We all know what a significant contribution is made to the total life of the Church by women. But, very little emphasis has been given to the significance of the contribution that women made to the life of the early Church, although it must be obvious to anyone paying attention to the reading of the Epistles and Gospels of the New Testament that women have been very much involved in the life of the Church from the very beginning. To my knowledge it is only within the past 50 years or so that women have been elected or appointed to major roles in the Episcopal Church.
If we search Church History books and the lives of the Saints we can see women filling big roles going way back in history.
Just in reading the New Testament we can see that a place of women was being recognized during the lifetime of our Lord, as we heard in today’s Gospel. (Lk 8:1-3) Certainly it continued through the lifetime of St. Paul, who, along with St. Luke gave us most of the information that we have about women being active members and supporters of the Church in those early years.
Today’s feast honors three women whom we can see as having significant enough roles to be mentioned either in the Acts of the Apostles or in Paul’s letters.
Dorcas (or Tabitha in Aramaic,) was among the women in Joppa who became disciples of Peter. Most of what we know of her we learn just after her death when other women were preparing her for burial. Peter was at Lydda, near Joppa, and two men were sent to bring Peter to Joppa to the room where they had laid Dorcas out. Dorcas was well known for her good works and acts of charity. She was noted especially for making tunics and other pieces of clothing for other people. When Peter got there he sent all of the women out of the room and knelt down and prayed saying, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes and seeing Peter she sat up. This act brought many to believe in the Lord. (Acts 9:36-43)
We first meet Lydia at Philippi, a Roman colony in the district of Macedonia, where Paul and Silas, and perhaps also Timothy, had traveled on their mission of spreading the Gospel. There, on the Sabbath day, at a place of prayer outside the gate of the city by the river where there was a place of prayer they met and spoke with the women who had gathered there. It was there that they met Lydia, and after baptizing her and her household they were invited to Lydia’s home to stay there. (Acts 16:11-15) After some further adventures in that place, and a brief imprisonment, Paul and Silas returned to Lydia’s home, where they encouraged the brothers and sisters of that place, and resumed their missionary journey. (Acts 16:40)
We only meet Phoebe in the closing salutations of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he commended her to those who should read that letter, calling her a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, and speaking of her as a benefactor to many, including Paul himself. (Rom. 16:1-2) It has been pointed out that the diaconate had not yet been established as an order in the church at large, but Phoebe might appropriately be referred to as a “proto-deacon”.
Much of what we have read or heard about these three women is reminiscent of my mother and other women whom I have known during my lifetime who were active in the Church. Some of you also have known others who by their participation in the work of the Church have been good examples of Christian living. We can give thanks for those women and for all others like them in ancient times and in our own times as well.
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