Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

There’s Something about Mary

Posted on: August 16th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Sermon delivered on Aug. 14, 2022 in Fort Erie, Canada, on the Gospel reading: John 11: 1-7, 17-27.

John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus, is appointed for Lent 5 in year A, but I simply can’t wait until next March, Lent 5, to share some exciting research that has been done on this passage. Diana Butler Bass, noted church historian, has summarized in a recent sermon the biblical research of her friend, Elizabeth Schrader, and it will blow your mind, for it changes so much of our understanding of Jesus, Mary, the gospel writers, church history—everything changes as a result of this biblical research. Butler-Bass’s sermon lasted 40 minutes, but I’ve got only 13 this morning. Here goes:

Elizabeth (Libbie) Schrader is currently a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Duke University, but when she was a Masters student at General Theological Seminary in New York City, she examined the oldest known version of John’s gospel, called Papyrus 66, created around the year 200, and she discovered something that no one else had ever noticed. She found that the text of John 11 and 12 had been edited, altered, changed utterly. To put it simply, in the original Greek version of John 11 and 12, there is no character named Martha. Martha has been added, inserted into the story.

Our text of John 11 begins “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” We all assume we know this family, right? We read about them just last month in Luke 10 when busy Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping serve the guests. Well, our assumption may be wrong. The original Greek text of the oldest known version of the gospel of John says, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary.” In the original text of John 11, this Lazarus has only one sister, and her name is Mary. We have two stories about two different families.

Someone edited John 11 in Papyrus 66 and removed a Mary and created a Martha, actually changed the spelling of Maria to spell Martha. I studied enough Greek to know that it would be pretty easy to make the Greek iota into a theta, the “i” into a “th.” And where the original text refers to “his sister, Mary,” the scribe altered it to read “her sister, Martha.” Butler-Bass summarizes the moment this way: “Schrader sat in the library with all of this, and it came thundering at her, the realization that sometime in the fourth century, someone had altered the oldest text of the Gospel of John and split the character Mary into two. Mary became Mary and Martha. She went through the whole manuscript of John 11 and John 12, and lo and behold, that editor had gone in [and] at every single place and . . . moment that you read Martha in English, it originally said, ‘Mary.’ The editor changed it all… Every pronoun is changed. Every singular “sister” is changed to the plural “sisters”. So that the story becomes a charming story about Lazarus and the resurrection and his two lovely sisters, Mary and Martha.”

But John 11 is not about them at all, it’s about a different Lazarus and his sister Mary. Lazarus is never mentioned in Luke 10; Martha welcomes Jesus “to her home.” Martha and Mary of Luke 10 live “in a certain village”; the two siblings of John 11 live in Bethany—“Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary.” There’s something about Mary. Who is this Mary? She is familiar enough to the early disciples or the gospel writer that they can refer to “the village of Mary,” not the village of Lazarus, but of Mary. It has long been speculated that this Mary is Mary Magdalene; in John 12 a woman named Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with rich perfume and dries his feet with her hair. We have long assumed that Mary was Mary Magdalene, haven’t we? Well, could very well be, and the one woman in John 11 & 12, the sister of Lazarus, indeed could be Mary Magdalene. Why was her identity altered by introducing “her sister Martha” into the narrative, obscuring the passage with an allusion to Luke 10?

The answer is suggested by the final verse of the portion of the gospel passage we heard this morning, verse 27: “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Our English versions say that Martha said this; the original Greek text says it was Mary. Why is that change important? First, it is the only Christological confession in the gospel of John, a very significant assertion of Jesus as Messiah, as ‘Son of God.’ Secondly, who says something similar in the other gospels? Right! In all other three gospels, “Peter and Jesus have a conversation. And Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Who am I?” And Peter actually says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” And Jesus turns around and says to him words that are familiar to all of us, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” That’s St. Peter, first bishop of Rome, the first Pope, from whom we get St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Pretty important guy! And in Roman Catholicism, only men can be Pope, or Bishops, or priests, because Jesus chose only male disciples. Or did he? In our version of John’s gospel the great confession is from the mouth of a minor character, Martha, about whom we hear nothing more. But she wasn’t there in the original John 11. Mary Magdalene was. Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the Apostles, present at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, the first witness to the empty tomb and the resurrection, the one who informed Peter and the others, “I have seen the Lord.”

Oh, you’re going to say, it’s not that Mary, she was from the town of Magdala, this Mary is from Bethany. Well, THE Mary was from Bethany, because in Jesus’ time, there was no town called Magdala. The term Magdalene is a title. In Hebrew, the word means ‘Tower.’ Mary the Tower—the tower of strength, the tower of faith. Mary the Tower vs Peter the Rock. Rock, paper, scissors. Rock always wins. Or does it? Paper beats rock. This research of a piece of Papyrus leads to speculation about the power struggle happening in the early church and later, about the place of women in leadership roles. The Peter faction vs the Mary faction. Mary Magdalene was there at crucial moments of Jesus’ life and ministry. She was in the garden, at the cross, at the resurrection. She’s called the Apostle to the Apostles. So, in whose interest is it that she be removed from John 11 with its powerful Christological confession and be replaced by a relative unknown woman named Martha? Mary was downgraded here. Why?

I leave you to speculate further, but I venture to share that if Mary the Tower had been acknowledged and celebrated equally as much as Peter the Rock, the institution of the church and its history would have been vastly different and our understanding of Christ’s message and ministry would be highly enriched by feminine wisdom and spirituality. Can you imagine? The mind boggles with possibilities. An all-male clergy? A patriarchal institution? Elaine Craig’s comment in the Globe Aug. 10 can easily be applied to the church: “We know that having women involved at the highest levels of organizations can help change leadership and result in better decision-making. Yet the [church’s] governance remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.” There were nearly 100 female bishops at Lambeth this year; twenty years ago there were less than 10. The times they are achangin’. The game’s afoot. There is much to contemplate, much to study further. We have not heard the last of this research and it will stimulate much discussion which I pray is respectful and fruitful. The Holy Spirit is let loose upon the world. Hear what her Spirit is saying to God’s people.

The Treasure Hunt

Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Homily delivered at Church of the Transfiguration, St. Catharines, Ontario, on Aug. 7, 2022,
based on readings appointed by the Revised Standard Lectionary: Isaiah 1:1, 10‐20; Psalm 50:1‐8, 22‐23; Hebrews 11:1‐3, 8‐16; Luke 12:32‐40

All the readings today are connected beautifully; that’s not always the case during Ordinary Time, but today’s lessons are richly joined by imagery and imagination. The OT reading stresses that it is not ritual or animal sacrifice that God desires, but thanksgiving and following God’s way of justice & righteousness: “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” followed by the promise: “if you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” (Isaiah) Psalm 50 appointed for today echoes the same theme: “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way, I will show the salvation of God.” The passage in the gospel of Luke picks up on the image of “going the right way” to gain God’s reward: “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom . . . make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (one of my favorite verses from the Bible). The letter to the Hebrews pulls all the readings together by recalling the history of Abraham: “Abraham . . . set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance and he set out, not knowing where he was going . . . For he looked forward to the city . . . whose builder is God . . . [he was] seeking a homeland . . .” and then the writer clarifies the metaphor: “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

The passages today are connected by the metaphor of the journey, the quest motif, or, echoing the metaphor of Luke’s gospel, the treasure hunt. However, the treasure is not earthly wealth but spiritual well-being or direction; the homeland, the promised land, is not a specific place but “a heavenly one.” The Spiritual journey of our lives seen as a treasure hunt: the search for the holy grail (as so many adventure films make clear) is not for the actual cup of the Last Supper, studded with rich jewels, but discovers instead the spiritual significance of the cup, the spiritual growth of the journey–it’s the search itself. Western literature is filled with so many illustrations of characters who miss the meaning of the quest, who confuse the spiritual with the physical–sometimes they die in their confusion like Gatsby or Gollum; others learn from the quest and discover love and identity like Luke Skywalker or Frodo. Duddy Kravitz schemes and connives to buy land while cheating those who love him, both friend and lover; he misunderstands the metaphor of his grandfather’s admonition that “a man without land is nobody.” Compare the struggle in the middle east (indeed, in many countries) over actual land; people miss the symbolic significance of “the promised land” in scripture, a land where peace and justice are the cornerstones of society, where the people actively seek to do God’s will: “do good, seek justice, love mercy.”

The Bible too is filled with the record of mankind missing the mark, only to grow and learn, to refocus on the ideals of their faith; it is comforting and instructive to read of the doubts and uncertainties of our spiritual ancestors, their mistakes and new beginnings; the story of Jacob, for instance, who cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance and then flees, and there in that far country grows and matures, discovers the errors of his way and eventually gains his brother’s forgiveness. The overall structure of the Bible itself reflects the quest motif, beginning as it does in a garden and ending in Revelation with the vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Mankind, expelled from the garden, wanders in the wilderness, a stranger in a strange land, yet always moving toward the heavenly city, God’s kingdom come on earth where justice and peace shall reign. The bible presents the vision of one long quest with the record of a whole lot of smaller quests within that wider structure. It mirrors our own journey through life, from birth to death, that life filled with all sorts of journeys of discovery, stages of growth, actual and spiritual–marriage, divorce, employment, downsizing, children, aging. Each day is a treasure hunt, a journey, from waking to sleeping; each moment of each day has possibilities to unearth spiritual treasure. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Change and journeys can be frightening–remember Jacob, remember Abraham–for one never knows what is going to happen, but they are the stuff of life and of literature, the central theme of the Biblical narrative.

“One of the more popular ways of identifying oneself as a Christian is to affirm that one has been “born again.” And although a whole religious culture has risen up around that phrase, the concept of being “born again” is essentially based on a mistranslation. The phrase in Jesus’ mouth in John 3:3 (translated correctly in the New Revised Standard Version) actually tells Nicodemus that he must be born “from above.” Whereupon the literalist Nicodemus misunderstands and asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And therein lies the core difference between two approaches to the spiritual life: Being “born again” has come to mean a once-and-for-all experience of God’s grace and love. Insofar as it can be the first step in a life’s journey of faith, being “born again” can be a helpful experience and concept. But Jesus never said you have to be born again, but born “from above.” Being born “from above” implies a journey, a process, an orientation – a way of life.” To be “born from above” implies that something within us “from below” has to die, our old way of being, our selfish striving for survival at all costs, to be replaced by the values of God’s kingdom, the way of Jesus, of love of neighbour. Faith becomes not a statement, but a process faithful to our faithful Lord.

As the story of Abraham and Sarah illustrates, opportunities for personal growth come at every age. We don’t have to venture forth on actual journeys, that’s the purpose of stories, to read and to imagine and to grow and learn from imagined experiences. Quest stories are about transformation, change, from one psychological state to another, for the protagonist and for his community. Margaret Atwood in a recent essay sums up the purpose of pilgrimage as “seeking a passage from imagination to reality.” The Bible presents us with a vision, an imagined world, God’s promised land, and it is our vocation in life to make that vision a reality, to bring God’s kingdom into reality here on earth. The quest motif and its metaphors have rich significance for us personally and politically, for individual Christians on their individual journeys, for the Church on its course through history as it pursues its mission to the wider human society, to imagine a new world order built on God’s principals of justice and fairness for all. The Biblical image of the journey, the quest, the treasure hunt, is the central metaphor of our faith, meant to inspire us with God’s vision for us and all of creation. Mindful of our heritage, stretching all the way back to Father Abraham and before, we must listen to the Spirit who ever has more to teach us about being disciples of Christ, followers of the Way. In the NT the word Christian appears exactly 3 times; the word disciple, 263 times. “God in Jesus calls us deeper and deeper into our humanity–part of which is a constant quest and journey into truth. That journey in time always becomes a journey into God.” (Spong) The Bible passages today remind us of our rich spiritual heritage, offer us a profound imagined reality: we need to hold on to these visions of God’s kingdom as we journey through this life, to achieve the goal, to find the treasure, for ourselves and for our world.

This Troublesome Priest, This Uppity Woman

Posted on: February 8th, 2019 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Atheist United Church minister, the Reverend Gretta Vosper, is in the news again.

The Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada (UCC) has issued a joint statement with Vosper and her congregation at West Hill United Church in Scarborough, that they “have settled all outstanding issues between them”. Gretta is now free, after a three-and-a-half-year controversy, to resume her ordained ministry in her congregation.

The joint statement was short on details but, in interviews, Gretta stands by her atheism, indeed, insists on it. In contrast, the national office of the UCC responded to the joint statement by asserting the church’s belief in God, “a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ”.

As members of the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, we distinguish ourselves from Gretta in that we joyfully proclaim our experience of God. We know God not as a person, but as the “Ground of Being”. Nevertheless, we affirm Gretta’s obvious sincerity and worthwhile ministry.

The United Church’s dilemma with Gretta has been played out in the public arena through the media. However, more quietly, some Anglican congregations today are troubled by theological and liturgical differences.

Some Christians stumble when reciting the Creed, while others insist on its centrality to faith and worship. Some long for contemporary language in liturgy, while others love ancient rites. Some like a lot of music in worship, while others prefer silence. Some Christians lean proudly on dogmatic theological language and ideas; others, meanwhile, question traditional expressions of faith and actively seek new language to articulate their experience of the divine.

There is something empty of soul in angry exchanges over theological abstractions. There is something beautiful in welcoming strangers, angels unawares.

So, how can we all live together in peace? How can we cooperate for the common good? Well, just by doing it, by wanting to do it. By agreeing to disagree and then worshipping and working together for justice and peace.

Why do we need to get along? Because people outside church looking in are puzzled by our disputes, while all people within the church — even atheists — need to feel welcome and included. Shying away from such discussions does not resolve them.

Once challenged for his perspective, the late Marcus Borg responded that Christians could spend a lot of time talking about their theological differences, but it would be more worthwhile to emphasize what they have in common. The central commonality is that we are followers of Jesus, commanded by the Lord to love our neighbours and even our enemies.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan taught that there is no limit to the love of God and, consequently, there should be no limitation to our loving. Anyone in need of compassion is our neighbour and deserves our care and support.

Christianity is transformational, personally changing our hearts and politically changing our society. The current emphasis in the Diocese of Niagara on personal faith formation and the missional church provides the means for such transformation.

Following Jesus is the way we live together in peace. Jesus’ mandate as outlined in Matthew 25 will guide us in the joint pursuit of social justice. Working for the common good will supersede all our theological and liturgical differences. As Bishop Susan has recently reminded us, we are all in this together.

When we are gathered together as a community at the table of our Lord, our theological differences become less important than the mystery of blessed bread and wine.

by Eleanor Johnston and Wayne Fraser
originally published in The Niagara Anglican, February 2019.

Hear me Rohr

Posted on: May 17th, 2017 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Many in the Diocese of Niagara may know Richard Rohr from his book Falling Upward, Bishop Michael’s 2014 selection as his Lenten book. However, you may not be aware that you can receive daily meditations in your email inbox from Rohr. We find these daily readings uplifting and inspiring.

Rohr is a Franciscan monk, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As our Diocesan website explains, “Drawing from his own Franciscan heritage and other wisdom traditions, Richard Rohr reframes neglected or misunderstood teachings to reveal the foundations of contemplative Christianity and the universe itself: God as loving relationship.” Rohr advocates the meditation tradition of Christianity, what he names the Perennial Tradition, for it is found across all religions.

Through contemplative silence, one enters the presence of Presence, one is able to hear the still small voice of God. Rohr explains, “In a silent posture of self-emptying, we let go of habitual thoughts and sensations and connect with an Inner Witness—God’s presence within—that gazes back at ourselves and out at reality with an Abiding Love.”

Without contemplative practice, Rohr asserts, religion becomes the “repetition of rote, wordy prayers, and attendance at social prayer.” Through regular periods of contemplation, one enjoys an experiential relationship with Divine Presence. True transformation, what John the Baptist called baptism “with fire and the spirit,” and Jesus termed rebirth “from above,” becomes a reality in each human heart and soul.

Without such personal transformation, we are left with defensive barriers against others unlike our own kind, and we focus on “externals and non-essentials.”

Rohr tells the story of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the first in the 1950s and ‘60s to teach the contemplative practice lost over the centuries by the church. “Merton was not very popular with many of the older monks and was considered a rebel because ‘he told [them] that [they] were not contemplatives. [They] were just introverts saying prayers all day’ . . . You can imagine how well that was received.”

Rohr is “convinced that many, many young seekers left seminaries, ministry, religious orders, and convents basically because no one taught them how to pray!  Without a contemplative life, poverty, chastity, obedience, and community itself do not work or even make sense. And ministry becomes another way of running away or trying to find yourself instead of real service for others.”

The Christian contemplative tradition stretches back to the earliest church Fathers and Mothers who in the 4th century fled to the desert “so they could practice what they felt was authentic Christianity, unhindered by the priorities of the new imperial religion that was based largely on externals.”

Your public and your church library will have books on mysticism. Mystics teach us that prayer is not about what we say to God but what we receive from God, Love that enables us to move beyond judging and labeling, Love that enables us to love God, the human race and all of nature.

A reporter once asked Mother Teresa, “When you pray, what do you say?”

She replied, “Nothing; I listen.”

“What do you hear?” asked the reporter.

“Nothing. God listens,” she answered.

The daily meditations Rohr sends out through email seek to teach the contemplative tradition and offer thoughtful analysis of Biblical and Church teachings. It is not a new way of looking at Christianity, but a very old way of experiencing Christ. Jesus taught his disciples to pray. We highly recommend this daily food for thought, action and prayer.  Sign up for free at


By Eleanor Johnston and Wayne Fraser, originally published at   p.4.



Change or Atrophy—Today’s Choice

Posted on: January 27th, 2017 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Having questioned the Creeds in the October issue of Niagara Anglican, we thought we would follow up with what we believe. We worship God who created all things, follow Jesus who is our teacher, healer and friend, and hear the Holy Spirit who communicates all we need to know and do.

There are many ways of understanding, worshipping and serving. Wherever we are on the theological spectrum, we all need the courage, theological understanding and common sense necessary to tackle the great and inevitable changes and challenges facing our religious institutions today.

The concept of Original Sin is the key to obsolete beliefs including propitiatory sacrifice and substitutionary atonement. Likewise, to blame afflicted people for their personal torments is presumptuous in the extreme. God did not create us evil and prone to diseases as punishment for our fallen state. Humanity is not fallen.

Original Sin is not a concept even mentioned in the Bible. Original Blessing, its opposite, is, yet we allow ourselves to be “guilted” about Jesus dying for our sins. Instead, we see the Bible’s claim that God created the human race, all other species, our habitats and “saw that they were very good.”

The God we worship and serve is not an old man living above the clouds. We can call ourselves “a-theists,” people who do not worship a human-like, a human-made God. Many who have left church have done so because of the traditional image of God. Non-theism for most of us still attending church, is uncharted territory, a new theological creation. Who or what do we worship?

We must start with a humble reading of the New Testament, with the brilliant hope, peace, joy and love put before us by Jesus. We experience God as an evolving Ground of Being, and the key word is evolution. Here’s where the most radical concept comes in: God is Love, is giving and receiving. God plunges into the breakdown of humanity’s connection to creation as Love in our loving.

We seek the wisdom and faith to explore our human understandings of God, for kindred spirits of other world religions, and for this fragile earth, our island home. We see the destruction of the ecosystems and the mass extinctions of fellow creatures as crimes against God and all creation. We believe in caring for all species of creatures and their habitats. We welcome interfaith peace and inclusive justice for all.

A new era of Christianity is here and now but many are afraid to acknowledge it. It is here in our ecumenical and interfaith worship. We must give up our fantasy that Christianity is superior to other religions. People of all faiths have in common an evolving experience of the Divine.

True worship does not care a whit for the forms of our rituals. God gives no one the right to be militant. Jesus commands us to love God, our neighbours and ourselves. Change is difficult, in anything we do. It seems especially challenging in matters of faith.

We must, however, change or atrophy. Instead of condoning all the fears, threats and guilt induced in the past, let us rejoice in the complexity, beauty and mystery of all creation. All people come from God, we are imitators of Emmanuel, and we are co-workers with the Holy Spirit.

For the beauty of the Earth,
sing oh sing today.
Of the sky and of our birth,
sing oh sing today.
Nature human and divine,
all around us lies.
Lord of all, to thee we raise
grateful hymns of praise.

–Paul Winter, Missa Gaia

First published,  (page 6)