Mary Magdalene – a saint of defiant hope

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We kept the feast of St Mary Magdalene last Sunday. Preparing my sermon on her I was very moved to meditate on her story – not only her story as recorded in the Gospels but also the ‘fake news’ story that has followed her since the Middle Ages in the West up to now. For me, she is very much a saint for our time, a saint of defiant hope. My sermon was partially inspired by this beautiful icon by Br Robert Lentz which for me restores her reputation back to the fierce survivor she is:

Here is the text of my sermon:

Mary Magdalene is a survivor. She is one of the most enigmatic people in the gospels and probably the most enigmatic woman in the gospels – the only woman given a full name in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene is a survivor because we know that Jesus drove seven demons from her. We don’t know what language we would use now to describe what Jesus did for her, but my suspicion is that she came to Jesus deeply troubled – perhaps with a severe mental health problem and that he healed her fully of that. Mary Magdalene as we come to remember her today is also a survivor of a terrible fake news campaign that has raged since the middle ages about her. Many people conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who outrageously anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and dries them with her hair and also with the woman caught in adultery – the woman to whom Jesus gently says ‘go and sin no more’. These two other women are two separate people – not to be confused with Mary Magdalene whom we are celebrating today. Unfortunately because people made these 3 women into 1, Mary Magdalene has always been depicted as a reformed prostitute, she is always depicted in racy bright red robes, her hair flowing, uncovered, and in a posture of repentance.

The truth is, that Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles. The reason she is honoured with being the first to see the resurrected Christ is that Mary stays when everyone else leaves. The disciples, led by Peter all profess at the last supper that they will stay with Jesus come what may, to the death – and they all agree. When it comes to it, though, the name repeated through all four gospels as being there as Jesus is crucified and put in the tomb and rises from the dead is Mary Magdalene.

Mary stays. She is fierce. She has had a hard life, Jesus cast out seven demons from her – who knows how long she’d lived with them or how old she was when Jesus healed her. But perhaps because she’s seen pain and suffering on a scale most people never experience, that is what makes her believe in resurrection. Mary experienced resurrection the first time she met Jesus, Jesus gave her her life back when he cast those demons out of her, it was like she was alive again, resurrected. Perhaps it is this that makes her stay. She’s not only there at the very end for Jesus but from the moment of her healing, she, along with other women who have been healed, fund Jesus’ ministry from their own money. So she was probably a wealthy woman too.

Mary is not afraid to look death in the eye. Mary is not afraid to sit in silence, to sit in her grief. She sets her face like flint (to use a psalmist’s phrase) and waits. Mary Magdalene is a saint of defiant hope.

I wanted to show you this beautiful icon of Mary Magdalene, written by Brother Robert Lentz.

This is how I like to picture her. You will see that Mary is holding and pointing to an egg. This is an ancient story about Mary. The Eastern Orthodox tradition tells us that after the Ascension she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar because of her high social standing. After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain His resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. The egg turned red immediately.

Here in this icon, you can see Mary’s defiant hope in the resurrection. Her role is to point to the resurrected Jesus. Her song is ‘I have seen the Lord’!

Mary Magdalene is a survivor. She stands as the saint of defiant hope. She stands as living proof that resurrection is possible. She stays with Jesus, she never leaves his side: no wonder she wants to cling onto him when she sees him in the garden.

Mary Magdalene is someone I would like to be around. Someone that loves Jesus more than anyone else. Someone who has been ignored, vilified, not believed by the world but who is safe in the knowledge that her dear rabbi Jesus, knows her intimately, knows her name.

‘I have seen the Lord’ is her song. May it be my song, may it be your song, may it be our song. Alleluia! Amen.

Alleluia, He is Risen!

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Happy Easter!

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’  When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

– John 20: 11-18

Death, where is your sting?

Easter Sermon – John 20:19-31 – “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you”

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I preached what will be my last sermon on my placement at the wonderful St Aidan’s in Leeds today. Here is the text below.

If you don’t want to read the whole sermon here is the gist of the sermon in about 10 seconds:

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John 20:19-31

God’s story is our story. We have been blessed with the Bible, God’s story of his interaction with his beloved creation. The stories we read in the gospels are our story. In Holy Week I tried to help us to step into God’s story as we looked at the stories of some of the lesser characters in Mark’s gospel. Now we have come to the Easter season and we walk in the most astonishing and delightful part of the story of God’s dealings with his people. So let us again seek to step into this story. What might Jesus have to say to us?

The disciples in our gospel reading today are hiding. They are hiding from fear of the Jews. Are they hiding from God like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps they are, in a way. What was the last thing they did before the arrest of Jesus? They fled and denied knowing Christ, even though each of them had said they would be willing to die for Jesus. They are still not willing to die for Jesus. They are hiding and they are terrified. They know Jesus is dead. They know that his body has gone from the tomb but they have no understanding as to what this might mean. I think they believe what Mary first tells them, that the body has been taken away and they don’t know where they have put him. Mary has since told them that she has seen the Lord but this just makes no sense to them. It is into this context that the Risen Christ appears to the disciples. What is the first thing Jesus says to the disciples? Does he say ‘Where were you?’ or ‘You abandoned me?’ No. He says, astonishingly, ‘peace be with you’. Then John gives us what I think must be one of the greatest understatements in scripture, he writes: ‘then they were glad when they saw the Lord’. Of course there is the absolute delight in seeing Jesus risen from the dead but I think the rejoicing happens partly because in saying ‘peace be with you’ Jesus is saying ‘I forgive you, you thought you were no longer my friends but you are still my friends and I say peace be with you’.

He says ‘peace be with you’ again. Then he does something else astonishing, he says ‘I send you’. This is a group of frightened men hiding in a locked room who don’t even understand what has happened to Jesus. In that state, he tells them that he is sending them. There is no sense that they need to pass some kind of test first before they get sent out: they’re ready now. Jesus says ‘as the father has sent me so I send you’. It almost sounds like ‘get up, take up your mat and walk’.

Then we get another hint from Genesis, Jesus does something really weird. He breathes on them. Has anyone breathed on you before? If they have I’m sure you don’t remember it as a pleasant experience.

How does God bring Adam to life when he is created from clay? He breathes on him. Only the Creator God can give life to something that is dead.

In a sense, the disciples in that locked room are dead and lifeless, they are dead in their denial of Jesus, their sins, in the way they have let God down. Jesus breathes on them and says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Unfortunately in English it is hard to make the connection but in both Greek and Hebrew the word for God’s spirit can also mean breath or wind. The Hebrew word for spirit is ‘ruach’ – it even sounds like a breath as you say it. So Jesus, the one who until very recently was dead, breathes life, the Holy Spirit back into the weak disciples. As Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians ‘even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead’ (Eph 2:5). In receiving this forgiving power of the Holy Spirit the disciples are then to do the same, to forgive others in that power.

Jesus knows exactly what we need. He knew what the disciples needed to hear and see and touch. In this first appearance in the locked room he shows the disciples his hands and his side, to show them he is not a ghost but real and can be touched. Thomas isn’t there and so he is afraid that the disciples have just been seeing things, that they’ve had some kind of hallucination. He makes the perfectly reasonable statement that he wants to touch Jesus in the very spot where the nails went in. He has to be sure it’s the same Jesus: that he’s not a ghost and neither is he just a man that looks like Jesus.

These are the same questions I have. Surely they were just seeing things, the mind when going through grief can do strange things. Surely it was just wishful thinking? Or maybe a man did come into the room but it was just some bloke that looked rather a lot like Jesus? It can’t actually be that man we lived with for 3 years and saw brutally killed.

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Jesus, when he appears to them all again it is again in a closed room (interestingly not locked, but still closed, there is still some doubt there) and again, the first thing he says to them is ‘peace be with you’. In doing this he is saying ‘I meant it you know, I really do forgive you, you really are still my friends, peace be with you’. Then he immediately knows what Thomas needs and offers him the chance to touch the place where the nails were in his hands and feel where the lance pierced his side. Jesus is happy to show him how real he is. This is enough for Thomas, we don’t even know if he takes Jesus up on the offer to put his finger in his wounds, he simply makes the first full profession of faith in the divinity of Christ in the Gospel and says ‘my Lord and my God’. Jesus knows what we need. He knows we need something tangible to let us know that God is real. Something we can touch. So he gave us Holy Communion. A reminder each week that Jesus is real. We can touch and taste and receive him in the bread and the wine. Just when you were worried that God felt like an imaginary friend, we are reminded, week by week that he is real.

Jesus speaks directly to you at the end of this encounter. If this were a movie rather than a book, this would be the part where Jesus’ head turns from Thomas and looks directly at you down the camera lens and says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. That is you. That is me. Jesus steps out of this story we are reading directly into our lives. His story is our story. Our story is his story. He comes to us in our fearful, dead, inadequate, failing state and says ‘peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you, Receive the Holy Spirit, you are blessed because you believe in me.’

Let us pray:

Do you feel afraid?

Jesus says ‘peace be with you’

Do you feel you’ve let God down?

Jesus says ‘peace be with you’

Do you hear God calling you?

Jesus says ‘I am sending you’

Do you feel empty or inadequate?

Jesus says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’

Have you been shutting God out of your life?

Jesus says ‘peace be with you’

Do you want to know that Jesus is real?

Jesus says ‘touch, taste and receive me in the bread and the wine’

Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’.

Amen.

 

Listen to the full sermon as it was recorded today at St Aidan’s:

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! – jump for joy with these springboks!

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Happy Easter! I’m just jumping with joy at the Good News of the Resurrection! Do head over to Online Praise for a unique online Easter service which I have coordinated with friends. Otherwise, enjoy these Springboks jumping for Easter joy!

Stations of the Resurrection by Si Smith – at Pudsey Parish Church

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At church on Sunday we had the privilege of seeing 10 of Si Smith’s inspirational and moving ‘stations of the resurrection’. These are currently on display at Pudsey Parish Church (http://pudseyparish.org.uk/) and there are apparently more to come.

Leeds based artist Si Smith created these for CPAS (http://www.cpas.org.uk/church-resources/blogs/church-leadership/stations-of-t…. Each resurrection scene is depicted in modern day Leeds.

These images, although cartoon-like, are incredibly moving, all the more so if you live in Leeds and recognise the scenes. I particularly liked the scene of Jesus hitch hiking from the entrance to Harewood House in the Road to Emmaus. The image above shows Mary arriving at the empty tomb.

If you have time, do try and pop in to Pudsey Parish to see these incredible images, each one has little details that you only notice after a long look. For example, the station of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples in the upper room shows the men sitting around almost finished fish and chips – recalling that Jesus eats a ‘piece of broiled fish’ in front of them.

More information can be found on Si Smith’s blog here: http://standingstillinamovingplace.blogspot.com/2009/04/more-leeds-resurrecti…

And his website here: http://www.simonsmithillustrator.co.uk/journal.html

I might be wrong about God…

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Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

– Matthew 28:16-17

Slipped into the final chapter of Matthew is this curious statement ‘but some doubted’. Even curiouser is that this is the 11 disciples Matthew is talking about – not a big crowd (as I had first imagined this scene before reading a little more carefully!)

I checked what this might mean in some other translations. It seems another way of putting it is that ‘some hesitated’ or some ‘held back’ from fully worshipping Jesus. I guess that’s what the word ‘doubt’ means. If you doubt a bridge can take your weight, you hold back from putting your full weight on it in one go and tentatively put one foot out, pressing it down lightly to test it.

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Jesus leaves the disciples (ascends to heaven) 40 days after his resurrection. The 11 disciples have had 6 weeks with the risen Christ. That’s hardly long enough to have worked through the crushing grief of Jesus’ execution and then the ecstasy of the empty tomb and then the realisation that God’s plan, as Jesus is now teaching, is nothing like they thought it would be. I know I would still be reeling.

I guess our first thought when we hear the word ‘doubt’ in relation to the disciples is of Thomas. Matthew doesn’t name here who doubted but he says ‘some’ – that’s definitely more than 2. I wonder if it might have included Peter? Peter has broken down and Jesus has restored him (in one of the most moving scenes in the gospels on the beach in Galilee). Once before Peter had promised “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matthew 26:33) and he failed to keep that promise. Perhaps here on the mountain with Jesus Peter is more aware of his frailties, he’s got it wrong before – perhaps he’s wrong again?

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Notice how Jesus makes no reference to the doubters – despite the fact that it must have been quite obvious who was holding back. Notice also that Matthew includes the statement ‘but some doubted’. If he had fabricated the gospel why would he have included such a statement about the future fathers of the church?

Jesus always has room for doubters.

He heals the child of a doubting father after he honestly says “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And of course there’s Thomas!

In this scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is giving what many Christians call ‘the great commission’ to his followers – the big task to share the good news throughout the world. And he is giving it to a group of hesitant almost-believers!

Very few of us are ever 100% sure about things we do and decisions we make. It almost impossible to have that level of certainty about anything in life.

That’s what brings me to share the other lesson I’ve learned reading Matthew’s gospel this Lent. I have pointed out that a lot of Jesus’ strongest words are reserved for the ‘religious’. Basically people who believe they are 100% right about their faith and how to live by its law. Jesus points out how wrong they are quoting this scripture:

‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’

 -Psalm 118:22

Jesus wants us to be unsure – not unsure of Him but unsure of ourselves. He needs us to be aware of our inability to comprehend God, our inadequacy before him:

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

-Matthew 9:13

Perhaps that is why he chose no ‘properly trained’ men to be his disciples but uneducated fishermen.

I am reading a book by Kester Brewin at the moment. In the middle of a blank page at the front of the book are these words (brackets his):

[I might be wrong]

 

What a healthy attitude to have! I’d like to try and adopt this as a motto (I can hear my family laughing now as I’m notorious for always thinking I’m right!)

In other words, don’t be so sure of yourself! Be sure of God but don’t put your view of God or understanding of God on the same level as the actual Truth of God – therein lies the error of the Pharisees.

You can witness this folly on both sides of the current debates between the New Atheists (like Dawkins and Hitchens) and Fundamentalist Christians. Both are too sure of their position. I wonder what Jesus would have made of their debates?

I would advocate for Christians a healthy agnosticism in our own ability to understand God along with a healthy dose of faith in the God revealed to us in scripture and by the Holy Spirit*.

I think this is where the disciples were at as they stood on that mountain. It’s a good place to be.

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*Post script:

Don’t worry, I haven’t lost my faith! I believe in God as wholeheartedly as is possible. I believe in God as much as I believe in the love of my husband. However, when we got married, neither of us were 100% sure about the commitment we were making. No one ever is – if they say they are then they’re deluded. But we were both sure enough to make vows about it. We can’t prove our love for each other to other people but we know it’s real. It’s the same for my belief in God, in Jesus’ death for me and in his resurrection. I know it’s real.