Picture a woman.
She’s alone in the world; her troubles drive her into relationships that are toxic, with men who take advantage of her for profit. Through a combination of bad choices and toxic relationships she ends up working as a prostitute in her home town. She has no way out and even the money she earns in sacrificing her dignity and her independence can’t buy her a genuine sense of freedom. She is trapped. But she is also capable; smart; courageous. She does what she does in order to survive. She is a fighter. Her options for ‘progression’ in a world stacked against her seem limited.
What does progress look like for this woman?
How do you imagine the modern church would see a woman like this?
How do you imagine Jesus responding to this woman?
This is the story of many women, but it is also the story of a woman we meet in the Bible. Mary Magdalene. A follower of Jesus so famous a movie has just been released about her life.
It’s International Women’s Day; and where last year the theme was #BeBoldForChange and we looked at how Jesus views women, this year we’re being asked to #PressForProgress.
But what does real progress look like?
Whose progress? Whose equality? Why we need progress
The International Women’s Day organisation is emphasising ‘parity’ between men and women.
“Now, more than ever, there’s a strong call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity. A strong call to #PressforProgress. A strong call to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.”
This is a cause we Christians can jump on; the idea that men and women are equal is right there on the first page of the Bible.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:27
It’s fair to say the church has often been seen to be standing in the way of progress or equality; in part because we’ve wanted to maintain difference between men and women at the same time as affirming this equality. Some of the criticism levelled at the church in the area of gender and a propping up of ‘traditional’ gender roles is fair though too; and we should cop it on the chin and do what we’re meant to do every time we get called out for our failure to meet the pattern for life laid out in the Bible; we should turn to the example of Jesus and look at how he understands progress, equality, and gender inclusivity, and should repent and seek to define progress as walking with him.
The idea of ‘progress’ contains within it a picture of moving forward towards some ideal or goal; it’s a word that contains the image of a journey.
When you dip into the story of Jesus’ life it’s no surprise that he came to bring progress to our approach to humanity, and that his life, itself is pictured as a journey that we are invited to join. Jesus came because after that first page of the Bible instead of making progress we humans did the opposite. We regressed. Within a couple of pages, after a picture of man and woman working in cooperation, as allies in God’s mission, has been painted as the ideal we see things fall apart – the dawn of oppression and broken relationships – first we meet the crafty serpent, Satan, who lures this couple away from cooperation and into competition, competition with God (over who should be making decisions) and then competition with each other (about who is to blame). That competition brings curse and a broken pattern of relating. Regression. A new ‘normal’. When God curses Adam and Eve, this first couple in the story, he says:
“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” – Genesis 3:16
This is a new dynamic where instead of seeking co-operation or parity or equality we humans seek to rule over the other, and to topple each other from power. It’s a vicious cycle we see in all sorts of human relationships and it describes much about the way people relate to each other by default; perhaps especially around gender equality, and why we see this pattern everywhere, including in the church… Everywhere that is, but in the life of Jesus.
Jesus came to bring real progress.
He came to bring a real solution to this curse, to change our hearts and to change our patterns of relating to each other… and to change our picture of parity and progression so that the standards we apply aren’t just about money or success, but about finding life in God’s mission in the world to reverse this cursed pattern through Jesus. The Bible makes a bold claim that real progress for Christians is progress towards being like Jesus, and that in discovering a pattern for humanity in him we are made equal and we are treated the same – as heirs of God. This idea that women could inherit alongside a brother was revolutionary in its time (and a picture of a subversive ‘press for progress’); but it’s found throughout the New Testament as people worked out what it meant to follow the journey of Jesus; to make real progress (and to rediscover what we were meant to be before we ‘regressed’). Here’s how Paul puts this idea in a letter to a church in a city called Galatia.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29
This is a radical picture of progression and parity.
But it’s one we also see in the life of Jesus and the early church; where we meet lots of strong, independent, women who clearly have pretty exceptional and successful careers. Women who may have been said to have been breaking the glass ceiling and progressing, but who redefined progress when they discovered Jesus’ vision for life. We saw last year that Jesus makes safe spaces for women wherever he goes, and interacts with women in profound ways that should make us bold for change. Luke’s Gospel, which we’re working through as a church, has many of these stories, but it also has this picture of the women in Jesus’ circle; on the journey with him. There are two key moments where we see the pattern of equality that Paul describes on display; Luke shows us that they are women who have in some way escaped the curse of sin and death, finding new life in Jesus. It’s not just Mary who finds her story transformed by Jesus.
After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. – Luke 8:1-3
There’s a variety of experiences just in these three women named (but there are many more than just these three).
Jesus has cured these women of evil spirits and diseases – pictures of the cursed world – and they have progressed; Mary was a prostitute (a certain sort of slavery or oppression), who was demon possessed (a picture of the serpent’s grip on humanity), Joanna is married to the manager of Herod’s household – a woman of some influence married to an influential man (though Herod too is a picture of an ‘oppressive’ king) – she is freed from a ‘bit part’ in that system to being a key part of the mission of king Jesus, singled out for praise. These women are necessary allies in the mission of Jesus, partnering with him as he proclaims the kingdom of God, a kingdom of progress, where we all become heirs.
Some of these women (and some others) appear again at the end of Luke’s Gospel (also, Luke begins with a significant focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is the ‘ideal listener’ to God’s word and a servant of the Gospel).
As Jesus is led out to his execution – when his disciples have fled the scene, the women remain. Luke mentions them three times in chapter 23.
“A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him.” – Luke 23:27
“But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” – Luke 23:49
“The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” – Luke 23:55-56
Most of the people on the road there aren’t walking with Jesus; they’re following the spectacle… they’re part of the cursed way of living, not co-operating with God but competing with him; what Adam and Eve did when tempted by Satan in the garden is nothing compared to what this crowd do with Jesus, God in the flesh, when they execute him… and it’s these women who are the obvious picture of recognising the wrongness of what happens in the humiliating execution of Jesus.
Then the first we hear about the resurrection of Jesus – the first ‘testimony’ – the first proclamation of the good news of the Gospel; the new ordering of things – true progress – comes from the mouths of more women.
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. – Luke 24:1
These women meet two angels who remind them what Jesus had taught them in Galilee. That his death was part of the plan. And they believe. Without seeing the resurrected Jesus. They run to the other disciples (who had abandoned Jesus in fear), and we get a little taste of the regressive world this all happens in – most of the disciples don’t listen to them, they don’t (like most of the first century world) believe that the testimony of women is reliable… yet this is how Jesus organised his return from death. But Peter listens…
“When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” – Luke 24:9-12
So what is progress?
What does it look like to press for progress the way Jesus does? It certainly seems like the mission of Jesus relied on equality and inclusion; on strong and impressive women with the financial means to invest in the coming of this kingdom, on women who listen carefully, who do hard things, who confront death and curse and ‘the regressive’ world and speak up… so following Jesus should never be about maintaining traditional gender roles that we inherit from the curse in Genesis 3; but progress is about the journey of Jesus – about walking that journey together, men and women, different and equal; joint heirs made ‘one’ in Christ Jesus; stepping out against the curse and the ‘regressive’ ways men and women relate together in our world.
Progress, for Christians, men and women, is about adventurously living in this new reality – the reality of the kingdom.
Following the resurrected king. Challenging the ‘norms’ brought about by the curse, but doing that not by crashing through glass ceilings – becoming ‘equally powerful’ – but instead, taking up our cross and journeying with Jesus. Following in his footsteps of sacrificial love for the sake of others. That’s the pattern for real flourishing humanity; for reflecting the image of God as we see him revealed in Jesus. Let’s press for this sort of progress together. The sort of progress Jesus described when he said he had to die and be raised, back in Galilee, to these women. The progress that comes not through ‘parity’ or ‘gaining everything’ but in giving up everything and taking up our cross. Daily.
Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” 23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? – Luke 9:21-25
Campus Pastor – South Bank Campus
Connect Grow Serve Director