So Mary wasn’t a prostitute… But what if she had been?

A few days ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post, explaining that, although Mary Magdelene is traditionally portrayed as a repentant prostitute, this is actually a medieval amalgamation of several of the women in the gospels. Fair enough so far; Even the Catholic Church no longer views Mary as a prostitute and, the logic goes, we shouldn’t demean her as a sex worker.

Into this debate stepped Nate Sparks with a series of Tweets pointing out that framing the conversation in this way is problematic – saying that Mary is slandered by being called a prostitute actually dehumanises people who’ve been involved in sex work. The thread is well worth checking out, because, well, what if it turned out that Mary was a prostitute after all?

It’s Easter Sunday, the church’s great explosion of grace and mercy. Are we saying, on this day of all days, that the first witness to the resurrection, the apostle to the apostles, couldn’t have been a prostitute? Because that would seem to undermine the Kingdom and the Creation that was born in that garden when she first heard her name whispered by the risen Jesus.

Over the years, Mary has become an iconic, liminal figure, her story woven with mysteries and mythmaking: she was, some say, the secret wife of Jesus, the Mother of a hidden bloodline stretching down through the centuries. It’s hard not to see this as a contrast to the treatment of Christ’s mother; if that Mary is going to be portrayed as the eternal virgin, then Mary Magdelene will always be defined in terms of her sexuality. While it’s hardly healthy to downplay sexuality, there’s something misogynist about its treatment when it comes to the Marys – the two iconic women of the gospels are reduced to their supposed virginity and promiscuity; heck, add Jezebel the femme fatale in there and you’very got a whole trinity. It’s simplistic. It’s not listening to the text. It’s unhealthy and it’s erasing.

And anyway, we never have conversations about Paul, even though the writer of most of the New Testament was a murderer transformed by the blinding mercy of Jesus. We don’t bat an eyelid about naming Matthew the collaborator and Simon the terrorist as apostles. They may be brief moral lessons, but their personal histories don’t become the entirety of our interest in their work. We downplay Mary’s involvement in the gospels because we’re too busy thinking about who she slept with.

(Some of this is down to how the Church sometimes seems more comfortable with violence than it is with sexuality, which is a whole other can of worms.)

It would be nice to be able to treat this as an interesting theological head-scratcher, but it has immediate consequences for the way in which the church incarnated into a complex and untidy world. How we think about Mary affects how we think about sex workers who may find their way into our pews or, more tellingly, have been shunned because of their pasts or how they’ve made money. When we read gospel stories involving prostitutes, we don’t often stop to ask some intense questions: had they been raped? Had they been trafficked? What brought them into sex work in the first place?

We don’t ask these questions. We pass judgement, frown and move on to something more ‘wholesome’. And that’s our sin, not theirs. It’s a sin that affects how we relate to sex workers and victims of trafficking and survivors of abuse. It’s a sin that locks down the gospel, because when our moral messages dehumanise and ignore individual stories, instead trading in hackneyed stereotypes, we’re forgetting the Easter grace we’re supposed to celebrate.

And that’s the last thing we should do on Resurrection Day.

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Gardens and Gates (Matthew 19:13-14)

This morning at church, Easter was accompanied by a dedication service, a happy baby boy grabbing for the mic and being blessed in the name of Jesus. And as part of all this, the pastor quoted from Matthew’s gospel: “Let the children come to me.”

It’s not an Easter reading, not traditionally, but in other ways it’s something that’s deeply, intrinsically bound up with today. Because the disciples are driving children and their parents away from Jesus, self-appointed religious gatekeepers conspicuously jangling the keys to the Kingdom. Jesus, however, snatches that job from them, throwing open a welcome to those others would reject.

The Church sometimes acts more like a machine than a family, gears grinding too many of the faithful between their teeth. We build walls and guard the gates and set up metaphorical machine gun nests upon the parapets. The gatekeepers are real, their swords are being sharpened. And yet Jesus still calls people to him, hanging out in gardens, cooking fish on beaches, eating dinner with sinners. Each of these welcomes is a transformation, a liberation, a resurrection.

So Jesus meets Mary the marginalised. He meets Peter the denier. He’s raised to life and in that first dawn of the new creation he doesn’t go to temples, he doesn’t shake hands with priests, he seeks out the ignored and the forsaken,  the broken and the lost,  the victims of racism and misogyny, ableism and homophobia. He appears on the margins, he seeks the mourning, he walks through locked doors and brings hope, not through the righteousness of saints but through the wounds torn through his wrists. In doing so he sabotages the machine, because he threw himself into the gears; never forget that the gatekeepers sought to keep out God himself.

Easter embodies grace, bleeds forgiveness, resurrects hope. Nails pick the locks on our gates and build a Kingdom out of the broken. And the gatekeepers can dance with joy over this, or they can keep feeding the machine. But machines rust, they erode, they crumble; resurrection grace, nail-pierced love, Calvary’s redemption? They shine forever.

Other posts for Easter 2017 are here.

Stations: Resurrection (Easter Sunday)

25033732033_99aa455ce0Christ is risen!

That’s today’s great proclamation, but in the sunrise of the first Easter, resurrection is breaking news. But now we live in the light of ancient news, it’s sometimes hard to picture what that means in a world of barrel bombs and climate change. We try to imagine everything around us changing, we write books about the Second Coming. But maybe the purest expression of life after Easter is those first few hours after two days of darkness.

For someone like Peter there’s the resurrection of hope; his last memory of Jesus was a crucifixion and a cock crowing, but with the news of an empty tomb, maybe memories of Jesus’s promise to rise again start to break through the guilt and the remorse; maybe chains of his own making start to loosen, start to break.

For others, the empty tomb is judgement, condemnation, a grenade rolled into a toxic environment, the divine sabotage of a religious machine so that we can be liberated, jubilee through the jamming of gears. For those in the path of religious dreadnought, the empty tomb might even be an underground railroad.

And then there’s the iconic moment outside the tomb: Mary, crippled by grief, lost in the mourning, hears a voice; nothing more is said, other than her name, but in two syllables hope and love, grace and the future are resurrected within her, and she turns towards the voice, every nanosecond reshaping and recreating the world entire. And yes, she’ll go on to live the rest of her life, good and bad, but here in the garden she’s reborn.

Maybe this is the Easter we need; in the deepest depths, in our darkest hours, to hear a voice whispering our name, a whisper that raises us to new life, shoots of green breaking through cracks in the pavement, a moment in which all the things we thought lost are found again, in which chains are broken and prison doors kicked open, unexpected words in a garden that hold hope and grace enough to create a future.

In the dawn of Easter morning, a voice whispers “Let there be light” again, and Jesus steps out of the tomb. And a whole new Kingdom silently explodes into life.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Reclaiming Easter 4: Easter Sunday

(This is one post in four parts… Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

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Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It’s a joyful bit of liturgy that’s been proclaimed this morning, that will be proclaimed this morning, all across the timezones as we move from shadow into light.

This is the day that, as the church, we need to grasp onto as if our lives depended on it. Not just our eternal lives – we do Christ as disservice if we treat him as nothing more than a business transaction, an insurance policy for our soul – but every day in the everyday.

That means living in hope, which sounds trite sometimes, especially when a pessimistic blogger types it. But this whole series has been about proclaiming Easter, reclaiming it from our power struggles and our greed, our selfishness and our prejudice. And that hope is rooted in resurrection – a one time event 2,000 years ago, sure, but also all the other resurrections that branch out of it. We’ve made ‘born again’ a label, an identifier, a tribal password, and in doing so we’ve gutted its power.

Across the world there are thousands of community gardens and youth clubs and food banks and baby groups and homeless shelters and refuges, places and spaces where the transformative power of a phrase like ‘born again’ is life, not a label.

These are corporate things, of course, but they grow out of millions of changed lives. That’s the only place it can start; Jesus and us, standing outside an empty tomb. And there’s a danger of getting too comfortable with this story, a danger of it turning into something political and legalistic rather than letting it get into our hearts and our bones, rather than seeing it as being about redemption and resuscitation and rebuilding, creativity and community and creation.

Maybe we need to spend more time trying to be more like Jesus than in trying to make other people look like the messed up Jesus of our stunted imaginations.

And that starts early in the morning, in front of a tomb that should be full but is mysteriously, miraculously empty. And that quiet voice whispers behind us; the garden bursts into bloom; life begins anew.

And we, not just Easter, are reclaimed.

The Stranger on the Road (Luke 24:13-35)

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They were walking to Emmaus, about 7 miles from Jerusalem. About 130 years earlier, this had been the site of a great battle, Jewish rebels triumphing over Greek forces. After Herod the Great died thirty years earlier, the village was burned to the ground after the inhabitants attacked a Roman garrison. Now it had been rebuilt and become home to a disciple called Cleopas, who was now trudging his way back from Jerusalem, the aftermath of the crucifixion bearing down on him.

We celebrate Easter Sunday as a glorious explosion of new life, but as he walks the road to Emmaus, Cleopas is still living in Saturday. He’s leaving Jerusalem, where within the space of a week Jesus has gone from being popular hero to an abandoned victim of conspiracy and crucifixion, all the hopes and expectations of the last three years nailed to a blood-soaked plank of wood. On the horizon is the site of a Jewish victory, yes, but that had been a long time ago and Herod had showed what happens to anyone hoping to change the world.

So when Cleopas encounters a stranger on the road, he explains the situation with a sense of loss: “We’d hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” With the benefit of hindsight we can smile at how Cleopas is missing the point – we know the big reveal, after all, that the stranger on the road is the resurrected Jesus. But maybe Cleopas needs this moment of unrecognition for his preconceptions and prejudices to be reconfigured.

And so, despite a long theological conversation, it’s only when the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks – a eucharistic moment that echoes the last supper – that the stranger’s identity is revealed. The Last Supper forms the basis of our communion services, speaking of Christ’s death, but this second meal is its bookend, the revelation of his resurrection.

Maybe we need to hold the revelation of Emmaus in our hearts every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, remembering not just the crucifixion but the fresh vision of Jesus granted us by his emergence from the tomb, the miracle we encounter when the Stranger on the Road turns out to be the risen Saviour.

That’s not a once-a-year moment of sacredness in the Spring. It’s every Lord’s Supper – no, it’s every day. Heaven knows I need to make resurrection a daily remembrance. As we walk with Cleopas into another week, may we meet Jesus once again, and find the Saviour in the Stranger on the Road.