Why are you here? Seriously. There are so many reasons not to be in church. Not to own the name “Christian.” If you follow current events at all, it can often seem like Christianity is all about judgment, control, and turning back the clock on the great movements towards allowing people to be their whole, true selves in public. I have conversations with people – not often, but regularly – people who are exploring church, or not-so-churchy friends or acquaintances – conversations whose subtext seems to be: You seem smart, Miranda; why are you still a Christian?
Why am I still a Christian? When the faith I claim has been used to confine women to home and hearth, and to silence women speaking out about abuse? To tell LGBTQ+ people that their lives, their partnerships, their bodies, are less valid, less worthy? To say the Earth is ours to use and use up, rather than a sacred responsibility? When my faith has even been used to say that the wellbeing of the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, the asylum seeker, is none of our concern? It is really hard to make the Bible say this, folks, but some people manage… And the icing on the cake: when my faith, our faith, has been used to insist on niceness, when folks start to get uppity about calling for change?
Christianity became the religion of institutional power seventeen hundred years ago.In the intervening years, our scriptures and teachings and liturgies have often been made instruments of control rather than wholeness; of maintenance rather than transformation; of rigidity rather than renewal; of shame rather than joy. Why would anybody still be a Christian?
I can’t tell you why you should be – though if you come here every Sunday, I’ll try. But I can tell you why I am. There are a lot of answers to that question, but today the answer begins with Mary Magdalene.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. So she ran and told Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. They all returned to the tomb together, and saw the linen cloths lying there, the ones that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body. Mary stayed there when the others left, weeping for her lost friend. Then a voice said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?…”
The story of Jesus’ life, death, and rising again from the dead, comes to us in four different versions – the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were compiled and composed at different times, by people with different sources, understandings and intentions. The four texts agree about many things, and disagree about many others. One of their clearest agreements is that Mary Magdalene was the first, or among the first, to learn that Jesus had risen from the dead. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all list Mary first among several women who went to the tomb immediately after the sabbath day of rest – when it was forbidden to handle dead bodies. They wanted to wash and anoint the body of their beloved friend, who had been buried in haste before the sabbath. Instead, they found the tomb empty, and received a mysterious and joyful message: He’s not here. He has risen!
The Gospel of John tells the story a little differently. One of the many quirks of this gospel is its frequent mention of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – known as John to the other Gospels. The Gospel of John makes John a central figure in the unfolding story. For example: It’s the only gospel that claims John visited Jesus’ tomb. And by this account, John is the first one to get it – he sees the empty tomb, and believes. But even the gospel of John doesn’t dare unseat Mary Magdalene; after John has left the scene, she is the one who meets the risen Christ, names him – Rabboni! My teacher! – and embraces him.
Though they tell the story in different ways, the four Gospels are unanimous in placing Mary Magdalene as first witness to the Resurrection – the church’s big word for the raising of Jesus from death to life. Mary Magdalene’s place of honor is all the more amazing when you consider the context from which these texts emerged. First-century Jewish culture and law was patriarchal and male-dominated, while the Hellenistic cultural influence in the region was heavily sexist. To take one relevant example: Women could not be witnesses in a legal setting. You can’t trust them, you know? Their brains …
The Gospels reflect that context in their readiness to overlook women. Mark and Matthew literally named Mary Magdalene and other women just verses earlier, as Jesus is dying… NOT because that the women just showed up; they have been there the whole time. Listen to Mark: “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James … and Joses, and Salome. These used to follow Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” OH, BY THE WAY, Jesus had a bunch of female disciples too, who were supporting and looking after the whole motley crew! And it was a big deal for women to up and leave home, so their presence suggests devotion and courage at least equal to that of their male counterparts.
In his Gospel, Luke – who takes women a little more seriously – even alludes to the sexism of the times, when he describes the male disciples’ reaction to news of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene and her companions: It “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
The Gospels reflect the sexism of their context. But… not entirely. Because they are built on the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures, from which the faces of bold and faithful women peek out, despite the overwhelming dominance of men’s voices and men’s stories: Deborah, Abigail, Tamar, Naomi, Ruth, Judith, Esther, Rahab, Miriam, Sarah, and so many others. And because the man at the center of the Gospels was different. The great novelist and Christian writer Dorothy Sayers wrote, “It is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man… A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them [or condescended to them]; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never [told them where they belonged]; who had… no uneasy male dignity to defend.”
No wonder Mary wept at his tomb, thinking him dead. To hear that voice silenced, to see that vision crushed. And no wonder she wept even harder when she heard his voice, saw his beloved face, and knew that not only was it not over, it was just beginning.
Why am I still Christian? Most fundamentally, because of Jesus. I’ve been talking about women here, but there are so many ways Jesus’ teachings and actions break open our categories of clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving, insider and outsider. He taught and showed and lived that there is no line that divides those who do and do not deserve our compassion, our solidarity. Even though people and institutions of faith have fallen short and distorted the message, again and again and again, the Gospels – the Scriptures – carry within them the seeds of liberation, healing, and renewal.
And – the point of Easter is not just that God has the power to bring somebody back from the dead. I mean, that’s cool, but this week scientists zapped the brains of dead pigs and got some cells to start functioning. Who knows – within the next few years, reanimation may move from miraculous to mundane. The point of all this is not that God brought somebody back to life; the point is that God brought Jesus back to life.The guy who said all those amazing things and did all those wonderful things. To use a metaphor that may be relevant: In raising Jesus from death, God endorsed Jesus’ platform and sent out an email blast inviting us all to join the movement.
But, listen: This isn’t just about remembering that Jesus was one woke dude. The late Bishop Stephen Bayne wrote that churches often act as if they were “a sort of memorial association for a deceased clergyman named Christ, whose ideals were important.” Jesus was great; but if what we’re about is getting together to talk about how great Jesus was, then I’m out. That’s not enough. Have you looked at the world? Stories – even really beautiful, profound stories – do not equip me to live in these times. I need a living God, not a dead one. I need the witness of Mary Magdalene: The tomb is empty! He’s alive! And I need him to call me into life – abundant life, deep, true, fierce, wholehearted life.
In icons – holy images – of the Resurrection from the Eastern Orthodox churches,
Jesus doesn’t just wake up in the dark tomb, sit up, unwind the burial cloths. Instead, he descends to the place of the dead and frees everyone – a cosmic jailbreak. He’s shown with broken doors, shattered locks and chains, around his feet. And he’s never shown alone: He grips the hands with a man and a woman,
Adam and Eve, representing all of humanity, freed from the bondage of death, dragged back from the place of shadow and forgetting. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Last night we gathered here for the Easter Vigil, a liturgy that begins in the darkness of the tomb, with waiting and remembering, then celebrates the moment of Easter: Alleluia! Christ is risen! I don’t preach at the Vigil. Instead some voices from the early church speak to us across the centuries: Blessed Euthemius, the 5th century abbot, and blessed John Chrysostom, a 4th-century preacher and writer. In these ancient Easter sermons, Euthemius and Chrysostom, like the icons I described, name the Resurrection as an invitation.
Euthemius gives Jesus these words: “I order you, O sleeper, to arise. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell… Rise up, work of my hands, created in my image. Rise up, let us leave this place! For I have died with you, and you shall rise with me.The banquet is ready, the throne of angels awaits; the Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity!”
Chrysostom preaches Easter as the invitation to a cosmic party: “Rich and poor, sing and dance together. You that are hard on yourselves, you that are easy,
celebrate this day. You that have fasted and you that have not, make merry together. The meal is ready, come and enjoy it; you will not go away empty. There’s hospitality for all, and to spare.”
Somewhere in the intervening centuries, we lost some of this urgency and joy. We started treating the Resurrection as Scripture, as Doctrine, as an Historical (or possibly not so Historical) Event – instead of God taking my hand and leading me into the best party ever, with food and people and joy and no awkwardness and so much music.
This is why I’m still a Christian, and not just “still”, but fiercely, joyfully Christian: Because Easter is not just about Jesus; it’s about us. It’s not just a remembrance; it’s an invitation. To walk right out of the machinery: Rise up, let us leave this place! To seize the brave conviction that there’s more love somewhere – as we sing in Lent – and we are gonna keep on till we find it. An invitation to transformation rather than maintenance; wholeness rather than control; renewal rather than rigidity; joy instead of shame. The Orthodox theologian Patriarch Athenagoras says, the Resurrection is not just the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transformation of the world.
Christ is risen. Join the movement. Share the feast.
This sermon is indebted to this wonderful article by Jim Friedrich:
Bishop Bayne is quoted in Beyond Colonial Anglicanism, Ian Douglas & Kwok Pui-Lan (eds.), 2000.
The Sayers quotation is from Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society.