“Raising the Tower”

March 26, 2023

    Series: March 2023

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "Raising the Tower"


    Scripture Reading
    John 11:1-45

              1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

              7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

              17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
    18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had
    met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

              38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

    “Raising the Tower”

              Even in an era in which the church is supposedly crumbling (and we’ll talk about that another time), I suspect a number of you had at least heard of Mary and Martha, probably from another story in the Bible. It’s in Luke 10. Jesus enters a certain village and is welcomed into a home by Martha. Martha is busy “by her many tasks,” which we often take to mean tidying up.
    Mary, on the other hand, sits at the Lord’s feet, and we are told, “has chosen the better part” (Lk.10:42). Martha becomes synonymous with being a busy body who misses the point. The point is well taken that we need to learn to recognize the divine right in front of us, though many of us feel it helps to have a tidy place for the divine to sit.

             Today’s passage we revisit the sisters who obviously haven’t been irrevocably torn apart by their earlier encounter with Jesus…unless that’s not who we meet today. What if I told you that you, we, may have been misled, inadvertently or intentionally? What if I told you the story from John may not be about the same Mary and Martha and in fact may not be about a Martha at all. This is not DaVinci code type sensationalism, but solid academic biblical scholarship. What if I told you that far from damaging your faith, this revelation might contain new openings for your and our collective faith together as Christianity struggles to find new form in the 21 st century? If I told you these things, would you be interested?

              Let’s back up. American historian of Christianity Diana Butler Bass recounts a saga of scholarship that begins when a woman is studying Papyrus 66. 1 Papyrus 66 is the “oldest and most complete text we have of the Gospel of John,” and it dates back to about the year 200. This woman, who has a name, importantly, Libbie Schrader, makes a stunning discovery. She is reading along in the original Greek and comes to this sentence: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and his sister Mary (emphasis added). 2 Wait, that’s not what our Bibles say. Our Bibles says, “village of Mary and her sister, Martha” (Jn. 11:1), the opening line in today’s passage. One version says Mary and his [Lazarus’] sister Mary and the
    other Mary and her [Mary’s] sister Martha.

              What’s going on? Admittedly, the Papyrus 66 wording is a bit awkward. Maybe it was a mistake and later scribes simply corrected it assuming that this was the Mary and Martha from Luke 10. After all, in Greek, Butler Bass continues, Mary is spelled M-A-R-I-A, the last two letters being an iota and alpha, and it only takes a couple of letter strokes to combine those to make a theta, and voila Maria/Mary becomes Martha. Maybe it was an honest mistake or an honest attempt at correcting what the scribe thought was an honest mistake. However, the correction doesn’t seem to work. As Butler Bass points out, geographically locating Mary and Martha here in this story doesn’t make sense. The town where they are in Luke isn’t where Jesus is here in John. More evidence still—Tertullian, one of the church fathers, writing in about 200, the same period in which Papyrus 66 was penned, referring to 27, talks about, “Mary, confessing him, Jesus, to be the Son of God.” 3 Mary not Martha.

              The all-important question – so what? Perhaps it was a mistake or even intentional change, but to what consequence or for what purpose? Well, we don’t know for sure, of course, but consider something: Verse 27 is an important Christological confession. By that I mean profession or statement about who Jesus is, Son of God. Recall the episode. Lazarus has been dead four days by the time Jesus arrives even though the sisters had pleaded with Jesus to come and heal him faster. Jesus assures her, “Marth a” that Lazarus will rise again, which she takes to mean on the last day, at the end of time, which was a popular belief among some Jews (and is, incidentally, the official Christian claim today). Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the kind of straightforward self-identification you only see in John, and he asks Martha if she believes this—actually the word is “believes” or “trusts”…you might think about how your faith might be different if you made it about trust rather than belief. She responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (Jn. 11:23-27).

              That Christological confession is on par with what is considered the Christological confession of the New Testament, which is made by Peter elsewhere. Jesus says, “who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, “Blessed are you…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:16). You’ll remember that Jesus gave Peter his name which means rock. Peter and his confession is the rock on which the church is built.

              John tells the story of a woman making a confession equal to that of Peter. In fact, in John, Peter never makes his profession, only this woman. Granted maybe the version of the Bible that’s been passed down to us has a name wrong, but it’s still a powerful story of the feminine rising to equal, or in John, a higher status than Peter. What does it matter that this story gets altered to revolve around Martha instead of Mary if indeed it was intentional (or frankly even if it wasn’t)? Martha is a relatively unknown or woman of little esteem, one we don’t hear from again and only supposedly heard from before when she was missing the point.

              Well, what if it was originally about Mary and that Mary is…Mary Magdalene? We often take her name to mean Mary of the town of Magdala. Butler Bass asserts that Magdala is not meant to be a location here; it’s a title. What does Magdala mean in Aramaic? Tower. Mary Magdalene is not Mary from Magdala. It’s Mary the Tower. On the one hand you have Peter the Rock (though not in John) and on the other Mary the Tower, each making essentially the same Christological claim that became central to the Christian faith. They are equals.

              We know that there were rivalries in the early church, just as there have always been down unto today. There was clearly a community loyal to John the Baptist that lingered and may have competed with the early Jesus community, which is why in John, for example, the author goes to painstaking details to establish from the outset that Jesus was the one not John:

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….
    6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to
    testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light,
    but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was
    coming into the world. (Jn. 1:1, 6-8).

    We see similar rivalries among followers of different teachers evident in the letters of Paul. What if there was an attempt to put Mary’s words in the original versions of John in Martha’s mouth so as to knock down the tower to ensure it was the rock, Peter, who would become the sole cornerstone of the church? Lost is the balance of the sacred feminine which seems to run throughout John. In John, who goes to the tomb first? Peter gets there second. It was Mary Magdalene. To whom does the risen Jesus appear first? It was Mary Magdalene. Who is the first person to proclaim the resurrection and therefore the first Christian sermon? It’s not Peter the Rock. It’s Mary the Tower. Maybe it was no conspiracy—we have to be careful about those these days. For whatever reason, the Tower seems to have been toppled over time as patriarchy took over the church, as Christianity grew to become the official religion of the empire. We know there were female names in the New Testament turned masculine over time, for example, so we have other examples.

              Either way, as the Christianity of the Rock starts to crumble in the power centers of the world, it may be time to raise up the Tower. If nothing else, it’s time to uncover and listen for the voices of peoples long-silenced by the weight of our institutions. How many other Marys are out there? Who are they? What are their stories? We may be indeed be in a time in which the stones in the church are crumbling…but rather than fight to replace the stones, let us open our hearts to the towers God may be raising in its place, or alongside it, or pointing us to something new altogether. In the end, we don’t have to choose just one to make one building block our confession.

    The church is built upon Peter, the supposedly solid Rock,
    but it also makes room for us to carry the questions of Thomas,
    We behold the Christ with the gaze of both Simeon and Anna,
    We are rescued from death like Lazarus, and our tradition can be too.
    We go through live attending to the divine in our presence like Mary from Luke
    And attending to all the daily tasks Martha, work sacred in its own right.
    The church isn’t just built on Peter, the Rock; it’s built on Mary The Tower too.

           What might that mean for us?



    1 To read this recounted in greater detail, visit Diana Butler Bass’ substack -
    2 Ibid.
    3 Ibid.