Gender-bending Junia and a God of Grace
Readings: Psalm 145:9-21; Romans 16:1-16
Now I know that Julie will say that we’ve already welcomed here a number of times at church meetings, evening services and social events but it is still a pleasure to welcome her to her first morning service here in her official capacity as student minister. It will be a privilege to walk alongside her over the coming weeks and months and some of us have already got to know her a little. Some have heard her beautiful singing voice; some have discovered her firm handshake; others have learnt of her loathing of photographs.
It really is a job to get her to agree to be in any. And if you do, she’s likely to be looking the other way such as at this Castle Square social last Tuesday or to hide behind whatever she can…even a set of newly cut keys!
Julie’s not on her own with this of course…most of us aren’t total fans of how we look in photographs and the stratospheric rise of selfies and social media self-appraisals hasn’t been a friend to healthy body image.
Hence the rise of photoshop and filters which can make you look thinner, younger, more gorgeous at the click of a button. No more ‘warts and all’ for us! And the use of such fakery isn’t restricted to enlarging assets and erasing blemishes for sometimes it can seek to erase people altogether! You might remember the outrage back in 2015 when a conservative Israeli newspaper airbrushed Angela Merkel, Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini out of the photograph of world leaders marching in solidarity following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.
The picture was manipulated so the women were replaced by men. Some here might want to scream at that. Some might sigh and say ‘twas ever thus’. Others might want to point out the hypocrisy of this point being made in a church.
After all, we’ve quite a history of airbrushing the image; of tweaking history so that the women of the Bible and Church look the way we want them to be. King David coming off a little like a conceited misogynist? Then just airbrush his wife Michal into being the villain. Don’t like the idea of the Saviour of the world being born to a screaming teenager? Airbrush her a little so she’s a silent, serene saint.
Worried by the suggestion that women should also have a voice in the church? Well then minimize their role in the gospels; hide their influence in the early church…better still, replace their image with men!
This is most likely what happened to a disciple who, in her life, was lauded amongst her contemporaries, imprisoned for her faith, later even sainted by our Orthodox friends; a woman of great faith who was airbrushed out of the story and most likely ignored by most of us in that list of greetings that we just heard. I’m talking about the enigmatic Junia.
Junia – listed in the 16th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans – has a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in the New Testament – nothing unusual there. But where it does get interesting is the gender-bending game of hide and seek that she’s been playing with scholars down the years. It’s a fairly complex story of translation gymnastics but essentially what happened was that although Junia was widely accepted as a female apostle throughout early Church history, in later translations of the Bible an “s” was added to the end of her name, making it into a masculine form, Junias. So the female Junia was turned into the male Junias. That single letter addition ridded the Church of the challenge of hearing that a woman was heralded as an apostle by St Paul which would have been an incendiary idea at the time when the Emperor Constantine and his friends wanted to promote a muscular, powerful, manly Christian faith that the rest of his Empire could adopt and adapt for their own need. The same thing happened to Prisca, a teenage martyr of the first century who was sainted by some and turned into a man by others; and it’s not so very different from the later task of painting Mary Magdalene as a prostitute or Jesus’ mother as a perpetual virgin as that confined women to their non-threatening, patriarchy-serving roles.
As regards Junia, scholars have recently and overwhelmingly acknowledged that the name found in the 16th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is definitively female so just seven years ago, in 2011, the NIV Bible – along with most other translations – finally acknowledged Junia as a woman. Error corrected. Image restored. Happy ending.
Except…we’re not there yet, of course. The position of women across the global Church is anything but equal; minorities of ethnicity, disability or sexuality are still being photoshopped out of the Church picture; and Christians across the world are still twisting scripture so to promote that muscular, powerful, manly Christian faith that will collude with an unjust Empire.
‘How can we justify turning the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into a model for immigration policy?’ US Attorney General Geoff Sessions was asked after photographs of children as young as five being put into cages were published this year, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul,” he answered back in June, “and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
Separation at the border:
children wait in cages at
south Texas warehouse
And thus the cage was airbrushed out of the story as the Bible verse used to justify anti-Semitism, slavery and apartheid was called upon once again.
And yet, lest we get too smug that we are so much more enlightened, progressive and…right…than those who use the Bible in that way, isn’t it true that we can all be guilty of doing the exact same thing in our relationship with God? When we’re told to offer our whole selves to God, aren’t there bits of our lives that we try to hide, tweak or crop out altogether because…well, how would I be viewed in Church and how could God possibly love me if I revealed that side of who I am? We, too, tweak our own picture, hoping that if we look more prayerful, maybe more certain, more able to cope with life, or less doubting, less desperate, perhaps even just less sweary, then maybe we’ll fit in with God and God’s people?
We can all be tempted by the desire to airbrush out part of ourselves, our neighbours, our faith story but when we are, perhaps we need to look at the reasons why. Perhaps it’s because we find it hard to truly believe that we are known and loved by God, after all,we know what we say, think, do, when no one is watching. Perhaps it’s because we expect others to fit into our ways of doing things rather than seeing, responding to them and loving them as diversely made children of God. Perhaps it’s because we struggle when the Bible challenges our tightly held beliefs or holds a mirror to both our beauty and brokenness.
Well, two thousand years ago, even before the female Junia had been photoshopped into being the male Junias, the religious system had been built to uphold all of the above prejudices. Quite simply, you weren’t good or holy enough to come into God’s presence. In the Temple System Picture, you were cropped out if you were female, disabled, gay, religiously or ethnically other, born to the wrong family or engaged in the wrong profession. You could buy your way a little closer, of course – perhaps into the photo’s background – if you bought the right sacrifices to cover your blemishes but the ultimate selfie with God was reserved for the holiest, most able, ethnically and religiously pure and powerful man on one day of the year when the Chief Priest was allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It was a prejudiced system but everyone knew their place, and it worked.
Then, one ominous day, some radical from Nazareth comes along and says, ‘I think it’s about time to welcome women’. Cue shock from the authorities and from his own band of followers. “Oh,” he continued, ‘and maybe don’t keep the little children away…in fact why don’t you listen to and learn from them? And while we’re at it, let the lepers come close, the foreigners be welcomed, let’s eat and drink with those considered unclean…let’s dare to believe that God’s love ignores human-made borders, that the poor are blessed, the corrupt will fall…Speaking of which, this Temple System of division will end, y’know; God’s presence will be seen in taverns and by roadsides; God’s Spirit will be upon the young and old, the slave and free, men and women for God is not a God who crops people out but who welcomes them in. God doesn’t photoshop people from the picture but widens the camera’s lens so that everyone might be seen and might know of God’s reckless love. God doesn’t airbrush out our blemishes but encourages us to look into the face of the poor and disfigured, the friend and the foreigner, the Muslim and the man or woman in the mirror…and there get a glimpse of the face of God!’
For saying all this, he was hanged on a cross. But we know that the story didn’t end there…they couldn’t edit out the next scene for it spoke of life-changing hope; of world-shaking resurrection is this world and the next!
In light of this good news, perhaps we might dare to believe that God loves us with all our foibles and failures, our faith and our doubts – that we can bring all of who we are, respectable or not, to this place, this community and the God whom we serve here.
Perhaps we might dare to be honest about the questions we have, the anger we sometimes feel, the desperation that sometimes comes close, knowing that our Saviour had similar experiences, that being truthful about who we are might lead to acceptance or challenge but will certainly be met with amazing grace.
Perhaps we might dare to attempt to love the weird and wonderful women and men we meet with here, treating our sisters and brothers not merely as objects who might fit in with our preferences and picture but as beloved children of God, bearers of the Holy Spirit, who might sustain and surprise us, frustrate and forgive us, who might recognize and reveal God’s presence with us.
Well, today we welcome Julie into this enterprise with us. So pray for her- she’ll need it! And meet her, delight in her, as she is – as God created her to be, without the need for any airbrushing or photoshopping! For in doing so, Julie and each of us here might proudly join the Church picture with Junia, whose name and image is synonymous with radical welcome, inclusion, diversity and equality today. We might be pictured with Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman, Jairus’ daughter and all the women whose lives were transformed by the Nazarene preacher; with the Roman soldier, the Ethiopian eunuch, the Philippian prison guard and all the unlikely faces who have been brought into the picture; and with Jesus himself –the God who took on flesh, blood, warts and all so to teach us how to live and show us how we are loved. It’s quite the family portrait. Say cheese! Amen.
- What difference might it make to our homes/community/world, if we truly believed that each and every person truly is created and loved by God?
- What would it mean for you to bring the parts of your life you try to hide before God and/or to church?
- How would it feel to stand in front of a mirror and to thank God for making you, you?
- This week could you pray for someone you would like to photoshop out of your picture, or perhaps try to love them in deed?