Our text today is an odd one: it’s a story that just didn’t quite make it into the Bible.
About 200 years after Jesus’ death, a group of people came together to decide which writings would become part of the canon, AKA the agreed upon authoritative writings, and which would be left out. As westerners, I think it’s an important endeavor to try to understand the Christian canon. But, as Unitarian Universalists in a christian world, I think it’s important to understand the non-canonical texts. The holy books that were unsanctioned. Because it’s the shadow side…the parts that got written out. So today, we delve into the one particularly fascinating unsanctioned holy book.
This is the story of Thecla, a 17 year old woman who was one of Paul’s most dedicated disciples. We meet her as she is about to be publicly murdered.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla excerpts from vs 30-34
And when dawn arrived, the man she had refused to marry came to take her away, saying “the governor is seated and the crowd is clamoring for us. Take away she who is to fight the wild animals!”
And the governor sent soldiers to bring Thecla. Then, there was an uproar and rumbling of the wild animals, and a cry from the people, and the women sitting together saying, “bring in the sacrilegious one!” And Thecla was taken and thrown into the stadium.
And they threw in many wild animals and she stood and stretched out her hands. As she finished her prayer, she turned and saw a great pit full of water and she threw herself in, saying “I baptize myself on this day!” And, seeing this, the whole crowd wept, saying “do not throw yourself into the water!” so that even the governor wept because the sea lions were going to devour such beauty. Then, she threw herself into the water.
THE UNSANCTIONED HOLY
The sun beating down on her bare back, the stands of the colosseum rising around her, thousands of faces jeering down as the doors cranked open and out flew the lithe and springing body of a lioness. Thecla stood strong, a powerful young woman who held her head high as the beast roared towards her. She turned, for an instant, to look into the stands, at the faces of the officials that left her to her fate, and seated beside them, the man she had refused to marry. She hopes to see her teacher Paul, but he’s not there. The Lionness draws near, leaps and hangs mid air, moving slow-motion into her range of view.
Thecla was in this ring ostensibly, because she refused to marry. It was illegal for her to choose celibacy, because the laws in her world said that her body didn’t belong to her. But Thecla was a Holy Woman, so she was beholden to the laws of her own radical and beautiful wisdom.
We don’t have a lot of Holy Women in our society. Or, there are lot of holy women, they’re just teachers or mothers or healers. We don’t have a lot of holy women who have been given authority. Women aren’t really sanctioned to be religious leaders.
Now, it might seem semi-normal to us that women are powerful, but don’t forget it’s been a long road. A lot had to happen to get me in this pulpit and Anna as my worship associate. We Unitarian Universalists have done a lot of work on this issue. We’ve been leaders for women’s rights in this country. We’ve consistently been on the forefront, we were the first white church to ordain a woman in the US, most of the suffragettes were Unitarian, and now we have majority female ministers. 57%
But, almost all of the senior ministers in this denomination are male. Very few women are given true religious authority. Sometimes, I’ll reveal to people that I’m a minister and then they’ll ask Who’s the minister? I’m like, I am. And they ask, who preaches? I do. But who writes the sermons? And the thing is, I know what they don’t even know to ask. Who gets called in an emergency? Who gets up in the night and goes to the hospital when a child dies? Whose job is it to stand up against systemic injustice? Who struggles with the suffering she sees in this world? Who raises a million dollars in her first six months of ministry so that the pipes don’t break in this old school building? I do.
This is confusing for people, because I am an unsanctioned holy person. I live outside the norms of what a minister looks like. And I live outside the norms of what a minister thinks like. Not only am I a young woman with the title of reverend, but my title speaks to everyone who hears it of a religion that isn’t mine.
But I know you know about this. You know what it’s like to live outside of the religious norm. You have already broken free of a way of thinking that was too small for you. You have already decided to see the beauty in this world through a paradigm that most people don’t think is religious. We’re confusing , but we are still religious people. We are still holy, we are still grappling with huge, beautiful questions.
Just like Thecla was doing. She was an intensely spiritual person. She was Paul’s most dedicated disciple. She “sat at a window close to the house and listened night and day to the message of holiness spoken by Paul. She did not turn away from the window once, but moved forward, rejoicing exceedingly.” She traded her bracelets to the guard and broke into the jail, just to sit at Paul’s feet and learn from him. She wanted nothing more than to be changed and transformed into something new, she was open to this beautiful blossoming inside of her, willing to follow it where it lead her.
But even though Thecla was this amazing powerful saint, she got written out of the bible! Now, I’m not saying that the people who decided on the Christian cannon were bad people, I’m just sayin, why’d you write out all the women, you big stinkers. That’s right, all of these interesting beautiful texts were deemed heretical, and I’m like, I bet they’re heretical because they put both the sun and the stars aflame. Because they hit a nerve that was a little bit terrifying, because it profoundly attacked society’s own sense of reality.
Thecla chose death over doing something with her body that she didn’t want. Thecla chose death over doing something with her body that she didn’t want. I’ll just talk to the women for a second: you and I know, that’s some real power. To believe your own story first? To hold your head high even though you’re thoughts not sanctioned? That shifts something deep in how people think.
And that’s what’s so, so special about our theology. We believe shifting of the mind. We have a precious sanctuary that protects change. Possibility is the heart of theological life: we want new thoughts. In a way, we worship an upheaval in the universe. I for one need me mind to change, I need to be broken open, I need to have the world be a playground. I need to be free. And this is why our religion is so special. Because we have this magical thing called freedom of the pulpit! And, this is radical. Not only because I’m an unlikely face, but because we live in a world of creeds. NO, we are different. We have a living tradition, we hold space for things to morph. And that means that we’re a little bit terrifying, because we so profoundly attack society’s own sense of what religion is and what it could be.
Which is why I love this story of Thecla. Because she was so obviously, ludacrisly holy. She did all sorts of crazy magic tricks. She was tied to a stake and lit of fire and she was like, oh is it hot in here? There was no doubt about her holiness, which makes me think that this story is a farce: it’s supposed to demonstrate the lengths to which a society will go to keep the unsanctioned out.
What did they do with the terrifying woman? They placed her, alone and naked in the center of a coliseum to face a lioness and a bear. Remember the Lionness? – hanging midair in front of Thecla, moving slow-motion into her range of view, drawing nearer. But, suddenly as it pounced, the lioness tucked into itself, bowed before Thecla and licked her toes, then turned, fought off and killed the bear. And then Paul was like, “I just still don’t know if you’re holy enough to get baptised.” Paul was like, “I just, it doesn’t, I’m confused.”
So Thecla was like “whatever.” And, then baptised herself.
She was like, “oh, you you don’t see the holy in me?” Well, I’ve got what I need right here, thank you very much. And then she threw herself into the water, and guess what happened, light emanated throughout it and guess what else happened, all the sea lion floated dead to the surface. If you can believe that.
So when someone makes you feel like you’re not sanctioned, when someone makes you doubt the beauty you see in this world? When someone makes you question your own instinct? When someone makes you think that you’re not a total gem? Just say, “oh, you don’t like me? Even though I have a pet lionness?” Be like “whatever,” and then just hop on your baby porpoise and ride into the clouds against a backdrop of a triple rainbow and then a marshmallow will float by and rain glitter.
Bye bye anything that makes us small. No reason to bother with you anymore. Hello this awesome new moment. Hello this widening. Hello…us. This chosen family. It’s a beautiful thing to be here together, with the potential to explore how we want to be religious people. To bring ourselves out in our fullness and our beauty even if it doesn’t look like the norm.
It’s not every day that a 30 year old lands an awesome tightly run ship of a congregation that seems to like her back. You’ve done something radical in giving me this pulpit, and I thank you for it, because it means that now I get to be like Thecla, too…living in a world as a holy woman, only I’m the luckiest gal in the world because you gave me authority. We’re already radical in our right: together we gave a young woman one of the last sacred platforms in our world: a free pulpit.