homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
September 23, 2015
|Thecla, cave painting found in Ephesus|
(image from https://feminismandreligion.files.wordpress.com)
Among the earliest Christian stories is a 2nd-century writing entitled The Life of the Holy Martyr Thecla of Iconium, Equal to the Apostles. Its action begins around the year 48, on Paul’s first missionary journey. Thecla, a young virgin engaged to be married, hears Paul speak and promptly cancels her engagement. Her understanding of Paul’s message is this: “There is but one God, who alone is to be worshipped, and … we ought to live in chastity.” Now, this does sound something like what Paul writes in some of his letters, based on the assumption that the world was just about to end. But it does overemphasize the chastity part a bit, a sign that there may be some Gnostic influence on this book.
When Thecla jilts her would-be husband, Paul suffers immediate consequences. The men of the town begin saying that “he deprives young men of their (intended) wives, and virgins of their (intended) husbands, by teaching, ‘There can be no future resurrection, unless ye continue in chastity, and do not defile your flesh.’” Paul is thrown in jail. Meanwhile, Thecla is ordered to be burned at the stake, but just as the fire is lit, a sudden earthquake accompanied by rain and hail causes so much chaos that she escapes.
Thecla bribes a jailer to let her into Paul’s cell. She expresses her devotion to the Gospel and convinces Paul to let her accompany him to Antioch upon his release. There, a magistrate named Alexander falls in lust with Thecla. He accosts her on the street with his intent to marry her, but she resists, making him look publicly foolish in the process. In a classic example of victim-blaming, Thecla is sentenced to die again. But a couple factors help get her off the hook: her first would-be attacker, a she-lion, befriends her and then kills off all the other beasts they send at her. Also, a flame surrounds her to scare off other creatures. And while she is in the arena, a pool full of vicious seals somehow materializes. Thecla baptizes herself in the pool while the fire fends off the seals. Finally the governor gives up and releases her.
Thecla travels and preaches and lives a long life. God grants her healing powers, and in Seleucia at the age of 90, she puts all the local physicians out of business. The physicians, having been tempted by Satan, gang up on Thecla and intend to rape the old woman. But she prays loudly to God, who shows her an opening in a rock. She escapes into the rock, and it seals behind her. And thus she is translated into heaven at the end of her life.
Seeing as Thecla’s primary talent seemed to be deliverance from martyrdom, all the way to and including an attack on her in old age, I’m not sure why she is commonly referred to as a martyr. I was just excited to preach on Thecla because her story is so much fun. Our Exodus reading today relates the story of two other faithful women, Shiphrah and Puah, who use Pharaoh’s unexamined prejudice against the Hebrews to protect the Hebrews from him. And our gospel reading is of the woman at the well; a number of months ago I greatly enjoyed sharing on a Sunday morning an interpretation of the full version of that story, in which the banter Jesus and the woman engage in turns out to be quite bawdy indeed. In fact, it’s their shared knowledge of the ridiculousness of men’s assumptions about how women should be treated that lead them to share an unlikely connection in the first place.
This thread of heroic women using men’s cluelessness to defeat them does pop up from time to time throughout the Bible; I might also mention Deborah, and Jael, and Naomi and Ruth, and Esther. I might mention that many of the leaders of the early church were women, even if later generations of men conveniently tried to forget it. These women are a reminder that our present culture’s long-term goal of the equality of the sexes is not a mere temporary fad, but biblically mandated ethical progress. In seminary we talked about these women as forming a counter-narrative in the Bible that shines through the dominant, patriarchal narrative. Sometimes things really do get better over time.
Thecla, even if she is fictional, and even though she didn’t make it into the Bible, deserves a place alongside these other heroic women. And although a lot of people, including Paul, have always been wrong about virginity being a primary virtue for women, Thecla’s dedication to her faith can be an inspiration to us and a confirmation that Jesus uses those who are considered morally suspect, helpless, or useless to upend society and to teach people about God’s nature in ever-surprising ways. Amen.