Preaching series can be fun, especially when you give the trickiest to guest preachers. I was one of those guests this evening, preaching on Phoebe for a series on Women of the Bible. Phoebe, you may or may not recall, appears in Romans 16:1–that’d be once. So writing an entire sermon was a bit tricky.
They were looking for a more reflection type sermon and that was cool with me. It’s fine. Nothing special, but a fun little exercise. Yep.
Galston Parish Church
Evening Communion Service
Women of the Bible Series
Before studying these few verses of Paul’s, the only Phoebe with whom I had been acquainted was my aunt and uncle’s cat, called affectionately, “Phebes.” That Phoebe, a marmalade-colored tabby has a lovely personality, and over her adventurous few years has shown that cats really do have an ability to brush with death and live to meow another day.
The only other Phoebe who comes into my life from time to time shows up via the television. Lisa Kudrow on the American comedy “Friends” plays a character named Phoebe. Coincidentally, Phoebe on Friends sings a song about a cat, but the Cat of the song had a rather unfortunate name, “Smelly Cat” and not Phoebe.
That’s all to say, I offer my thanks to Graeme and your congregation, for this invitation to widen my horizons and to reflect on a Phoebe of a slightly different persuasion–neither feline nor of Friends fame–the Phoebe of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I hesitate to tell you, but in this short reflection I’ll be breaking at least two rules of my quite wise preaching professors.
Generally, I admit, these preaching rules are quite sound. For example, and this is my favorite perhaps, “When preaching a sermon, never talk about yourself naked.” That rule, you’ll be glad to know, will not be broken tonight.
But the nature of tonight’s text does call for the bending of a few of my professors suggestions, because Paul’s brief description of Phoebe calls for our close and careful consideration.
The first rule I’ll be breaking is that of my lovely Greek professor, who cautions preachers not to speak directly of the Greek in their sermons. Greek should be used for study, she says, not to show off in sermons. But Graeme tells me you’re a particularly high-functioning congregation, so I’ll break this rule, because a bit of Greek is key to understanding Phoebe.
The second rule I’m breaking is the rule that insists preachers not stray into too much church history, or anything, in fact, that draws attention away from the Biblical text. I agree with the wisdom of this rule, but again, Phoebe can’t be grasped fully, unless the history of interpretation of the text is understood.
So enter with me into Paul’s world, of Roman rule, of a fledgling church, of wonder over God’s great and surprising acts.
Paul ends the letter to the church in Rome with personal notes of various kinds. Right after the passage we read this evening, Paul asks that his greetings be given to Mary, and Andronicus, and Junia, and Ampliatus, and he goes on and on, listing many sisters and brothers in the faith. “Greet one another with the kiss of peace.” he writes, “All Christ’s churches send their greetings.”
In this context of kind greeting and particular thanksgivings, Paul writes, “I commend to you Phoebe, a –and this is where Greek translation comes in, I’ll come back to this in a second– I commend to you Phoebe, a minister/fellow-Christian/deacon in the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”
Before I break any rules, let’s notice what seems clear in any language. Paul seems to indicate that Phoebe is the one given the honor of physically carrying the letter to the actual community in Rome. Before the days of text messaging, and emails, even before the Royal Mail, folks had to figure out a way for correspondence to be delivered to another town. Paul must have trusted Phoebe a great deal, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe” he writes, suggesting she delivers the letter to the Roman community, and Paul commends her to that community upon her arrival.
Phoebe then, is likely a wealthy woman, perhaps in some sort of business herself. Maybe it’s this business that calls her to Rome, but she certainly has enough funds to be a significant benefactor to Paul, and she intends to be generous to the Romans as well.
So from this one verse we can gather: Pheobe’s wealthy, she’s generous, she’s greatly trusted by Paul, she’s willing to fund a community of believers, and….well, here’s where we get to the Greek–please forgive me, Professor Johnson.
Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe” and then he uses the Greek word, διάκονος ,(diakonos). Now diakonos sounds like our English word, “deacon,” but it also can also mean a servant, an office-holder, or one who is charge.
Over the centuries, especially in the church of the 4th century onward, male translators who had an inaccurate view of the role of women in the early church caused by the sad chipping away of women’s rights later in the first few centuries of Christianity, understood the word diakonos only with a view to the translators’ own context.
At this time, say the fourth century, the office of deaconess was a not particularly powerful specific church office, and the male translators figured that in Paul’s day a deacon–a female deacon–must have been called to a lesser office than men. Women could not have played a significant role in the early church, they figured. Women definitely must not have been ordained.
Now in the New Testament, we read that women –some referred to by the word diakonos– were instrumental in the founding of churches, women had leadership roles in many churches, that women led public worship and women taught converts. And though we find this all in the New Testament, the early church, after a few hundred years, could only read these verses through their narrow lens of experience. Eventually, the male church leaders used unlikely definitions of “diakonos” to argue why women should not be in leadership roles.
A few hundred years after Paul commended Phoebe, the Latin church had narrowed women’s roles significantly, eventually causing them to lose any ordained status whatever. This evolution reflected neither an open Biblical understanding nor a trust of God’s surprising and new work in the world, but a retreat to inequality, fear, and sin.
Making a very long and confusing story short, through poor translation and a narrow reading of history, this verse about Phoebe was, and continues to be, an arrow in the quiver of those who argue against women’s full participation in all ministries of the church.
This year celebrates the fortieth anniversary of women’s ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament in the Church of Scotland. It took far too long, but for forty years now we have agreed that Christ calls women and men to all ministries in the church. In the Church of Scotland, at least, Phoebe may now sit down with any Frank, Fred, or Fraser, as equal in the eyes of the church.
But this milestone of justice was not reached easily, and it was not reached quickly. For centuries the church dithered and delayed, and for that we can only ask God’s forgiveness.
So what can we today take from the story of Phoebe, once a respected, trusted, benefactor of Paul who somehow became co-opted in the argument against women’s ordination?
From Phoebe we can learn the importance of gathering in community, a community of men and women. If we’re always gathering in groups of only men, or only women, we can easily accept the stereotypes given to us by our culture. In some denominations, perhaps in the Church of Scotland, years ago when folks gathered for worship the men sat on one side of the sanctuary, the women on the other. I’m afraid these practices lead to unfaithful gender stereotyping, just like that those old male translators. When we gather in community, men and women together, we can enjoy the gifts of each–no matter one’s sex–and follow God in our diversity.
From Phoebe, we can also learn the importance of reading the Bible and discussing scripture in community. If those male translators had discussed the word “diakonos” with their wives, their eyes may have been opened and saved the church from centuries of repression. The Bible is a book that from its very beginning was meant to be read in community and openly discussed.
Finally, from Phoebe we can learn that God is one who breaks boundaries, who overcomes our measly human understandings, who opens us up and uses us in ways we could never imagine. As Paul reminds us again and again, in Christ, God has made all things new. Or as one learned theologian puts it, “God’s new things always scare the socks off us.”
Friends in Christ, let us not forget the story of Phoebe, generous benefactor and trusted companion of Paul. For the story of Phoebe calls us to new community, a community of conversation, friendship, a community open to God’s surprising works of love and inclusion for all God’s children, women and men.