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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

named Thecla

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

and Thecla

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 Paul’s story

and was impressed with Paul's presentation —

His concern about Thecla’s 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 Thecla’s 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.

Maybe so.

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 women’s 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.

It did.

The Afrikaners were right

that if Black persons in South Africa are given the vote

the fabric of society would change.

It has.

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.

It will.

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 here’s where the church fathers get it wrong —

you can’t 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.

Risky, yes.

Not for the faint of heart.

But a story to hold close.

To read carefully.

To ponder.

To dream.

God is still calling.