Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday: Called by name

Names are important  to us. I spend half my life trying to remember people’s names, scratching round in my brain to recall who people are and where I met them. I often fail, so do remind me if I look blank! But I keep trying, because I know, as we all do, that when someone calls us by name we feel that they know us and care about us.

I’m sure that’s why it is only at the point when the risen Christ calls Mary Magdalene by her name in the reading we’ve just heard that she realises who he is. She has been weeping, distraught with grief. We may be in for a stormy few days this Easter, according to the weather forecasters, but it’s nothing to the hurricane that blew through the lives of Jesus’ disciples at that first Easter. They’d seen him brutally tortured, beaten and killed. They were terrified it would be their turn next. A tempest was already raging in their hearts and minds when Mary set out for the tomb to grieve for Jesus early on that Easter morning, while it was still dark. And when she got there it got even worse. The tomb was open. The body was gone.

She ran back to the other disciples, who ran back with her. They were as confused as she was. They could tell something momentous has happened, but was it good news or bad? John’s account doesn’t make it clear what they understood and believed, and I think that’s because they don’t know either.  

The other disciples returned to their hiding place, but Mary stayed behind, and that’s why she’s the one who encounters the man she thinks is the gardener. But it’s only when he calls her by her name – “Mary” - that she realises it is Christ, and that he has been raised from death. It is him, and he still knows her, and loves her, just as she is.

But who is she? Who is this woman to whom John’s Gospel gives this very great honour, of being the first witness to the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene has fascinated people through the ages. We’ve projected all sorts of desires, hopes and fears on to her, but that’s sometimes meant that the Mary of the Gospels has been lost under the weight of our fantasies. What we know about her is drowned by what we don’t know, but have invented to fill the gaps, and that’s a pity because it makes it hard to hear the genuine Easter message she has for us.

Artists paint her as young and beautiful, but actually we have no idea of her age. She could have been old enough to be Jesus mother or grandmother. She could have been as plain as a pikestaff.
She’s also almost always described  and painted as a repentant prostitute, but there’s no evidence for that in the Gospels either. Christian theologians in the sixth Century made an arbitrary decision to identify her with an unnamed woman in Luke’s Gospel who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, in an act of repentance for an unnamed sin. She probably was a prostitute, but there’s really no reason at all to assume she was Mary Magdalene, no evidence to support it. It seems like the theologians just felt that there were too many women in the Gospels, so it would be tidier if some of them were rolled up into one.
The Penitent Magdalen. Titian. 1490- 1576

And despite the slew of recent conspiracy theories in books like the Da Vinci Code, there is also no evidence to suggest that she was married to or in love with Jesus, or that he was in love with her, or that there were rumours to that effect which were covered up.  There’s no theological reason why Jesus couldn’t have been married, so it’s hard to see why it would have been suppressed if were true. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? And a good story has to have a love interest.

So what do we know about Mary Magdalene, if so much of the popular image of her is unfounded speculation?
If you’ve had a look at the display about her I’ve put in the Lady Chapel you will know the answer to that question. Not a lot.
We know that she came from Magdala, a town on the shore of the sea of Galilee – her name tells us that.
We know that she was one of a group of female disciples of Jesus, who followed him, just like his male disciples, as he travelled around teaching and healing.  
We know that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. Demon possession was usually seen as the cause of mental or physical illness, so that tells us that she had been ill but was now healed. It isn’t usually the way Biblical writers describe sinners, though – they are just called sinners – so there’s no reason to suppose this is a coded way of suggesting Mary had a colourful past.
Finally, we know that, like those other female disciples, she had watched as Jesus was crucified and buried.  
And that’s about it, apart from the story we’ve heard today. As I said – it’s not much.

The truth is that the fantasies we project onto Mary say far more about us than they do about the woman herself. If our mental image of her is of a beautiful, young, repentant prostitute, then we need to think again. She could have been all those things, but she could just as well have been middle aged, with a spare tyre, greying hair and a boringly respectable background.

If we stick to the evidence, though, we discover a woman who was remembered fondly by the Christian community because of her faith, courage and loyalty, a woman whose life  had been profoundly changed by Jesus.

It had all started with that miraculous healing, but then, as she travelled with him and the other disciples, she had found far more than that, a new sense of purpose for her life. Jesus consistently treated women with respect, listening to them and taking them seriously. The Gospels are full of examples of this. He taught them, just as he taught his male disciples, something which caused scandal at the time; no respectable Rabbi would do this. But Jesus stuck to his guns. If it has never happened before, it is wonderfully liberating meeting someone who treats you as if you matter, as if you have a voice worth hearing.  

To Jesus, Mary was not just someone’s  wife or mother or sister or daughter. She was not just the anonymous woman who appeared out of the kitchen with food at mealtimes, then withdrew into seclusion again, as so many women at the time would have done. She was herself, a child of God, unique and special, worth teaching, someone with the potential to learn and grow. We’ve already seen how important it was that Jesus called Mary by her name in this resurrection story, but have you noticed what she called him? “Rabbouni”, which means “Teacher”. That tells us what it was that she had found in him, what it was that had excited her so much. It may not seem as romantic as the conspiracy theories, but Jesus had changed her life.

But when he died everything Jesus had taught her was thrown into question.If Jesus had been God’s Messiah, speaking the truth, then God would surely not have let him be crucified. And if that was a lie, what else was a lie?

Mary hadn’t just lost a friend. She’d lost the hope that Jesus had nurtured in her that she had something to offer to the world – her, Mary, an obscure, ordinary woman from Magdala.

That’s why hearing her name on his lips again is so important. This is her Easter moment, the moment when the resurrection takes hold of her. She doesn’t just discover that Christ has risen, but that she has risen too.

And it’s not just about recapturing the past either. There is more. “Don’t hold onto me” says Jesus. “Don’t cling to this moment, to my physical presence, because there’s a job to do. And you are the one who is going to do it.” He doesn’t just recognise her. He sends her back to the rest of the disciples with the news of his resurrection. That’s why she is traditionally called “the apostle to the apostles” – apostle literally means someone who is sent. She is sent with the message that will send all the rest of them out around the world with the good news of God’s love.
Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection
St Albans Psalter
Mary of Magdala , whoever she is, young, old, prostitute or respectable married woman, beautiful or plain as a pikestaff discovers  that she matters, that she is crucial to the work of God, that she has been sought out by Jesus to bear the news that will change the world.

And her good news is good news for the rest of us too, because who are we? A random bunch of people, probably feeling a lot of the time that we don’t have much to offer either, and that our lives can’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. “Not so”, says Mary, “because if Jesus called my name when he rose, then surely he also called yours.” “Anne”, “Kevin” “Hilary” “Georgina”…and everyone else who is here today. Christ calls out “I’m here for you, risen for you because you matter too, however unimportant and obscure you  may feel you are.”  Like Mary, each one of us is called to do a job that only we can do, to bring the new life of Easter into the places where we and only we can go, into our families, our neighbourhoods and our workplaces. Each one of us is given the seeds of God’s kingdom of love and justice to sow in our own patch of ground.  

So let’s allow Mary Magdalene to be herself - whoever she was - a person as unique , and as ordinary, as we all are, a person who discovered good news that set her free and wanted nothing more than to share it. The apostle to the apostles. The one who was sent to us to tell us that Christ had risen; for her, for us, for everyone, with life, dignity and hope that nothing could destroy.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Good Friday sermon

Why do we call this day “Good”? That’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the years, often by children in schools, puzzled at what could possibly be good about this story of a man brutally tortured, betrayed by one friend and deserted by most of the rest, dying an agonising, humiliating death on the cross. Even knowing that Easter Sunday is just around the corner, it’s hard to see how this day could be called a good one. If God was going to raise Jesus to new life, why let him go through all this? Why did he have to die?

Some people have suggested that “Good Friday” was originally “God’s Friday”, but even if that were so – and there’s no strong evidence for it – it doesn’t really help us. It looks no more like God’s day than it does a good day.  This day looks like a day that belongs to Satan, to the forces of evil, to the principalities and powers that distort and maim .

And yet Christians stubbornly insist that this is Good Friday. Have we taken leave of our senses? Some people think so, but you and I who have turned up today evidently don’t, or we wouldn’t be here. If this were no more than another tragic death, another young man swallowed up by a cruel world then we wouldn’t come at all. We wouldn’t want to dwell on it, still less put it at the centre of our faith. But here we are, and we mark this day not with a funeral – that isn’t what this service is, however solemn – but  with affirmations that God still rules, that the cross is not a mistake or a failure, but the gateway to life.

In a few minutes, the choir are going to sing an anthem which I am sure many of you will know as a congregational hymn. Its words are by John Henry Newman and they contain within them an image which may help us to understand the “good” in Good Friday a little better.

Christians have used many images to try to understand what the death of Christ means. They have used images drawn from the legal system, saying  that it was a punishment taken on humanity’s behalf by Jesus. They have described it as a ransom paid to release us from the control of the enemy, or as the perfect sacrifice which put paid for the need for any further sacrifices. They have seen it as an example of self-sacrifice, a demonstration of God’s love.

All those images have their place, though it is always dangerous to press them too far. But Newman uses yet another in his hymn. “O loving wisdom of our God!/” he says, “When all was sin and shame/ a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came” . He talks about Jesus as the Second Adam. It’s an idea drawn from St Paul’s writings. In Romans 5 we hear that “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,”  and in 1 Corinthians 15 he says “as in Adam all die; even so in Christ shall all be made alive” . Paul draws a parallel between Adam and Jesus. Adam, according to the story in the book of Genesis disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit and was cast out of Paradise, but Jesus was obedient even to death on a cross, and that changed everything, creating a new kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”.

About a century after St Paul another Christian leader, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, gave this idea the name by which it is known in theological circles today – theological jargon alert ! It is called the “recapitulation theory of the atonement”. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it is a very helpful way of understanding what God is doing in Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. In Christ, this theory says, God recapitulates the life of the world.

Recapitulation means to go back through something from the beginning, to sum up your arguments, to restate your case in a different way, so people can see it afresh. That’s what God does in Christ. He goes through all the experiences we go through, touching and filling each one with his presence, so that we can learn to see ourselves, and one another, as the people God meant us to be, people who are made to reflect his love and glory.  Irenaeus said that  [Jesus] 'became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself'. That is a pretty awesome statement, and one which Western Christianity has often downplayed, though it has always been a fundamental part of the theology of the Orthodox Churches of the East.  They call it theosis or divinisation. As Newman puts it, our “flesh and blood” are refined by “God’s presence and his very self/ and essence all divine.”

We are born into a world where no one can escape the effects of hatred, fear and prejudice.  We know that, just as Irenaeus and Paul knew it before us. We don’t need to believe in the literal truth of the book of Genesis, in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal fruit, a literal fall to understand that. We don’t have to believe in Original Sin, sin that is passed down through the act of conception either. It is just obvious that none of us can grow up unaffected, unmarred by the world around us. Before we even begin our lives, the cards are stacked against us. We fight for resources from birth, pick up prejudices from our parents, often without even being aware of it, grasp and grab in our anxiety to survive and our terror of abandonment.

But Jesus , the Second Adam, inhabits our twisted reality without being twisted himself, and so transforms it. In him God is born as a human child, grows up in a sinful world, and is eventually killed for the message of love he proclaims, but in doing so he shows that every human experience has the potential to be redeemed, reclaimed, restored, made holy by his presence. He reframes our lives, turns our priorities upside down, bit by bit, as we follow him.

“Praise to the Holiest in the height” , says Newman. Well, yes, but anyone can praise him there, it’s easy. But Newman goes on “and in the depth be praise”, because God is there also. He is there in the lives of those who today are in private desperation – grieving, anxious, ashamed – those whose lives are a mess that they can see no way out of. He is there in the streets of Brussels as that city mourns. He is there in the refugee camps among people who feel they have no home in the world, but know they still have a home in God’s heart. He is there even among the ISIS troops, even if they don’t know it – no one is denied the possibility of his love and forgiveness. If Jesus prayed for those who nailed him to the cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” then so can we.

And that’s why today is good. That’s why today is God’s, not Satan’s. That’s why today is holy, even before we get to the resurrection. Today is Good Friday, because today God goes to the lowest places we can go, to the places we are so often tempted to call God-forsaken, into the darkness of death, into the cruel heart of a world gone awry, and brings his light and love to it. Today God hallows our suffering as well as our joy. He declares that nowhere is beyond his reach – no place, no situation, no human heart is off limits to him.

The cross proclaims that we are not alone, never, nowhere. Our God is with us.  And wherever God is cannot be anything other than good.


Sunday, 20 March 2016

Palm Sunday Breathing Space: Peace that passes understanding

Luke 19.28-40

I don’t very often get to preach on the Palm Sunday Gospel, Jesus riding into Jerusalem, despite the fact that it comes round every year, because as you probably know, at our morning service there is no sermon. We read the whole of the story of Christ’s Passion instead. Of course, I am familiar with the story, but preaching makes you look closer, and that’s when you spot the details that might otherwise pass you by.  There are two things that struck me afresh this time around as I looked at Luke’s account of that first Palm Sunday. I’ll come to what they are in a moment, but first let’s set the scene.

People were used to seeing processions in Jesus’ time. Everyone who was anyone would want to make a bit of a show of their arrival somewhere. It was a way of displaying your power. Rulers wanted to impress their subjects. Diplomatic envoys wanted to let everyone know that they were important. Then there were the “triumphs”, victory processions granted as a special
honour to military leaders, complete with parades of conquered prisoners, dragged along in chains, and looted goods.

The people of Jerusalem would have seen all sorts of processions come through the city gates. Around the same time that Jesus came riding in there had almost certainly been another much grander procession as well. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor would have ridden in with his troops, intent on keeping a lid on any unrest during the Passover Festival. It was a time when trouble was likely to be brewing. There were thousands of people crowded into a small space - it was every adult Jewish man’s duty to offer sacrifice at the festival – and the heightened religious feelings would have made matters even worse. Passover was a festival which commemorated the setting free of the Jewish people from oppression in Egypt, and if you were a Roman governor, you probably didn’t want people dwelling too much on that. It might give them ideas. When the Romans conquered a nation they brought with them what they called the Pax Romana – the Roman peace, but it was a peace that depended on everyone doing exactly what they were told to do. It might have looked peaceful on the surface, but underneath there was a seething cauldron of resentment.

It is against that backdrop that Jesus’ procession enters the city. And here is the first thing I noticed. Look at how his disciples acclaim him - this was the first thing I noticed. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” There are no hosannas in Luke’s version of this story. Instead the disciples proclaim peace. It echoes the song of the angels to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth and I’m sure that’s deliberate. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours”.  Jesus’ whole ministry has been about bringing peace, not the Pax Romana, not a peace imposed by military force. This wasn’t a superficial peace that papered over the cracks of life, but a deep and healing peace that changed things forever. He had cast out demons, calmed storms, healed diseases, welcomed and eaten with outcasts, told his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, and those who had heard his message and taken it into their hearts would never be the same again.

And that brings me to the second thing I noticed, rather a silly thing at first sight, but maybe it is more profound than it first appears.  Luke tells us that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt – it might be a young horse or a young donkey, but probably the latter. But when Jesus sends for it he specifies that it must be a colt that has never been ridden.  It may be intended to echo the Old Testament references to King David bringing in the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, using a new cart and oxen which had never borne a yoke – symbolising perfection and purity - but on a practical level I am really struck by this detail.  

I am no horsewoman – I was never one of those pony-mad little girls - but I do know that riding a horse or a donkey that has never been ridden is not for the faint-hearted. It takes lots of careful handling to get an animal to accept the idea that it might carry a person on its back, and from what I’ve seen it often involves a lot of falling off too.

But Jesus seems to get onto this colt’s back with no trouble at all, and stay there.  It’s a small detail, and we miss it if we aren’t looking, but it is all of a piece with the rest of Christ’s mission. This colt is at peace doing this thing that he has never done before. Like the waves of Galilee, like the demon-possessed people, like the sinners and outcasts, he knows he is all right with Jesus.  His anxious, skittish heart is calmed.  
This little detail seems to me to be profoundly reassuring. Like that donkey, each of us is called to bear Christ into the world, in our words and our actions, and maybe we’re not always too sure about it either . How can we live as he has taught us? How can we show his love and compassion, when the clamour of life is all around us.? But this story tells us that we will be all right, and more than all right. It  will be a blessing, and bring us the peace of Christ that passes understanding.  

I can’t resist finishing with G K Chesterton’s poem, which imagines this scene through this young donkey’s eye, capturing both his awkwardness and his joy at this unexpected calling.

The Donkey
When fishes flew and forests walked   
   And figs grew upon thorn,   
Some moment when the moon was blood   
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,   
The devil’s walking parody   
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,   
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:   
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.