‘The distortion of the love of Jesus’ ~ Easter Sermon preached by Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

In a sermon on Easter Day in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, the Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton reflected on the loving encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning and asked ‘how do we, as the Church so often get to a place where so much Christianity seems to be different from that loving, intimate encounter, between one of his followers and Jesus himself?’  He said:

Not just today, but every day we must scrutinise our inherited interpretations of scripture and the things of the faith handed down to us.  Why must we do this? Because we know, and we must confess, that far too often in the past, Christian faith and love were used to justify much that was far-removed from the love of God.  Many of the things we now abhor were frequently (and sometimes still are) justified by Christians on the basis of particular readings of Scripture: the unfettered exploitation of the earth and its resources; white supremacism; anti-semitism; the ownership and subservience of women, colonialism, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, attitudes to victims of famine, debtors and the poor.  And so much of this occluded the selfless good that was being done by other Christians, and the genuine concern and love being shown, in relation often to the very same people and situations.

It is right that we keep asking ourselves ‘what else, at the heart of the message and life of Jesus Christ’ has been distorted by Christians?

Hearing that Easter gospel, afresh just now, and thinking about Mary Magdalene throughout the past week, I ask myself, how do we so often get to a place where so much Christianity seems to be different from that loving, intimate encounter, between one of his followers and Jesus himself?

The full text of Bishop Colton’s sermon is as follows:

Easter Day, 2019
Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,

Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
In St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork on Sunday, 21st April 2019

The scale of the numbers of dead and injured this morning in the bomb attacks in Sri Lanka risks numbing our capacity to to take in, to comprehend, the human terror and ghastliness of it all. It’s the same with all great terrors such as also the attacks on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand a month ago. It is only when we come face to face with one person’s story, or each human story one by one, in any horror such as this, that we can begin to empathise, and that we can put a face, emotions, and a story on who it is who is my neighbour. We have had a lot of that this week: journalist Lyra McKee in Derry; the 25 year-old unarmed student protestor Abdulazim Abubakr in Sudan; and the firefighter whose name I have yet to find out who was injured fighting the fire in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It matters that I do not know that person’s name, as Jesus knew Mary’s name in today’s Gospel.

So it is also that anyone who has ever lost someone or something, or who has been afraid of losing someone or something, will recognise, in all these situations, and in those moments we’ve just heard about in today’s Gospel, the intense gamut of human emotions: longing, desperation, hope, fear, questioning, doubt, belief, uncertainty, resignation, fatigue, tears, wanting to hang on … it is all there, with, of course, immense love.

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). John 18.15 and 16

But mud sticks, sadly. People get, or are given, reputations that are hard to shake off. Such is the case with the woman in today’s Gospel: Saint John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Saint Luke tells us, was one of the women who went around with the disciples and with Jesus as ‘…he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 8.2) ‘Mary, called Magdalene…’ was one of those who had been cured by Jesus; again according to Luke ‘she had been purged of seven demons.’

She was a faithful follower of Jesus. She witnessed his execution, his burial and now this morning, she is the first to meet the risen Christ, even though at first she thought he was the gardener. We see her devotion and love for him. Today Jesus entrusts to her the job of telling the others; she becomes, therefore, the apostle to the apostles.

But, mud sticks. In the Western Church – not in the Eastern Church – mud stuck, and how often it is that she is still thought of as a ‘fallen woman’, a prostitute. There are many Marys, it seems, in the Gospels. In the Middle Ages this Mary from the fishing village of Magdala was mixed up, conflated with, the sinful woman earlier in Luke’s Gospel – mistaken identity – the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. In a Sixth-Century address, Pope Gregory the Great stated that the anonymous sinful woman in Luke’s Gospel who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oil (Luke 7:36-50), Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany (John 11) were all the same woman. This combining of the three into one had the result of wrongfully giving Mary Magdalene her reputation.

So it is that in Western religious art – not in art in the Eastern Church, as I say – even now at the time of her devotion to Jesus, such devotion as puts the rest of us to shame, that the reputation she was given by mistaken identity is most frequently alluded to: she wears red; her hair is long and flows loosely, in contrast to the other women who have theirs tied up demurely; her hair is fiery red; she is extravagantly dressed, unlike the simplicity of the others; she is usually voluptuous, and there is a hint of nudity, or sometimes a lot of it. She is the ‘fallen woman’ made good but who, even now, having proven her true colours, is not allowed to forget her past, or to be forgiven.

It wasn’t until 1969 that the General Roman Calendar corrected this; but in popular perception the mud stuck. For Johnny Cash, in his song, ‘If Jesus ever loved a woman it was Mary Magdalene’. For Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code (and for others before him), she was the wife of Jesus. After the Crucifixion she escaped to Gaul where she had a daughter. For Pope Gregory, even when the the seven demons were expelled from Mary, they mutated into the seven deadly sins. Her dangerous influence persisted negatively. In Jesus Christ Superstar she is the Mary with the dodgy reputation.

The reputation of Mary Magdalene persisted. All over Europe and North America, and here in Ireland, as we know only too well, the name Magdalene – the reformed ‘fallen woman’ – was given to asylums for so-called ‘fallen women’ – places of horror, inhumanity, and injustice, and bearing her name, for all the wrong reasons. And let me be clear, Protestant churches ran their own institutions for ‘fallen women’ too. (In 2015 I wrote to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation to ask that all such Protestant Homes be investigated too). In the Eastern Church, after the great split of 1054 (one hundred years before they started building the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris), Mary was never a fallen woman; she was a model of love and faithfulness. In the West she remained ‘the penitent prostitute.’

I hone in on Mary Magdalene because all of this is a timely reminder that as we continue, in our worship and in our lives, to proclaim the risen Christ, we must constantly measure ourselves against the Word of God, who, as Saint John also told us, and as we heard here at Christmas, is Jesus Christ himself. (John 1).

Not just today, but every day we must scrutinise our inherited interpretations of scripture and the things of the faith handed down to us. Why must we do this? Because we know, and we must confess, that far too often in the past, Christian faith and love were used to justify much that was far-removed from the love of God. Many of the things we now abhor were frequently (and sometimes still are) justified by Christians on the basis of particular readings of Scripture: the unfettered exploitation of the earth and its resources; white supremacism; anti-semitism; the ownership and subservience of women, colonialism, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, attitudes to victims of famine, debtors and the poor. And so much of this occluded the selfless good that was being done by other Christians, and the genuine concern and love being shown, in relation often to the very same people and situations.

It is right that we keep asking ourselves ‘what else, at the heart of the message and life of Jesus Christ’ has been distorted?

Hearing that Easter gospel, afresh just now, and thinking about Mary Magdalene throughout the past week, I ask myself, how do we so often get to a place where so much Christianity seems to be different from that loving, intimate encounter, between one of his followers and Jesus himself?

When I was on retreat recently to mark the 20th anniversary of my ordination as bishop I read another book by Brian McLaren. He’s an American pastor with traditional evangelical roots who is now part of the emerging church movement; transcending labels, crossing theological boundaries, moving beyond Christian denominationalism to live out the faith in a post-modern 21st Century age. The book is called The great Spiritual Migration: How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian. He suggests that ‘the brand of Christianity is so compromised’ that many people are ‘barely able to use the label any more.’

Brian McLaren regrets that for ‘…centuries , Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs…’ when instead, he says, Christians need ‘to rediscover that their faith is not a problematic system of beliefs, but a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all…’

‘Could Christians’ he asks ‘migrate from defining the faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life? Could Christian faith lose the bitter taste of colonialism, exclusion, judgment, hypocrisy and oppression and regain the sweet and nourishing flavour of justice, joy and peace?’ ‘What would it mean’, he ask,s ‘for Christians to let Jesus and his message lead them to a new vision of God?’

My friend, Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet and theologian (in recent years leader of the Corrymeela Community) in the wake of all our shock at the murder on Good Friday of the journalist, Lyra McKee, in Derry, introduced me to the work of the Australian poet and cartoonist Michael Leunig. For Leunig, says, Pádraig, ‘…there are only two languages, love and fear.’

So I went looking and found Leunig’s poem:

There are only two feelings, Love and fear:
There are only two languages, Love and fear:
There are only two activities, Love and fear:
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results, Love and fear,
Love and fear.

We know, don’t we, which of these is the way of Christ?

As the risen Lord turned to Mary on that first Easter morning, he turns to us today and every day again, and calls us by our name, and calls us to love in his name, as he loved. Today, as we proclaim again ‘Christ is risen!’ perhaps we need to take stock and to remind ourselves that his is the way of Love: love God; love your neighbour.

It really is that simple. It’s just not easy.

Bishop Paul Colton

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