Tag Archives: religion

Mary Magdalene

[Mary Magdalene is traditionally remembered on 22 July, so many churches will replace the routine readings this Sunday to turn to her story]

The “Saints” in New Testament language are defined as all faithful Christians.  Still, we often use the term for those best known, perhaps for their place in the New Testament. These have a place in our education, as examples of the grace and work of Christ in believers, and of the diversity of vocation. They also challenge our limited horizons:
to those inclined to say “This is me, this is all I am ever going to be, and all I want from religion is a bit of comfort” they offer a resounding “NO” This may be where you now start, but by God’s grace you will grow into His purposes, as they did.

Mary Magdalene was “rubbish”: a woman, and one possessed by demons until Jesus freed her (Luke 8:2)! Yet she is remarkably honoured:

  •  she is mentioned as one of the group of women who followed Jesus. Indeed, it may be significant that she is usually mentioned first.
  • she is granted the first appearance of the Resurrected Jesus (John 20), and is the “apostle to the apostles”{a medieval term from several theologians}, sent to tell them the good news
  • she has a clear place in the gospel story – not bad for a nobody (and good reason for us to revise our ideas of who “matters”!)

But be careful not to get her story wrong. Dan Brown in the da Vinci Code took ideas from the Gnostics, (and their late and untrustworthy writings, the “Gospels” of Thomas and of Mary) that she was Jesus’ lover or wife, mother of his child/children, teacher of the apostles. Wishful thinking? Inability to believe that a close relationship could not be pure? Ben Witherington notes there is NO early historical evidence that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than disciple to Master/teacher.

But let’s go back to what we know with confidence, and ask “Why, or in what way, is her life an example for us?”

  • Firstly, she accepts what God does for her. Healing, change, becoming part of a new group (and no doubt adapting to it).
  • Secondly, she re-makes her life around God’s purposes. We can only speculate about her life before: did she have family (or had they given up?) Certainly she recognises the source of her healing, and she follows. A very important part of Christian life is finding where God wants to put us, and being content to work at fitting there.
  • Thirdly and very importantly, she invites us to look again at the way Jesus relates to people. He has funny ideas about who is important. He avoids making people dependant, yet is of first importance – to beggar, scholar, and fisherman.

Saints are useful to make us think of what God does, and wants to do, with his people. We need to be careful not to read into their stories what we want to find, but there is plenty here to instruct and challenge us.

Comfort and Healing – that we must share

As Jesus travelled, ” he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  no surprise there – we expect Jesus to teach, heal, be compassionate. But think what else he could have done:

  • this is ridiculous, I need a holiday, I’m off!
  • here’s a real commercial opportunity, if I charge them £5 a head, we can all retire next month
  • if I organise them properly, I can have any position I want just by asking for it.

But Jesus isn’t like that, and won’t do those things (not that they are necessarily bad! – there’s nothing essentially wrong in making money by supplying what people want, or organising people to voice their demands and promote their leader, but)  As Mt summarises the first part of his gospel, he reminds us that Jesus had taken the initiative. He travelled, and taught (free of charge), and healed people. His reaction to the crowd is not even “here we go again”, but one of concern for them, for their real wellbeing. He doesn’t wring his hands or bemoan the situation, he gets on with working to tackle it. I hope you find all this encouraging. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to be a Christian, a better, more effective Christian, a Christian in action, not just words or theory.  It is evidence of love, of quality love which is not interfering do-goodism, nor ego-boosting “I told you my way was best”ism, nor anything else but deep, effective concern for the best for the other person.

There’s a bit of a sting in the tail!  Jesus reaction to the need is v37 (” Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”) and 10:1,7 (” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”, “go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. “). The 12 (only here does Matthew call them apostles – those sent out) are given authority, and their marching orders.  Again, we’re not terribly surprised; heard it before, perhaps. But shouldn’t we be?

  • Jesus could have called for volunteers – the extrovert, perhaps?
  • he could have sent those with that sort of gift
  • he could at least have kept a couple back, to keep him company, to get things ready for the others when they came back. You know the sort of people – “don’t expect me to do the religious stuff, but if you want practical help, I’ll be there.”

But just as Jesus worked for the good, the real benefit of the crowds – in the same way he sends all his disciples, to work in the same way. It’s a bit daunting, very much against our culture.  Imagine the complaints, and their answers:

  • I just want a bit of comfort; – fine, but go and give it
  • I like religion the way I like it; – go and love people
  • I’m hurt, damaged, tired, too old; – welcome, find the healing, energy, renewal – but even as you find it, share it with others.

It’s very easy to get used to Jesus, active in practical love.  It is distressingly easy to get used to our own willingness to admire that, even benefit from it, but not take him seriously.

Rotten?

We seem to find it easy to point out what is going wrong.  Whether it is in the wider world, or locally to us, we know what we don’t like.  We complain, and gather people who make the same sort of complaints, but don’t often do anything positive.

Jesus will not let us get away with that.  “You are the salt of the earth . .” he says at the beginning of today’s gospel (Matthew 5:13-20).  Salt was vital when it preserved food – and Christians are still meant to stop things going rotten. They should, even in small amounts, prevent corruption and decay.  Of course salt is less popular in diets now, as Christian ideas seem to be in some parts of society.  We might want to moan about the cost – in broken families, or lives endangered by addictions, but again, Jesus won’t encourage moaning.  If we are to be salt, we have to preserve what is good.

“You are the light of the world . . ”  It is so much easier to criticise than to live a better way.  But that is our calling.  Be light, show the way, bring hope – not to make a personal reputation or build an ego, but to bring glory to God.  This is not easy reading, but an invitation to be part of the solution.

God has been working on that solution for a long time.  Jesus will build on Old Testament Law and prophecy – but will avoid some of the tradition that has build up around religion.  He is more faithful to God and the promises, yet heavily critical of those confident of their own goodness.  How can we hope to do better than those known for their devotion to “professional religion”? Only by knowing our need of forgiveness and grace.  “Religious observance” is not enough.  We have to let God do what we cannot – forgive, transform our motivation, make us part of the family together bringing light and hope.

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Jesus (Proper 11, Pentecost 9)

Turkey is in the news – an attempted military coup. Nearly 2000 years ago, Paul wrote a letter to Colossae a small town in what is now Turkey. There was a problem in the Church in Colossae; they were getting their faith wrong, in a way which mattered. We won’t worry too much about how they wanted to improve on the gospel, but let’s look at what Paul said:

First, Colossians 1:15-20 Its all about Jesus. Jesus is how we see what God is like – is God remote, severe, judgemental, or is God a pushover, a sugar – daddy? Well, the answer (to those and lots of other ideas) is – look at Jesus. Get to know the stories about him. He’s friendly (to all sorts of people), very human, but also powerful, and has deep understanding and sympathy.

For the Colossians, he might have been the start, but they wanted to “improve” this faith in one way or another. Paul isn’t having that. Jesus continues in charge, superior to the powers of heaven.  It is Jesus who died to set us free, it is Jesus who is head of the Church, the source of its unity.  These are things you may only have found that out recently – or some of you may have been in Christian things for years. Either way, you don’t get away from needing Jesus, and the forgiveness he gives!
Then, Colossians 1:21-23  talks about how that affects the Colossians. Their past had been one of alienation – led astray by the false values of a corrupt society (does that sound familiar?). But Jesus (yes, focus on him again) had intervened to set them free by his death. They are not being allowed to get away from the physical – because of their delight in the metaphysical and “spiritual” – very ” in quotes “, Paul ties them down to the actual, bodily death of Jesus. Their future depends on their holding on to their initial commitment to the gospel they once heard and accepted.
After the central and continuing importance of Jesus, and God’s purpose for the Colossians, Paul talks about his own role. He sees himself as entrusted with a message – not some secret knowledge to be passed on to initiates, but the gospel taught to believers openly. That is our message, too. If you know what Jesus did and does, don’t keep quiet about it. The glory is not some religious experience, but the presence of Christ among believers – the new life they share, and in which they grow in holiness and service.

There are lots of people who need to know these things:

  • Jesus has to come first – in Church, in my life, in the way I do faith.
  • There are many round us who forget, or don’t know, that without Jesus’ death for us, we are lost in the false values of a corrupt society.
  • And there are those, even in religion, who do not remember the responsibility we have of sharing the gospel message, and living and working for it – even when that means suffering.