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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

The Gospel of Mary


A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on talk delivered to Bolton Theosophical Society

22nd March 2015


Many of us have heard of the book and the film, The Da Vinci Code, where the idea is presented that Jesus had a wife called Mary Magdalene. In the story the idea is that they had a child, and the descendants are still among us to this day.


Is there any truth to this? Well that's one of the things I want to explore here. I want to ask three questions: Who was Mary Magdalene? What is the Gospel of Mary that bears her name? And why does it matter?


Who was Mary?

Mary is a mysteries figure in the documents we have about the life of Jesus. I want to look at a few of these documents here and see how the picture we get of Mary is different in each of them.

First the Gospel of Luke 8:1-3 (NRSV adapted):

Soon afterwardsJesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Realm of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.


So here we get our first glimpse of Mary. She was a follower of Jesus, the Gospel of Luke certainly describes this. Mary seems like a minor character though. It’s almost an aside – oh yes and Mary and some other women were there too. And yet we’re told that these women were supporting Jesus and his disciples, this is not a minor thing at all. This small mention is about all we get of Mary until the death and resurrection of Jesus when Mary again is an important figure present throughout.


The descriptions of the resurrection in the different Gospels vary quite a lot, yet Mary features in all of them. She is the first witness of the resurrection. And yet after this she disappears again, and very little more is said of her.


So from the Gospel of Luke (and Mark, Matthew and John) we get the view that Mary was a follower of Jesus.


Was Mary a prostitute? No, nowhere is it written that she was. This developed in later Christian tradition. It comes from the tendency to get women mentioned in the Bible mixed up. In Latin Western Christianity a tradition developed that Mary was a reformed prostitute. But this was never thought in Greek Eastern Christianity. So Mary was not a prostitute.


A further picture of Mary emerges when we look at Gospels that didn’t make it into the official Bible, such as this passage from the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas saying 114 from The Complete Jesus trans. and ed. Ricky Alan Mayotte (South Rayalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1998), 113, adapted):

Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life’

Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Realm of Heaven.’


So Peter doesn’t like the fact that Mary is included as a disciple by Jesus. Peter tells Jesus to tell Mary to leave because she is a woman. Jesus’ reply sounds very strange to us. He says that Mary will become a man, will become male.


To understand this we must understand the highly symbolic language we are dealing with.

Jesus always communicated in symbol and parable, and this is even more so in his portrayal in the Gnostic Gospels such as Thomas and Mary (I'll discuss what we mean by "Gnostic" below).


In this language ‘male’ is a symbol of mind and spirit, and ‘female’ is a symbol for the body, sexuality, and the material world (The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. 2003), 147). Jesus says that Mary can obtain a spiritual maturity so that her body no longer matters. Her body is no longer a barrier to her spiritual growth. As can any woman.


Now the feminists among you may object to these ideas. Why should ‘female’ be associated with the lower body and ‘male’ with the higher spirit? Is this saying men are naturally more spiritual than women? Well, yes, I think it is saying that, and I would agree that this system is not perfect.

There is sexism in this kind of theology. Yet the outcome of this sexist theology is that Mary could be seen as a disciple asimportant as Peter or John or any of the other male disciples. Perhaps by women ‘becoming men’ they could be seen as spiritually equal with men in the early Christian church. Is this more or less sexist than women remaining in an inferior state? Is it more or less sexist that ignoring women leaders in the early Christian church?


So from the Gospel of Thomas we get the view that Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus, one who could become as spiritually mature as any man.


When we move to the Gospel of Mary, another piece of writing that wasn’t included in the final official Bible, we see Mary not only as a follower, but a leader (Mary 4: 1 – 5:10 from The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. 2003), 14 – 15):

When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all. ‘Peace be with you!’ he said. ‘Acquire my peace within yourselves!

Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying, “Look over there!” For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.

Go then, preach the good news about the Realm. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it.’

After he had said these things he departed from them.

But they were distressed and wept greatly. ‘How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the realm of the child of true Humanity?’ they said. ‘If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?’

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, ‘Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.’

When Mary had said these things, she turned their heart towards the Good, and they began to debate about the words of the Saviour.


In this gospel we see Mary not only as having the potential to be as spiritually mature as any male disciple, sheisas spiritually advanced, or moreadvanced than the male disciples.


The passage comes from a part of the Gospel after the Resurrection. Jesus gives his final teachings, then leaves. The disciples begin to moan and worry about what will happen. It is Mary who takes the lead, and speaks to the disciples, comforts them and begins to give them advanced spiritual teaching. Mary is the leader of the disciples, the most spiritually advanced, the greatest disciple.


So was Mary the lover of Jesus or the wife of Jesus? There is some evidence for this. In the Gospel of Philip we hear that Jesus loved Mary more than all the other disciples, and used to kiss her often (Gospel of Philip 63:33-64:9). But we must be careful here in projecting our cultural understandings onto a different time and culture. I think it is clear, at least if you take these writings seriously, that Jesus and Mary were extremely close. But I don’t think you have to sexualise that close relationship. In my opinion, Mary was close to Jesus but the relationship was not a sexual one. But it is possible, and it makes a good story.


So, what can we say about Mary of Magdala? I think we can say this: Mary Magdalene was a disciple in Jesus’ inner circle. She was important in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church after his death. The Gnostic Gospels tend to emphasise Mary’s importance, and the canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – tend to play down her importance. But it’s worth saying all these Gospels, every single one of them was written well after Jesus, Mary and all the first generation of Christians were dead, and each brings their own perspective and theology.



What is the Gospel of Mary and what is its message and theology?

In the first two centuries of Christianity there was a lot of diversity that we've only really begun to appreciate recently. We've understood this through discoveries of these different gospels.


We think the Gospel of Mary was written at the beginning of the second century. But it was lost for centuries. It was discovered in an Egyptian market in 1896 by a German scholar who brought it back to Berlin for study. That discovered piece was written in Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt that is still used by Egyptian Christians, but since then a fragment has been found in Greek and it was probably originally written in Greek.


The document we have is not complete. We've lost maybe half of the Gospel of Mary. It was translated but not finally published until 1955. So what we have is just a few pages.


The Gospel seems to be a scene after the resurrection. Jesus is talking to his disciples, giving them some last teachings. He then leaves, and they panic a bit, but Mary, calms them down, and then gives them this inner spiritual teaching.


This teaching seems to be a sort of spiritual parable in which the soul ascends into heaven, being interrogated by "powers." This literary form of the soul going up to heaven was well used by many spiritual writings in the ancient world. It was seen as perhaps predicting this after-death journey while also providing teaching that could be used in this world to spiritually advance. These powers in the Gospel of Mary are things like ignorance, desire, darkness, flesh, wrath.

But we've lost most of this section. Here's one part (Mary 9: 2 – 5 from The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. 2003), 16):


And Desire said, "I did not see you go down, yet now I see you go up. So why do you lie since you belong to me?"

The Soul answered, "I saw you. You did not see me nor did you know me. You mistook the garment I wore for my true self. And you did not recognise me."


The point is the Soul does not belong to the material world, though Desire thought it did, because it mistook the body for the Soul. But the Soul says that the body is just a "garment" worn by the soul, and the true self is not the body. The point of Gnostic theology is that we are not our bodies, we are our souls.


We call this a Gnostic gospel because it's teaching this inner knowledge. "Gnosis" is a word for knowledge. Gnostic Christianity was a very powerful force in the first few Christian centuries. Although in a way we don't really know what it was, we just have fragments like the Gospel of Mary, but we don't have the full story. It was clearly very influenced by the spiritual traditions of Greek Platonism and so it seems less related to Judaism.


Often historians put forward what we could call the three bears version of early Christianity. Jewish Christianity that still retained strong links with the Jewish culture and religion is often see as too Jewish by modern Christian historians. Gnostic Christianity is seen as not Jewish enough. And Orthodox Christianity is just right in its Jewishness (King, 39). But that's very much a simplification of early Christian history.


In fact early Christianity was very diverse. It was complicated, Christian communities in different cities were pretty isolated, and developed along their own lines; and we've lost so much. Some estimates say we've lost more than 85% of literature from those first two centuries of Christianity. And so Christians often tell the story from the point of view of orthodoxy, from the point of view of those writings that survived, and as we know, the victors, write the history. We can't really say we have given other forms of Christianity a real hearing. We do not have their voices, only small fragments.


Why does it matter?

I think there's a few ways we can answer this question of why any of these ancient things matter today.


Firstly I think we can say that women were leaders and preachers in the early Christian church, so there is no reason they cannot be today.


Secondly I think we need to acknowledge how vastly diverse early Christianity was in its first two centuries. And I think that will help us to be comfortable with pluralism today. Today, within Christianity, there is a tolerance of diverse forms of churches, some churches have bishops and some don't for example, and that kind of thing is accepted. But what's not accepted is diversities of theology. So people like myself, Unitarians, are not accepted because our theology is not orthodox. But I'd like to see Christians get comfortable with not just a diversity of forms of church, but a diversity of theologies and spiritualities.


Thirdly, what are the spiritual insights we can get from the Gospel of Mary?


To answer this question I think I have to speak more personally.


For a start let me say that I'm not totally on board with the theology presented in the Gospel of Mary. I would not want to emphasise the "soul" over the "body" as I think bodies are quite important, and should not be considered the opposite of things spiritual. I'm much more interested in integrating different parts of the self, if they are, indeed different in the first place.


|But I want to highlight some of the teaching I find important in the Gospel of Mary. Before he leaves, Jesus says to his disciples that they should be on their guard against people who tell them to look here and there for the child of true humanity. What is translated as the ‘the child of true humanity’ in this version of the Gospel of Mary is translated in other Gospel translations as the Son of Man.


In Mark and Matthew we’re told the Son of Man will come on clouds with great glory and power (Mark 13:21-26; Matthew 24:15). The Son of Man, the child of true humanity, is a figure that will come in the skies at the end of the current time. But in Mary we have something very different. Here the Child of True Humanity is within you. We are told not to look for some supernatural figure in the sky to bring about a new age, rather we are called to follow what is within us. Jesus does not even say ‘Follow me.’ He says follow what is within you. He does not say believe in me, he says believe in what is within you.


But what does that actually mean? “Those who search for it will find it” we are told. Yet when I search, when I look within myself – when I examine my inner thoughts – I find a lot of rubbish. I find all my daydreams, my fantasies, my fears, my worries, my anxieties bubbling around!

When I have a quiet moment – either sitting in “proper” meditation or just having a quiet moment sitting starring out of a window on a train – I often find that my mind is so noisy. When the outside noise quietens down I can only find how noisy it is within my own mind.


How do we get past that noise? To find this child of true Humanity? I think the answer is given in the phrase by Meister Eckart: “To see as God sees.” To see how God sees means to see truthfully, to see Truth, to see how things really are.


The only way to do this is to remove the illusions we usually see through. It’s like we’re constantly wearing glasses that distort the world. Our job is to remove those glasses, and to see the world as it truly is, to see as God sees.


This can happen when we pay attention to our thought-patterns, to think “why do I feel in a mood today?”

Maybe because somebody drove badly in front of me this morning, and I got angry.”

Why did I get angry?”

Because I skipped breakfast”

Why was the other person driving badly?”

Maybe they skipped breakfast too, and weren’t paying attention.”


Simply seeing the deeper truth of a situation like this constantly removes the unexamined thought patterns of our lives and we begin to see more clearly, to see as God sees.


In meditation we do this when we constantly notice our distractions.

When we think, “You know what I’m not meditating, I’m thinking about tomorrow”

You know what I’m not meditating, I’m worrying about yesterday.”

You know what I’m not mediating, I’m thinking about the episode of Coronation Street I saw last night.”

Just by constantly noticing, seeing, we return to the reality of the present moment.


When we do this, when we remove the distortions, cleanse our vision, we begin to see as God sees and we begin to find the Child of True Humanity within us. When we do this, we are truly children of God, children of True Humanity. Mary said, “he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.” Our task is to simply to become true Human beings.


I'd like to end with these words from Meister Eckhart (translated and adapted by Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God (New York: Penguin, 2002) 120):


Reading from Meister Eckhart

It is your destiny to see as God sees,

to know as God knows,

to feel as God


How is this possible? How?

Because divine love cannot defy its very self.

Divine love will be eternally true to its own being,

and its being is giving all it can,

at the perfect


And the greatest gift

God can give is His own experience.


Every object, every creature, every man, woman and child

has a soul and it is the destiny of all,

to see as God sees, to know as God knows,

to feel as God feels, to Be

as God



Minister's Message

March's Theme: Justice

In the last few weeks some people have asked me, "What can we do about all the acts of horrific terrorism that we've seen recently?" It is true we've seen such horrific acts of the deliberate killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan, Nigeria, France, Denmark, and in the United States. Not to mention the worrying rise of so-called "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq.

I have been reluctant to talk about this subject too much. The reason is I think we can rush too quickly to analysis, commentary and debate as a way to distract us from looking directly at the horror of raw suffering, evil and sin. Sometimes there isn't actually much we can say. We want to say something but there is nothing to say. It is just horrible. There is nothing more to say than that.

There is also a danger that anything you or I say is amateurish and very ill-informed so, again, it would be better to say nothing.

But I suppose the question remains of what we can do?Are we completely powerless? How can we do something positive?

When I started thinking about this, I asked myself the question, what counters terrorism? And I thought: well I suppose something that is the equal and opposite of terrorism. So what would the equal and opposite of terrorism look like? Well it would look like an internationally organised, well-funded network of people with the simple aim of love and justice in this world. It would look like a group of people prepared to give their lives, and sometimes their deaths in order to spread love. Whereas terrorism seeks to spread fear, hate, and violence in countries across the world, the opposite of terrorism would seek to heal the sick and injured, give people hope and courage, feed the hungry, house the homeless, save lives in every country in the world.

Some terrorism is well organised and funded whereas some us is just a lone person hell-bent on causing carnage and violence. The opposite of terrorism would equally sometimes be an international well-funded operation, but sometimes be a lone individual passionately committed to causing hope and healing in the world.

And when you think of it like that, you realise that the opposite of terrorism already exists. It is every charity in the world, it is every compassionate religion, it is Medecins sans Frontieres, it is Amnesty International, it is Christian Aid, it is the National Health Service, it is Liberty, it is Macmillan Nurses, it is War Child, it is Islamic Relief, it is Bolton Street Angels, it is Fortalice Hostel, it is Urban Outreach, it is Bank Street Unitarian Chapel. It is you. It is me.

Usually when we say "anti-terrorism" we think of policing against terrorism. But if "anti-terrorism" is the equal and opposite of terrorism, like in physics anti-matter is the equal and opposite of matter, then anti-terrorism is all the human organisations that do the opposite of terrorism; that don't spread hate and fear but heal the sick, feed the hungry, build up the former devastations, and give hope to the people, that practice love and justice.

And here's the good news: anti-terrorism is bigger than terrorism. By a long way. All the human striving for love in the world is bigger than the striving for fear and violence.

So how do we respond to terrorism? By being anti-terrorists. We need to be as passionately committed to anti-terrorism as terrorists are to their cause. We need to be as much evangelists for love as terrorists are evangelists for hate. We need cells of radical anti-terrorists up and down this country (and this world) carefully planning their next big event that will spread compassion and love up in their community. As much time and money and energy terrorists give to terror, we must give the same time, energy and money to the anti-terror work of love and justice.

If we can view this community as being part of that, as lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, then we will realise the vital importance of our work. And you can be part of that work. And that's what you can do.


In love,





A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

Based on words delivered on 30th September 2012

Reading from the Book of Exodus

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’…

Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’


In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

(Exodus 16: 2-3; 9-21 (NRSV))



There is a story that a miser hid his gold buried at the foot of a tree at the bottom of his garden. Once a week he would dig up his gold, gaze at it for an hour, and then rebury it. One day a thief came in the night and stole the gold. When the miser came to look at his gold he found only a hole, and gave out a distressed shriek. A neighbour heard the shriek and wandered over to ask, “What on earth is the matter?” The miser explained that the gold he kept at the bottom of his garden had been stolen. The neighbour asked, “Well, did you ever actually spend the gold?”

“No. I just gazed at it,” replied the miser.

“Well, for all the good it was doing you,” said the miser, “You might as well gaze at a hole.”


This is how people are. Some people become rich enough to buy a Ferrari – wow – fantastic! Then they start thinking, “What if I scratch it? What if I crash it? What if I easily rev up with this powerful engine and get snapped by a speed camera? What if someone vandalises it? What if they steal it?” So they decide to pay to keep their Ferrari in a luxury car high-security storage depot.

These places exist; and if you leave your car there they will polish it once a week, they’ll run the engine once a fortnight so it doesn’t seize up, and they’ll roll the cars back and forth to prevent the tyres developing flat-spots. And so you own a Ferrari! – that you never use.

One manager at one of these storage depots has said, “I don’t know why some people have them. One bloke with a £100,000 Ferrari just turns up, takes the car round the block and comes back. Others just sit in them, smell the leather and listen to the stereo.” (John Naish, Enough page 75-76)

“For all the good it’s doing you, you might as well gaze at a hole”

This is the madness of the world we live in. The madness of enjoying buying things more than enjoying having them.

This is highlighted in a book called Enough by John Naish – who is a Unitarian from Brighton. In the book John Naish gives lots of these crazy examples of our excessive living, and argues we need to learn “enoughism.” This means getting over our irrational addiction to buying more stuff. For our own sakes and for the sake of the world.

The problem is we don’t know when to stop. Scientists have done experiments with soup bowls – that secretly have holes in the bottom that pump in more soup. So people eat, and eat, and eat, and the soup keeps coming, and without that cue that the bowl is empty people end up eating huge amounts of soup. Most people are incapable of saying “I’ve had enough soup.”

We’re not very good at this. And it’s easy to see why – in our evolutionary past we needed to eat as much as we could because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming. But that’s not the world we live in anymore. Now we’re all becoming like the famous Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Mr Creosote is huge man who comes into the restaurant, and eats everything, absolutely everything, vomiting and then eating again. And finally the waiter offers one more “wafer-thin mint” that he forces down – and then, literally, explodes. There was no ability to say “enough.” That is the parable of our modern world. It is predicted that the majority of Westerners will be obese or overweight in the next twenty years.

But this isn’t just about food. It’s about everything. We’re in a culture that tells us we need more and more of everything. Our economic system is built on a need for us all to keep buying huge amounts of stuff that none of us need. I’ve previously talked about  a spirituality of abundance. A spirituality based on an understanding that we live in paradise – a world of abundance and plenty, and that we should celebrate life’s goodness: beauty, food, love, sensuality.

And maybe it seems what I’m saying today contradicts that. But it doesn’t. Those who eat most, tend to be those who eat fastest, and eat while not paying attention to eating – eating watching TV, or while working. Whereas really enjoying your food, savouring it, experiencing it, means you eat slower, and you eat less.

It’s about mindfulness – I come back to this a lot – because it’s one of the key spiritual practices we need to be practicing – paying full attention – being more aware. The Buddhists teach this a lot – but other traditions say it too. We need to deeply experience life – mindfully, fully, joyfully, - so we will realise that we have enough.

The story we’ve heard from the Torah is about enoughness. The Israelites are in the wilderness – and they complain they’re hungry. And so miraculously food is provided – quails and manna from heaven. They have enough – every day they have enough. But when they try to have more than enough – when they keep some over for tomorrow, it rots away by morning. Manna is enough for today, but not enough for tomorrow. They had to live day to day, in the present. This a parable about enoughness: the Israelites had to learn to be satisfied with today’s bread, and for that to be enough.

When we think of religious groups like the Amish – who have no televisions, no cars, no technology – we probably think they’re a bit weird, a bit eccentric, a bit mad. But when we look at our lives, of the huge amount of stuff we have, coming out of our ears, coming out of our cupboards, overflowing from our attics, filling up the spare room. You have to start wondering – who are the mad ones? Someone who decides to live very simply – or someone who gets a new mobile phone every year? Someone who throws away loads of perfectly good stuff – or stores it in cupboards that are never opened? Or pays good money to a self-storage company to keep stuff for them?

I’m not arguing for us to live like the Amish. But there must be a middle way. This is what the Buddha taught:     the middle way. He started by starving himself,  then decided that moderation was much better for enlightenment – and he ate a bowl of rice breaking his fast.

This is ultimately a spiritual issue. And I think it’s up to people of faith to model a different way of being in this commercialised excessive world.

It’s about frugality: now frugality may seem like a rather serious word. Being frugal sounds like being a penny-pincher, being mean. But the word “frugal” comes from a root that means fruitfulness. It means appreciating the abundance of what we have. Mindfully, joyfully, enjoying what we have; being deeply grateful for what we have; and deciding: no I don’t need any more, I have enough. 

The blessings of what I already have are enough. If we can do this – we might just find a way to live joyfully and abundantly, but not excessively.

Saving Paradise

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

Based on words delivered on 16th September 2012


Reading from Ephrem of Syria

Paradise surrounds the limbs

            with its many delights;

the eyes, with its handiwork

            the hearing with its sounds,

the mouth and the nostrils,

            with its tastes and scents…

Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,

            It enriched me as I meditated upon it;

I forgot my poor estate,

            for it had made me drunk with its fragrance.

(Taken from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), 95-96) 


Reading from the Book of Genesis

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

(Genesis 2: 4-14 (NRSV)) 

If I asked you, “What is the symbol of Christianity? What would you say to me?” No doubt you would say, “The cross.” And this seems obviously true.

This reminds me of the story told by the travel writer Bill Bryson. He said he was once in a queue behind someone in a jeweller’s in Liverpool, and the person in front asked for a cross, and the assistant said, (in your strongest scouse accent) “Do you want a plain one or one with a little man on?”

The symbol of Christianity for many people is one with a little man on: the crucifix. When we have visitors to this Chapel I sometimes have people commenting that they are surprised that there’s no cross or crucifix in this Chapel. And I explain that historically we come from a tradition that rejected all symbols, all pictures, inside churches; and if we were to have a symbol, it wouldn’t be the cross because our faith is not based on the death of Jesus. What might surprise you is the idea that in this we are much closer to early Christianity.

The ideas that I’m presenting today come largely from two scholars that I heard speak recently called Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock. Now these two researchers have looked into early Christianity extensively and what they have found is that there are no crucifixes in early Christianity. For the first one thousand years of Christianity churches did not have images of Jesus’ death on the cross. There is no dead Jesus in early Christianity. The idea that the main purpose of Jesus’ life was his death on the cross only comes in the medieval period. Instead what Parker and Nakashima Brock discovered in the earliest Christian churches were images of Christ resurrected, glorious, triumphant, and of Christ the good shepherd, in lush meadows, beside flowing streams, in beautiful landscapes of paradise.

What these two theologians discovered was the importance of paradise as an image of salvation. And what they argue for, is that paradise, not bloody sacrifice, should be the idea that inspires us in all we do as people of faith.

In the Torah, in the second chapter of Genesis, God creates a garden for humanity to live in. It’s clear that God’s intention is for humanity to live in a garden of delights, with plants for both eating and for beauty. Humanity’s original state is to enjoy abundance and beauty.

There’s a river that flows through Eden, and we’re told it divides into four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and the Euphrates. Now what do you notice about that list of rivers? How good is your geography? Where are the Tigris and the Euphrates?  The answer is Iraq. But where are the Pishon and the Gihon? Do you know? No. No one knows. Why? Because they’re fictional rivers. So we have two very real rivers and two made-up rivers. This suggest paradise is real, is here, and yet is also beyond us.

Lots of early Christian writers wrote about paradise, but not as some lost pristine state at the beginning of time, or some future existence or an afterlife, but as a reality in this world. Hippolytus of Rome said, “Some persons claim that paradise is in heaven and is not a created thing. But when one sees with one’s own eyes the rivers that flow from it and that can still be seen today, one must conclude that paradise is not heavenly but part of creation.” (Saving Paradise, page 91)

Paradise is here. Paradise is now. We live in paradise. Paradise is our experienced reality of life’s goodness.


Ephrem of Syria was a fourth century poet and the most popular writer of Christian hymns at the time.  The Eastern church still calls him “the songbird of paradise.” He lived in Nisibis, which was on the border between the Roman and the Persia Empires.  At times it was a war zone, between these two great empires, and the citizens variously faced persecution, starvation and violence. Nevertheless Ephrem was an ecstatic poet of paradise in the here and now. When he read Genesis for the first time he said, “their verses and lines spread out their arms to welcome me; the first rushed out to kiss me, and led me on to its companions. And when I reached that line where the story of paradise is written, it lifted me up and transported me from the bosom of the Book to the very bosom of Paradise.” (Saving Paradise, page 94)

From then on Ephrem was a citizen of paradise, the joyous, beautiful world all around us.  Which didn’t mean he ignored the problems of the world. There were many problems around. Later in life he fled war-torn Nisibis and went to Edessa. But in Edessa a famine struck. Ephrem lead the effort to organise food distribution and set up hospitals to care for the poor. Living in paradise at the same time meant creating paradise through acts of love, justice and non-violence. He wrote, “One person falls sick – and so another can visit and help him; One person starves – and so another can provide him with food and give him life; One person does something stupid – but he can be instructed by another and thereby grow. In this way the world can recover: tens of thousands of hidden ways are to be found, ready to assist us. “ Even in a crisis it is paradise that can inspire and guide us.

“The breath that wafts from some blessed corner of paradise

Gives sweetness to the bitterness of this region,

It tempers the curse of this earth of ours.

That Garden is the life-breath of this diseased world.” (Saving Paradise, page 98)


How does the “breath of paradise” reach us with “its healing balms?” Through the power of the ordinary, and through the church.

Again, Ephrem wrote, “The assembly of saints bears a resemblance to Paradise:

In it each day is plucked the fruit of Him who gives life to all;

In it… is trodden the cluster of grapes, to be the medicine of life.”

(Saving Paradise, page 98)


Church and worship should be a sign, a symbol and a demonstration of Paradise. This is still emphasised in Eastern Orthodoxy; worship should be beautiful, it should be a taste of heaven. We’ve lost some of that in our strict Protestant path: we think worship should be only about words, and ideas, and the mind. But worship should be about a taste of paradise: “O taste and see that the lord is good!”

Which is what communion, the Eucharist is all about. Unitarians have generally not celebrated communion, or not celebrated it very often. We only have it two times a year here now. I grew up in a church where it was every week. And I do miss communion, I’ve always found it very powerful. But I’ve never understood it as being about bloody sacrifice. And Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock have helped me to understand this more. They argue that in the early church communion was not about sacrifice but it was about a celebration of abundance. It remembered the feeding of the five thousand as much as the last supper. It was a feast, not just of bread, but often of fruit, cheese, olives, and flowers were often brought along too. Hippolytus of Rome said, “In offering fruits, roses and lilies, the believer was celebrating the goodness of the God who had given them to him. He read the name of God in the fruits of the earth, and God read the homage of love in the heart of the offerer.” (Saving Paradise, page 142)

Eucharist means thanksgiving, and that’s what this was, a thanksgiving, a celebration of the blessings of Paradise. Some churches at communion dapped the wine on eyes, mouth, ears, and heart, inviting the worshipper to open their senses to the beauty of the world, to be mindful of their senses. I think the reason I find communion so powerful is to do with the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. We usually go through life, not really paying attention to what we’re doing, including eating. But to eat and to drink deliberately, carefully, mindfully, aware of the feel, the taste the smell, in doing this we find God.

To live as citizens of paradise is to experience the sacredness of this world. To experience, to enjoy, to love the taste of food, and all sensual pleasures.  That doesn’t mean over-indulging. It means celebrating, drinking deeply, of the ordinary. Becoming drunk on the fragrance of paradise. Often the first thing I do when I get up is drink fruit juice, and it tastes amazing.

But it doesn’t have to be healthy all the time. When I was at my conference a few weeks ago: I had fried bread for breakfast. How amazing is fried bread! Fried bread, baked beans, fried egg. Do you remember when you were a child you used to get really excited by food? Maybe a treat, or something nice, whatever. When did we lose that? When did you lose that?

Paradise is about tasting and smelling, and feeling and hearing and seeing the blessings of this world. Paradise is our experienced reality of life’s goodness. We are saved by abundance, by love, and by beauty; the sacredness that is all around us. These are the things that inspire us, as citizens of paradise, to also create paradise.

This is the puzzle at the heart of things, the only way to save paradise is to believe we’re already there. As a citizens of paradise we must feed the poor, protect the vulnerable, heal the sick, challenge injustice, love one another, give away our money, act non-violently, care for the earth.

But it is not duty that powers us for these things. It is beauty. It is the fragrance of paradise. As the Sufi poet Rumi said, “Let the beauty we know become the good that we do.” May it be so.



God is Love

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

Based on words delivered on 8th February 2015


Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

(Matthew 22: 34-40 (NRSV).)


Reading from William Ellery Channing

We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically.... We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all...


To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. ... Among the virtues, we give the first place to the love of God. We believe, that this principle is the true end and happiness of our being, that we were made for union with our Creator... God, as he is essentially goodness, holiness, justice, and virtue, so he is the life, motive, and sustainer of virtue in the human soul.

("Unitarian Christianity" by William Ellery Channing (http://www.transcendentalists.com/unitarian_christianity.htm).)


It's not a random choice that our first theme, as we go into this pattern of having monthly themes at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, is "love." Love, I believe, is at the heart of our faith.

I sometimes wonder why we don't talk more about love as Unitarians. Sometimes we name our greatest principles as "freedom, reason and tolerance," and yet compared to love, I would argue, these principles pale into insignificance.

Which religious community would you prefer to belong to, I ask? One that says "we believe in love" or one that says, "we believe in tolerance." Would you prefer to be loved or to be tolerated?

Perhaps sometime you wake up next to your beloved, stare deeply into their eyes and say, "You know, I really tolerate you... Every day I tolerate you more and more." Well maybe some days it is like that, but I'd suggest that such a statement would not be met by much enthusiasm.

Perhaps we're afraid that "love" sounds a bit vague, sugary, idealistic - all about fluffy bunnies and puppies and love-hearts. And it's certainly a danger that anything we say about love comes across like this.

Or maybe we are afraid that if we say our religion is based on love, we might be judged on that basis, and found wanting. If we say we are a community of love we have a high standard to judge ourselves against, and it can be a painful realisation that we have failed to love.

But despite these reservations I believe we should say loudly and clearly that love is one of the foundational principles of Unitarianism.

There are good reasons for us to say this. From the beginning we have understood Jesus' Way to be summed up in those two great Jewish commandments: love of God and love of neighbour. Why do we think that? Because Jesus said that was the summary of his teaching. Some Christians make things very complicated - but I think it must be our witness to come back and back again to this simplicity: love God, love neighbour: this is Christianity. I think we need to have the confidence to say this to other Christians, to claim our Christian identity, in this very very simple definition. I think it's a great witness we can make in a friendly way to our ecumenical friends, "Yes, yes... but love of God and love of neighbour." Jesus said it. It's that simple.

A hundred years ago, or indeed much less than that, Unitarians were a bit more confident in saying what we stood for. It was common then to talk about the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the leadership of Jesus. William Ellery Channing, setting out the fundamentals of Unitarianism when it was just starting in America in 1819, argued very clearly for this fundamental view of God as a loving father. Now today we're much more aware of the sexism of these phrases. As well as the Fatherhood of God we would want to affirm the Motherhood of God. As well as the brotherhood of man we would want to affirm the sisterhood of woman. But the fundamentals of these phrases I would argue are still very valid: we affirm that if we know anything about the Divine, it is that we experience the divine as Love and loving; and that our response to this love is to love, in turn, the entirety of the human race and all people we encounter.

The foundation of all these ideas is love. And this means we reject any ideas that are inconsistent with this love. If someone says God sends millions of people to burn in hell - we will say "No" because this is not consistent with the love of God. Even if the Bible says so, we will reject any belief or practice if it isn't consistent with love. Love trumps scripture; overturns any religious law, every time.

But, of course, there is more to say than this, because, well, what do we mean by "love"? What is the definition? What does it look like? What does it feel like?

If we turn to the Bible, we have at least three different words that are translated in English as "love."

The most common word used for love in the New Testament is agape. We have our Agape Meals here - following the ancient Christian custom of love feasts. When Paul writes, "faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love" the Greek word he uses is agape. In Latin it's translated as caritas. In older English translations this is translated as "charity", but in modern translations this is usually made into "love."

Another Greek word for love is eros - which is where we get the word "erotic." So obviously this refers to sexual or romantic love. But it is more than that, it means desire, longing, yearning, and sometimes this word is used to speak of God.

There's also philia - meaning friendship or brotherly or sisterly love. Philadelphia means "the city of brotherly love."

Now some in the Christian tradition talk about agape as the good kind of love, implying we're supposed to agape but maybe we shouldn't really be eros-ing or philia-ing. But in fact all of these words are used to speak of divine or religious love in the New Testament.

But the point I want to make today is we shouldn't really be saying one type of love is "good love" while the other type of love is "bad love." All types of love are good, divine things. We have to believe that if we believe the simple but profound statement "God is love." This is one of the shortest but biggest statements in religion: God is love. Not only God is loving, or a being of love, but God is love. What does that really mean?

For me, it is an invitation to really find the Source of Love in my life. And I think that's the work we're engaged in here. Our task is to find the source of love in our lives, and to go deeper into that source of love, and let it feed us and transform us.

Where do you find love in your life? Where is that deeper source of love?

There may be all kinds of places where we experience love, as well as places where we may be aware of love's absence and difficulties. It maybe that you are lucky enough to experience the love of marriage and partnership, the love of family, the love of deep and lasting friendship.

It may be something that seems quite small or unimportant. I came out of my front door the other day and was jumped upon my about four puppies that my neighbour was taking out for a walk. They greeted me with that enthusiasm, joy, and yes, love that we experience in such young creatures. It was a wonderful unexpected moment in my day. (I need to be careful as I said there was a danger here of talking about puppies and being overly sentimental when discussing love! But nevertheless it was an experience of love).

If God is love, then any of these experiences can be profound, if we are aware of the deep down place where they come from. Each of these moments can be windows into God. Windows into realising there's a deeper love in which we are held. These aren't separate things, they aren't divided, they're not about "good love" or "bad love." God is love. When we experience love, we are experiencing God, if we are open to the deep places where all these loves connect.

The deeper truth, the truth by which I live my life, (as best I can) is that we are, each of us, held by a Love that is beyond our understanding. And all we need to do in this life, is to open ourselves to that love, and to love one another.


Now loving one another ain't necessarily that easy. And there's still a lot more to sat about love than this. But today my invitation to you is this: find the love in your life, even in small moments, and open yourself to the source of this love, to the deeper, deeper source of Love in which we live and move and have our being.  

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