Today we commemorate three people who were coworkers with the apostles. There are lots of threes in the Bible: Abraham Isaac and Jacob; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Saul, Jonathan, and David: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; Peter, James, and John; Paul, John Mark, and Barnabas, among others. We seldom see women in threes, although many women are mentioned in the New Testament, both by name and unnamed. Today we have three, who were mentioned in the Gospels and in Acts, who played important parts in the establishment of a growing church and who made their contributions in different ways. Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe were from different places and performed different ministries. We celebrate those ministries today.
Lydia was mentioned as a seller of purple, or a person who dealt with purple dye which was rare and expensive. Lydia ran her business apparently quite successfully. Her business acumen combined with her earned wealth, made her a financial contributor to the growing church and with her whole household, she was baptized into the new faith, Paul and his companions were invited to stay in her house when they were in Philippi, and made her house their headquarters.
Dorcas was an early Christian in the town of Joppa. Dorcas (her Greek name) was also called Tabitha (in Aramaic). She was known for her charitable works, especially in making garments and donating them to needy widows, a group of people that Jesus (and his Jewish tradition) encouraged his followers to care for, among others. When she died, Peter came to her bedside and raised her back to life. Lutheran women are part of DORCAS (Diaconal Outreach, Care and Services), whose acronym reminds us of the ministry of the Dorcas we commemorate today.
Phoebe was from the eastern seaport of Corinth and was given the title diakonos of the church in Chenchreae. She served as an assistant, servant, or a deacon, depending on the translation. She could have possibly been a deaconess, which was a different position than that described by the word deacon. Whatever her title actually meant, she was a close coworker in the city of Corinth with Paul and his companions. Corinth was a sea port, one where sailors had shore leave after having dragged their ships across the isthmus that connected northern Greece, southern Greece, and the world beyond. The isthmus was not completed for many centuries, so in Phoebe’s time, ships were taken out of the water, put on rollers, and then hauled by the sailors across the dry isthmus and into the water again at Corinth. It is thought that Paul wrote more frequently about sexual sins in his letters to the Corinthians because of the shore leave given to the sailors after such an endeavor. Phoebe was probably very much needed to minister to the women of Corinth.
Three women, three different ministries, all dealing with churches and groups of men who also worked with the churches. Part of their importance is that they are women, not women who were in direct contact with Jesus but who nonetheless heard and believed the message and worked to pass it on. These three women have names, but there many others in the New Testament whose work and witness impacted the lives of those around them and brought them into the fold of the new the new faith. We seldom hear their stories, like Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, in the sermons or the readings on Sunday; there quite often relegated to a weekday. However, the need to be remembered as representatives of all the women in the Bible, named and unnamed, who do not always get the same amount of recognition as their male counterparts.
This isn’t a bid for feminism and equality per se, although I would like to see more emphasis placed on the women of the Bible and their contributions. Seldom during the church year (except at Christmas and Easter) do we hear of or mention the women that were such important parts of the scenario. We know of Mary and Elizabeth at Advent and Christmas, and then Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary, wife of Clopas, Mary the mother of James and John, and Salome at the base of the cross and the women who went to the tomb after the Sabbath. We know those stories, and we know those names, but we often forget there are others who are worthy of remembrance and emulation.
This week I need to think about Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. I admit, Phoebe is easier, since my little girl cat is also named Phoebe, and she is assiduous in her ministry of being a loving bundle of fur whose purr ministers to me so well as a calming ministry. As for the humans, I’m not much of a businesswoman, I could make hats and scarves for the homeless women that I see around, and I could be a little more active in service to both the churched and the unchurched. It’s just gonna take a little more effort.
May we remember these women and all the others as heroes of the faith and example examples of what Christianity is about.
Image: Dorcas, Phoebe, Lydia