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.

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.

Palm Sunday: The Art of Looking Ridiculous

Jesus doesn’t march into Jerusalem at the head of a vast army, nor does he wave from the back of a tank. There’s no fly-past from a squadron of fighter jets, there are no nuclear silos on standby. Anachronisms aside, this isn’t how Jesus rolls.
Instead he sends the disciples into town to find a donkey; a colt, the foal of a donkey. Jesus, a full grown man, is going to make his triumphal entry on a donkey that’s way too small for him. He’s going to look ridiculous. Maybe that’s the point, maybe this is a piece of prophetic theatre.

After all, this is Jerusalem, full of Passover pilgrims and simmering tensions. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous; Pilate will have war horses riding into town, and chariots, and gleaming armour and sharpened swords. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous, Rome will be looking powerful, intimidating, dominant.

Palm Sunday is, among other things, a piece of satire. Jesus announces his Kingdom in a way that mocks the imperialists and the occupiers of the time, mocks those who so worship earthly power in all its iterations. And in doing so he may look foolish, feet dragging on the floor as the untrained donkey veers this way and that, but still people look at him and shout “Hosanna!” Lord, save us.

This whole ride to the rescue becomes increasingly bizarre over the course of the week, culminating in crucifixion. And if the story ends there then it is ridiculous, just another protest that ends in violence.

But it doesn’t end there; the tomb is empty and all the Powers of the world are unable to overcome a thirty-something carpenter riding a donkey that’s too small for him. The Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules and never will.

And so we follow our King and embrace the foolishness, part of the community but dancing to another song. We respond to things in a different way, rejecting the binary choices presented by the world and offering compassion and grace instead. We lay down our swords in the face of a thousand empires; we continue to ride our donkeys.

Or do we?

Christianity and Mental Illness

I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to admit, in public, that I struggle with, and suffer from, anxiety, stress and depression. Mental health remains fairly taboo; no-one really wants to ralk about it, and the subject is surrounded by so much misinformation and shaming that it’s easier to ignore it, to lock it safely away behind closed doors.

But that way lies guilt, isolation, despair. The reluctance and inability to have an open, compassionate conversation about mental health, particularly in the church, is making the problem worse. Our silence strengthens the suffering.

So, in the quiet and the dark of a winter morning, while I feel brave enough to write this in the first place, here are some thoughts on Christianity and mental health…


Mental illness is an illness

Too often, mental health issues are treated as a failing, a weakness, a lack of faith, and in doing so words are inadvertently weaponised, leaving the people hearing them feeling even more crushed and exhausted than before.

But if you have an infection, you get antibiotics, and if you’re diagnosed with cancer, you get chemotherapy. You pray about it, you ask trusted friends to pray about it. And so that should give us permission to do the same when suffering from depression, or anxiety, or stress. You’re allowed to go on medication. You’re allowed to seek counselling, you’re allowed to seek prayer. Because mental illness is illness, and you do what you’ve gotta do to manage it. And no-one has the right to judge or shame you for that, because it’s your mind, your body, your life, your relationships you need to look after.

And for the wider Christian community that has pastoral implications. While churches are great at mobilising when someone’s diagnosed with a ‘physical’ illness, we need to become just as effective at  giving lifts to counselling sessions and offering to pick up prescriptions for antidepressants. The church is family, and families support each other, even when that involves breaking taboos and speaking into silence.

Grace and love abound

You may have been told you lack faith. You may have been told that your anxiety is a lack of trust in God, you may have been told that stress is you being Mary when you really should be Martha.

But this trivialise the problem, doesn’t it? It adds an extra layer of shame and guilt, and most of the time people don’t realise it’s happening. You sit quietly in a sermon as the words fly towards you like bullets.

Waking up feeling scared every day, no matter what’s actually happening, isn’t just ‘worry’. Having a negative physical reaction, shallow breathing and panicked thoughts when you see an email alert isn’t just ‘being a bit overworked’. Spontaneous bursts of anger or paranoia or despair aren’t healthy. You know that.

But in the middle of this, God doesn’t leave us. In the middle of this we are not condemned or damned. Because none of this is about the power of your faith or your acceptance of dogma. It’s about you being a child of God, ir’s about you being covered by grace, it’s about you being loved. And it’s about God being with you, even when you feel abandoned, even when you feel lost, even when you’re trapped in a fog that feels solid as stone. And if there are times you can’t believe that, try to let others believe it for you.

I’m a Methodist local preacher, and after one service someone thanked me for talking about grace,  because they didn’t hear it enough. And that shocked me, because grace is at the centre of all we have and we need to communicate that with every breath. Maybe we need to get better at pointing our stories of grace in the right direction.

Gethsemane is important

We sometimes focus so much on Christ’s divinity that we imagine him walking through the world untouched by everything until he got to the Cross.  But sidelining his humanity does violence to the Incarnation, and that has an impact on how Christ’s humanity impacts on our own.

That’s why Gethsemane is important. After all, no-one who sweats blood is unfamiliar with moments of stress and anxiety. There’s a moment of solidarity here, of recognition, of familiarity. Christianity is centred on God becoming human, and that means having experience of some horrific experiences, including crushing anguish. This should affect how we talk about things like anxiety, should create a space in which it’s safe to have conversations about stress. After all, these concepts aren’t alien to Christ himself, they shouldn’t be alien to our churches.

There are plenty of people out there struggling with mental illness. This needs to be acknowledged as a day to day reality, and we need to create an environment in which it’s safe to talk about this. And this doesn’t need to be scary; sometimes it’s simply about recognising that the problem is there; sometimes it’s about simply giving a damn. And in doing so, find a way out of the dark; find a light to walk towards.