Wake, awake!

This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 50:4-9a.

Imagine, if you will, a school playground.  It doesn’t really matter where or when, because some things seem to be universal; so go ahead and imagine it with details that are familiar to you.

And imagine that among the bustle of children eating and laughing and playing at lunchtime there is someone…. well, different.  Someone who comes from somewhere else; whose looks and accent and lunchbox set her apart as distinctive.

And as she moves through her peers, they push her away with their words; label her a freak; dirty; disgusting; insult her intelligence and make lewd comments about imagined sexual deviancies.

And – this is the crucial bit – as she eventually finds somewhere to sit alone, away from their sight, she blinks back tears, holds her head high and remembers that her foremothers were queens, and dreams of a day when her culture and religion might hold sway over a society where no little girl would ever need cry alone.

All of us can relate to that playground scene in some way.  And it is, I think, very similar to how we might think about the author of today’s passage from Isaiah.  His school playground was one of the large cities of the Babylonian empire, where his people, the Israelites, were living in exile.  As they held to their own language, customs and religion they were generally (a few notable exceptions notwithstanding) excluded from power, opportunity and social respect.  They were conquered, exiled, downtrodden; and while they weren’t quite slaves, they certainly weren’t free to shape their own destinies as they wished.

But like our girl in the schoolyard remembering that she comes from a line of queens, they remembered that their current circumstances didn’t define who they were.  And they dreamed of a day to come when things would be very different; when the ideals of their culture would build a very different sort of society.  One in which no one would experience the oppression of forced exile and all that went with it.

And someone in that exiled community, or perhaps a small group of visionaries together, wrote and edited together this part of the book of Isaiah, and particularly, the texts that have come to be called the “servant songs.”  The servant songs are a cycle of poems about an idealised version of God’s servant, which gathers up the memories, longings and hopes of that community and builds them into a portrait of a champion; someone who was everything good and right and holy; everything that community longed to experience and aspired to be.

It’s the daydream of the bullied kid in the schoolyard; given shape and content by hundreds of years of legend and history and prayer.

And that’s what we heard part of today, in our Isaiah reading.

So let’s take note of a few of the details of this poem.  Notice, to start with, the repeated reference to being woken and having an open ear.  While we could take that literally – as if the ideal servant of God wakes in the morning with inspiration bursting in his brain (why are ideal people always portrayed as morning people?!  But I digress) – we can take the imagery of being wakened in a more metaphorical way as well.

Someone who’s awake is aware of what’s going on; not lulled into complacency.  They see beyond the surface of an apparently thriving society and can recognise injustice, oppression, and corruption.  They see the alienation of the world from its Creator, and from the purposes for which it was created.

The ideal servant of God, as presented to us here, suffers in part because he knows the truth and feels compelled to try to reach others with what he knows.  He looks around him at a society which is not awake – does not recognise its own shadow side – and feels the burden of trying to make people aware.  Not just for the sake of awareness, but for the sake of restoring a right relationship between people and their Creator; and out of that right relationship, building a better, healthier, more just society.

Well, we know how well that usually goes.  Comfortable, complacent societies tend to punish people who disturb the status quo.

And this is why the poem goes on to describe the servant having his back struck and his beard pulled out; this standing in the gap between an unaware, but drowning, society; and a God who can put things right if only people will turn to him, is costly.  The servant bears the emotional outbursts and the immaturity of an unreconciled humanity.  But the servant also sees the potential for things to be different, and it’s that vision and hope which gives him the resilience to persevere.  Those who torment him still have the opportunity to turn from their self-centredness and enter a relationship with a holy God, and the community of other people in relationship with that holy God.

It is, as visions of hope go, remarkably sophisticated.  The servant isn’t a champion who tramples every enemy into oblivion, but one who holds out a hand in steadfast offer of reconciliation.

Later, of course, the earliest Christians read these passages and reflected that Christ had fulfilled them to a unique degree, more than any merely human person could.  In Christ, that hope and that reconciliation are always, steadfastly on offer.

More than that, though, in the Church – this community which is supposed to embody Christ to the world – that hope and that reconciliation are supposed to be always, steadfastly, on offer.  The servant songs hold up a picture, one vision of what the Church is supposed to be, and invite and challenge us to live up to it.

In some ways that makes more sense for us now, psychologically, than perhaps it has for centuries.  The Church is being marginalised in our society in a way that we haven’t been since before the fall of Rome.  For too long we’ve had more in common with the bullies in the school yard than the people they pick on, but now we are remembering what it’s like not to have the world revolve around us.  And other writings from other faith communities in our own history which have been in the same place, can offer us some clues to making sense of life on the margins, and some resources for thriving and living faithfully in that new situation.

We do need to allow ourselves to be woken, though.  Woken into relationship with God; woken into deep awareness of our own context, woken to hope and inspired by what could be.

Just a little bit further in Isaiah the prophet cries out:

“Wake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;…
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up!…
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

It’s imagery of hope, and it calls out to us today as well: Wake up!  Put on your strength, claim your beauty, get out of the dust and hold your head high.  Tell the good news in ways that shakes others from their sleep, that builds peace and reconciles enemies, that submits every impulse to oppression to God’s justice.  It’s time for daydreams and ideals to be forged into action.

Our God reigns.  We know that; now how will we live it?


Thriving in the storm

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 6:10-20.

I wonder, do you have a favourite mug?  Something with a pithy quote, maybe, or a cute picture, which you go to when the day is just not going your way and you want to smile or find inspiration along with caffeine?

I definitely have one (see image below).  It’s black, with a picture of a woman in armour, and it says:

‘The devil whispered in my ear “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devil’s ear, “I am a child of God, a woman of faith, a warrior of Christ.  I am the storm.” ‘

Some days, I need reminding where my strength comes from.

I reckon some days, the Ephesians needed reminding where their strength came from, too.

This morning’s reading from Ephesians is the letter’s grand climax; over previous weeks Paul has set out his vision of God’s absolute reign, and unpacked for his hearers the implications of that in their lives.  And here he gets to the last bit of his argument: finally!  Finally, be strong.

And put on the whole armour of God; the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

But all too often what I have seen is Christians who take up the belt of certainty; the breastplate of self-righteousness; the shoes of triumphalism; the shield of ignorance; the helmet of exclusion; and the sword of judgement. And with those firmly in place, have taken their stand against anyone who challenged them.

I wonder if you’ve known anyone like that? If I’m totally honest, I can remember a younger and harder version of myself which might have found some of those things familiar and comfortable.

But why do we do it? What is it that makes us reach for certainty over truth, and so on?

I suspect there are at least two contributing factors.

One is that it is easy to read a passage like this as if it is about our emotional state. To read the exhortation “to stand” as if it is about being free of anxiety, doubt, or trouble. And therefore to reach for whatever will give us immediate relief from our anxieties, doubts or troubles… without stopping to ask whether the easy answers, in emotional terms, are always the right ones.

But I think that, for Paul, as he wrote this in his own context, the idea that this would be read as a kind of psychological exhortation would have been quite foreign. When he talks about our struggle being against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, he isn’t talking about our internal anxieties and doubts but about very concrete, external realities; about any of the political and social or bigger-than-individual forces which were in any way oppressive, abusive or destructive.

The other contributing factor, though, is that often we don’t have enough depth in our own Christianity. You can’t, for example, put on the belt of truth unless you’ve thoroughly apprehended that truth first. Unless you’ve really grasped that the truth you’re supposed to take up is the gospel, and you have therefore steeped yourself in the gospel so that it shapes your whole approach to life, then when you hear the exhortation to take up the “belt of truth” you might well end up reaching instead for whatever you feel certain about.

It takes a certain humility, a willingness to admit that the resources for the Christian life are not all internal but come to us as gift, and that we need our relationship with God, we need Scripture, we need the church, the people around us to help equip us for the struggles of the Christian life. We need to admit that Truth is bigger than just what we feel but has an objective, external reality which we need to work to apprehend.

Earlier in Ephesians the author says bluntly that “truth is in Jesus,” and points out that righteousness and salvation are part of the new self, the new creation, which is the work that God does in us; not something we can create for ourselves. He also says that Christ “is our peace.” Earlier, in Romans, Paul had argued that “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace,” and I think this passage is expanding on that line of thinking; “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…” but rather we need to be aware of what the Spirit is doing, in bringing the life and peace of the reign of God.  It’s partly an exhortation to keep our focus on the right things, and not get distracted by stuff that, ultimately, really doesn’t matter.

We might note also what Paul said earlier in Ephesians: “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

This is the faith we’re meant to take up as a shield; our access to God in boldness and confidence, knowing that confronting the powers of evil at work in the world is part of the eternal purpose of the wisdom of God.  We only need to stand; it’s God who ultimately carries the day.

I think perhaps to make sense of the “sword of the Spirit” we need to look a little beyond Paul and note what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews said: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The word of God and the Spirit of God are, in Trinitarian terms, working together in a way which we can’t separate; the sword of the Spirit is, it seems to me, the wisdom to discern good from evil and light from darkness.

My point fundamentally is this; unless we are so deeply rooted in our faith that we have a good, deep, robust sense of the truth, the peace, the faith, the salvation and the Spirit of God, a true connection with the living God which animates and nurtures us, then when push comes to shove we are likely to make the mistake of accepting poor substitutes. It makes perfect sense, then, that the author finishes this portion of the letter with instruction to pray at all times and to persevere in supplication for all the saints; because it is on that living connection that everything else depends.

Where does my strength, my resilience, my courage come from?  Not from my own internal resources.  But from my identity in Christ.

If we’re to be people who have the strength, the resilience and the courage to be vibrant and effective as a community of faith, the same has to be true of us.  To not only withstand the storm, but thrive within it… we have to draw our strength from God himself, constantly renewing ourselves in prayer.  Then we’ll be able to look any challenging circumstances in the eye, confident that they don’t define or control us.


Ethics and eschatology

This is a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:17-5:2.

You might remember, if you were here, that two weeks ago I preached from an earlier reading on Ephesians, about what it is to be “rooted and grounded in love.”

Today’s reading carries on in that train of thought, as Paul begins to unpack what that should look like in the actual fabric of the day-to-day life of the Ephesian church.  Paul’s argument runs like this:  This is how gracious and amazing God is, and as you grow in relationship with God, this is how your own character should be formed to mirror God’s character.  And the evidence should be in how you behave.

So Paul draws a sharp contrast; this is what people without God in their lives are like; indeed, what the Ephesians were like before they became believers.  But now, his instruction is, don’t be like that but instead be like Christ.  His vision is of a total and radical personal transformation.

For those of us who’ve been raised as believers this is sometimes problematic.  We don’t have a clear “before Christ” in our lives, and so the idea that somehow we still need to undergo this total and radical personal transformation, when we’ve known Christ as long as we can remember, becomes tricky.

But all of us – definitely myself included – develop patterns of thought and habits of behaviour which really have sin at their root.  I recognise, for example, in my case, that I eat badly and fail to care for my body because comfort eating is a quick fix and an easier way to deal with a lot of difficult emotions, than doing the hard work of dealing with why those emotions are difficult in the first place.

There’s a failure to trust God, there.  There’s a lack of self-discipline, and so on.  But my point is that for all of us, in this lifetime, there is ongoing work of recognising, and letting God be at work to change, what is in us that needs that radical transformation that Paul’s on about here.  It’s not just for new converts.

And this emphasis on radical transformation tells us that Paul is doing more than moralising, here.  He’s not just telling the Ephesians to be good boys and girls and play nicely together; he’s setting ethical instructions in the context of the grace of God, in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ, and in the context of the Holy Spirit’s work in giving life.  It links traditional morality – because Paul’s actual moral instructions here aren’t really anything very original – with the growth of the church, both in terms of conversions and in terms of maturity.

The central claim underlying Paul’s whole argument here is that the grace of God makes it impossible for us to live as if nothing has really changed.  It’s not just people who undergo radical transformation, but in Christ, all evil is defeated.  In Christ, all darkness is driven back.  In Christ, all that is broken is healed and restored.  Including us, and therefore, we can’t possibly be the same any more either.

So Paul tells the Ephesians that they entered this process of personal transformation by having “learned Christ.”  Not “learned about Christ,” as if you could learn to recite the Creed and then remain indifferent to it; but to learn Christ.  To be formed by Christ; to have your character and conduct re-shaped profoundly by who Christ is, what Christ does, and who Christ calls us to be.  It’s a dynamic and present Christ, a Christ who still speaks to us today, and whose speech still creates new things and brings forth new life, a new life lived in response to Him.

When Christ speaks today, we hear the truth about ourselves and about our world and about God; and about what God wants for ourselves and the world.  We hear the call of God’s good future, and we hear the call to personal discipleship, and we need to realise that these are two sides of the same coin; because it’s in and through our faithful obedience and discipleship that God’s good future is brought about.

To give a live example, I was really struck this week when someone here asked me, “What would we do differently if we thought of ourselves as a church plant?”  That is, a newly created congregation who had come here deliberately to establish and grow a church community where there had not been one before.  And I was turning that over in my mind when I was at a training day on Wednesday, which had an English bishop and experienced church planter as the keynote speaker.

And what struck me about what he was saying was that he was describing church plants where really quite small groups of people – say 20 people – went somewhere and grew a church very quickly into much bigger membership.  And the difference between those groups of 20 people or so, and us, wasn’t that they were all younger, or better educated or qualified, or better resourced, or anything like that.

The difference was mostly one of attitude.  Those church planting groups had an understanding that:

  • They were on a mission to grow the church by introducing people to Christ, and every person had an essential part to play in that.
  • Their mission meant they needed to build relationships with people outside their own group; outside the church.
  • Within those new relationships, they needed to create opportunities for meaningful conversation which could touch on matters of faith, and invite deeper exploration.
  • And, everything they did as a church needed to be intentionally structured for those who were not part of the church yet.

No magic formula, really; just a very clear and intentional focus on creating a network of relationships around their church community which would allow them to offer people opportunities to explore faith.

The point about that is, those people who took up the challenge to be church planters heard the call to a form of discipleship which pushed them to form relationships beyond the church; and in doing so, they were able to invite people into the good future God had in store for those people.

The call of God’s good future and the call to faithful discipleship, lived out together in ways which transformed communities and established thriving churches.  And there’s nothing there that’s beyond us to do, if we were to adopt the same mindset.  There’s an example of what Paul means by “learning Christ.”

There’s self-sacrifice in this, of course.  There is giving up of our own preferences for the sake of others’.  This is why this passage ends with urging us to be imitators of God and reminding us of Christ’s sacrifice.

We sometimes forget, in our culture, how much sacrifice in the ancient world wasn’t really about the personal cost but about how much sacrifice was believed to make things happen.  Sacrifice was believed to be effectual.  Christ’s sacrifice – as we’ve already noted – was in Paul’s thought the single most effectual event ever in human history; the single event which changed everything forever.

We can’t repeat that sacrifice but we can imitate both the attitude behind it and the effectual nature of it.  We can give of ourselves in ways which change lives.  As with the earlier part of the letter, to do with being rooted and grounded  in love, it’s about the quality of relationships we nurture; and about being intentional in creating those relationships in the first place, so that other people have the opportunity to know the radical transformation into which we are all called.


Who is my enemy?

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent, and refers to Psalm 69.

Reading today’s psalm – like so many psalms – it struck me how much ancient Israel must have been a competitive and conflict-driven society.  So often the psalmists pray about, and from the context of, deep awareness of being surrounded by enemies who hate them and wish them physical violence or social ruin.

When we then make their prayers our own, we are at some level confronted with the question of what these verses mean in our own lives.

I suspect that most people do one of two things; either they turn this mentally into a Christians-vs.-everyone-else situation, and see as their enemies the militant atheists, indifferent governments, and socially destructive commercial forces which surround the church.

Or they spiritualise it, and see as their enemies the demonic forces of temptation and despair, just waiting for an opportunity to slip past our guard and bring about our downfall.

I’m not saying that either of these readings are wrong; but I’d suggest that both of them, if not reflected on critically, might lead us to unhealthy attitudes and behaviours, as we retreat into a siege mentality and start seeing everything beyond our own comfort zone as a threat.

I wonder if there is another way to read these ancient prayers; aware that we ourselves are not surrounded by personal enemies in the same way, but still drawing inspiration for our own courage and resilience, in the face of our own personal struggles, from the honesty, faithfulness, and integrity of the psalmists?  Seeking to reflect the attitudes, rather than the circumstances, of the psalmists, in our own contexts?

Grounded in love

This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:14-21.

Isn’t it nice when you have one of those moments when you can recognise that you’ve got something right?  A good mark, or positive annual review, or a child saying “I love you,” those moments encourage us and help us keep going.

And if we pay attention to this morning’s reading from Ephesians, we might see one of those moments for this parish.

Here’s what I mean.  Last week, at the parish planning meeting, we spent some time trying to identify a set of core values for the parish; values which could then guide the decisions we make, and how we communicate about who we are.  And our core values came out as being a community of love and care, of deep connections and meaningful relationships.  That’s what came from the stories we shared of what had been truly meaningful experiences for us here.

And then we listen in on Paul’s prayer that the Ephesians may be “rooted and grounded in love,” may comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.  What Paul puts forward here as so important for the Ephesian church; we’ve just identified as being something we already do well, and value doing well.  We identified that we are rooted and grounded in love, and that our knowledge of the love of Christ has shaped our relationships and our life together in deeply profound ways.

That’s us getting something very right.  Let’s acknowledge and celebrate that!  (What do you think about “grounded in love” as a parish motto, I wonder?  Perhaps we could do worse?)

So taking this bit of the letter as an affirmation of who we are, and as an encouragement to keep doing that well, let’s have a deeper look at what Paul has to say.

Notice that Paul starts this prayer section of his letter by saying that “I bow… before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  He’s not just being grandiose – although Paul’s not above a rhetorical flourish – but he’s making an important point.  In a multicultural, cosmopolitan city like Ephesus, where tensions between different cultural groups were not uncommon, Paul points out that God has a fatherly relationship to every human group.  Not just Jews, or gentiles, or Romans, or Greeks, or Persians or whomever else might have been there, but every family in heaven and on earth.

And the point of this is to highlight that God is big.

It might seem obvious, and we forget, sometimes, how important these basic things are.  But Paul’s point is that our God and Father isn’t just the God of our tribe, or our area, or our ancestors.  He’s not just committed to our little group and no one else.  He’s on about the flourishing of all the families of the earth.  His love reaches beyond those who are near, and even beyond those whom we might hope to bring near.

If we’re going to be rooted and grounded in God’s love, the first thing we have to get is just how big, how universal in scope, that love is.  Our hearts are going to have to expand as we play our part in God’s loving plans for the whole world.

Then, after addressing his prayer to this big God, Paul makes his petition; and it is, in effect, that God’s kingdom may come.  That the good future God has planned and prepared, and is propelling us towards, might be brought just that little bit closer, in the life of the church; being made real and concrete in the ordinary stuff of the common life of the little Christian community in Ephesus.

So Paul prays that, according to the riches of God’s glory – the riches which are our birthright through baptism – the church might actually be able to live lives shaped by a vision of that hope; that good future of God.

Now here’s something important that kind of gets lost in English.  All the “you”s and “your”s in this prayer are plural.  This is not a prayer for the strengthening of individuals, but of the community. Let me read you the key sentences put in a way which makes that clear and personalised to us:

“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that the community of this parish may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in the heart of the community through faith, as the community is being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that the community may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that the community may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Our pew sheet reminds us each week that we are “witnesses to the risen Christ in our midst” but this pushes it one step further; the risen Christ needs to be not just in our midst but in the heart of our community and all its doings – not just our liturgies but our conversations, our meetings, our social gatherings and our various outreach activities – and that is how we are rooted and grounded in love.

And it’s together – in community, and in the quality of our relationships – that we have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ; the love of Christ which arises ultimately from the dynamic, over-flowing love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It’s in our relationships with one another that the quality of that love, expressed in deep and loving and mutual relationship, can be known by us in some way, even though it ultimately surpasses any human knowledge.  And it’s in that way that we – as a parish community – may be filled with all the fullness of God.  To be rooted and grounded in love is to be rooted and grounded in relationships which mirror the qualities of God’s relationships; and that quality of relationship is the riches of God’s glory which Paul prays that the Ephesians might have.

It’s layer upon layer of imagery trying somehow to give us some idea of what God is calling us to be.

But as I said at the beginning, we can recognise that in this, at least, we’ve already made a good beginning.  We have a community marked by loving and caring relationships.  Not that we don’t have more growing to do; of course we do.  But we can be encouraged that we’re on the way in growing the way Paul was encouraging the Ephesians to grow.  So let’s be purposeful in continuing in that way!

St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon.  It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove.  Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing.  But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories.  And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.

Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.

Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us.  It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction.  It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with.  And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”

The story begins in darkness, early in the morning.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.

Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation.  She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back.  Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes).  And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.

And she weeps.  Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”  The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.

Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name.  John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him.  In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.

So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated.  She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord.  She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices.  She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.

All of this is well and good.  We too should seek with persistence.  We too should love the light and weep at the darkness.  We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice.  As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.

But wait; there’s more to the story.  The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved.  One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen.  Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.”  And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.

Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus.  Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her.  She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness.  Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.”  He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight.  And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.

The relevance of this is that all three are given their place.  Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter.  Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word.  And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community.  At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.

Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here.  John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach.  Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.

But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle.  He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex.  Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community.  More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!

So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.

By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.

That’s John’s version, anyway.  But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.

You Can’t Ask That.

Here in Australia, there’s a TV show called You Can’t Ask That.  The premise of the show is to identify a group of people who are often misunderstood, and to allow the public to submit questions which one normally might not ask.

Recently, an episode was done on priests, and you can see it here: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/you-cant-ask-that/series/3/video/LE1717H008S00   See if you can work out which one is me. 🙂

(International readers, I’m afraid that it seems to be difficult to get access to from outside Australia; if you work out how to do it, please let me know in the comments!)

It was a fascinating experience; to be invited to reflect on the big-picture questions about who we are and what we do.  To give you some idea, I was in the studio for three hours, and the material had to fit a half-hour episode; so a lot of what I thought was really valuable material hasn’t made the cut.  But I think what is there is fair.

Do tell me what you think of it!