The First Witnesses

The First Witnesses


X THE FIRST WITNESSES The New Testament contains approximately 15 different resurrection appearances of Jesus – nine accounts in the gospels, one story in the Book of Acts, and five appearances referred to by Paul. All of these resurrection stories are at least a little bit different from one another, and several of them are very different from each other. Of the nine different resurrection narratives in the Gospels, there is one detail all of the stories share in common – the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. The men were all in hiding and only the women had the courage and devotion to Jesus to venture forth to the tomb to complete the grisly job of completing the burial preparation. As in so many other situations women’s work was dirty work.


X WOMEN WITNESSES A SCANDALThe prominence of women as witnesses of the resurrection was a scandal, because in First Century Judaism women could not be called as witnesses. They were considered to be property, chattel, livestock, so inferior, that they were not permitted to testify in court. So of course when stories circulated that the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus were women, the general culture dismissed such nonsense. Who would trust the report of women, and so by the time of Paul the narrative had changed:  “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also. . .”


X THE LEADERSHP OF WOMENOnly twenty-five years after the death of Jesus the narrative had been altered to appear as if the first witnesses were men, first to Peter and then to the twelve. If the early church was going to sell its story to the people of their time, they felt they had to accommodate their message to the misogynistic, the sexist beliefs of the general culture. But even with Paul’s attempt to accommodate to the patriarchal customs of the Roman Empire, the early church still persisted in following the radical way of Jesus liberating and promoting the leadership of women.


X EQUALITY OF WOMEN SHINES THROUGH For instance, even though the Gospels tried to cover up Jesus’ radical egalitarian attitude toward women, the truth still shines through in several places. In the story of Mary and Martha, Mary was encouraged to engage in the discussion with the men, rather than being relegated to the women’s work Martha, and presumably the male disciples wanted her to perform. In the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps older that any of the other gospels the male disciples complain to Jesus that he was treating Mary Magdalene as an equal to them.


X ST THEKLADespite Paul’s attempt to accommodate to the sexism of the Roman culture we still find references to women in his letters who were described as Apostles and the conveners and shepherds of house churches. Women in the early church were serving as priests, pastors, and bishops.   Consider the tradition in the Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Thekla who is described as a disciple and companion of the Apostle Paul in the 1st century. She is given the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles” because she accompanied St. Paul in founding churches, because her witness converted so many others to Christ, and she was the first woman martyr for the Christian Faith.


            X IMAGE FROMTHE CATACOMBSWe also have artistic confirmation of the leadership of women in the early church. Recently in the catacombs of Rome a picture was uncovered and restored that portrays a woman presiding at the Eucharist.   Arms held out in blessing this image attests to women, who were serving in a priestly capacity leading congregations of the faithful as late as the second and even the early third century of the Christian era.


X ANTOINETTE BROWN BLACKWELL     So what happened? When the church sold out to the Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century, and became the established religion of the Roman Empire, they completely accommodated to the patriarchal sexist culture of Rome. Women were put in their place for 1500 years until the United Church of Christ ordained Antoinette Brown Blackwell in 1852. She went on to advocate for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and the right of women to vote. And since that time women have slowly but surely been liberated and empowered both in the church and in society.


X SPIRIT OF CHRIST IN THE EMPOWRMENT OF WOMENNow why am I talking about the importance of women in an Easter Sermon? The first witnesses of the resurrection were the women followers of Jesus, and they went on to fuel the incredible growth of the early church.   Second, Easter is not about what happened two-thousand years ago, Easter is the celebration of the continuing presence of the life of the resurrected Christ in our world today. If Jesus is not alive and among us today, then the empty tomb means nothing. It is just a hollowed out place in the rock, where Jesus can no longer be found. And I would submit that there is no more important evidence of the presence of Jesus in our world today than in the liberation and empowerment of women that is transforming our world. I know there are political candidates, who complain about “feminism” and “political correctness,” and there are some churches who still want to consign women to the kitchen and the vacuum cleaner, but the most important transformative force in the world today is the liberation and empowerment of women.


X ISIS OPPRESSION OF WOMENIf you don’t believe me, allow me to ask you a question. ISIS probably represents the most radical attempt to defeat modernity and Western culture, and take the world back to the middle ages. What is one of the most important strategies of ISIS? It is the oppression of women! And let me ask you what does ISIS fear the most? Do they fear Russian war planes? Do they fear American drones?   Do they fear the collective disapproval of the civilized nations of the earth? Maybe, but what ISIS really fears is the liberation and empowerment of women.



epa04844166 Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai (C), talks with Syrian refugees on her 18th birthday during the opening of the Malala Yousafzai All-Girls School built by the Kayany Foundation NGO, in Barr Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 12 July 2015. The Malala Fund, which paid for a school that can provide education for up to 200 girls aged 14 to 18 in the Bekaa Valley, is a non-profit organisation created to finance educational projects. EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

The image that scares the bejeezus out of ISIS is a courageous young woman, Malala, working to teach girls and other young women to read. The radical Islamists know that if Muslim women and girls are liberated and empowered, their days are numbered. At this time in history the world is being transformed by the empowerment of women. Let me share with you an example.


X WILLIAM AND DONNA BAUM One of Beth’s childhood friends William Baum and his wife Donna in retirement have been serving as Mennonite Missionaries in Guatemala.   They have been working with indigenous people to help them purchase their village’s land. Until they own the land they cultivate, these native people have no chance to get ahead. They also set up in these villages small microcredit banks to make loans especially to women to set up businesses to manufacture and market their crafts and other products. The key to these microcredit banks is that they put the women of the village in charge of them. Why? Because the women will make sure the loans are paid back, and they will not engage in corruption. Also as women become entrepreneurs, they are empowered in the lives of their families and in the life of the village.


X SPIRIT OF CHRIST IS ALIVE IN OUR WORLD TODAY A women who is earning her own living can stand up to her husband and her male relatives. And like in Bangladesh, when women are empowered to earn a living, they choose to have smaller families. The liberation and empowerment of women is transforming the world. Jesus started the movement to lift up the status and dignity of women, the first witnesses of the resurrection. The spirit of Christ is alive in our world today.



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