A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary for Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012
Many pastors think of Acts 2 as the locus classicus for preaching Pentecost Sunday. After all that chapter describes the “first Pentecost.” However, as an alternative way of approaching Pentecost, perhaps it is important to remember that scholars tell us the Acts of the Apostles was not written until perhaps a century after the first Pentecost. So for the first hundred years of early Christianity, Acts 2 would not have been available as a “lectionary text” for preaching Pentecost. Furthermore, when Peter looked to his “Bible,” which at that time was predominately the Torah and Prophets (only two-thirds of what we now know as the Hebrew Scriptures), he chose to preach from The Book of Joel, at least according to the way the story is handed down to us in Acts.
I want to particularly highlight two verses in Joel 2 on which Peter based that original Pentecost sermon:
28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Sometimes when I find radical passages of scriptures such as this one, I pull down my copy of the King James Version of the Bible just to see if verses such as these really have been hiding in plain sight and are not merely the product of contemporary inclusive versions (not that there’s anything wrong with contemporary inclusive versions!). In this case, the KJV tells us that the apostle Peter, whom tradition tells us was the first pope, stood up — inspired by the Spirit — and preached from the Book of Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
Accordingly, I would like to use Peter’s scripture reading from Joel as an entry for reflecting on how we might continue to fulfill the promise of Pentecost. If Peter preached boldly from Joel that “your daughters shall prophesy,” then I would like to spend some time reflecting on whom we ordain and why. This topic seems especially salient this Pentecost in the wake of the Vatican’s recent persecution of nuns in the United States. (For more, I recommend my fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark’s blog post on “Vatican vs. women (in this case, women religious).”
To begin to respond to these questions, I invite you to remember any clergy ordinations you have witnessed. How many times have you seen someone ordained as a pastor or priest? I suspect that such an event is rare in the experience of most people who are not professional clergy. Some of you, who have been regular church attenders your whole lives, may still have never witnessed an ordination. I invite you to think with me about why this state of affairs may be problematic for many reasons, perhaps most glaringly as a contradiction of many Protestant churches’ stated or traditional belief in the “priesthood of all believers.”
In the Southern Baptist church in which I was raised, I never saw a clergy ordination. One white male was the senior pastor of the congregation for my entire childhood. And he had been ordained years before I was born. The only other ordained person I can recall ascending to the pulpit on even a semi-regular basis was the associate paster, another white male, who had been ordained at a previous congregation before I was born.
The primary exception that I can think of is that once a year a few graduating high school seniors were selected to collectively preach a sermon on Youth Sunday: generally 3-5 minutes each on a particular theme or set of scriptures. From the best of my recollection, I do not remember a female being selected to preach for Youth Sunday, but I will confess that a female being selected to deliver a sermon would have likely been much more memorable for the young women of the church than for me. As a white male myself, I took it for granted that I had the right to preach a sermon if I felt called to do so because the model of white men preaching was essentially all I had ever known.
In preparing this post, one of my childhood friends, who along with me was one of the four young men selected in our year to preach on Youth Sunday, reminded me that one of our female classmates was angry about being excluded from preaching on Youth Sunday. Ironically, she was one of the three of us from our graduating class, who eventually went to seminary and was later ordained. The fact that I had forgotten about her exclusion is further testament to the dominant paradigm in Southern Baptist life of only a “few good men” being called to preach.
Now allow me to offer some counterexamples. I rarely remember the subject of women’s ordination being raised in seminary. It would’ve been mostly a moot argument since approximately half of my seminary class were women seeking ordination. There were also many ordained female professors. But I do remember once when the argument came up that my seminary roommate, who had been raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said, “Of course I’ve always supported women’s ordination. The primary pastor that I knew at my childhood church was a woman.” Similarly, as I grew up and as was exposed to increasing numbers of women who were charismatic leaders, compassionate pastoral caregivers, and talented preachers, I found that I had a new response to people who asked me if I believed in women’s ordination. I started saying incredulously, “Do I believe in women’s ordination? Of course I believe in it. I’ve seen it!”
Part of my point is to satirize the whole situation of asking if someone ‘believes’ in women’s ordination in the same way that you would ask if someone believe in fairies or unicorns. What is more important is to expose that the question of women’s ordination is not an abstract, theoretical debate. The way we talk about women’s ordination and whether the churches of which we are a part ordain women is deeply impactful on the way that approximately 50% of the world’s population thinks about God. In other words, by discouraging women or by failing to model female religious leadership, you are potentially part of blocking young women from hearing God’s call.
Having already looked at the scripture quoted on the first Pentecost at the beginning of the church, let us turn briefly to the first chapter of the Bible, which includes the verse that, “God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God they were created; male and female, God created them.” Notice that the very first chapter of the book of Genesis affirms that the image of God is found in both males and females.Thus, to refuse to see God in the female body is to refuse to see at least a half of what God is trying to show us through human history. We could trace many other instances of women’s leadership in the Bible and in the Christian tradition, but the more important point is that the struggle to make women’s ordination regular, normal, and commonplace was hard fought and is not over.
Whenever I reflect on the struggle for equal rights historically, I am regularly dumbfounded that here in the year 2012 — well into the 21st-century and Christianity’s third millennium — we still have not year reached the 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights in the U.S., which came only in 1920 with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. We’ve come a long way as a species, but still have a long way to go. I’m reminded of a piece of wisdom from my seminary mentor who used to say about injustice: “Remember: It doesn’t have to be this way.” What he meant was that the first step of living into a better world was realizing that we don’t have to be complacent about the status quo, and we can begin withimagining a different way. As St. Augustine famously said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
Speaking of the contrast between the way things are as opposed to the way things ought to be, I was ordained on July 6, 2003. But I’ve already alluded to the fact that part of me doesn’t believe in ordination. That part of me believes in the priesthood of all believers: that if you have met the requirements to be a member of your local congregation, then you are just as much of a pastor and priest as I am or as anyone else is. This perspective is a vision of the church as a democracy, a congregation of equals, all different parts of the one body of Christ. This flattened, horizontal view was reaffirmed by many in the Reformation, when individuals and groups began to protest the topdown, hierarchal control of Rome.
However, this egalitarian vision is rooted much earlier. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). But this promise of a priesthood of all believers has not yet been fulfilled. One of my mentors, a longtime pastor, has written that,
Ordination sets up a ministry class system: first class, clergy; second class, laity. For all our intentions otherwise, a two-tiered system is created. The difference in gifts for ministry becomes unfortunately a difference in value. As Baptists, even Protestants, our formal theology declares, “the priesthood (ministry) of all believers”; our functional theology declares, “priesthood (ministry) of others.”
In other words, the ordination of clergy can mask and unintentionally subvert the equally important call to ministry of all Christians to take part in bringing about the kingdom of God and building the Beloved Community. Another theologian similarly invites us to consider that the answer to this dilemma is not to criticize the professional class of clergy or even to ban ordinations. Instead, he makes the much more radical suggestion that we should abolish the laity if we want to authentically live into the vision of “every member a minister” — fully enfranchised and fully empowered!
At its best, of course, the Protestant tradition has practices not only the priesthood of all believers, but also the “prophethood of all believers.” So, this Pentecost Sunday, if we are to fulfill the promise of that first Pentecost that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” then I ask you again, “Whom should we ordain? And why?”
1 “men and women are explicitly mentioned in the original Greek text” — New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado highlights that, in the Acts of the Apostles:
- 5:14. Both men and women became believers in response to apostolic preaching and attendant “signs and wonders”.
- 8:12. Likewise, in response to Philip’s preaching, “men and women” were baptized.
- 8:3; 9:2; 22:4. In all these references to persecution of believers by Saul/Paul, the author mentions “men and women” as victims.
For more, see Allen Black, “‘Your sons and Your Daughters Will Prophesy . . .’: Pairings of Men and Women in Luke-Acts,” in Scripture and Traditions: Essays on Early Judaism and Christianity in Honor of Carl R. Holladay, ed. Patrick Gray & Gail R. O’Day (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 193-206. Hurtado notes that: “Black shows that the author of Luke-Acts was likely prompted by passages in Isaiah (e.g., 43:6-7; 49:22; 60:4) where Israel is promised that her ‘sons and daughters’ will be recipients of future divine blessings. So, convinced that early Christianity is the fulfillment of these hopes, the author of Acts underscores the sexual duality of early Christian circles.”
2“many of instances of women’s leadership in the Bible and in the Christian tradition” — see, for example, my sermon on “Paul: Misogynist or Mystic?” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/02/paul-misogynist-or-mystic/).
3 Walter Shurden’s book The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms identifies four essential Baptist freedoms: Religious Freedom, Bible Freedom, Church Freedom, and Soul Freedom. Religious Freedom is the freedom of individual religion expression as also protected in the free exercise clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Bible Freedom is the freedom of any individual to interpret the Bible for him or herself as she or he sees fit. Church Freedom is the freedom of a local congregation to govern itself without the interference of any other congregation, denomination, bishop, or other supervisory body. And finally Soul Freedom is the responsibility of each individual to work out his or her theology for him or herself. Taken together, these Baptist freedoms are what allow such a wide diversity of people from the modern day saint and martyr Martin Luther King, Jr. to the hateful and divisive Fred Phelps to all authentically claim the name Baptist.
4“Ordination sets up a ministry class system” — Mahan Siler, Letters to Nancy: Reflections on Pastoral Ministry (Wipf and Stock: 2001), 59-60. Siler’s book is a beautiful collection of letters written to his former associate pastor and eventual successor Nancy Petty. The volume is unfortunately out of print, but I highly recommend picking up a used copy if you ever come across one. In the meantime, another excellent book, which includes a reference to the passage from Siler I quoted is Stephen Sprinkle, Ordination: Celebrating the Gift of Ministry, 17-18.
5“abolish the laity” — see James William McClendon, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2: Doctrine, 368-369.
The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).