Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gleaning Truth

The following message was delivered during the Aug. 10 worship in the Simpson Memorial Chapel at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Sara Bayles, 21, from Springdale, Ark., was an intern this summer working with Women’s Concerns, which is part of the Louise & Hugh Moore Population Project at the General Board of Church & Society. This month, Bayles became the pastor for two congregations: Cleveland and Overcup (Morrilton) United Methodist churches in Arkansas. She based her sermon on the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene.”

Sara Bayles
When I bring up the name Mary Magdalene, what thoughts come to mind? Was she an early disciple? Was she a reformed prostitute? Or did she have an intimate relationship with Jesus? Could The DaVinci Code really be correct in assuming that she bore Jesus’ child?
Who is this woman? So much mystery surrounds her life, her character and her role in early Christian history. How can a religious tradition place so much emphasis on a resurrected Savior while discrediting the character of the woman who first witnessed that resurrected Savior?
Feminist New Testament scholarship emphasizes re-examining Mary Magdalene. Often the disconnection between the academic work of feminist theologians and practical application within sanctuaries leaves Mary Magdalene and the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” where it has been for too much time: collecting dust on the shelf.

Gospel of Mary Magdalene

A brief background to acclimate you to this unfamiliar text. There are three fragmented pieces of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Two of these fragments are written in Greek, one found in 1938 and the other in 1983. The other fragmented manuscript was written in Coptic.
Greek is believed to be the original vernacular of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, composed in either modern day Syria or Egypt between the late first and early second centuries.
Why was it left out of our canonized New Testament?
So, if this text was composed around the same time as our other biblical books, why was it left out of our canonized New Testament?
The process of canonization meant the powers that be around the third century came together to compile these texts into what we now know as our Holy Bible. The New Testament includes 27 books, but many other books were not included.

Competition for inclusion

Many different sects of early Christianity had early letters and gospels. When canonization came about, these groups had to compete against each other to have their ideas and books prevail.
The texts not included in the Bible had to be destroyed. Often those possessing non canonical texts risked their lives to keep these now-forbidden writings. Some of these writings were buried in the hot, sandy desert.
One of the Greek translations of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, as well as the Coptic translation, was found buried in sand, which served as a means of protecting the texts. Because the Gospel of Mary Magdalene among others had been outlawed, so to speak, the portrayal of Mary Magdalene was on the decline just at the gospel bearing her name was disappearing.
Decrees from Ambrose, the Bishop of Rome, in the later 4th century, as well as the letters of Pope Innocent the Third and Pope Gregory the Ninth in the 13th century slandered the character of Mary Magdalene. Doing so throughout the centuries transformed her into what is commonly thought today that she was a reformed prostitute.

True identity

I want to utilize the Gospel of Mary Magdalene to examine her true identity as a follower of Christ and to glean from her faithful work what we can incorporate into our lives.
I want … to glean from her faithful work what we can incorporate into our lives.
The opening six pages, often referred to as Chapters 1 through 3 are missing. The text we have begins at Chapter 4. This opens with a discussion between Jesus and his early followers about the eternality of the world.
When asked, “Will all matter be destroyed or not?” Jesus, identified in this translation as the Savior, responds “all nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one and another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone.”
Jesus ends by saying, for those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Sound familiar? Those words are also found in Mark 4:23.
What does this say about the interconnectedness of humanity? If all exists within one another why are we so often to dismiss the other?

All woven together

Last month during her sermon based on Luke 10 (“Do this and you will live,” Faith in Action, July 26), Kelsie Overton asked, “Where is the community of heaven that the scriptures speak of?” Kelsie reflected on the actions of the priest, Levite and Samaritan towards the man on the side of the road, beaten by thieves, left without clothes, and in need.
The priest and Levite were resistant to venture on the same side of the road as this man, who was their neighbor. Yet it was the Samaritan who reached out to help a fellow human in need. In doing so the Samaritan recognized the common bond of humanity.
From the first few lines of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Jesus teaches that all is woven together by our common bond as people.
Through the rest of Chapter 4, Jesus is teaching this early group of followers. By the beginning of Chapter 5, it is apparent that Jesus has departed and the early community is mourning.
Mary continues to share teachings of Christ with the group. These can be found in Chapters 5 and 8.
Chapters 6 and 7 are missing in all three surviving texts, which would have been pages 11 through 14 of the original manuscripts.

Conflict develops

By the beginning of Chapter 9, Mary has finished relaying the teachings to the group. Conflict begins to brew. Andrew is the first to voice his doubt that Mary is recanting the teaching of the scripture. Then Peter also expresses concern. Mary is brought to tears and Levi speaks on her behalf saying to Peter:
You have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said. And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.
Why this Gospel was outlawed by the early church fathers is apparent: The potential indication of a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. For this time and space, though, let us look beyond that debate and focus on the dynamic within this early Christian community.

Lost value of others

It was certainly close knit, as we learned in the opening text while they were together listening to Jesus’ teachings. I can imagine the small group, sitting closely listening to Jesus’ teachings about the interconnectedness of each other, how each person is so interwoven into his or her neighbor.
After Jesus departs, though, it seems the community members have lost the value for the other. Uncertainty surrounds the amount of time that has passed since the opening scene of Chapter 4 with Jesus’ teaching about “all nature, all formations, all creatures existing in and with another” until the closing scene in which the early community of followers has started pointing fingers, doubting their neighbors, and splitting into factions.
What does our church look like today? Do we look like the community at the beginning of this Gospel: coming together, people of all backgrounds, genders and origins to meet at the table to learn from Jesus? Or do we look like the community that doubts one another, points fingers and alienates our neighbor?
If we exist in and with one another, what do we gain from excluding our brothers and sisters around the table?

Teachings discounted

Mary Magdalene sought to include all forms and all people in the early communities. In doing so, her reputation was slandered and her teachings discounted.
None of the four gospels in our New Testament speaks ill of her. Rather they tell of her commitment to following Christ, and how he had cast out seven demons from her. None describes her as a reformed prostitute.
Evidence from first and second century Christianity shows her cultivating Christ-following, Christ-loving, God-seeking communities. She is identified as a fruitful leader in her roles and relationships inside the church communities.
Even facing discredit, blame, doubt and finger pointing, Mary Magdalene continues to live out her calling and her role within the early community, to follow as Jesus commanded and “preach the gospel. She does not lay down any other rule or law beyond what the Savior said: “And when they heard this, they began to go forth and proclaim and to preach.”
Amidst the hardships and strife, Mary Magdalene continued to teach the love of Christ to others.
Let us close with a prayer:
Creator God, grant us the ability to learn from the story of Mary Magdalene that we too may seek to acknowledge and appreciate the common bond of humanity we all share. May we have her perseverance in seeking peaceful, Christ loving communities. Amen.

**the above published sermon comes from and reproduced with permission by Sara Bayles.  

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