Thecla's Story - The Problem and the Promise
Based upon the Acts of Paul and Thecla
Text can be found at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/thecla.html
This sermon is from the Lenten Series "Answer the Call" and looks at the cost of responding to God's call. It begins with the story of Thecla, an almost forgotten leader in the early church, and looks at both the story itself and the suppression of Thelca's story.
On an otherwise ordinary spring day,
in the otherwise unnoteworthy town of Iconium
an otherwise unremarkable young woman
was preparing for her upcoming wedding
when a most extraordinary event unfolded.
As Thecla sat at her window,
a proper distance from the throng in the street,
she could still and hear the events below.
A teacher named Paul had come to town,
preaching of miracles and
a new way of being with God.
His words rang with clarity and truth
even from the distance
found her heart moved.
When Thecla refused to move from her window,
refused to proceed with the scheduled wedding,
Thamyris (her betrothed) reported the incident
to the Governor.
Paul was swiftly arrested, bound,
and held over in the prison for questioning
related to interfering with Thamyris wedding.
But so captivated was Thecla by Paul's teaching
that she snuck over to the prison
and bribed her way past the guards,
finally sitting at the feet of Paul
and taking in all that he would share with her.
So moved was she by Paul's faith and courage
that she kissed the chains that bound him.
When Thecla's mother and betrothed discovered her missing,
they searched until they found her
on the floor of Paul's prison cell!
She was left to wallow there as Paul was again dragged before the Governor.
The Governor now listened to Pauls story
and was impressed with Paul's presentation
His concern about Theclas refusal to marry
was quite another story.
Paul was sent out of town,
Thecla was sent to be burned alive.
From here the story becomes even more extraordinary.
A miraculous rainstorm drenches the fire
and Thecla is saved.
Thecla flees Iconium in search of Paul and safety.
She finds Paul and a small group hiding in a cave
and she joins them for the breaking of the bread.
She follows Paul to Antioch
where she is approached by a young magistrate
who is captivated by her beauty.
He is burning with desire for Thecla
and she rebuffs him.
He attempts to force her and she defends herself.
He cries foul and has her arrested.
In Antioch, Thecla again faces death.
Three times she is thrown before wild beasts
and three times comes forth alive.
In this scene we find miracles of healing
communication with the dead
and even resurrection.
Finally the Governor of Antioch
asks Thecla for her story
and is so moved that she is released.
After trying unsuccessfully to return home,
Thecla moves into the wilderness caves
where she is joined
by a community of women also seeking refuge.
From their place removed
these women, with Thecla's guidance,
were ministering to those in need;
preaching, teaching, baptizing, and healing.
Once more their was challenge and trouble,
once more Thecla remained calm and resolute.
Once more God was made manifest in her life.
Thecla lived her long remaining life
with a community of women
providing Christian ministry to those in search.
Such is the story of Thecla as told in "The Acts of Thecla".
Certainly this written account (dated about 130ad) that I summarized this morning, is the stuff of legend and fantasy. But escapes from prison, miraculous healing, and even resurrection (ala Lazarus!) are the ordinary fare of our New Testament.
And in the early church
the story of Thecla was undisputably very important.
She was such a significant female figure in the early Christian church that she is referenced by Eusebius, Augustine, and most church historians of the first few centuries of the Christian church.
Yet, although tourist find remains of churches built in Theclas honor in Syria and Turkey, her story is basically unknown in Western Christian circles. Why?
In a word, celibacy.
What is captivating in the story
is the way in which celibacy,
Thecla's refusal to be in relationship with a man,
becomes threatening to men.
In fact the issue of women and celibacy was a huge a issue in the early church
and understandably Thecla's story became a beacon for the women who chose celibacy.
In our modern parlance
celibacy means abstinence and the lack of promiscuity
but in the ancient world of the early church
a woman claiming celibacy
was a woman refusing her role as male property.
Simply put, it was revolutionary
and the early church fathers, rightly or wrongly,
in their heart of hearts
that to allow this new thing
women choosing their sexuality
would be the end of civilization as we know it.
To allow women choice in sexual expression
was the first step down a slippery slope.
What we have in our bibles and our church history books
are the voices that shouted over Thecla.
Timothy and Titus, in our New Testament,
bear witness to the struggle around womens role.
Tertullian, one of the early church fathers,
complained directly about Thecla
and the way her story was destroying the church,
serving to legitimize women teaching, healing, and baptizing.
He charged that the written story was a forgery,
though not even he could disclaim the reality of the woman herself.
Pope Gelasius, in the sixth century,
was still dealing with the problem of Thecla
when he sidelined her story, permanently,
to the non-canonical list.
I am compelled that there is much to learn from Thecla,
both in the stories about her
and in the stories of the suppression of her story.
As I witness the debate of the church fathers
I feel some compassion in the midst of my sadness
for they are right.
There is a slippery slope, a domino effect.
Truth is that change begets change.
The church fathers were right
that if women gain significant voice in the church
the fabric and structure of the church would change.
The Afrikaners were right
that if Black persons in South Africa are given the vote
the fabric of society would change.
The opposition to open immigration has a point;
if our country is flooded by people with languages and values and cultures different from our own,
the fabric of society will change.
So I have some sympathy for the church fathers.
I do believe in the domino theory
and I do not believe that all change is good change.
But heres where the church fathers get it wrong
you cant stop change
and sometimes our attempts to stop change
cause more damage than the change itself.
As Charlie Bischoff keeps reminding me,
there are three things certain in life
death, taxes, and change
and that even new babies come out screaming
their dislike of change.
So we'll give the church fathers
and the modern day equivalents their due.
They are frightened, with cause.
But if we dare to experience Thecla's story
we find a profound and stirring invitation
to look beyond social convention and expectation.
To be willing to risk encounter
with the living God
alive in the people and the animals and the world.
To risk rejection and scorn and (yes) death.
And in that risking
in that embrace of change
to find life beyond imagining.
Not for the faint of heart.
But a story to hold close.
To read carefully.
God is still calling.