A Very Contrary Mary

We may not have a lot of information about Mary of Magdala, but what we have paints her as a fascinating New Testament character. We are told that she was once possessed by seven demons. We are told she was part of the entourage that traveled with Jesus of Nazareth during his itinerant ministry. We know she was present at the crucifixion. This is significant since we are told that the disciples had deserted Jesus. We are told that she was one of, if not, the first to discover the empty tomb and learn of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We are told she relayed the good news of Easter morning to the disciples.

Though not a lot of information, this qualifies her as a significant player in the gospel story. Significant enough that Hollywood has made a movie about her, titled simply, Mary Magdalene. I am aware that Hollywood often receives a lot of criticism for the way it handles biblical material. Yet, I am always glad when it takes a stab at it. Add to that, a character like Mary presents a great opportunity to tell an adventurous story about a first century female disciple. The prospects for a movie like this are exciting.

One of the benefits of quarantine is the opportunity to watch movies and I recently had opportunity to watch Mary Magdalene. She is correctly (if she is indeed from Magdala) portrayed as being from a fishing village and the movie shows her to be an active participant in the fishing industry. She is a strong character and this shows in her abilities as midwife, her refusal to marry, and her refusal to abide by the religious protocols. (The Mary of the movie sometimes comes across more like a twenty-first century American girl than a first century Jewish girl). This betrays that the movie’s good intentions may be overdone. While we can applaud the way women in the ministry of Jesus are highlighted, it comes across as artificial when one of the strategies to do this is to make the male disciples appear even more clueless than they already are.

While the gospel makes clear that Mary had once been possessed by seven demons, the movie passes this off as a false accusation. It is simply something said about Mary because she was not compliant with expectations of society. Interestingly, the method to rid her of these demons is to immerse her in some ritual that resembles a forced baptism. Interestingly, both Jesus and Mary baptize disciples in this movie (uncertain at best).

Jesus does give slivers of the gospel message, including miracles. But there is no passion, no fire in his belly, no eschatology. Aside from the miracles, it is unknown why anyone would be willing to give up everything to follow this Jesus. Instead, this movie makes no doubt about the fact Mary is the star. She is portrayed as not only the most important disciple, but almost as if she is Jesus’s personal consultant or therapist. For much of the movie it seems that Jesus is simply furniture in order to tell Mary’s important story.

A more serious effort to explore what made Mary who she is would require a more serious look at the New Testament gospels. I wish we could have seen her gratefulness and the gratefulness of her community for being loosed from demons. I wish we could have seen some creative representations of the role she, Joanna, Susanna and other women followers played. I wish we could have seen the emotion of her presence at the cross or at the cemetery on Sunday morning. Instead, her resurrection encounter with Jesus came across as just another conversation. I wish we could have seen the joy when she reported the empty tomb to the other disciples. Instead it felt like, once again, she was Peter’s mentor.

I find myself wishing for so much more. Far from adventurous or exciting, I started wondering if it would ever end. This movie fails miserably in its characterization of Mary (not to mention a mischaracterization of Jesus). It is a current trend to misrepresent Mary (see The Da Vinci Code). This is unfortunate because the story of the Mary we find in the gospels deserves to be told.

Morality and the Ways of God

It is unfortunate the church continues to be full of voices and rhetoric that sound a lot like American politics.  It is not uncommon for someone to state a preferred political position, add scripture or a theological point, and act as if it is the same as gospel. This raises many questions. One of them, “Is it ok to lean on existing political structures?” And if it is, “How do we know when it is appropriate?” Further, “How do we recognize when we have simply become another voice that supports an existing political structure?”

I was reminded recently that there are very blurry lines in parts of the church regarding this conversation. Some obviously believe a call to activism is the same as the gospel. There are benefits to activism. It shines light on a cause. The world is a better place because of the efforts of some activists. Because of the social good that can come from it, it is no surprise to find Christians participating in some of these efforts. Yet, we must remember that our moral causes and efforts in the culture wars are not the same as the gospel.

We can celebrate when government makes changes for moral reasons. But we must be clear, we are people who live by God’s Good News whether government declares it legal or not. We are not dependent on the government for social good. The world will never be made right by government intervention or hashtag movements. In fact, our moral causes and activism can become distractions that prevent us from demonstrating gospel.

The hope of the world is not dependent on political structures. A church that has become dependent on political structures ceases to be the church. It is the gathering, loving, grace-giving, sending people of God who demonstrate what hope looks like. How will the world ever know the ways of God without a people called church? We know that God so loved the world. We demonstrate that love best through the ways of God and not by the ways of the world.

Dragnet, CSI, and Easter

Remember that guy named Joe Friday from team Dragnet? He became famous for the question “Just the facts ma’am.” How about that television show CSI? Anyone a fan? If so, then you know everything is dependent on the evidence. Here’s the facts. We live in a dragnet, CSI kind of world. We comfort ourselves with facts and evidence.

Here’s the facts based on Luke’s account of Easter. It was Sunday. It was early in the morning. It was the women finding the empty tomb. It was two men wearing clothes like lightning who spoke “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here – he has risen!” These men went on to tell the women “remember he said he would be crucified and rise again on the third day?” It’s not in the text but we know what they said next – “Guess what day it is?”

The text seems to go out of its way to make sure we know it was the women who found the empty tomb. We even get names; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, mother of James, and others. This is who tells the Easter news to the other disciples. The text tells us the other disciples thought this sounded like nonsense. We know what they must’ve been thinking “Where is the evidence?”

Things were more primitive then. We know what they needed was a good CSI team. Some good detective work may have taken care of this situation. If it were us, we would have dusted for fingerprints, photographed footprints, taken a linen sample from the graveclothes, interviewed the angels, estimated the weight of the stone and how many people it would take to move it. If the women would have brought back this type of evidence no one would have accused them of nonsense.

We are fascinated by evidence. If we can figure Easter out, then we can fit it in with the rest of our story. Easter could have a place next to other notable occasions. But as it is, Easter is a little dangerous. A resurrection from the dead that cannot be explained makes us a little nervous. But Easter doesn’t fit in the world’s evidence-based way of thinking. Easter introduces a new worldview. Easter invites us to start thinking differently.

Here’s a fact, more facts won’t make salvation more accessible. If that book in the religious section convinces us resurrection is possible, if some new discovery is dug out of the sands of the Holy Land, if some lawyer type makes an undisputable claim, if some preacher gives three good reasons to believe in the resurrection, if the shroud of Turin is authentic, if those really are the crown of thorns rescued from burning Notre Dame – does the gospel suddenly become more real?

The gospel is not trying to sway us with physical evidence. The gospel isn’t even interested in giving a doctrine of resurrection. We might be fascinated by new finds but this stuff does not impress the gospel. The gospel does not allow us to stay in that place for long. Instead, it wants to move on to the real news. God is alive and on the loose.

We haven’t got this Jesus figured out. We can’t put Jesus on the shelf, can’t lock him up in a safe box, can’t claim to know his next move, as it turns out – can’t even seal him in a tomb. That is part of what is so great about those women who went to the tomb. Luke seems to be saying “will someone just listen to these women?”

The gospel wants us to understand that we cannot simply put God in some place. We can form our best definition of God. We can give our best description of God. We can make our best guess about how God creates, loves, saves – but God will still be more. God will simply not stay where we try to fit him.

One would think if we killed him, wrapped him in graveclothes, and sealed him up in a tomb – he would still be there when we went to find him. Easter reminds us, that’s not the way it works with God. As it turns out, God is a hard one to figure out. We can put God in a tomb, but that doesn’t mean we will find him there in the morning.

It is not easy to admit we haven’t got something figured out. It is much easier to disregard what we do not understand. But if we take this old text seriously, we will believe in a God who behaves unpredictably. We will believe in a God who is impossible to hold down, impossible to seal inside of a tomb. We will believe that God is on the loose.

And this God might just invade our lives in ways we are not ready for. As two men dressed like lightning reminded us, Jesus said it would happen like this. He said he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. It might not say it in the text but we know what they were thinking – “Guess what day it is!”

More Than a Transportation Story

We have all heard some version of the story about the town that had become a place of injustice. A place where greed and corruption became the new normal. If you have heard some version of this story (while growing up I was made to believe that Wyatt Earp coming into Tombstone was the primary version), then you know the feeling when a hero rides into town to make things right. That is the feeling that rides into town on Palm Sunday.

It is unfortunate that we sometimes talk about Palm Sunday in a way that simply details Jesus mode of transportation into Jerusalem. We can be certain the gospel has something else in mind.

Jerusalem is looking for a king. Someone who will drive the Romans out. Someone who might revive the glory days of the Davidic dynasty. Jerusalem is looking for salvation – salvation from Rome. The people were overlooking their sin problem because of their Roman problem. Then here comes Jesus, riding in on a donkey, and they were ready to cast their vote with him to deliver them from their Roman oppressors. This is about much more than transportation.

Still, a nonviolent prophet on a donkey seems too tame. There is a text in Revelation where the heavens open and a white horse appears. We are told the rider is Faithful with a capital F and True with a capital T. We are told this rider makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire. He is wearing crowns on his head. His name is the Word of God. Right behind him are the armies of heaven on white horses. Out of his mouth is a very sharp sword. He brings the fierceness of Almighty God. His robe is inscripted with “King of kings and Lord of lords.” If the people had a copy of the Revelation they would have said “Yeah, that’s what we want.”

But that’s not what it looks like when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey amidst singing and palms. It looks more like a text from Philippians where God became a servant. Where God humbled himself and became obedient, even to death on a cross. But that story does not stop there. It goes on to say that this God was exalted to the highest place and given a name above every name. It tells us that at the mention of this name every knee, in heaven and earth, shall bow.

What we do not want to lose sight of is the fact that the rider on the white horse with eyes like fire and the one who became the servant who was exalted above every name is the one who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is who rides into town on Palm Sunday. It is too easy to lose sight of this. It is easy to withdrawal our support for Jesus and cast a vote for Barabbas. Perhaps he will increase our odds of defeating Rome.

We often find ourselves looking for a man to become a god. We are given a God who became man. It is none other than the God of history who rides into town as King on Palm Sunday. The gospel hands us a palm branch and lyrics to a hosanna song and asks us to follow.

A New Game in Town

I have run across an interesting quote from Peter Leithart from his book Against Christianity. Get a load of this;

“So long as the church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly ‘political’ reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands… As soon as the church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town. The introduction of the church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls.”

History Matters

Christmas is coming. Advent begins in just eighteen days. We are entering the season and Luke 1 is a good text to help us prepare. Perhaps any reading of Luke at all should pay attention to 1.1-4. It certainly helps us to understand the reason for details we find later. Luke tells us that many have told the story before. Servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, and other eyewitnesses have told the story of Jesus. Yet, Luke wants to tell it again. Luke wants to investigate details carefully. Luke wants us to understand what we’ve been told.

Immediately, Luke starts in with the details. In 1.5-7 things feel so historical, just the way Luke wants it. We discover right away the name of the king of Judea. We learn the name of one of the priests and the priestly division he belonged to. We learn the name of his wife and something about her family tree. We are told that they were of good character “righteous and obedient and blameless.” We are told they are old. And we are told the woman, Elizabeth, was barren.

That is a lot of historical information in only three verses. Perhaps we should state the obvious. No one comes to church to find out the name of a first century king, the name of a first century priest, or the birthing status of a first century woman. Yet, Luke tells these details because they belong to a story so important, they must be told.

We may not go to church to learn history, but Luke is on to something. If our faith is not rooted in history, our faith is broken and we should find something more credible to hang our hat on. That God acted in history gives us faith that God is acting in the present and will act in the future.

So, we listen to historical details in the text. We listen because Luke wants us to listen but also that we might feel it in our bones. God works in real places and among real people. There is good news to be found here and we do go to church in order to hear good news. This story and its details prepare us for a birth that will be announced in the next chapter as “good tidings of great joy” or “good news that will bring great joy.” That is to say, Luke is preparing us for gospel.

Exploring Gospel

“Time in the Gospel will remind us we aren’t the first to look at beauty and pronounce it good.We aren’t the first to find ourselves up to our elbows in a creative moment. We aren’t the first to roll away a stone to reveal what is behind it. After time in the Gospel, we might come out wide-eyed, muddy, bloody, and elbow deep in our story, excited to tell others where we have been and what we have discovered.”

From Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.48

A Paragraph for Lent

A quote from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.41.

“Our local forests are full of large rocks. I can’t help but climb over them, jump from one to another, and enjoy the view they provide. Early in Luke, I read that God can turn stones into children of Abraham. In the next chapter, the Devil tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. I live in the twenty-first century. I know that of all that has been discovered about them, stones are not likely to turn into children or turn into bread. Yet I sit on a large rock in the forest and am reminded by the Gospel during Lent that I live in a world that is not limited by what we think we might know in this century.”

Reflections on an Emotional Election

I get it. You were stressed about this election. You were passionate and full of feeling about who would take their place in the executive branch of our government. And now you are still stressed. You were up all night watching election returns and too tired (and depressed) to go to work. It is hard to believe that not everyone sees things as clearly as you do. It is hard to stop thinking that those who do not see things the way you do are simply stupid.

Or, you were stressed before the election. And now you are relieved. You are convinced the right candidate won. You were up all night watching election returns and running on adrenalin. You are trying to convince yourself that God wanted it to be like this. And of course, it is hard to stop thinking that those who do not see things the way you do are simply stupid.

You try to convince yourself that you are simply trying to be biblical in your response. That God called you to be a democrat, or a republican. The fact is, you are probably a democrat because your grandfather was. Or because your college professor strongly influenced you to become one. You are probably a republican because you were raised in the Midwest where everyone is republican. Or because you rebelled against your liberal parents and joined the young republicans at an early age. No matter how we got where we are, we are feeling a great deal of passion and emotion about our decision (and about those who make opposing decisions).

In the midst of all these feelings, there is something we must not forget. Our definition of sovereignty does not permit us to become too dependent on any candidate, not even a candidate for president. We can never put our trust in a political party or a candidate to solve issues like poverty, racism, or any list of “political issues.”  Before the first ballot was cast on Election Day, we already knew that Jesus was risen. We knew that Jesus was sovereign. We knew that Jesus ruled as King of the Kingdom. When we all woke the day following the election, we know that Jesus is risen. We know Jesus is sovereign. We know that Jesus rules in His Kingdom. No, our hope is not in an election. But in the Good News of another Kingdom.

Springsteen and Kingdom Come

Although I haven’t met him, I imagine Bruce Springsteen to be the kind of guy who has stated multiple times his love for God and country. While I do not know what spiritual arena he claims to be part of, I am convinced that he considers himself deeply spiritual. It is my understanding that he was raised Roman Catholic and I have heard him reference salvation, baptism, heaven, resurrection and a host of other spiritual themes.

Bruce obviously loves the rich history of gospel music and re-singing old spirituals. I rather enjoy when he performs such songs, but also enjoy when he sings ballads and folk songs and rockabilly and nearly any other genre he decides to try. It seems he simply loves music. It is easy to imagine him thinking that the right song just might change the world.

I have a favorite Springsteen song and it combines elements mentioned above. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is a rock gospel folk ballad of some sort. When seen in the context of the larger Springsteen corpus, it appears he is primarily referencing the American dream in this song. At least the freedom, opportunity, justice, and second chance themes that accompany that dream. But I cannot help but listen and hear images of kingdom come. So I listen to this song and find myself thinking about the church.

“Land of Hope and Dreams” is an invitation that Luke the gospel writer could appreciate – everyone is welcome to join this journey, no one is excluded. This is a song where hope becomes tangled up with reality. It may be a response to Woody Guthrie’s “This Train is Bound for Glory,” another song about an adventure with a train as a significant part of the storyline.

Here are some lyrics from Guthrie’s song;

This train is bound for glory/Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy/This train is bound for glory, this train… This train don’t carry no gamblers/Liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers/This train is bound for glory, this train… This train don’t carry no liars/She’s streamlined and a midnight flyer/This train don’t carry no liars, this train… This train don’t carry no smokers/Two bit liars, small time jokers/This train don’t carry no smokers, this train… This train don’t carry no con men/No wheeler dealers, here and gone men/This train don’t carry no con men, this train… This train don’t carry no rustlers/Sidestreet walkers, two bit hustlers/This train is bound for glory, this train.

Yet, “Land of Hope and Dreams” spreads a message of inclusiveness instead of a message of exclusion. It makes “This Train is Bound for Glory” sound like something the Pharisees might have been singing when Jesus walked in and invited everyone to come aboard.

Here are some of Springsteen’s lyrics for comparison;

I will provide for you and I’ll stand by your side/You’ll need a good companion now for this part of the ride/Yeah, leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last/Well, tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past/Well, this train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners/This train carries whores and gamblers/This train carries lost souls/I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted/This train, faith will be rewarded/This train, hear the steel wheels singing/This train, bells of freedom ringing/Yes, this train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners/This train carries whores and gamblers/This train carries lost souls/I said, this train carries broken-hearted/This train, thieves and sweet souls departed/This train carries fools and kings thrown/This train, all aboard.

And the not so subtle gospel conclusion “People get ready/You don’t need no ticket (oh now, no you don’t)/You don’t need no ticket/You just get onboard (people get ready)/You just thank the Lord (people get ready)/You just thank the Lord (people get ready)/You just thank the Lord (people get ready)…”

Perhaps Bruce desires that citizens hear a vision for the nation, that religious types hear a vision for the church, or that individualists began to hear the need to work alongside others, even those who are entirely different than us. Perhaps he desires we hear all the above. After all, we are a collection of differents, a gathering of unlikely travel companions. Even if Bruce is singing about a utopian American idea, his language keeps putting another kingdom on my mind. Granted, this may say more about me than about Bruce. But, whatever his intentions were, I will keep on listening.