The First of the Gang to Die: The Feast of St. James (Acts 12:1-2)

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Today is the Feast of St. James, the first apostle to die.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.

He’s not the first martyr, of course. Stephen is killed in Acts 7, a brutal moment after an impassioned speech. If this were Hollywood, the assembled crowd would realise the error of their ways and walk away ashamed; instead Stephen is stoned to death and we catch our first glimpse of one of the architects of persecution – look, there’s Saul, holding the coats as sentence is carried out.

Yes, the same Saul who’ll become a hero of the early church. All mixed up, isn’t it? In a few verses, Peter will be miraculously released from prison; Paul himself will one day have his chains broken by an earthquake but he stays put and his jailer gets converted. James, meanwhile…

Reading the gospels, you’d expect great things of James. Of the Twelve he’s one of a core group of three; along with Peter and John, he’s one of the few to witness the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the full extent of Jesus’s suffering at Gethsemene. Add to that the theory that he was Jesus’s cousin and we’d expect the story to have a different ending. Instead he’s killed in just one verse. And that’s it.

We hear a lot about the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ – God wants to bless you with money and cars and health and a private jet and if you don’t have these things then, well, you’re just not believing hard enough. That’s not what we see in the Bible itself, but in my more heretical moments it appeals to an off-kilter sense of fairness.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect God to give me an iPad. But I’ve heard so many stories of doctors being stunned by cancers spontaneously disappearing, while is both glorious and terrifying; after all, my dad succumbed to mesothelioma despite the prayers of numerous churches. What’s the difference? What was the difference between James and Peter?

That’s a personal question, of course, but there are bigger issues here, when people are dying today because of their belief in Christ, when the church has a history of supporting massacres in the name of the gospel.

The fact is, I rebel against the idea of persecution; it’s unjust, evil, a violation of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. People shouldn’t have to die for their beliefs. When asked what we should pray for, those undergoing ask that they would experience endurance rather than deliverance, but why should they need to endure while dictators and warlords prosper? Organisations like Open Doors shouldn’t have to exist and yet they do…

Let no-one say that faith is always ‘fair’.

Like I said, I have no real answers. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe, as we remember James, as we remember the first of the gang to die, we can weep with those who’ve lost loved ones, acknowledge that oppression exists, pray for God’s will to be done. Maybe, in the middle of suffering snd tears, that’s far more important than answers.

Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18)

460px-Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_MagdalenaShrouded by church tradition and conspiracy theories, a woman walks through the gospels. For the most part she’s there on the fringes, her big moment appearing almost at the end of the story. Sadly, that moment is overshadowed in favour of other tales – she’s a prostitute, she’s Jesus’s wife, she’s the bearer of the Holy Bloodline. Issues of sexuality and theology and hidden history find a home in her story, with popes and potboilers looking to recast her within their own agendas.

But Mary Magdalene remains one of the most powerful figures in the gospels. She’s the first person to encounter the risen Jesus; maybe that’s because she was chosen for that role, maybe it’s because she was the only one to hang around long enough to meet him, but regardless, there she is – the person who got to tell Peter and John and all the others that Jesus was alive and death had been defeated. For someone who’s been cast as a character in so many other narratives, let’s not forget that, on the first Easter, she was the great storyteller.

So what do we know about Mary? Everyone immediately throws out the instant answer “She was a prostitute!”, but that wasn’t the case. We first meet her in Luke 8, where she’s one of a number of women healed by Jesus, and who are funding him as a result. There’s an enigmatic note stating that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, but we don’t get any further details.

Maybe that’s fair enough. I’ve written before about all the hidden stories within the gospels, and maybe this should be one of them. We don’t know exactly what Mary’s history was – she was conflated with a repentant prostitute in the medieval period, and that cemented her reputation as the stereotypical ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ – but should that matter? She was freed from oppression by the power of God, same as so many men and women before and since. Maybe God’s more interested in what happened after that moment of grace. The church has often fallen into that trap (the two main women in the gospels are identified as a virgin and a prostitute, when the truth, like reality, is more complicated); just ask Junia the Apostle.

We know that she financially supported Jesus, which implies a degree of self-sufficiency and independence. She recognised something important in Jesus’s ministry and was willing to put her money where her mouth was. Contrary to how women were often treated at the time, it doesn’t sound like she was dependent on men – the opposite seems to be the case. That’s worth keeping in mind.

From then on she’s silent until Easter. Here we see her as steadfast – she’s there at the cross and at the tomb, one of the few people to stay with Jesus throughout. Judas turns traitor, Peter pretends he’s never met Jesus, but Mary remains loyal. She’s an eyewitness to the crucifixion, to the pain and horrors of Good Friday, but also to the joy and glory of the resurrection.

This is the moment she’s best known for. Standing alone at the empty tomb, grief-stricken and disgusted that Jesus’s body has been moved or stolen, she weeps. And through those tears, Jesus appears.

Pause here. This isn’t the moment of revelation, not yet. This is the moment when, through grief and loss and pain and despair, hope starts to break through. Mary is someone who has suffered and yet, in the midst of that suffering, she is liberated. This isn’t just her story; Jesus seeks us out and finds us, often at our lowest ebb, often before we even know who he is.

Mary mistakes him for a gardener, but even in her error she’s insightful, maybe even inadvertently prophetic. The Bible starts in a garden, the relationship between God and man is ruptured in a garden, and here, in a garden, all this is restored. Maybe seeing Jesus as a gardener wasn’t a mistake.

Standing there in a garden, with Jesus as the New Adam, it would be tempting to see Mary as a new Eve, whatever that might entail. But that’s a loaded idea (thanks Dan Brown!) and a gendered one at that. Maybe Mary represents all of us, everyone who’s been pulled out of the jaws of hell, everyone who needs a rescuer. She’s the first one to see, in the flesh, that Jesus’s promise of hope and salvation is true, and she immediately goes to tell those who most need to hear this.

That’s who Mary is – not Jesus’s wife, not a penitent prostitute, but a witness, a follower, a storyteller, the Apostle to the Apostles. And in this she stands, not as a model of a particular view of women, but as an example for all of us. It’s time to rediscover this side of her story and to let it illuminate our own.

Hidden Encounters With Jesus (John 21:25)

zacchaeus“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” John 21:25

A couple of years ago, Andrew Forsthoefel walked across America, from Philadelphia to California via New Orleans, just walking and talking to the people he met along the way. I heard his story through a podcast, played in my car as I drove down the A38, sealed away from the world around me by 979kg of automobile travelling at 70mph. Somewhere along the road I teared up and thought of Jesus.

There’s so much we don’t know about Jesus. Oh, sure, we’ve got the Bible, we’ve got the theology and the creeds and the historical context, but we miss out on the small stuff, the everyday interactions he had with his community. Who did he live next door to? Did he talk shop with local carpenters? Which of his sisters did he get on with best? Forget The Da Vinci Code, these are the real lost stories in the life of Jesus.

I said this was small stuff, but as John seemed to recognise, when it comes to Jesus even the smaller stories could produce a library full of books. Those words that close John’s gospel sound almost rueful: All those stories I had to leave out, and that’s just the stuff I know about…

Every day, Jesus would have had conversations – about bereavement and poverty and oppression, about job frustrations and money worries. He’d’ve spoken to old friends, chatted with family, bought food and clothes… And I can’t help but wonder what he talked about. The weather? Politics? Religion? How many life changing experiences failed to make the gospels? How many encounters, like the woman at the well or Zaccheus, didn’t get recorded because the writers forgot or ran out of room or swore to keep conversations private?

Take the miracles, for instance. We read of crowds coming to Jesus to be healed, and while we only hear a handful of these stories, each one of them is an encounter with God, a moment of healing and restoration and the laws of the universe suddenly suspended because of compassion. John calls them ‘signs’ because they’re so important, but we don’t hear about all of them! God interacts with the world in amazing ways, yet sometimes he does that in secret.

And then there are the moments of solitude between Jesus and his Father, private personal conversations in gardens and up mountains and in the wilderness. We’d love to know what was said, to eavesdrop on those prayers, but these moments are lost to us. And it’s probably right that this is the case – we’re allowed to have a relationship with God without people listening in all the time, and there’s a reason we don’t feel the need to podcast our quiet times.

The Bible contains all it needs to contain, but it’s fascinating to consider what John and the others missed out. It makes you wish they had Twitter.

And yet…

Maybe there’s a lesson here. On his journey across America, Andrew Forsthoefel meets an elderly woman who grew up under segregation. Here’s someone who was taught to be a second class citizen because of the colour of her skin, and yet, during her reminiscences, before she sings Amazing Grace, she reveals that she decided to treat others with love, not hate, because that’s what Jesus taught. It’s an incredibly moving moment, and yet that testimony to the Holy Spirit working in her life would have remained relatively unspoken if not for a young man recording the stories of those he met along the road.

And so the end of John’s gospel invites us to participate in these hidden stories of Jesus; the untold encounters he spoke of didn’t just stop, they continued onward, down throughout history. The hidden stories of Jesus ate our stories, our testimonies, our day-to-day prayers and out-working of faith. Sure, we’re not part of a gospel.

But it’s all part of the same Good News.

Church in the Wilderness

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Jesus rises from his baptism, dripping with water from the river Jordan, when heaven opens and a dove that’s not a dove descends and a voice that once long ago called creation into being affirms his love and support for His only Son. It’s an anointing, a rite of passage, a commissioning; the atmosphere is electric as expectant whispers speak of the Messiah marching into ministry.

Instead he walks into the wilderness.

I don’t like the wilderness and all its metaphorical connotations. I don’t like those periods of exhaustion and emptiness and despair and isolation, don’t like digging for spiritual scraps or fighting the internal voices that keep me from looking for those scraps in the first place. No, I don’t like the wilderness, I don’t like being pushed into the margins.

But then, why should I? I belong to the church in the West. Christianity is an established religion, you can tell that from how shops close early on Sundays, from how old men in spectacular hats take their seats at state functions, from how your voting preference can dictate whether or not you’re in or out at church. As a body, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to walk through the wilderness. That’s why we fight so hard to maintain our power and influence – we’re terrified that an existence in the margins would be catastrophic, so much so that the minute it looks like our political and demographic power is waning, we think it portends the end of the world.

Saul, the great persecutor of the church, gets blinded by a vision on his way to Damascus, his convictions and certainties burned away by the revelation that his service to God has really been an assault. Here’s his chance to make amends, to go home and stop the persecution, to use his theological genius to serve the church rather than destroy it.

Instead he disappears to Arabia for three years.

In Toronto earlier this year, sculptor Timothy Schmalz created a statue of a homeless Jesus, inspired by all those moments we find ourselves stepping over fellow humans sleeping on the street. This sculpture has nail marks in his hands, the Son of God identifying with the poor and destitute – with the margins and a particular kind of wilderness.

The horror of this story is that this statue, this concept, has somehow become controversial.

Somehow the church has divorced itself from the margins, built temples and seminaries to tame the wilderness and bring it under our control. We offer a helping hand when necessary, but we don’t want to live there; heck, watch the right TV shows and you can convince yourself that God doesn’t want you anywhere the margins either – he just wants you to have the biggest and best cars, houses, home cinema systems.

And yet…

Speaking at church yesterday was a representative of Open Doors who shared stories of Christian communities that genuinely exist in the margins – in Syria, for instance, or Iran. They’re not praying for God to bless them with a new Mercedes, they’re praying for the fortitude to endure persecution, the threat of assault and rape and murder. And yet those communities are growing.

It’s a tension, isn’t it? The idea that the greatest growth in the Christian life, both individually and corporately, is achieved in the wilderness. It’s counter-intuitive; we expect to grow when we have the space and resources and time to do so. We don’t expect to grow when everything within us is geared towards survival, towards clinging on for just one more day in the face of persecution or stress or exhaustion or despair.

Jesus and Paul seemed to understand this – that time spent in the margins, in the wilderness, is essential. That’s when the structures and delusions and securities we’ve built up around ourselves are stripped away and it’s just us and God against a hostile world. We’ll face temptations and struggles, but the message seems to be that we’ll also learn to rely on God rather than our own strength.

This exposes my own hypocrisy, of course, because I’d rather be comfortable and relaxed than marginalised and growing. I don’t want to embrace the wilderness, I want to find the nearest path to a Travel Lodge, thank you very much.

That’s not the path Jesus calls us to take, and yet so often we take it anyway. That has consequences.

After all, Ii we were really the Christian countries we imagine ourselves to be, would we really be complicit in empowering regimes that kill and rape Christians (or anyone else for that matter)? We find ourselves propping up empires more than the Kingdom, and maybe that’s another reason the margins are so important – they inoculate against imperialism. It’s hard to be dismissive of the poor when you’re washing their feet or fixing their shower. It’s hard to scream Westboro Baptist-style abuse when you’re actually friends with gay people. It’s hard to hate refugees when you’ve listened to their stories and seen their scars, and it’s hard to unquestioningly hide behind a flag when our brothers and sisters are paying an immediate price for our politics.

The church grows in the wilderness, thrives in the margins, but in the corridors of power it risks being strangled.

And so we find ourselves exiled from empire, lost in the desert or in the gutter, with nowhere to turn but to God and his mercy. And then, maybe only then, we learn what it means to be a disciple.