Harrowing Of Hell
October 24, 2021

Priscilla and “What Can I Do for You?”

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I was on a Zoom call the other day with our Sunday school teachers and as I listened to their vision and energy and passion for our children and the message of Jesus Christ, I couldn’t help but think of my very early days here at Epiphany. When I came, we had no Sunday school to speak of, and I knew we needed one. A new day was dawning here, and I had a sense that there would be children all over the place.

So, I asked four extraordinary people to do something to prepare us for these yet to arrive children. Tina Eide, whose daughter India is now in Confirmation class, Laura Rodde, my now Chief of Staff, my wife Kristin, who is still my wife, and the venerable Sean Johnson, the elder states person of the team, stepped up! Together these four built a fabulous Sunday school, and the memory of their legacy filled my heart as I listened to our current Sunday school teachers the other day.  They have the same surge of ownership and can-do attitude that is so deeply rooted at Epiphany… thanks be to God, because we are at a place of rebuilding, and not just because of the surprise, at least to me, that the talented Ruth Anne and Naomi and Amanda are simultaneously moving on each for their own reasons, but because everything is different since the pandemic.

People’s spiritual habits have shifted and changed. While some people are still nervous about coming back to church because of the Delta variant, others have just forgotten about coming back to church. They have become comfortable ensconced in their own time frames, contexts, and preferences… I’ve even heard that some people who attend online only watch the sermons. Can you imagine that, choir? In fact, I think it is only to hear the anthems.

That said, the church has confronted apathy and distraction before, and in fact, it has faced greater assaults than these. In the days when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the emperor Claudius and his Roman legions aggressively sought the destruction of the Church. And yet, the answer that the author of this letter proposes to the church under siege, whether against spiritual sloth or active persecution, is the same: that regular folks inspired by the love of Jesus are the ones that move the church forward in uncertain times.

I am a great lover of the Letter to the Hebrews. I took a whole class on it at seminary. I love the fluidity of the theology, and the beauty of the writing. I’ve taught classes on it myself, and will do so again, but I will do so, now, with the realization that this letter most likely was written by a woman. Do you know who taught me this? Was it my fabulous New Testament professor Kathy Grieb? Was it from a book by the Most Holy Rowan Williams, or the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, or even Dallas Willard, or Hans Urs van Balthasar? No! It was from Lauren Wearsch, our Junior Warden!

We have been running this fabulous Sunday morning series called Women in The Bible. We have heard from Ruth Anne, and also Susan Pitchford, Judy Mayotte, Julie Von Koschembahr, and Lauren Wearsch.

In the church of Jesus Christ it is important to remember it is not credentials or hierarchy or positions of prominence that define a person’s capacity, rather it is passion and creativity and openness to the Holy Spirit. Any of you that attended any of these forums witnessed what I’m talking about.

So, I’m at Lauren’s class a few Sundays back, and I heard her teach eloquently about Priscilla as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. And I’m like: “What?” And, you are wondering: “Who was Priscilla?” Well, Priscilla was married to Aquila and they lived in Corinth. They were tent makers, which is probably how they met Paul, also a tent maker, when he arrived in Corinth. Tradition has it that they ended up working together, which makes it easy to imagine that as they sat around the table stitching canvas Paul told them about the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Book of Acts and the Letter to the Romans tells of Priscilla and Aquila, and as they do so they name Priscilla, in most cases, before Aquila. It was Priscilla and Aquila, not Aquila and Priscilla. That was exceedingly unusual. In the culture of that time men always got top billing. Not so in the case of Priscilla and Aquila. These scriptures also talk about Priscilla as the teacher of Apollos, who was later considered one of the great teachers of the Christian faith.

And so, as they waxed tent seams and spoke of Jesus, I am sure Paul quickly realized that Priscilla was bright and capable, and understood the impact of Jesus and the reality of the Kingdom of God.

When Paul left Corinth after a year and a half, Priscilla and Aquila went with him. Eventually they ended up in Rome, where Paul was imprisoned and Priscilla and Aquila were banished by emperor Claudius. I can imagine Priscilla in some foreign place, rolling out of bed in the middle of the night, tired eyes pinned open by images of her poor persecuted church in Rome. Heartbroken and mind spinning, praying to Jesus to save her beloved church. And from the dark corner of her soul she sees a spark, spreading like fire, warm and radiant, vibrant with love…and she hears Jesus ask (what he asks of all of us): “What can I do for you, Priscilla?” And she responds: “Save my beloved church in Rome; sustain them, and motivate them, and inspire them. To which Jesus says: “Write, Priscilla, write!” And so, Priscilla wrote, and we are the blessed beneficiary through the enduring power of her Letter to the Hebrews.

 One of the unique attributes of this letter is that it is not signed. Scholars believe this is further evidence that it was written by a woman… her name remaining anonymous so as not to enflame the chauvinism of the day. In her wisdom, Priscilla stepped out of the way, letting the message of the Holy Spirit move through her without making it about her, so the message could flow forth to the struggling church in Rome and beyond.

And what was this message? That Jesus, the great high priest, singular and sufficient, has saved our souls, once and for all. That is the point and the power of the resurrection. As Paul later writes: “Death no longer has dominion over us” (Rom 6:9). “Death has been swallowed up by victory. O’ death, where is your victory? Where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, but thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:54-57 para).

The victory has been achieved, our jobs now is to be heralds of this proclamation. You can’t lose if you have already won. Victory is upon us. And what that means for you and me is not apathy, but exultation! Who mourns at the wedding feast? Not us, for we are The Christians, we are like Bartimaeus, who upon hearing the name of Jesus threw off his cloak and ran and bowed down and worshiped him. In his act of adoration Bartimaeus hears, as Priscilla must have heard the Jesus question: “What can I do for you?” He is ready with the answer: “Allow me to see.”  “By your faith you can see,” Jesus responds.

Over the year, I have implored you, The Epiphany Christians, to ask the Jesus question: “What can I do for you?” And you have, and by your faithfulness Epiphany has done and continues to do good works in the world. Thank you.

But today I am asking you something different. Today, I am asking you to be like Priscilla and Bartimaeus, and be ready with an answer when Jesus asks: “What can I do for you?” And when he does include your church in your answer.

In the last two weeks I have witnessed people in our parish do just that. Sterling and Justin, have stepped up to manage the Guided Liturgy for Families. Doug and Alvin and Susan have joined Kelli and Frank on our preaching team. Pete and Michael, along with the entire Service and Outreach team, have said: “Here I am. Send me!” They have all cast aside their cloaks and sprung into action. As have Lauren and Lisel who proclaimed: “We are here for our youth.” As have Camille and Karen and Jill doubling down on their promise to care for the youngest among them and bring them up in the church.

And there are others who have cast aside their cloaks and sprung into action, because they, like you and me, know the victory is at hand, and God has already bestowed upon us the victor’s prize.

We sit together in this room, a people united in place and time, empowered to perpetuate            the work of Jesus Christ in the world. Against the backdrop of organizational shift, and lingering pandemic, and spiritual apathy we step in line, shoulder to shoulder with Priscilla and Bartimaeus, and all the unnamed millions who have done what we are doing throughout the ages to unleash the beauty and grace and joy and power and love, most importantly love of Jesus Christ.

This is the Age of the Holy Spirit. We have received our reward, the victory is upon us, it is our time to respond.