St. Mary Magdalene

Thomas, the skeptic

I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding.  A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives.  How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous?  (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)

We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears.  The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump.  Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)!  We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle.  Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.

Here’s a little game.  Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer?  Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)

1 jn

Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create?  We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used.  So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation.  I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.

Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers.  In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname.  I would say his “unfortunate” nickname.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

Maybe we should first take a step backwards.  We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors.  It appears they have good reason to do so.  However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence.  We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.

It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on.  It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur.  In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame.  Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans?  Was it Judas’ fault?  Those are pretty easy guesses.  However, perhaps something more was happening.  Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings?  There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.

Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after.  That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.

Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas.  It’s not like the others really got it themselves.  For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid.  No, I’m just kidding!  Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).

In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.

2 jnCould we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking?  Jesus agrees to it.  “Do you want to see my hands and side?  Well, here they are.  Check it out.”  Thomas is convinced.  Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?

We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea.  The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face.  Still, Jesus is determined.  It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).  Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.

Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false…  Thomas needed to touch in order to believe.  He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.”  He needed to “see” for himself.

I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt.  That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt.  I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment.  Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead.  The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.

On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (vv. 30-31).  These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”

We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism.  Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject.  “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology.  It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail.  On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.”[1]

Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic.  I asked him if he had read the Bible.  ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic.  I don’t believe it.’  This is not skepticism.  This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

3 jn

Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith.  How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”?  On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck!  Faith has its own evidence.  Faith has its own eyes.  Faith does its own fact-checking.  In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

Buchanan gives Thomas credit.  “Thomas was a true skeptic.  He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief.  He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.”  He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[2]

For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.

That becomes true for all of them.  Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen.  First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb.  She mistakes him for the gardener.  Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15).  Put your tears away.

In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21).  And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).

How is that a word of comfort and strength?  What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness?  Would that be a word of comfort for us?  Remember earlier.  In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?”  What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us.  There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others.  Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!

Doubting Thomas.  One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries.  What have we been at our worst?  What have we been at our most embarrassing?  What have we been at the time we most want to take back?  (I can think of plenty more than one.)  Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are.  From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.

4 jnHow often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?

Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst.  Actually, God does that very thing!  Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).

Of that, it is okay to be skeptical!  It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply.  It is okay to take God seriously.  (Yes, it is okay!)  It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3), 64.

[2] Buchanan, 67.

* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake


blessed release

I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “everything is possible at night.”  That thought has occurred to me when I’ve been up very late, and it seems like the whole world is asleep.  The most incredible plans, the wildest ideas, all seem to be quite capable of being accomplished.  There’s the sudden, “Yes!  Why didn’t I think of that before?”  And then when sleep comes, it seems like everything is figured out.  All is right with God and the world.

1 jn

And then the cold light of morning forces open eyelids that aren’t quite ready to be opened.  The mental cobwebs disappear, and a sudden realization takes hold.  What a stupid idea that was!  What in the world was I thinking?  What seemed so clear and so true and so sensible now seems so unclear and so wrong and so ridiculous.

I wonder if the disciples had any similar thoughts.  Jesus had, after all, on occasion made strange statements about being risen from the grave.  What on earth could that mean?  Did they understand him correctly?  Is it possible in those dark, lonely, sorrowful hours before dawn that any of them dared to entertain such notions?

John 20 points us to Mary Magdalene, who ventured out to the tomb of Jesus before sunrise.  The other gospels say she wasn’t alone.  She was accompanied by other women, including Mary the mother of James.  According to the Jewish burial custom, they intended to anoint the body of Jesus.  Still, I wonder what thoughts filled their minds during that terrible and heart-breaking evening.

Mary Magdalene has received a lot of bad press throughout the centuries.  It’s been claimed she had formerly been a prostitute, an allegation stated nowhere in the Bible.  (Though, even if it were true, wouldn’t it be a good thing if she had left that life?)  What is stated is that she had been demon possessed (Lk 8:2).  Some people have said she’s the sinful woman of Luke 8 who washes the feet of Jesus with her hair (vv. 36-50) or that she’s the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (vv. 1-11).

In her blog, “Here’s a Story,” Ashley Buenger takes Biblical characters and events and infuses them with her vision and imagination, bringing them to life.  Here’s an excerpt from her story about Mary and her struggle with demons.[1]

{I have altered the spacing of some of the sentences.}

“I scramble to the jar [I just threw], it’s shattered.  Perfect, I think.  No, wait.  Whose jar is this?  Why have I broken it?  I pick up a shard and I scrape it along the top of my foot.  I see the red beads of blood glisten and I’m delighted.  I’m bleeding.  So beautiful, I stare at it.  Then I take a sharp edge to my palm.

“Stop it.  I say to them.  But they never listen.  They never give heed to what I want.  Get out of here.  I say to them but they laugh at me and snarl.  I can see their teeth in my head.  Oh, Mary.  They taunt me.  Silly Mary. You’re ours.  We won’t leave.

“I pick up another piece of pottery and put it between my teeth.  I chomp down on it as hard as I can.  I wince as I feel a tooth break.  They laugh and place another piece in my mouth.  It’s getting worse.  I push, they push back, I push again, they push back again.  Sometimes I win.  But not often and not lately.  It’s been too long.  I’m too tired to fight.  They have taken over this body.  I’m no longer Mary…  I don’t know half the things I do.

“Look what you’ve done to me, I say to them.  We’ve made you better, they say and laugh, we’ve made you prettier.  They take me to a booth where a man is selling mirrors.  See?  They say.  Gorgeous.  I am horrified.  My face is sunk and my eyes are empty, there are deep wounds on my cheeks.  Chunks of my hair are missing.  What is left hangs limp and dirty around my face.  I don’t even recognize myself…

2 jn

“The air shifts and the hair on my neck tingles, I stand up straight and look around.  Someone is coming.  Someone important.  The demons are stirred.  I stumble to the wall and then back and to the wall again.

“There he is, that’s him.  Who is he?…  ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they yell from my mouth.  ‘We know who you are.  The son of the Most High God.’

“‘Come out of her.’  Jesus says.  ‘Now.’

“My body shakes and they shriek as they leave.  It smells like burning flesh for a moment and then they are gone.  There were seven of them.

“I look up and into the face of my healer.  He stands before me with his hand out to me.  I take it, wincing at the pain of the gashes in my palm.  ‘Hi Mary.’  He says to me.  And I stare at him.  My name from his lips is like a song.  The most beautiful melody that I had ever heard.  It is a song of freedom.

“I am Mary again.”

Mary is given a blessed release.

By the way, I sent a comment to Ashley saying, “I love your portrait of the demons as spiteful little punks.”  At the end of the day, that’s really what they are.

The scripture reading of that first Easter morning describes the event that earned Mary Magdalene the name “apostle to the apostles,” no longer the Mary with seven devils.  She peeks into the tomb, even while she’s crying tears of sorrow.  She’s greeted by two angels who ask her why she’s crying.  Mary’s answer shows how confused she is as to how all this can be happening.

3 jnNo sooner has she answered their question than she turns and sees Jesus himself.  Says G. H. C. Macgregor, “There follows the greatest recognition scene in all literature—and one told in two words!”[2]  (Jesus says, “Mary.”  She says, “Rabbouni,” meaning teacher.)  “The greatest recognition scene in all literature.”  (Why doesn’t he tell us how he really feels?)

She sees him, but she doesn’t recognize him.  Thinking he’s the gardener, Mary figures he can explain the missing body of Jesus.

Why doesn’t Mary recognize him?  One suggestion is it was still too dark, but that doesn’t seem very likely.  After all, the disciples on the road to Emmaus spend a long time with Jesus before realizing who he is (Lk 24:13-35).  It’s not until Jesus speaks her name that the veil over Mary’s mind is lifted.

Nadia Bolz-Weber has her own take on this recognition scene.[3]

“See, when Mary Magdalene, this imperfect woman, stood at the tomb, she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing Jesus that morning.  Seriously, no offense to gardeners but Jesus couldn’t have been looking all that tidy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener.  And here’s the thing: I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”

4 jnThat really speaks volumes about the incarnation.  In Jesus, we have God appearing on earth in flesh, God appearing as matter—this earthly, dirty stuff.  No angel, no vision, but the physical body and blood of Jesus.  In a few moments, we will eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (That’s the Greek word appearing many times in the New Testament which means “giving thanks.”)

How can we describe the intensity of the moment that follows?  In what must have been a flood of shock and joy, Mary cries out to the one she dearly loved.  There are other writings from the early church, besides the New Testament, that speak of the relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  They speak of a relationship, one of intimate friendship.  Some even go so far as to suggest a romantic bond.

The scripture presents her as turning twice.  In verse 14, she “turns” and sees Jesus, though as mentioned before, she doesn’t recognize him.  In verse 16, upon hearing her name spoken, she “turns” and speaks to Jesus with unbounded wonder.  She turns from grief to hope.  She turns from sorrow to joy.

Though the Bible doesn’t use that word, she turns—she returns—and brings the good news to the others.  Of course, they don’t take her word for it.  Sometimes even an apostle to the apostles isn’t believed!

Mary Magdalene is a fitting picture for Easter, for resurrection.  She, in effect, has been raised from the dead.  She has been freed from her demons.  She once was blind, but now she sees.

It’s been said that it’s “possible for Jesus to be present, and yet for [us] not to recognise him until his word goes home to [us].”[4]

“Until his word goes home.”  It’s not enough to hear about Christ or to be taught the meaning of the resurrection.  We can learn ways to understand the scriptures; we can learn the doctrines of the church—and these are important.  But hearing about Jesus won’t produce belief.  We must hear from Jesus.  And hearing from Jesus Christ means hearing the good news of his love.  That is the word that goes home.

And that is the word spoken to Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her by name.  It’s like those three-dimensional pictures that are hidden in the midst of a bewildering array of other images.  You have to let your eyes remain unfocused.  Straining to find the 3-D picture won’t do any good.  And it can be maddening.  You’re looking right at it, but you can’t see it!

5 jn

When Jesus speaks his word, he no longer is a gardener.  He no longer is a traveler on the Emmaus road.  When he speaks his word, he can be seen as the risen Lord who comes to us even now, in every moment of life.

So the next time you find yourself awake in the midst of the darkest of nights, think to yourself that anything is possible at night—even the impossible.  For it was before the sun had yet shown its face that the light of the world emerged from the darkness of the tomb.

 

[1] ashleybuenger.substack.com/p/mary-magdalene?s=r

[2] G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel of John (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 358.

[3] thecorners.substack.com/p/its-actually-pretty-easy-to-mistake?s=r

[4] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 686.


beyond binary

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  As with most presbyteries in our denomination, the percentage of our membership is overwhelmingly white—much higher than the national average, even higher than the local population.  The percentage of people over the age of 50, indeed over the age of 60 (how about 70 or 80?), is way over the national average.

A Committee on Representation looking at those factors might be excused for throwing up their hands in despair!  Depending on the circumstances, a congregational nominating committee might have a similar reaction!  But representation encompasses a wide variety of fascinating goodies, including as our Book of Order says, “due consideration to both the gifts and requirements for ministry” (G-3.0103).

Consider a couple of passages from the gospel of St. Luke.  Jesus calls his disciples together (how many of them were there to choose from?) and selects his inner circle.  There seems to be a diversity in occupation, social status, and who knows—in favorite food?

1 lk

Two of the more interesting choices are Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

First, let’s look at Matthew.  Tax collectors were hated by the Jews.  It wasn’t simply that they collected taxes(!), but that they were corrupt.  The Roman Empire designated an amount to raise through taxation, but Matthew and his kind were free to collect over and above as much as they wanted.  They could do this with almost complete impunity.  After all, they enjoyed the protection of Roman soldiers.  Extortion doesn’t do much in the way of winning friends—neither does collaborating with a despised foreign government!

As for Simon the Zealot, he identified with a group “zealous” in their observation of Jewish religious law and practice.  The Romans did have a way of throwing up roadblocks to those things!  In their opposition to Roman attempts to suppress them, many Zealots turned to violent resistance.  Many of them were in fact revolutionaries; they sought the overthrow of the Roman government.

It appears we have Simon the (possible) revolutionary and Matthew the collaborator.  I wonder how they got along.  Were there tense moments at the dinner table?  When Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, where they ever paired together?  Was there ever a danger of one “accidentally” suffering a mishap?  What was Jesus thinking by bringing these two guys into his little band?

Are we to think they laid aside their mutual disgust of each other and actually began to like each other?  That seems to be a bit much to swallow.  Were they ever able to love one another?  I hope we understand that liking and loving someone are two quite different things.

Here’s another tidbit to chew on.  Why is there such a focus on the men?  (Wow, who could imagine such a thing?)  We see that women comprise a large percentage (possibly the majority?) of Jesus’ disciples.  Luke 8 tells of the cadre of women who traveled with Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others” were in the company.  Not only were they along for the ride, but with their resources, they likely made the whole enterprise possible.  (It is hard to hold a steady job when you’re moving from town to town.)

2 lk

Getting back to committees on representation, Jesus looks like he would excel at serving on them.  Bringing together disparate folks…  Welcoming women…  Giving voice to the voiceless…

By bringing women along for the ride, Jesus was certainly giving a voice to the voiceless—definitely in terms of getting religious instruction directly from a rabbi, from a teacher.  Indeed, we’re told, “We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue, but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or [instructor] was a rabbi willing to teach them.”  Still, “It was not uncommon for women to support rabbis and their disciples out of their own money, property, or foodstuffs.”[1]

Still, having said that, “But for her to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous.  Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.  Yet it was an intended part of His ministry that women be witnesses…and benefit from His teaching and healing.”[2]

Later in Luke, when Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha, Martha is busy with many tasks, doing “women’s work.”  But her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (10:39).  She took the position of a disciple—and oh my—Jesus allowed it!

There are other instances where Jesus ignored cultural rules that hampered women.  In John 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  In verse 27, we read, “Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’”  To speak with a woman in the absence of a male family member was a big no-no.

3 lkThese actions and attitudes did not go unnoticed.  Forget Simon the Zealot, Jesus is the actual revolutionary.  A revolution of love is the only true revolution.

Here’s an interesting note: for his trouble of befriending “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus is labeled “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19).  As we’ve seen, tax collectors were rarely presented with RSVPs.  And “sinners” refers to those considered to be of ill repute.

Clearly, being labeled “a glutton and a drunkard,” is not a compliment.  Labels are lovely critters.  And when considering committees on representation, we are very good at coming up with them.  Forget representation—we’re good at coming up with labels in general.

An inherent danger to representation can be just that—labeling.  Is there something in Jesus’ warning, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” which might include pigeonholing others? (Matthew 7:1).

We are more than some rigid, inflexible category.

And that’s something to bear in mind in the work of a committee on representation.  No, never mind that—it’s the work of life itself!

Keeping in mind my antipathy, my aversion, (or maybe say, my less than passionate fondness) toward labels, I must confess that I often have a problem with our binary descriptions: left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  How about Green Party?  And then there’s dividing the states into blue or red.  How about purple?  (Fortunately, my favorite colors are purple and green!)

4 lk

Something I’ve often noticed is that those who might agree with me on a theological or political matter can be quite disagreeable!  I appreciate one who dissents with me and yet has an open mind and open heart.  I have considerably less appreciation for one who assents with me and yet has a closed mind and closed heart.

There’s someone who declares our unity in Christ provides, or should provide, the way past the closed minds and closed hearts.  That’s the apostle Paul, when he tells the Galatian church, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28).

In the parallel passage in Colossians, he says, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (3:11).

When we are baptized, the water washes away the distinctions to which we stubbornly hold.  Being clothed with Christ means we first remove the clothing we’ve put on ourselves.

Sometimes we identify with our tribe, those who in whatever way, provide security between “us” and “them.”  There can be a comfort in tribalism.  In ages past, humans had to group together to protect themselves: against the elements, against wild animals, and against each other.  Woe to the one who was banished and sent out alone!

There are still places on the planet in which tribes engage in violence with each other.  They kill each other.  With us, tribalism doesn’t usually end in bloodshed!  But by not looking past it, we still kill each other, just in different ways.

5 lk

[Tribes of Sneetches, star bellied and plain bellied alike, eventually learn their lesson!]

Jesus Christ moves us past that.  He transcends the binary, the duality, the impenetrable walls we erect that divide.  He welcomes Matthew and Simon.  He welcomes women.  He welcomes Samaritans—that other tribe.  He welcomes you.  He welcomes me.  Christ does that if we allow ourselves to identify with him.  He does that if we allow him to represent us.

When we do that, we are transformed.  Our ugliness is beautiful.  Our folly is wise.  Our nothing is everything.

We are cured of evil spirits and infirmities…  seven demons are cast out… and we travel on with our Lord.

 

[1] Ben Witherington III, “On the Road with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Other Disciples: Luke 8:1-3, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (70:3-4, 1979), 244.

[2] Witherington, 245.


courage!

I need to admit something.  There was a time when I would have never dreamed that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.  And I’m not talking about being a pastor, which I believe I mentioned once.  I mean what I’m doing right now this instant, that is, speaking in public.

I was one of those poor souls who would put “public speaking” near the top of the list of things I dreaded doing.  I had to force myself to take a public speaking class in high school.

1 easterWhen I became a Christian and started going to church—I was 21 when I was baptized—my pastor saw something in me and asked if I wanted to preach a sermon.  (This was a church with Wednesday night services, so that would be my time slot!)  I think I said “yes” because, as much as for any other reason, I didn’t want to disappoint him.

The first time I preached, I’m sure I was visibly terrified.  I forgot to breathe.  My chest tightened up.  I found myself trying to race through the words.  (Oh Lord, please let this end.)  My vocal inflection was terrible, that is, unless you’re a fan of anxious monotone!  However, over time, I gradually got better.

There was one particular night when I was scheduled to preach.  I was completely calm, perfectly at ease.  Then while he was introducing me, the pastor, reflecting on past bouts of nerves said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be him right now!”  He thought he was lightening the mood, trying to be helpful.  It didn’t work.  He inadvertently spoke worry and negativity into my brain.  I was back to being visibly terrified!  By the grace of God, I’ve made steps in conquering my fear of public speaking.

I begin with this reminiscence to demonstrate my tiny experience of gaining a little bit of courage.

Courage is something that is woven into the Easter narratives, in all four of the gospels.  We hear the message, “Do not fear.”  We hear the encouragement.  Even before we get to Easter, on Maundy Thursday, the gospel of John reports one of the last things Jesus says to the disciples: “take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  In other places, the Greek word (θαρσεω, tharseō) is translated as “take heart.”

2 easter

That makes sense.  Our English word “courage,” coming by way of French and before that, Latin, literally means “heart.”  It’s related to the word “cardiac.”  If you’ve got courage, you’ve got heart!

In today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 28, both the angel and Jesus say to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (there were several Marys), “Do not be afraid” (vv. 5, 10).  Do not fear.  Do not lose heart.  The gospel writers list various permutations of women at the tomb of Jesus, but the one constant is Mary Magdalene.  She’s given special attention.  She is courageous in a way none of the male disciples ever are.

We see that she is sent—in John’s gospel, she’s the only one sent—to tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised from the grave.  For that reason, she is called “apostle to the apostles.”  An “apostle” (αποστολος, apostolos) is “one who is sent.”  She’s a messenger to the messengers.

Ron Hansen reminds us that women “were not admissible as legal witnesses according to Jewish law.”[1]  The overall disbelief of the men regarding Mary Magdalene’s claims is to be expected.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that they seriously doubt what she’s saying, especially when it’s something so outrageous.

At the same time, Jesus did tell them that he would come back from the dead (v. 6, 26:32).  Still, what can you do with that—something so inconceivable?  And then there are those who say Jesus’ claims about resurrection were tacked on later, as an addition to Matthew’s gospel.

Having said all of that, sometimes we don’t take the disciples’ state of mind very seriously.  We already know the end of the story.  That’s what we’re celebrating today.  Death has been defeated.  It is the death of death.  Christ being raised means he can no longer die.  He is the pioneer of resurrection.  We who are in Christ share in the resurrection.  We will die and emerge with life eternal.

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image of St. Mary Magdalene is by Karmie Varya at http://stmarymagdalenes.org/stmarymags-karmievarya.jpg

As I say, the disciples don’t know that yet.  Look at verse 1: “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”  There’s not much said about the sabbath after Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  The sabbath is a time to rest.  However, I don’t think the disciples find much rest on that sabbath.

We now call that sabbath Holy Saturday.  The disciples are in a state of grief.  They have been bereaved.  They have been traumatized.

Shelly Rambo, who is a professor at Boston University School of Theology, has done work on the subject of trauma.  She has worked with military chaplains; they have firsthand knowledge.  For our purposes here, she’s looked at trauma from a theological point of view.  Thinking about my comment on our knowing the end of the story, she says in our rush to get to Easter (to get to the party!), we tend to not pause and reflect on Holy Saturday.  It’s so important to not fly past it.  And here I am saying it, when it was yesterday!  But that’s the beauty of the liturgical calendar.  We re-live the life and story of Jesus every year.

Rambo says that traumas don’t necessarily end.  “Traumas are moving—and we could say bleeding—into other traumas.”[2]

She talks about church folks, saying “in the case of many people who are living beyond traumas, the resurrection [is] often heard as a rush to get over it, to recover, or as pressure to live into resurrection when in fact the reality of their trauma [is] still very present.”  It is possible for there to be an element of insensitivity when we automatically expect everyone to join the festivity.

So back to the disciples.  Remember, they don’t know what’s going to happen.

4 easterOur friend Shelly continues, “That made me think about how hard it is to witness suffering, how hard it is in the chaos in which you don’t know whether life’s going to emerge for someone.  So in a sense, the preacher or the Christian leader becomes the Mary and the beloved disciple and the Thomas who don’t have a clear sign of life.”

At first, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener.  Then, in the depths of their sorrow, they realize that it really is him.  Jesus is alive!  Notice how Matthew describes the two women.  “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (v. 8).

“With fear and great joy.”  Maybe one way to look at that would be as the transition of Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday.

(Maybe we get a small taste of fear and great joy by riding a roller coaster!)

I started with my story of moving from almost panic and paralysis to a much greater sense of comfort when speaking in public—one little victory of courage.  How about more meaningful cases of courage?

How about among you?  Can you think of a situation in which you found courage, you were encouraged, when it looked like death had won?  When it looked like all hope was lost?  Then, somehow, new life emerged?  A light began to shine in the darkness?  Did you discover newfound powers?  And to continue with the borrowed image: have you ever been in a state of “fear and great joy”?

Last week, I used Philippians 2:5-11 as my Palm Sunday text.  It speaks of Jesus emptying himself: his refusal to grasp on to power, his willingness to travel the human path, even to the point of being a slave, to the point of being homeless, even to the point of dying, and even suffering the disgrace of dying on a cross.

The constantly self-emptying, loving community that is the Holy Trinity permeates throughout all of creation, throughout all the cosmos.  Because of that, nothing is ever truly lost.  No act of self-emptying, however small, is ever wasted.  And ultimately, at the end of the day, nothing that dies truly remains dead.  On this weekend, we remember the reality of death (for now), but we celebrate the inexpressible joy that comes with rebirth and resurrection.

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I won’t speak for anyone else, but we non-courageous types need that message and the hope of life it carries.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (v. 10).  Jesus said, “take courage; I have conquered the world!”

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20140414JJ.shtml

[2] www.faithandleadership.com/qa/shelly-rambo-the-space-between-death-and-resurrection


love rescued from the grave

I’m sure many of us have said goodbye to a best friend for what we both believed, or knew, was the last time. In our lives, we say goodbye to a lot of people that we’ll never see again, and we’re fine with it. Sometimes we play games and say stuff like, “see you later,” when we know very well there will be no “later.” (At least, not in this lifetime.)

It can be an awkward moment. But with our best friend, it’s more than awkward—it’s painful. Silly games like “see you later,” “hasta la vista,” just won’t work, and we both know it.

I’ve had this kind of experience once in my life, when I was preparing to graduate from the Assemblies of God college, Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida. (It’s now Southeastern University.) In December 1988, I had finished my coursework and was joining the small number of students who also were ready to graduate. My roommate still had over two years to go. He was about to go home for the Christmas break.

There were times when he truly angered me and I wanted to strangle the guy. However, the fact that he could easily beat me up kept me from acting on that particular impulse! At the time, we seemed to have little in common. With a few exceptions, we were not into the same kind of music. He wasn’t terribly fond of books, movies, or sports. It seems like our faith was the only thing we really had in common, but as it turned out, that was more than enough.

Whatever the reason, I can say that he became my best friend. (I should add that this was before I met Banu. So by “best friend,” I mean my male best friend!) Even though he still irritated and embarrassed me at times with some of his antics in public, I came to love him. And so it happened on the day that a fellow student pulled up in the parking lot to take him to the Tampa airport, we each found ourselves at that terrible moment of saying goodbye to our best friend.

I just wanted him to get in the car and leave quickly. I could feel the pain increasing. As soon as the car left the parking lot, I turned and hurried back into the dorm. I didn’t want anyone to see me with my eyes watering up. Besides, I could barely see where I was going. Even then, in that moment, I was imagining myself tripping on the stairs and rolling back to the bottom. But I did make it to my room, where I put my head on my desk, and for about ten minutes, I just cried.

(As it turned out, it wasn’t the last time we saw each other. We got together several more times. In fact, he even attended Banu’s and my wedding. He now lives in Costa Rica, and I’ve Skyped with him from there.)

John 20 gives us another case of saying goodbye to a best friend. Of course, in this case, the best friend is Jesus. And he’s not on his way to the airport.

The story of Easter in John’s gospel is unique. Mary Magdalene is the primary focus. Sure, Simon Peter and the other disciple, “the one whom Jesus loved,” run through the scene. But it’s Mary who steals the show.

Mary magdalene of the tears
After all the excitement, with Mary running to tell the others that the body of Jesus is missing, with them running to the tomb, with them searching around inside, with them giving up and going back home—after all of that—we’re left with Mary, just standing there and crying.

The quiet of the empty tomb is deep. Only her tears fill that silence. Mary Magdalene has lost her best friend: some say, more than a friend.

But the stillness is soon broken. She takes another look into the tomb, and Mary sees what must be two people. She laments that Jesus’ body has been taken away. “Have you seen it?” Their brief conversation leaves her feeling disheartened and dismayed.

Suzanne Guthrie speaks of these encounters in the darkness of that Easter morning, the not-yet dawning of light. The day before, what we now call Holy Saturday, was the sabbath, the day of rest. Guthrie doubts that Mary’s sabbath was a day of holy respite. “More likely,” she says, Mary “spent her sabbath in a hell-fury of grief and recriminations against Romans, against the Sanhedrin, against the very Creator of the universe. And perhaps against Jesus himself.”*

“You didn’t have to do this! How could you leave us? How could you leave me?” Mary’s loss is bitter.

Guthrie elaborates, “What is loss but the experience of love, after all? If you did not love, there would be no loss.” Losing a best friend is love lost.

She continues, “Absence becomes a kind of presence. But during this particular dark hour in this particular place in time, the emptiness becomes real presence.”

Into that hopeless emptiness a real presence emerges. It is Jesus, but Jesus as yet unrecognized. Jesus emerges into our emptiness. Do we recognize him?

We see that lack of recognition in verses 14 and 15. Jesus appears before her and asks the same question that those two strange characters asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She thinks he’s the gardener, the one tending the graveyard. “Just tell me where you placed his body, and I’ll take it away.”

Mary’s grief and sorrow prevent her from seeing the one she loves. She looks, but she doesn’t see.

But then something wonderful happens. Jesus speaks her name. The scripture says, “She turned.” She turns; her eyes are opened.

It is more than her grief that has prevented her from seeing him. He is no longer simply Jesus, the man they all knew. Standing before her is the Christ, the one raised from the dead—love rescued from the grave.

Mary reaches out to him, crying, “my teacher.” And if coming back from the dead isn’t crazy enough, things start to get really weird! Verse 17 is a real head-scratcher.

“Do not hold on to me,” he says. What a strange thing to say. Can’t he see her joy? Why can’t he give this to her? Or is there something more? There must be, since he doesn’t stop there. “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.’”

For St. John, ascension is the continuation of resurrection. That’s what we see in this gospel. There’s an evolution from Jesus being raised from the dead to being the Christ who fills all things, as St. Paul puts it, “who fills all in all” (Ep 1:23).

Our friend Suzanne says that “in this world you cannot cling to love. You cannot hold or hoard it. In a suffering world, there is no time to linger in the sacred moment. Instead, every love must transfigure into ever-widening circles of compassion. This love must go out to the ends of the earth with the message of hope.”

Mary magdalene, our lady of fire

It’s true; love causes us to tumble out of control. We fall into it. But love isn’t simply some wishy-washy feel-good emotion; that’s infatuation. No, love calls for pretty serious demands.

And the first demand made of Mary Magdalene is for her to act on that love. She is to go back to the other disciples and spread the message. “I have seen the Lord! Jesus is risen!” That’s how she gets the nickname, “apostle to the apostles.”

Whether or not the others believe her is pretty much out of her hands. It’s up to them. All she can do is allow that love rescued from the grave be shown in her words, and much more, in her actions. It’s as simple as that, and as difficult as that! I think we all can testify to that tricky balance.

When we fail to act on love, it begins to wither and die. It shrivels, and we with it. But when we are granted the amazing grace of love rescued from the grave, it is given a new chance. It becomes a new creation, part of a brand new order. It is the second chance, the second chance that we always need.

Love can die, but it still is a candidate for resurrection. It can ascend and fill all things. Remember, love isn’t something we have to feel. In fact, most of the time, we are oblivious to it. It surrounds us and only asks that we join with it. What then are we to do?

I said that love makes serious demands. Here comes the part I don’t like, and maybe I’m not alone. If we join with love, we can’t run from it. We can’t avoid suffering. Suzanne Guthrie, and a multitude of others, links loss with love. That’s the story of the three days that just ended, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Guthrie, and a multitude of others, say love must be transfigured, transformed. That is what it means to join with love.

But remember that Christ is with us, especially and primarily in community. He raises us up. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (vv. 22-23).

Like a tree flowering in spring, Christ is the first fruit of resurrection, of new life, but we join with him. We have to be brought back from the dead—it would seem, over and over! And knowing ourselves, that takes a miracle, something like a Lord being raised from the grave.

When that miracle happens, we can join with the happy chorus. “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”

*Suzanne Guthrie, “No Time to Linger,” Christian Century (22 March 2005): 18.

[the images are Mary Magdalene of the Tears and Mary Magdalene, Our Lady of Fire, at www.artbytanyatorres.com]