Listen to Lady Wisdom: John 18.12–27

2018.3.4 Lady WisdomDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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Women are Biblical gatekeepers.

Women are, in at least three significant moments in the Bible, at gateways to understanding and revelation deemed essential for a life of faith.

But before I get to that, I want to spend a moment on the order of our readings this Lenten season. Look at the cover of your bulletin, if you would: you will see an image representing each of the different stories. We started with the resurrection of Lazarus, one of John’s most beautifully crafted Easter foreshadows, to Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at Passover, to today’s combination of the preliminary trial of Jesus and denial by Peter.

For the next two weeks we will watch Jesus engage with Pilate, the governor of the occupying Roman force. Then we will double back in time to the Palm Sunday protest that triggered that arrest and confrontation in the first place, before entering into Holy Week proper.

We are giving much more time than we often do to the crisis that resulted in the mystery at the core of our faith tradition. This year we are lingering in raw conversations—that had devastating conclusions—because we want to learn from them rather than pretend we will never have such trials and tribulations in our own lives.

The Hebrew Bible book of Proverbs wants to help up in that learning.

Proverbs is a “daily righteousness guide,” my rabbi taught, in the form of advice from a father to a son. But the foundation for this masculine instruction is a woman at a gate:

Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,
Raises her voice in the squares.
At the head of the busy streets she calls;
At the entrance of the gates, in the city she speaks out…(1.20–21, JPS)

And what does she say?

Lady Wisdom reprimands all who turn away when she calls, who do not take her hand when she reaches it out, and who do not take her advice. As a consequence, she warns, when calamity, terror, and distress come, as they always do, she will not be there to help. They shall eat the fruit of their ways,” she says, “(b)ut he who listens to me will dwell in safety.” (1.31–33, JPS). Enter Lady Wisdom’s gate today that you may be protected by her tomorrow.

In today’s reading, Peter seems desperate for protection.

Peter’s original name was Simon. He is a brother of Andrew, who is a disciple of John the Baptist. Andrew tells Simon that John has directed them to the messiah, the anointed one of God. So, the two brothers go to Jesus, who says, “You are Simon…you are (now) to be called Peter” (1.40–42).

Simon Peter goes on to be present for the miracle of loaves and fishes. Later, when we hear that many of Jesus’s followers abandon Jesus. Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  (6.66–69). Then, as we heard last week, Peter is understandably baffled to have the Holy One of God offer to wash his feet. Peter says that he would lay his life down for Jesus, and looked as if he truly might when, on Jesus being arrested, Peter draws his knife and mutilates a member of the arresting party.

Peter has been with Jesus since the beginning. He accepts the new name Jesus offers him. He beholds acts of great power and love. Peter confesses that Jesus is holy, a holiness worth dying for. Yet as soon as Jesus is under arrest and scrutiny, Peter denies knowing Jesus, even to the family of the man he had maimed in defense of Jesus.

But his first denial is to our second woman at a gate.

At the gate to the high priest’s enclosure, the place where Jesus is being held, there is a guard. That guard is a woman. The woman guardian says to Peter: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

We can, of course, read her tone in multiple ways:

Disgust: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

Curiosity: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

Or, as I am suggesting today, as confirmation: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

Peter replies, “I am not.”

Despite everything he has seen and everything he has felt and everything he has said and everything he has done, Peter denies being a disciple of Jesus when asked by this woman.

I could not find any evidence of a tradition of female guards at priestly dwellings and we have no other potential identifying details for this examiner except that she is a woman at a gate asking a question about loyalty, values, and learning.

She is, then, I believe, Wisdom. She is, again, Lady Wisdom at a crossing point between insight and ignorance, understanding and witlessness.

Lady Wisdom, a companion to God, an emissary of the divine, an embodiment of the gifts of the sacred, isn’t just asking Peter if he is with Jesus but whether he has accepted the guide for daily righteousness that Jesus offers. Have you taken the hand of Jesus, Peter? Have you turned toward love, Peter? Have you learned the lessons of God’s justice, Peter?

No, Peter has not, it seems. That will take a third woman at a gate.

Very few people stay with Jesus through his show trial and real execution. One of them is Mary Magdalene, or Miriam of Magdala.

After Jesus is dead and buried, Mary goes to tend to the tomb. She is the only one brave enough to return to that resting place of a political martyr. Once there, she finds the stone door open.

Mary is the first one to discover that the tomb is not a dead end but a gateway to impossible life. Because Mary Magdalene not only accepted but treasured the teachings of Jesus in his living, she is the first to receive the wisdom beyond his dying.

And so she runs from that gate to Peter, she runs as Lady Wisdom once more, crying out to be heard.

And, at last, Peter does.

Jesus must have, too, though long before.

When the high priests try to entrap Jesus, he replies: “I’ve never hidden from you or any other human authority. You and your Roman masters could have seen me preach just as so many stateless and disenfranchised people did. I have said nothing in secret. Go talk to the multitudes who have felt hope, known healing, and shared resources because of my witness to the God of ever-loving covenant.”

Lady Wisdom could not protect Jesus from the death that followed his unwillingness to compromise who we was and who he stood with, but she was with him in that standing, that uncompromised stance that compels us to this day.

So, we can be like Peter and deny knowing Jesus when doing so feels awkward or embarrassing or dangerous. But our denials will not close the tomb, they will not allow us to avoid gateways.

Lady Wisdom still cries out, offering us her protection, too, though not from death and not from strife. Lady Wisdom offers daily guidance to protect the integrity of our souls, so that when we are interrogated and chastised for our care of the world, we, too, will stand without fear and without shame and without a doubt that we are in service to the God of righteousness.


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