 

To me, Thecla is a total baller. Can’t do what I want as a married woman? I’ll commit to
celibacy, then! Paul refuses to defend me against a man who wants to rape me? Guess I’ll
just fight him off myself! Paul doesn’t think my baptism is that urgent? Let me just dive
into this pit of carnivorous animals for my baptism! People don’t think women should be
preachers? Just watch me!

 

Thecla’s story is one that lifts up women in ministry, it’s a story in which Thecla is so
clearly and explicitly given an apostolic mandate… I mean, you can’t get much more
explicit than Paul himself saying, “Go and teach the word of God”.

 

So why hadn’t I ever heard of her until I got to Seminary and was reading some of the
apocryphal New Testament texts? I suspect it’s the same reason that it took a blockbuster
movie for the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three
black female NASA engineers who were instrumental to the space race to be widely
known. I suspect it’s the same reason that the movie Stonewall invents a white cis-male
character to lead the famous riots that in reality were lead by Marcia P. Johnson, Sylvia
Rivera, and Miss Major, all trans women of color. I suspect it’s the same reason that the
writers of the Gospels give us at least some backstory to all the male disciples, but with
groups of women we just get “Mary, and the other Mary”.

 

What other stories are we missing? Whose other stories are we missing?

 

It comes as no surprise to us to hear that the deck is stacked against women’s stories and
voices being preserved through history. That it’s stacked against their stories and voices
being attached to the legacies that they’ve left and that we take for granted. You may not
have noticed, but the selections for our prelude, postlude, and choir music today were all
composed by women. Women’s history month ended on March 31st, but women’s
history continues.

 

 

Will you join me in prayer:

Holy One,
You exist beyond our human understanding of Gender. You are the God of Abraham,
Moses, and Isaac; you are the God of Thecla, of Sylvia Rivera, of Katherine Johnson, of
Mary and “the other Mary”. Help open our eyes to all of your children whom we too
often gloss over, knowing only as “the other Mary”. Help open our ears to the stories of
our foremothers, inscribe their names on our hearts that their legacies may live in us, their
courage may embolden us, and their teachings may inspire us. In your one name, and in
your many names, we pray. Amen.