The Gospel of Mary, of which we have only fragments, also shows a form of Christianity where spiritual vision and spiritual encounter with the Risen Christ were considered as important as his historical words. It elevated inner spiritual experience. The Risen Christ says in the Gospel of Mary, "The Son of Man is within you" – which is very close to Jesus’ words in Luke, "The kingdom of God is within you," and close to St. Paul,s mystical notion of "Christ in you."
Gnostic forms of Christianity, of which this gospel was a part, emphasized inner vision, personal experience, much like twentieth century Pentecostals. (The Pentecostal Church, by the way, was the leader in America in racial integration of its churches and in giving spiritual leadership to women.) Gnostic Christianity also saw in every human being the divine spirit. As Elaine Pagels describes it: "We have a latent capacity within our hearts and minds that links us to the divine."
The early church felt threatened by such a wide range of Christianities. It chose to emphasize order over spirit, unity over vision, tradition over innovation. We have been the poorer for it.
Healthy Christianity thrives when there is a lively conversation between those in the center and those on the boundary. When those on the boundary are branded as heretics, something vital begins to die.
British New Testament scholar, James D. G. Dunn, says we should use the words "unity" and "diversity" rather than "Orthodoxy" and "Heresy." I brought along this quotation of his because I figured you’d ask. It’s from his book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament:
The Da Vinci Code rightly points to the sad truth that the church has over the years suppressed a diversity of voices. Female voices and the sacred feminine have been especially suppressed.
Q. O.K., now we are back to the novel. What about Mary Magdalene? Who was she? Was she married to Jesus?
A. The Gospel of Luke says that she was among Jesus’ disciples, that he saved her from demonic possession, and that she supported him out of her means. The gospels also report that the Risen Christ appeared first to her and that she was the first to hear the Easter gospel. That is why in the early church she was given the name "Apostle to the Apostles." John’s gospel suggested in its story of the meeting of Mary and Jesus on Easter that they shared a relationship of intimacy, love and trust.
Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. This false tradition was promulgated by Pope Gregory the Great, who combined several women figures in the gospels into one and identified Mary Magdalene as the prostitute who anointed Jesus with perfume.
Q. Well, we’re down to the juicy part. Were they married? Were they secret lovers? Did a pregnant Mary go to France and begin a royal line of progeny with a child fathered by Jesus?
A. It is easy for me to imagine that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a deep love for one another. And I believe he could have been married and been the Messiah of God. It’s been the hysterical attitudes of the church about sexuality that have insisted on a sexless Jesus.
But it is difficult for one to believe he had a secret marriage or Mary was his secret lover. A secret life seems so out of character for Jesus.
I believe he chose celibacy as a requirement for his urgent mission of preaching the kingdom of God. One day I’ll preach on the saying of Jesus in Matthew – which by the way the Jesus Seminar rates as one of the real ones:
I’ll not announce that sermon because no one would show up.
Q. Was Jesus, as Sir Leigh Teabing says, "the original feminist" (p. 234)?
A. I like to think so, though he was more than that. He elevated and empowered women to a degree shocking for his world. There were the symbolic twelve male disciples, symbolizing the renewed twelve tribes of Israel, but there was a larger circle of disciples than those twelve and women were included in them.
The church could not live up to Jesus’ vision – it still hasn’t.
Q. What’s all this about "the sacred feminine"?
A. It has to do with honoring the spirituality of women equally with the spirituality of men. It has to do with women as pastors and priests. It has to do with the masculine and feminine within each of us and a spirituality that honors both. And it has to do with the nature of God.
God is transcendent, holy other, and therefore beyond male and female. But the being of God also at the same time partakes of both male and female. Genesis said that when God made us in the "divine image," God made us male and female.
It is an idolatry to make God exclusively male: A graven image of our minds and of our language. By doing so we have shut down part of the soul and shut out part of God.
The transcendence of God shatters our language. It shows our words to be limited human vessels. It calls us to create new language for God\: Like Bobby McFerrin’s version of the twenty-third Psalm in the anthem you heard today.
And like the anthem you will hear at the offering, William Mathias’ setting of the words of Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century British anchoress who received visions from God, or "showings" as she put it. Her words shattered conventional language for God and began to create a new language.
Q. Who’s going to win today between the Panthers and the Eagles?
A. You’ve changed the subject. Was that on purpose? I’ve received a vision (inspired by Daniel and Revelation): There will come from the four corners of earth four creatures: A colt, a panther, an eagle and a man in a three pointed hat. The panther will devour the eagle and the horse will defeat the man. Then in the climactic battle the panther will defeat the colt and Charlotte will be crowned "The New Jerusalem."
This vision, to use the phrase of St. Paul, "comes not from the Lord but from me."
But let me not end this sermon on such a note. The last question is perhaps the most important: About the divinity of Christ.
Q. Was the divinity of Christ a fiction created by the church and given the emperor’s seal to consolidate the power of both church and state?
A. There is no doubt church doctrine has been used for the purposes of power and control. How many times in our own Presidential election process will Jesus be trotted out so to make a candidate more electable!
But the doctrine of the divinity of Christ did not arise from political purposes.
It arose out of peoples’ experience of Jesus, both in his earthly ministry and as the Risen Lord.
In Jesus they saw both the fullness of what human persons were made to be and the fullness of who God is.
From the first confession of faith in the first century, "Jesus Christ is Lord," to the Nicene Creed of the fourth century, what the church was trying to do was not dictate a doctrine, but to preserve a mystery: the mystery of the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In Jesus they met both God and true humanity. In Jesus they met the humanity of God and in Jesus they met the divinity of the human person.
Sometimes this mystery collapses on the side of his divinity; other times on the side of his humanity. For some it is his humanity which is most compelling; for others it is his divinity.
But Jesus does not call us to figure it all out; he calls us to follow. And as we follow we not only find our way to our truest self, we find our way to God –
who found a way to us
in Jesus, whom we name,
in the mystery of faith,
"Christ" and "Lord"
and names yet to be
revealed to us.
1. 2nd ed. (London SCM Press, 1990), p. xix.