Sunday, July 17, 2016

ST MARY MAGDALENE - Apostle to the Apostles - Sunday 17 July

If it’s on the internet it must be true!

We all know, don’t we, that we have to be really discerning when it comes to choosing what to believe on the internet and what to take with a grain of salt.

The same rule can be true if you try to find out about the saints of old.

If you use your computer search engine to look up Mary Magdalene you will get some amazing information.  I looked up the first 10 pages Google identified for me.

I discovered that she is often assumed to be the woman who wept on Jesus feet or anointed his feet with perfume – but this was Mary the sister of Martha, or else an unnamed woman of ill-repute; which probably led to the next thing I discovered.

I discovered that Mary was probably a prostitute, and that she became the patron saint of fallen women – so in the Middle Ages many “Magdalen Houses” were built and run by nuns to gather such women in.

I discovered that there are five Gospels that are not in the Bible that tell stories about Mary.

I discovered that Mary was cast out of Palestine on a boat without sail or oars and she ended up in Southern France.  Relics of this are still present to this day.

I discovered that Mary was actually the married to Jesus and some say there was even a child.

I discovered that she had starring roles in 40 movies since the first in 1912.

But none of this is based in fact so what can we say about Mary Magdalene with any certainty?

Firstly, she is named more often in the Gospels than many of the Apostles – a dozen text references.  Apart from the birth narratives, Mary the Mother of Jesus rates just eight Gospel references.  So it is reasonable to regard Mary Magdalene as very significant in the Early Christian community.

Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women who gathered as followers of Jesus in addition to the men, and Luke makes it clear that these women were of sufficient well-being that “they used their own resources to help Jesus and his disciples.”  Luke 8:3   

Luke also mentions that Jesus healed her – the text says 7 demons, but since 7 is a symbolic number it is a bit difficult to know for sure what she was healed of.

This is the only reference to her prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection stories.

  • Matthew, Mark and John name Mary among the witnesses of the Crucifixion. 
  • Matthew and Mark note Mary as one of two women who witnessed the interment of Jesus’ body in the tomb.  
  • Finally, all four Gospel writers name Mary among the women who gathered at the tomb early on the Sunday morning and discover that it is empty and who then passed on the news or the instructions of Jesus, depending on how the story is told, to the Apostles.

Anything else that you think you might know about Mary is either the product of the accumulated tradition of the Church, or our tendency to merge the stories of the various Mary’s into one and say this is Mary Magdalene.

So, what do we make of this Mary?  Why is it that she occupies a very hallowed or noble place among the community of early saints?

In the language of the Church she is called the Apostle of the Apostles.  The word Apostle means a messenger or an emissary – one who represents the words of another.  Just as the 12 Apostles were sent by Jesus in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, so Mary Magdalene was sent by Jesus with a specific message for his disciples.

In the scheme of things this seems to be a very strange state of affairs.  As Dee reminded me during the week, in those days the testimony of a woman held no weight in the courts.  They were never taken seriously – I guess because women are so often hysterical!  And we get a little bit of resistance to the witness from the men, don’t we – but maybe that was because the idea of Jesus’ resurrection was unbelievable rather than because it was some hysterical women who told them.

I don’t suppose we will ever know, but it is clear from these references to Mary Magdalene, and her very significant place in the early Christian community, that she was acknowledged as someone special among the saints.

I really hold an egalitarian view of life in the Kingdom of God, but many in the church have held out an hierarchical view of things, even down to having a hierarchy of saints.  We have marked this difference by having different names for the kind of commemoration we have of a saint.  In the Anglican Church we have Principal Feasts, Principal Holy Days, Festivals, Lesser Festivals and Commemorations.  Just this year, Pope Francis has elevated the commemoration of Mary from a Memorial to a Feast – right up there with the Apostles, Peter, James, John and Paul.  Again, what this says is that Mary is really, really important.  We must not disregard her as an insignificant or bit player in the story.

Given the place of this woman as the first witness to the resurrection, as the one to whom Jesus entrusted the task of telling his Disciples that he had been raised to life, I think it really is sad that women have had to struggle over the years to feel validly part of the Christian community.

In the story of Mary Magdalene, in the story of Priscilla and Acquilla, in the stories of so many of the women in the early church we see women accepted as equals in the community of believers.

I want to see a church in which this is more and more the case.  We have come a long way in our lifetime in redressing the imbalance that saw all leadership in the hands of men – and the church is much healthier for it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

St Peter & St Paul

I don’t think I need to persuade you to the view that Peter and Paul were each very significant among the founding fathers of the Church.

Peter, of course, is portrayed among the Apostles as the leader, and there are some wonderful personal and one-on-one encounters between Jesus and Peter such as we read from John 21 today.  As you read through the Book of Acts you see that Peter and James became the significant leaders of the Christians that were in Jerusalem.

Converts dispersed from Jerusalem in those early years to the towns and cities around the Mediterranean rim, and we see a number of journeys by those early apostles and church leaders to the outlying communities to help establish the churches there or to support and encourage them.  But Peter and James remained in Jerusalem for at least the first twenty years following the death of Jesus.  In the mid-50s Peter went to Rome and led the church there.  Tradition has it that he was killed there by the Roman authorities in about 65ad.

Paul was not one of the Disciple Apostles.  Compared to the Apostles, Paul was a citizen of the world.  While he was clearly Hebrew and had been seriously trained as a Pharisee by Gamliel, he lived in Tarsus – a Roman town in Turkey – and he was in fact a Roman citizen.

Our Christian stories of him begin with him as a severe persecutor of Christians, but his encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus in Syria was transformative and he became a great champion of Jesus.

His stories are recorded in the Book of Acts as well as in his own words in some of the letters in the New Testament.  He works very hard to establish his credential as an Apostle equal among the Disciple-Apostles because he says that he encountered and was taught by Jesus during a three year period he spend along before he started his ministry.

Paul, also ended up in Rome, about the time Peter was there and they were both executed in the mid-60s.

Much of the work of the early Disciple-Apostles was seeking to persuade Jews that Jesus was in fact their awaited Messiah.  They generally did not detach themselves from the synagogues, but rather grasped every opportunity they could to make it clear that Jesus was the One.

But an interesting aspect of Synagogue life, especially in the towns around the Mediterranean to which the Hebrews had migrated, was that there was very often a group among them who were Gentiles who were very interested in Judaism.  Paul, with his Cypriot friend Barnabus, had a canny knack of telling these people the stories of Jesus so convincingly that they became Christians rather than Jews.  This might explain some of the trouble he seemed to have frequently with the Jewish Authorities.

This growing body of Christians from a gentile background caused problems for the Christians from a Jewish background, because the Jewish Christians still thought of themselves as Jews, so circumcision and the Law of Moses was kind of obligatory.  Yet these gentile Christians weren’t lining up for those bits.  This is what the meeting in Jerusalem which we read from Acts 15 today is all about.

So we have these two characters before us today, whose lives we celebrate and whose memory we honour.  And it seems to me that there are three things we might carry away with us as encouragement for our life together here at Holy Cross.

The first is that the ministry of Paul to the Gentiles shouts out to us all that the Christian Community was to be an INCLUSIVE community.  The Hebrew people had been used to separating themselves from Gentiles and sinners – basically believing that contact with gentiles contaminated them and made them ritually unclean.  But this Christian community chose to welcome sinners into it.  Following the example of Jesus who “ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners” the church seemed to make it clear that anyone was welcome here.

Now I think that is really important for us in the church today.  It is very easy for us to create barriers to make sure various groups of people don’t make it too close to us in the church.  But this is not the way it should be.  This should be a place of welcome or warm reception for anyone who feels marginalised or an outcast in our society.

Secondly, I think these two men teach us that sometimes things change.  We generally like to think that our world will stay pretty much the same.  It makes us feel safe.  And this is perhaps especially so in the area of our faith life in the church.  But just as Peter and Paul had to make big adjustments to changes in their ideas about how things should be in the church, so we, in our day have had to adjust and move on all sorts of ideas about the life of our church.  We, all of us, tend to resist change.  We like things to be as we have known them to be, but as life and our community changes around us we find that we also have to change.

The third little bit of inspiration I get from the stories of these two men is that when we choose to follow Jesus we never know what’s around the corner.  And just as Jesus kept on in the way of his Father, even though he could see looming upon him the distinct possibility that the authorities would kill him, so Peter and Paul kept on with their sense of the mission Jesus had given them, even as they could both tell that circumstances were making it more and more likely that they would lose their lives.

I think this involved cultivating a confidence in our own sense of God’s call in our lives.  God has called each one of us here to be his people, to live out our lives in relationship with God and in service of one another.  Sometimes, the doing of that is really easy.  Things go well, we can see the results of our efforts, and we feel greatly encouraged.  But other times, we seeking to follow in his way it seems as though everything around us is railed against us doing it.  But following the example of Jesus, and Peter and Paul, we can be encouraged to just keep on being God’s person here anyway.

The rule of life is simple – just do it! – even if things seem to be stacked up against us.  God knows and will honour our faithfulness.