Reading 1: SGS 3:1-4B OR 2 COR 5:14-17
Responsorial Psalm: PS 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Gospel: JN 20:1-2, 11-18
Liturgical colour: White.
Today is the day when we honour the Feast day of Mary Magdalene, who was a very dedicated follower of Jesus. There are many Legends around about the life of Mary Magdalene. In fact, Mary Magdalene is probably most well-known for false details and unproven facts in her life. Mary is often identified as a former prostitute, but there is no evidence in the Bible that substantiates this. Too often, people identify her with being the sinful woman from the city that anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. But there are is no Biblical evidence in the Holy text as to the actual identity of that woman, and as such, there is no true reason to believe that it might be Mary Magdalene. Sometimes, Mary Magdalene has been confused with Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ and Martha’s sister, but biblical evidence has Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as two totally different people. There are also some biblically unsubstantiated myths of Mary Magdalene being married married to our Lord Jesus that are spread around. I have also seen on some church websites, that Mary Magdalene was thought to be the author of the Fourth Gospel, that we call the gospel of John, and that she was actually the “beloved disciple” described in that gospel, but yet again, true biblical text accounts certainly do not support this stance. So besides learning that we can’t believe everything which we may read on the internet, what can we learn about Mary Magdalene?
Well, she wasn’t a prostitute, highly likely she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet, she wasn’t married to Jesus, and she didn’t write the Fourth Gospel, so what do we really know about the Truth of the life of Mary Magdalene? Very little of her life is known to us by the texts of the Bible. We can assume that her name “Magdalene” refers to Magdala, a town near Tiberias (in present day Israel), where she must have lived or grown up, but we don’t even know that for certain.
The most personal story about Mary Magdalene from the Bible is from Luke chapter 8. Mary Magdalene is identified in a list of women who provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene was freed from seven demons (accdg to the text), but it is not clear exactly what kind of bondage she was freed from. It could’ve been from anything. Mental illness? Physical illness? Other sin? We just don’t truthfully know. What we do know, was that Mary was restored to health when she was freed and given new life in Jesus.
Mary Magdalene loved Jesus very deeply – possibly even maybe more deeply than anyone else. She held a very important place in both his life and his ministry – she was present both at Jesus’ crucifixion and at his burial. She was one of the devoted women who came early in the morning to the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene was the first one to actually see the resurrected Jesus, according to John, and the one who ran to tell the others. Mary Magdalene can teach us how to love Jesus completely by her example. So what can we learn from Mary Magdalene’s devotion to Jesus?
Firstly, we can learn persistence from Mary. She was the first one to be at the tomb that morning. For three days after burial, the custom was to visit the tomb of a loved one. When Mary arrived at Jesus’ tomb, she was stunned. The huge rock, which was supposed to seal the tomb, was gone. Immediately, she went to go get help, as she believed that the body had been stolen. After the disciples came and saw it for themselves, they went back home. Only Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, not wanting to leave the tomb. Somehow, she could not give up. She didn’t expect to see Jesus, but this persistent woman couldn’t pull herself away either.
Sometimes we give up on God far too easily. We pray a quick prayer asking God to help, and when we don’t hear a positive answer in our own timing, we wonder why God had ignored our prayer. Or we may ask God to intervene in a situation and then we solve the problem ourselves or take it into our own hands. We can tend to move on too quickly when there’s no immediate action. Mary Magdalene persisted. She waited. She didn’t let outward appearances deter her from what she was seeking. She wanted to see Jesus even though it looked impossible, so she stayed. Mary Magdalene was persistent.
The Second thing we can learn from Mary Magdalene is Sincerity. Mary did not put on false airs and graces or act her way through this situation. We can see Mary’s heart all the way through in her actions. When a man who she assumed to be the gardener asked what she was looking for, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” This woman sincerely believes that she can carry Jesus’ adult male body back to the tomb. She knows that if she found his body, she would find the strength to carry him back to his tomb, no matter how impossible it seemed. Mary Magdalene was totally sincere when she offered to carry Jesus’ body back to the tomb where it belonged.
At times, we as Christians tend to put on a good show. When someone dies, we want everything to look good, so we cover up our true feelings. Rather than admitting that this is tragic and nobody can understand it, we parade around patronizing platitudes: “I guess God missed her too much,” or “She’s in a better place now,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead of acknowledging the senselessness of some loss, we try to give answers that we have no business giving. Mary Magdalene did not hide how she felt. She did not give explanations that she couldn’t know. She just opened her heart and said what she felt. Mary single-heartedly sought the return of the body of Jesus whom she loved. Mary Magdalene was sincere.
Thirdly, we can learn enthusiasm from Mary Magdalene. Once she realized to whom she was speaking, once she recognised the gardener as her precious teacher (“Rabboni”), once Jesus told her to go share the news of his resurrection, nothing could stop her from telling others. Bernard of Clairvaux called Mary Magdalene the “Apostle to the Apostles”, because of her role in telling Jesus’ disciples about the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene brought the news to the disciples: “You’ll never believe it, but I have seen the Lord!” Then she told them what she had seen and experienced. She was the only one who stayed at the tomb, and she was the only one who saw Jesus. But Mary was so excited she could not keep her enthusiasm to herself. She was bursting at the seams to share the best news she had ever heard. Mary was enthusiastic.
Mary Magdalene holds a very unique place in the history of Our Lord Jesus. She was the first one to find the empty tomb on Easter and the only one, in the gospel of John, to meet Jesus face to face. We can learn a lot from her, but especially, we can learn from her persistence in waiting for Jesus, her sincerity in searching for Jesus, and her enthusiasm in telling others about the good news of Jesus. Her witness to us is inspiring. Though she’s got with some people a bad reputation through evidenceless myths throughout the years, Mary Magdalene has a lot to teach us about how we are deeply to love Jesus, to wait on Jesus timing persistently, and to search for Jesus in our hearts sincerely. We ought to Enthusiastically tell others about our dear Lord and Saviour, Jesus. And our devotion to Jesus should shine forth in the world in everything we do and say.
“Go and do likewise.”
Four words upon which kingdoms have fallen, thousands wounded or killed, the message of Jesus torn to shreds and replaced by…what? Hate, contention, violence, and many seriously nasty things.
Martin Luther, who, along with other dissenters of his time, insisted that “by faith alone” (sola fide) are people saved. In fact, this Gospel alludes to that when we hear:
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
We can interpret this to mean that we don’t have to perform good works, buy indulgences, or do any physical thing to achieve salvation. Luther was wrestling with his faith and understanding of the Bible for a long time – and quite fervently – when he happened upon this concept as a new door opened for him by the Holy Spirit. “By faith alone.”
Well, it turns out that Luther added the word “alone” (allein in German in which he was later writing to explain his epiphany. He said that he had to add it because that was how colloquial German would say it. This is a long historical/philological argument that we don’t have to delve into here. Let Luther sum it up by saying that in his reading, both Ambrose and Augustin used the word “alone.”
And so, back and forth for ages is the concept bantered. And fought over. And worse. But I was struck by Jesus’ command, “Go and do likewise.” And where did this phrase come from? It came from the scholar of Jewish law when he asked “And who is my neighbor?”
Thus, the parable of The Good Samaritan.
So then if we are to be saved, we must treat our neighbors as ourselves. And in this example, the Samaritan tends to the victim, takes him to an inn, continues to care for him, and then gives money to the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.
What then? Is it sola fide or do we have to perform acts in following the law?
Even the readings for today are not definitive. Moses says we already have this love of the Lord in our hearts and in our mouths. “In our mouths” implies to me that we have to act and profess what we believe. Take an action.
In the Psalm, God will protect us and rebuild the cities. But also “Turn to the Lord in your need and you will live.”
And in the Second Reading…but wait, now I’m even getting caught up in the maelstrom.
Look, we can sit in our warm studies and contemplate God and never see or talk to another person…so long as we love the Lord our God we’ll be saved. But if we see a person in need, we must help her or him.
Yet for the Love of God, we cannot go out and do battle to make others believe as we do! We cannot kill in God’s name. We cannot lay cities waste to get our point across. We cannot not love our neighbor as ourselves.
And one more thing from today’s Gospel: We really shouldn’t try to test Jesus our God. We are the only ones who may need testing.
Lord, today help us to recognize our neighbor in everyone we meet, and yes Lord, help us to find ways to help our neighbor.
Today is Trinity Sunday.
Trinity Sunday is a difficult day for priests, who often feel they have to try to explain the idea of God as Trinity. It’s sometimes an even more difficult day for our parishioners, because they have to listen to us priests, trying to explain the Trinity. It’s a difficult day for priests because we find we have to talk about God. You may think we are always talking about God, but in my experience most of us actually talk rather little about God. We talk a lot about what God wants of us. We talk even more of what God has done for us and is doing for us. That, after all, is the Gospel. But we don’t talk very much about who God is. Perhaps they leave that to the liturgy and the hymns, which probably do it better than sermons usually can.
Have you ever tried to express your feelings when you feel something very deeply? That’s what usually happens when we talk about God, really talk about God, actually trying to say who God is – this is one of those times when language fails us. The only words you can find are terribly makeshift, totally inadequate, and not at all what you want to express, but you must use what you’ve got and try to express yourself. Not to say anything would be worse. You must say what you can and hope the words point to what you can’t really say. So it is with the Trinity. There are several Christian ways of trying to say who God is. The one that says the most about God is the one we use in the creeds, when we say we believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. God is those Three and the Three are one God. The Christian shorthand for that is: God is Trinity. But if that says the most about God, it is also the most difficult thing Christians say about God.
How to explain the Trinity? We haven’t done that yet, simply because we can’t wrap our heads around the concept. The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, the great philosopher and theologian. He was preoccupied with the doctrine of the Trinity. He wanted so much to understand the doctrine of one God in three persons and to be able to explain it logically. One day he was walking along the sea shore and trying to understand just how one God can be in three persons. Suddenly, he saw a child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup with sea water, ran up and emptied the cup into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and went and poured it into the hole. Augustine drew up and said to her, “Little child, what are you doing?” She replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” She answered back, “And you, how do you suppose that with your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.
The doctrine of the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that each of them is fully and equally God, yet there are not three Gods but one, cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind. It is a mystery. But, we continue to try. St. Patrick certainly did it his best. He gave us a visual example in the shamrock or three leaf clover. As the shamrock is one composed of three, so, he said, is the Trinity: Three in One and One in Three. In the story of salvation we usually attribute creation to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, though they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Spirit ever exists or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead, just as a three leaf clover without all three leaves is incomplete.
If we expected today’s readings to give us a clear and elaborate presentation of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, we have found out that they simply do not. The doctrine of three persons in one God, equal in divinity yet distinct in personality, is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. In fact the very word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. Early Christians arrived at the doctrine when they applied their God-given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith. Jesus spoke about the Father who sent him (the Son) and about the Holy Spirit whom he was going to send. He said that the Father had given him (the Son) all that he has and that he in turn has given to the Holy Spirit all that he has received from the Father. In this we see the unity of purpose among the three persons of the Trinity.
We believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing. So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity, or as much as we can understand of the Trinity, is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world. Let me give you some examples.
In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.
In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.
In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church. In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.
Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?” This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world. First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world. For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after destructive tornadoes, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house. If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation. Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.
Who is God? He is our heavenly Father who made us, takes cares of us and calls us his dear children.
Who is God? He is Jesus Christ who gave his life on the cross to re-establish our relationship with God. He reveals the way to God and to eternal life.
Who is God? God is the Spirit in you giving you faith in God and guiding you in your daily walk as a Christian.
Faith in the Triune God acknowledges the might and majesty of God but at the same trusts in a God who cares. Amen.
Do you ever wonder what it would take to make the world a better place. Less rotten? Less foolish? Less stupid? Less tasteless? Less dark?
I do. People at large would come up with a range of suggestions. Some people put their confidence in the political system. The government is there to improve things, and once a decade we change who is in power because we’re not convinced the current lot are fixing things well enough, so we try somebody else.
Others would say that capitalism is the answer. A video was put on the internet in November. It starts with a picture of a girl running in a field. The voice-over runs like this. “This child was born in the past year. She is expected to live to at least the age of 70. If she had been born just two centuries earlier, she would not have been expected to survive beyond her 30th birthday. The almost miraculous increase in life expectancy of the past two centuries is mainly the result of capitalism. By making life healthier, easier and better, capitalism has made life longer for billions of people around the world. Capitalism has given each of us a future, the chance to experience all that life offers. To defend and advance capitalism is to defend and advance our lives and those of our loved ones. What could be more important?” Get the world to embrace capitalism, things will improve further.
Others don’t like that, so they protest against capitalism, as if anti-capitalism were the answer.
Christians by and large reach for some better answers. Some would say that society will improve if we go back to the traditional values that we’ve lost. If the next generation can grow up once again knowing the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, things might be a little less hopeless. Others would say that religion in general holds the key. Others would say that God can make things better. Others would be more precise still, and say that the answer is Jesus.
Jesus tells us in these verses from Matthew’s gospel what it will take to make the world a better place. The answer is surprising. It’s not God, or Jesus. It’s the Christian church. It’s groups of disciples. It’s ordinary Christians. It’s you, and it’s me.
But it’s not automatic. If the Christian church is to be God’s answer to improve a world that is frequently dark, rotten and lacking taste, two things must happen.
First, we must not lose our distinctiveness.
The first thing that needs to happen is this: We must not lose our distinctiveness. We must not lose our distinctiveness.
Verse 13: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”
Jesus compares us to salt. He says we are like salt. You are the salt of the earth. What point is he making?
In the ancient world, there were two main uses for salt. It was used as a preservative. People didn’t have fridges, so they would put salt on meat to stop it from going bad. If that is what Jesus means, he is saying that the world will go rotten all by itself, just as surely as a sirloin steak won’t smell or taste good after a day in the hot sun. We are the salt that stops the rot. Today, he might have said (although there would be problems with saying it): You are the deep freeze of the earth. When society goes rotten, we shouldn’t criticize society in pious “letters to the editor”, but ask why the salt was not applied. It’s not the meat’s fault if it goes bad if nobody put it back in the fridge.
The other use for salt was to flavor things, a use it still has today. If that is what Jesus means, he is saying that we are in society to make it a better place, to give the place a little more taste.
Jesus doesn’t tell us which he means. Perhaps he’s being deliberately ambiguous, so that we think of it from both angles. In any case, the exact way in which the salt helps isn’t his point. He tells us that we are like salt so that he can say one thing: The salt must not lose its saltiness. Literally, it must not lose its taste, or it must not become foolish.
How does salt lose its saltiness? Like this. In the ancient world, they didn’t have beautifully white refined table salt. They used something a bit like rock-salt. You remember the recent snow? There were footpaths that looked like they were gritted but the snow was still settling. That was salt that had lost its saltiness. The water and snow had leached the actual salt out of it. What you had left you might still call salt, but it had no actual salt in it.
So that is what he is saying. We are here to have an influence on the world of some kind. There’s some positive influence involved, as we improve the flavor of the world. There’s some negative influence involved, as we stop the rot. But we can’t do either of those things if we have lost the distinctive thing that we are supposed to contribute to society. And without that, there is no hope. The word “You” at the start of this is emphatic. “You are the salt of the earth”, and I mean “only you”.
So we must not lose our distinctiveness. Those qualities we thought about last time, Jesus’ portrait of what makes the follower of his different from other people: They really matter.
Sadly, though, the salt often loses its saltiness. The history of the Christian church contains many episodes where Christians compromised. Where they looked little to no different to the world around them.
Instead of being a source of influence, preventing decay and working for good, the church merely adopts the world around. It takes its culture, its morals and its values from the world. Sometimes this has been so much so, that the church has actually promoted the world’s values, when in fact it should have been standing against them.
It’s not just the church, considered corporately, that can lose its saltiness. Which of us does not feel this pressure individually as well. We feel the pressure to have the same standards of living as those around us, to drink the same amount at a party, to have the same standard of truthfulness when it comes to our expenses claims or our taxes, to have the same casual attitude to the speed limit, and so on. And then we adopt the world’s standards rather than living the way Jesus set out last time: We too quickly become proud, self-satisfied, glib, brutal and self-indulgent.
The pressure is on for us to lose our saltiness, to lose it as a church, and to lose it individually. But we must not. Because we are the salt of the earth. We must not lose our distinctiveness.
Secondly, we must not hide our discipleship
The second thing that must happen if we are to be God’s agent to improve the world, is that we must not hide our discipleship. We must not hide our discipleship.
Verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus has changed his picture. He’s no longer comparing us to salt. Now we are light.
Light is a big Old Testament image. We remember it from those readings we get at Christmas time from Isaiah. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. In the Old Testament, darkness is frequently an expression of God’s judgment, whereas light is an expression of his favor and blessing.
Jesus came to fulfill those Old Testament promises. He came to bring the light of God’s blessing. He even said: “I am the light of the world”. And so it is that those who follow him live in the light of God’s favor. They are blessed by God. The start of this chapter, remember, told us again and again how blessed we are to follow Jesus.
What Jesus is saying in these verses is that the light that we have been given needs to shine, so that others can see that we are in Jesus’ kingdom, and that we are among those God is blessing. And the reason we are to shine in this way is so that God gets the glory.
Thirdly, we must not hide our discipleship.
One detail we must notice is that the light here is corporate. Jesus is saying “We must not hide our discipleship”, not “I must not hide my discipleship”. The “you” is plural.
Jesus develops this picture of a city on a hill. That seems like an abrupt change of subject. One minute, he’s talking about us being lights, and then he takes about a prominent city. It stands out like a sore thumb… until you see that what he’s talking about is the visibility of a city on a hill at night, in a country with no electric lighting. Here’s the point: The city is so bright, because it is a beacon made up of lots and lots of little lights.
The church is made up of many lights. We are that city. When people look at our church, they will see the brightness that is the cumulative shine of all of our lights. We must not hide our discipleship.
You may know the old chorus – I won’t sing it! The first verse goes like this: Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light, like a little candle burning in the night in this world of darkness So let us shine— You in your small corner, and I in mine.
That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying we’ll all stay in our own small corners, and shine into the dark world. He’s saying that each of us has experienced God’s blessing individually. And when we come together, we are the light of the world. We must not hide our discipleship.
You’ve doubtless heard of sea pollution, and you’re used to the idea that beaches can be polluted or clean. Well until recently, I hadn’t heard of light pollution. There’s an organization called the International Dark Sky Association that aims to reduce light pollution. And just as the EU can declare a beach to be clean, so they can designate a place a “Dark Sky Park”, meaning it’s free of artificial light – you can see the stars at night. There is currently one of these in the UK, its Galloway Forest Park in South-West Scotland. Exmoor National Park is working to get its recognition.
From what I read of studies, in the South-East they have no chance. Kemsing for example has no street lights, but they are too near to Sevenoaks and to London. Go to Galloway, and on a cloudy, moonless night, you can’t see your own hand. But all you need is one major town with electric light, and it bounces off the clouds, and for tens or hundreds of miles the night sky is no longer black.
That is what the Christian church is. It’s that city on the hill. But we must let the light shine. We must not hide our discipleship.
We must not hide it as individuals. Jesus has already said that we will fail to influence the world around us or to spread the kingdom if there is nothing distinctive about us. But we will also fail if we are distinctive, but that is so hidden that nobody would ever know!
Here are some of the questions we could ask ourselves: So when you’re at work, are you a Christian? Or is it too well hidden for anyone to know? Do you talk about your faith, or does shame or the fear of rejection mean that you stay quiet? How about at home: Are you a Christian? Do people know that the reason you are distinctive is because you are a follower of Jesus Christ, or is that detail buried?
We mustn’t hide it as individuals, but we also mustn’t hide it corporately. Remember the city on the hill. Just as our life together must be salty and distinctive, so it needs to shine out. It’s no use keeping it hidden.
It’s no use expecting people to come to us to hear the good news of the kingdom; we need to take it to them. That is one reason why I’m so keen that we have at least one, if not several, open-air services during the Festival in September. Recently, someone in the church said to me, “Where else in the village can we take the church?”
You probably know that the basket Jesus refers to in verse 15 is called a “bushel”. It was a measure, used for measuring grain. We could paraphrase Jesus: “Don’t light a lamp, and put it under a measuring jug”. Now, this building makes an excellent bushel. It’s no use reforming our worship to make it God-honoring in every way we can, it’s no use having excellent relationships with each other, being supportive, and living the life Christ called us to, if we then place this bushel of a church building over the top, and contain it and hide it away.
When we meet here, we look at the face of God in Jesus Christ. We confess our failures, and we find forgiveness. We hear God’s word, that is an active, shaping word, and we get brighter. But it’s when we go out of here that the light can shine.
So if you, like me, long to see this world a better place, a brighter place, a wiser place, a less rotten place, then we need Jesus to point us in the right direction. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. God wants us to be the means he uses to brighten this world with his kingdom. To be that, Jesus calls us to follow him. Then he tells us that as salt, we must not lose our saltiness, and, as light, we must not be hidden.
Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. On this day, the Church is called to be the Sacrament of Jesus, to be the sign of unity for the human race. At the same time, the Lord commanded His disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As the disciples went out to proclaim the Good News of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, they won more converts into their fold. But as the Lord instructed, conversion is not reducible to making converts through baptism but they must be instructed in their faith so that they can become His disciples, walking in His step.
Consequently, the Church, as mother who gives birth to new children of God at baptism, has an equal responsibility to help the newly baptized to grow and mature in the faith. Of course, discipleship is an ongoing process. There is only one teacher and that is Jesus the Christ. The Church, therefore, provides the other sacraments as means for her members to grow in faith, in union with the Lord and His Church, and most of all, to live out their Christian life according to their vocation. The sacrament of the Eucharist strengthens the bond between the disciple and Christ and the Christian community. The Sacrament of Confirmation empowers them to be witnesses of Christ. The Sacrament of Matrimony helps disciples to live out their basic and fundamental vocations as husbands and wives and parents. The Sacrament of Reconciliation forgives their sins and heals fractured relationships. The Church also nourishes the faithful through preaching and teaching the Word of God. The end product is a faithful disciple of the Lord.
But where can the Church turn to in living out her role as mother if not our Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ? Since Christ is both Head and Body of the Church, Mary too is our mother. Her role as mother of the Church was prepared by Christ, as the scripture tells us. In today’s gospel, we read that when Mary was standing at the foot of the cross, one of the last acts of our Lord was to entrust Mary to the care of His beloved disciple, John. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” In calling His own mother, “Woman” and by not addressing John by name, but calling him, “Son”, it was the intention of the evangelist to portray Mary as the Mother of the Church. Later on, in the book of Revelation, we read how the evangelist described the Church as a Woman. “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.”
Furthermore, this role was already anticipated by our Lord at the Wedding in Cana. When the couple had no wine, Mary told Jesus, “‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’” What Jesus meant, in St John’s interpretation, was that it was not yet the time for Mary or for Himself to manifest their real identity until His glorification at His passion, death and resurrection. The hour refers to the hour of His glory. So in using the term “woman” at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and then again at the end of Jesus’ ministry, St John intended this term to be understood as the call of Mary to be the mother of the Church upon the death and glorification of Jesus. Her role as mother of the Church began when Jesus died and rose from the dead.
That is why, immediately after the ascension of our Lord and before Pentecost, we see Mary gathering with the apostles in the Upper Room at prayer, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. St Luke made special mention of Mary with the apostles. “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Hence, it is significant that Mary was present at the birth of Jesus, and also at the birth of the Church at Pentecost. She is therefore fittingly called to be both the Mother of Christ, Head and Body, which is His Church. She was there to take care of Jesus and supported Him when He was growing up. So too Mary was there with the infant Church, supporting her at the beginning of its establishment.
Consequently, if the Church wishes to find a model of motherhood, no one could be better than Mary herself. She showed herself to be not just a mother but a virginal mother. In other words, she was a mother in an exceptional and paradoxical sense. For logically, how can one be a virgin and yet a mother? Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. She became mother not by her own strength or power but by the grace of God. So, too, the Church is not a man-made institution or a kind of political establishment, as some conceive the Church to be. It is our belief that the Church was born from the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we just celebrated. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived Jesus, so too, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Church and the Church was born. It is for this reason, the Church, although human and sinful, is also divine and holy. Jesus said to Peter, “…you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Church too must rely only on the power of God!
To be a mother, the Church must first be devoted to our Lord, just as Mary was. This is the meaning of virginal motherhood. It means total dedication to the one whom we love. She was totally dedicated to God and sought only to do His will. When the angel greeted her and informed her of God’s choice for her to be the mother of the saviour, she willingly said “yes” to her vocation after a period of discernment and clarification. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And to the servants at Cana, she told them the same thing. “Do whatever he tells you.” The Church too must be fully devoted to the Lord and place Him above everything else. This is true also for all parents. If they love their children and want them to grow up to be loving, responsible and God-fearing people, they must show the example of being faithful to God’s will in their lives so that their children will also learn how to imitate their example. By being true to their vocation as parents and as working people, they teach their children how to combine faith with life.
But it is not just doing God’s will. Indeed, if we want to be good servants of God, we must be ready to do His will at all times, even when it is difficult and we do not quite understand His will, which is often the case. But Mary did not stop doing God’s will simply because she did not understand fully what and why the Lord acted thus. Indeed, right from the start, Mary was puzzled by Jesus’ action and words at the Temple when He was twelve years old. Jesus said, “‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” Then we read that upon pressure from the family, Mary and her relatives went to fetch the Lord home because they thought He was mad. That is why the Church must teach her members to trust in God and obey His will even when they cannot understand some teachings of scripture and the Church. As Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Indeed, to be a virginal mother, we must be faithful to our Lord till the end, just as Mary was faithful to her Son right to the end. In this way, the Church, which includes all those in positions of authority, especially parents and guardians, is called to imitate Mary in her devotion to God and to our fellowmen, in obedience to God’s will, and faithful in trials and suffering. Through Mary, we become true disciples of the Lord. Like St John, therefore, we must also bring Mary into our home. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of our Lord is critical in learning how to be true disciples of the Lord and mothers of those under our charge. Let us cultivate a strong devotion to Mary so that we too can be one in union with our Lord in doing God’s will.
Transitions are often hard to live through, aren’t they?
Today we celebrate probably one of the toughest transitions that human beings had to suffer: The Ascension of our Lord. I remember as a kid thinking about this day, and feeling with the disciples, that they had really lost a great friend and source of strength. I also imagined myself in their place and staring up into the sky, looking into the clouds. One of my personal traumas as a child was watching my father storm out of the house when he was angry. So I acutely identified with the disciples on this day.
Now today our family is going through a particularly poignant transition. We have been told by my mother-in-law’s nursing home staff, and by our own observations, that she is in the last stage of her life. She is 93 and has been bedridden for the past nine months. She has also prayed every day for God to take her home. Particularly heart-wrenching prayers to accompany her physical sufferings.
But what did Jesus tell us, over and over, about times like this? He said that this is not all there is, didn’t he? Even as he was ascending, he promised that the disciples would receive some gift in the future. The gift of the power of the Holy Spirit.
And yet, even at these last moments, his disciples continued to show that somehow, they were not really getting the message. “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority…”
But as we watch Irene in her nursing home bed, I sense around the room a true feeling for her that this is not all there is. Yes, there is sadness and anxiety, but as her oldest daughter said, “I think Mom is continuing on the path to her new life.”
You see, time and again in these days after Easter we hear Jesus telling us, “I am with you always, until the end of the world.” It is in today’s Alleluia. It is in the 2nd Reading: “…the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” It is in the 1st Reading: “This Jesus…will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” The Promise. The Prize. The knowledge that while we may suffer today, mourn today, and weep today, that is not all there is.
Yes, Jesus had to tell his disciples many times, sometimes in exasperation, that his kingdom is not of this earth, but also that his kingdom is indeed all around us. Again, this sounds like a Zen koan, “the identity of opposites” as the Buddhist monk and teacher says.
But that is what I was seeing in Irene’s room…her children and grandchildren recognizing that while their parent and grandparent was lying peacefully in bed, there was the realization that this mortal coil was unwinding to a grander and incomprehensible shape.
And that’s what Jesus was telling his apostles. Don’t worry, I may be physically gone, but all that I have taught you will finally be made clear through the power of the holy spirit.
Now I suppose that these people who had close daily contact with the person of Jesus, whom most of them could barely understand, would need an overt presentation of this comforting concept by the physical descent of the Holy Spirit. But we, who have been immersed in this salvation story all our lives, may just need the echoes of the Gospel, the readings, the Psalms, and the teachings of our ministers.
That’s what was in Irene’s room, at least for many of us. We could see her slowly slipping away from us, yes. But the thought was expressed – and silent – that she was going to the promised land and would soon be rid of her constant physical torments.
One final thought for today. This isn’t just a holy story out of our Bible and preachers’ mouths. This is much more. This is a call from Jesus show to the next generation, and those around us, that there is more to come than anything we could expect. “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
There it is.
Yes, the kingdom is at hand. There is more than our physical senses. There is something beyond what we know and see every day. So let’s rejoice! Let’s sing and dance! Let’s laugh and cry with joyful expectation.
But mark my words, let’s all go out and tell the whole world this story. It doesn’t belong just to us who have gotten the message. It belongs to everyone.
Go forth and proclaim the Good News!
Father, help us to proclaim your word. Help us to share our joy. And help us to see your kingdom all around us as we profess it. And may Irene rest in peace.
“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Today’s First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles is from the story of Paul and Barnabas who were spreading the good news to the Gentiles. It comes directly after the end of their first mission.
One of the things they said to the disciples of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch was the quote “I started with hardships.” In Paul’s case, one hardship was that he had just been stoned in Lystra, a town in the center of what is now Turkey. Stoned! And still Paul and Barnabas believed in Jesus and continued to spread the good news, even with the wounds of the stoning.
Let us put ourselves in Paul’s place. A stone is thrown at us and hits us in the arm. Then another in the stomach. As we curl up and turn our backs, more stones are thrown and strike us in the back, buttocks, and legs. And eventually one or more hit us in the head. I have a lot of trouble imagining that. I have never had that kind of beating. But it had to be brutal, since the people stoning him thought Paul was dead, so they dragged him out of the city.
But Paul got up when the disciples gathered around him. He got up!
I don’t know about you, but I’m felled by a cold, in agony over a stubbed toe, laid low by spinal stenosis. Yet Paul was almost stoned to death! I cannot even imagine what he went through. Or what Jesus went through during his passion.
And in the Second Reading, I find what strengthened Paul. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be nor more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” Paul was not living in this world. He was living the world of Heaven, the world of God because the new Jerusalem had already come down to him.
This past week I went to one of my physical therapy sessions. The pain of spinal stenosis I mentioned before has got me in its grasp. And the therapist said to me, “You can’t give in to it. You must move on. You can’t get down because of the pain.”
What? My physical therapist is preaching the Gospel to me! “You can’t get down.” Is that how Paul was handling his pain? He was living in the new Jerusalem. He was spreading the good news. He was loving the people as Jesus had loved him. If Paul is living like that, does he have room to consider the pain? Does he have time to worry about his back? Or the slashes in his skull? Or the bruising of his legs?
“For the old order has passed away.” The “old order.” And Paul and Barnabas have moved on. As Mark says: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” And if I may be a little more up to date, as Jimmy Dugan says to Evelyn in the movie A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball!”
We are not taught that once we become Christians there will be no more pain. Of course, there is pain. This is the world. But we can live in this world, or, as Paul did, we can live in the new Jerusalem. But believe me, I can talk about that, recommend that, suggest that, preach that…but ask me if I have found the open gate to the new Jerusalem. Go ahead, ask. I ask myself that every day.
The answer is no, I haven’t. But I can see it. I can almost feel it. No more death or mourning, wailing or pain. It takes that step through the gate, and try as I might, my feet stumble.
But I have God to lean on, and my patron saints to pray for me, and my community to say to me, You must move on.” I can taste it. I can smell it. I can almost feel it. I can remember what Jesus told us, “I have loved you.” And in the loving of others, I can knock on the gate and be sure that eventually it will be opened to me.
So the answer? I can try to be “not of this world.” I can watch the new Jerusalem constantly coming down to earth, to replace earth, to offer us the way of God. I can work every day to remember that there is no crying in baseball.
Brothers and sisters, as I look into your eyes, I can see a new heaven and a new earth. Talk to me of your love.
Lord, let us continue to look above and move forward, shaking the dust off our sandals and stepping into your glory.