Sermon for the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene July 26, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
One of the worst episodes of Star Trek got off to a promising start. An away team investigates a derelict ship. Making the scene particularly eerie are the crew’s uniforms lying near their duty stations, all covered by the same crystalline substance. The team discovers that the crew contracted a disease that caused all water to leave their bodies; the substance encrusting the uniforms was all that remained of the crew. We all know intellectually that we can’t live without water, but we seldom think about the fact. It’s less than comforting to think that something so simple can be the difference between life and death, but the first Christians, living in the Middle East, understood the necessity and the power of water only too well. And so when Jesus instituted the sacrament of Christian Baptism, the symbolism of water was something his followers understood on a gut level. Water is essential for life, and it must dwell within us, in every part of us, always, more intimate than the air and the food that also sustain us. The water of baptism takes away the old pattern of sin and brings us into a new and enduring life in Christ, an indissoluble bond between us and God.
Even so, we don’t always think about our baptism, the living water that sustains us spiritually for every moment of our lives. The Church reminds us liturgically, from time to time, most obviously when we celebrate the sacrament, and of course by including passages about baptism in the lectionary. But she also reminds us by showing us what it looks like when a human life is sustained by a strong and lively faith, by the examples of the saints. Today we celebrate one of the finest examples of a life transformed by an encounter with Jesus Christ and the decision to love him completely and to follow him with single-minded devotion, the example of a woman and a saint who has inspired every generation of Christians, starting with the original disciples.
Mary Magdalene is a great Christian hero because she was a fearless disciple of Jesus Christ. The root of her courage, the explanation of her unwavering devotion, lies in her first encounter with Jesus. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was suffering the torments of seven demons until Jesus cast them out of her. Imagine having such an intimate, firsthand experience of Jesus’s power and compassion flooding your whole being. Would it not be a lifelong source of strength, a constant reminder of God’s sovereignty and inevitable victory, a touchstone that would reveal the pettiness of the so-called powers of this world? Mary Magdalene responded by becoming a leader of Jesus’s inner circle of disciples. Her fearless discipleship led her to be present at the crucifixion, when most of Jesus’s followers had fled. Her deep devotion led her to follow Jesus even to the tomb, part of his tiny burial party. Her deep faith led her back to the tomb, and to be the very first person to understand that he had risen, and also to be the first to meet the risen Christ, to speak to him and attempt to hold on to him.
Much as we might long to dwell in this moment, as Mary Magdalene herself appeared to want to do, that is not what Jesus had in mind. He gave her a unique commission. Jesus told her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Jesus personally made her his first apostle, the bearer of news so good that it was not only life-changing, but world-changing. Mary answered this challenge with characteristic courage and zeal, setting in motion the apostolic ministry of the disciples that continues to this day.
That ministry was and is more than theology. The Good News of Jesus’s resurrection is confirmation of his authority as the Son of God and his mission of converting the values and practices of the world to love, peace, and compassion. The gift of apostolic faith that Mary Magdalene initiated continues to transform the world. It is the reason why the values and principles Jesus taught and embodied are now the standard of human decency and civilization , even in places where Christianity itself is not widely practiced. The ancient pagan world was a less caring, more selfish place; the oppression of the weak by the strong was broadly accepted as the natural order of things. And maybe it is. But fortunately for us, we are united with a super-natural order in which the last are first, the strong protect the weak, the rich give and the poor are fed. In replacing the “natural” order with something better, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new. United in the sacrament of Holy Baptism with apostles like Mary Magdalene, we live no longer for ourselves, but for Christ; we receive the news of his triumph with joy and in that light we see the world as it truly is, and as God wants it to be.
Every Sunday is a re-enactment of that first Easter morning, with each of us in Mary Magdalene’s position. We encounter the risen Christ and he commissions us to proclaim his good news in word and in deed. The dismissal is not merely a signal that the liturgy is over, it is a call to continue the apostolic mission of Christ in the world, to which we are all commissioned by our baptism, and for which God strengthens us through our baptism. As always, Jesus lets us choose how to respond, though he has also told us and shown us that only answering his call with courageous, zealous faith will give us true, enduring joy. He also promises that he will remain with us, guiding, comforting, and leading us through every challenge we face, for he becomes as much a part of us as the water that gives life to our bodies. He will encourage us to use our gifts to accomplish greater things than we thought possible, and sustain us with hope as the world tries to wear us down. He will also hold us together as one, if we can sustain our humility, for while he calls us all to follow him, our discipleship is fundamentally corporate. United in apostolic faith in Christ Jesus, we can accomplish greater things than any of the saints who precede us. Like Mary Magdalene, we turn to him, embrace him, listen to him, and become his fearless apostles.