To Whom Shall We Go?

by Jen Owens

The proclamation of today’s readings coincides with my move to Berkeley, California, and the start of my doctoral studies. As I prepare for the next chapter in my story, the questions these readings present become all the more pressing. Whom will I serve? What does Scripture really teach us about gendered relationships? To whom shall we go?

In the first reading, we are reminded of the story of the liberation of the people of God. God led them out of slavery in Egypt and into the challenging journey through the desert, the end of which is nearing when we meet this community and their descendents in the Book of Joshua. When Joshua confronts the people, asking them whom they will serve, their response is heartening. In spite of the struggles they endured since they had left Egypt, the people of God declare their commitment to the one who loved them through slavery into freedom.

So how do we square the first and second readings? Does the God of the Hebrew Scriptures who loves freedom suddenly become one who oppresses women in later parts of the Christian Bible? While I’m hardly a Scripture scholar, I draw on the wisdom of Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity. When passages seem to contradict each other, he explains, defer to the example of Jesus. The Jesus I see in the Gospels was not one to keep women bound; quite the contrary, he loved them into freedom in much the same way that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures did for the Israelite slaves. He openly and publicly spoke with women who were not members of his family. He revealed himself to the women who were gathered at the empty tomb after his Resurrection. He had a special place for them in his public ministry. And, in spite of his bad rap because of passages attributed to him like this one, Paul continued and even expanded on this tradition as his ministry in the ancient world grew, with women like Prisca as heads of house churches and women like Thecla taking on significant leadership roles in early missionary efforts.

It’s important to remember that the diversity we encounter in contemporary perspectives on matters of the church is part of our salvation history. Different members of the church have interpreted particular aspects of Jesus’ ministry in a number of ways, and finding unity in this diversity has been a gift and a challenge since the early days of the Christian community. This passage in Ephesians is a reflection of that.

Looking at the Gospel in its context, we understand that the hard saying to which the disciples are referring is the idea that we have been hearing about in the Gospel readings for much of the past month. Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven; those who eat of it will have eternal life. In struggling with this passage, some of the disciples begin to abandon Jesus and he confronts those who remain. Peter replies, “To whom shall we go?”

In light of today’s readings, Peter’s words are prophetic. Despite the failings of the institutional church, it gives us much of what we use to come closer to Jesus, and, as my spiritual director recently reminded me, the division between the two is not quite so stark as I might like to draw it. The institutional church, in all its brokenness, is an expression of Christ crucified in the world around us. It is not above the challenges of other communities; like Jesus, it is in the thick of the messiness that often threatens to pull us apart.

However, as we learn anew each time we celebrate the Eucharist, crucifixion and death do not get the final word. Through our relationship with Jesus, not only do we learn how to die to ourselves, but we also learn how to rise again with him, these smaller resurrections giving hope to our church and our world. Each time we commit ourselves to the God who freed those who were enslaved in Egypt, to the Christ who affirms the dignity of women throughout the Gospels, we give witness to the new life of which the Kingdom of God promises.

Today, when I hear Peter’s question, I am reminded. Of the need to cling to the God who knows my needs, to the Christ who entered into our suffering in order to redeem us, to the Spirit who testifies to the enduring love that guides it all. They introduce me to the church to which my parents committed me in baptism, to which I committed myself at confirmation, like the Israelites coming out of the desert in today’s first reading. They introduce me to a church that is broken and bleeding and in need of redemption. And they remind me that rising again takes all of us, with our faith in the One who made us and in one another.

Jen Owens is an incoming doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, and a co-editor of From the Pews in the Back. She is grateful for the gifts that her home parish community has shared with her in the in-between.

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