A Sermon for 6 March 2016 – 4th Sunday in Lent
A reading from the second epistle of Paul to the Christians in Corinth (from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Listen to this good news not only with those brothers from Jesus’ parable in mind. But also listen for the way God works in us all. . . . Listen:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he (God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him (Christ) we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Last year on a trip to the monastery our retreat series heads to at the end of the month, I picked up a cute little icon in the bookstore gift shop. The icon features slender figures. A bit dark-skinned, with angled faces. One figure in the icon appears to be dressed differently than all the other figures who collectively appear through an opening in a wall with a majestic skyline in the background. Eleven sets of eyes peer at that figure who is dressed differently – in red that covers from head to toe this one who is the tallest figure in the icon. A finger is raised – as if in mid-sentence – and the eleven other figures look on at this one who obviously is talking. Interestingly, the figure at the lead of the pack is stern-faced and holding up a hand as if to indicate no. At the top of the icon, above the people, above that opening in that wall, a rainbow arcs over all. . . . The point of an icon is to tell the story in picture form – initially the form used to pass on the gospel in a world where few were able to read and write. Today, we have the privilege of knowing the names of icons, in case our eyes can’t read the truth the icon creator intended when they wrote the picture. By the way, icons are written, not drawn, though all they typically are is a scene of something in our faith. It’s an elaborate, deliberate process to proclaim a very intentional message. . . . And can you guess the message of this little icon? The eleven in the opening of the wall would be: the Risen Christ’s disciples. The rainbow tells us it’s the advent of a special new day – all creation knows it. The tallest figure in red outside the wall to whom every eye instantly is drawn is Mary Magdalene. The sentence she’s obviously in the middle of saying is: He is risen! Christ is risen indeed! On the back, the icon is entitled: Mary Magdalene Announces the Resurrection.
I’m not sure we think enough about those first disciples during the season of Lent. That is until the dramatic events of the Last Supper where Christ washed the feet of them all and gave the command that they love one another as he loves us. But what about Mary Magdalene and all the others a few weeks prior to that fateful night? Three Sundays before Easter, where were they and how had their lives already been changed?
History hasn’t always been pretty to this Mary of the New Testament who is believed to be from Magdala – so, often referred to by us, as Mary Magdalene. The gospel of Luke is the only gospel to make mention of Mary Magdalene before we get to the events of Holy Week and Easter morning. Luke alone states in chapter 8, verse one: “Jesus went on through cities and villages bringing good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evils spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1b-3). As Mary is the first person named in Luke chapter 8, and as this portion of scripture directly follows the time when Jesus forgave, at the home of a Pharisee, a woman of the city who was named a sinner – though the text never says what her sins were; somehow a Sixth Century Pope took all that, mushed it together, didn’t quite read the text closely enough, and labeled Mary Magdalene – well, you know what they call women of the city who are sinners (prostitutes). . . . For whatever reason, Pope St. Gregory the Great started telling a particular tale of her that ended up sticking pretty well (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, 2008, p. 81). No evidence exists – even in the New Testament writings to draw such racy conclusions about what kind of a woman Mary Magdalene was. If we trust the writer of the gospel of Luke’s account of Mary Magdalene, then we know her as one who presumably Jesus has healed of whatever spirits held her captive – the text doesn’t even make those details very clear. What all four of the gospels do consistently tell us of Mary Magdalene, and her alone, is that she is the only one with Jesus through every step of the crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, and, as my icon accurately tells of the gospel’s record: Mary Magdalene not only is the first to whom the risen Christ appears, she is the first to go blurt out to all the rest who are hiding out in fear that she has seen the Lord! He is risen! He is risen indeed!
The Nag Hammadi scrolls which were unearthed in the Egyptian desert in the 1940s include manuscripts believed to be written by Mary Magdalen herself – or at least recording her perspective of the trek with Jesus all over Palestine, to that last week in Jerusalem, and beyond (Ibid., p. 1, 22). The New Testament, in addition to these recently unearthed treasures, makes it clear that whatever Mary of Magdala saw in this Jesus called the Christ, whatever she experienced in her life because of him: from the first day meeting him on, her life never ever would be the same. She became a new creation. A sought after voice for believers in the early days after the resurrection, though the manuscripts that were unearthed in the 1940s tell of one or two run-ins with Jesus’ other follower Peter throughout the years their paths crossed. One author writes of that first encounter of the Risen Christ on Easter morn: that it is “a powerful moment of pure love” (Ibid., p. 85). In her distress from witnessing with her own eyes the entire Holy Week drama, Mary Magdalene goes and does what those who most love a dying person would do. She stays by his side every step of the way. Even weeping at an empty tomb, she demands to know where her beloved Lord’s body has been taken. When at last he speaks her name, and I quote again that same scholar: “she recognizes him and throws herself at his feet with an ecstatic cry . . . Easter Sunday begins with the energy of this encounter; it reverberates with two hearts reunited” (Ibid.). Nothing in her ever would be the same again. She was a new creation.
They all were. What of Peter and James and John? What of little known to us Thomas, who I once was schooled about by a member of a church I served. She was a devote Christian woman from India who proudly explain to me that her family lineage traced all the way back to the Apostle Thomas himself, as is common in many of the Christians in the land to which Thomas took the good news just a few decades after Christ’s resurrection. If I was taught that in all my years of school, I hadn’t remembered the trajectory of Thomas’ mission outside of the Roman Empire all the way to India. When I did a little fact checking, I found it indeed to be so. If you’ve been to Italy, perhaps you’ve visited the chapel in his honor that contains relics from him that were found in India (www.gcatholic.org/churches/Italy/0164.htm). Or if you’ve been to India, perhaps you’ve visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas, were one of the three known tombs of Christ’s first apostles still exists – that of Thomas, of course. Peter’s being in Rome and the tomb of the Apostle James being in Spain (www.velankanni.in/stthomas.html). All of them were entirely NEW CREATIONS! They met Christ, they followed him, they learned from him, they grew to love him more and more each day, and their lives NEVER, EVER were the same again.
I think that’s what Paul, in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, was trying to say. “So if anyone is in Christ,” he writes “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away” (2 Cor. 5:17). Our love for him – Christ’s love for us really – changes us. How else would anyone of us even know each other? Why else would the path of our lives lead us to wherever your path as a follower of his has led you? Do you think you would deliver meals on wheels in this neighborhood if you never had heard of the gracious love of God, who in Christ was reconciling the world – seeing us as beloved, scot-free sinners to whom God has entrusted the very same message that God was about in our flesh and blood as Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Listen to what Paul writes in that beautiful text about us: not counting trespasses against any, but entrusting the message of reconciliation to us, so that we now are ambassadors in this world for Christ! (paraphrase of 2 Cor. 5:19-20a). NEW CREATIONS! Every last one of us.
Because of him we love the children who come to us on Wednesday nights. We open this building to be a place of communion, healing, and growth for an eclectic array of people from beyond this church who come here as if it too is their home. We feed those who come here hungry. Through your Good Samaritan ministry, you ensure families have heat and senior adults have water to clean and bathe themselves. You love and care for one another and you go into the everyday places of your homes, neighborhoods, and professional lives to live differently because Christ has made you a new creation! . . . I love that those first followers of him come to us in this season of Lent and I don’t know, like me, don’t you want to know more about the wild and crazy turns of their lives because they met and followed and learned from and loved Christ Jesus our Lord? Don’t you want to know their absolute determination, their unstoppable courage, their amazing ingenuity to navigate the waters of whatever culture they eventually found themselves in? I mean, India had to be VERY different from Palestine in the First Century – an exotic land so far away from the place where Jesus lived and died and lived again. Spain was like a land no one ever had heard of back then? What did James do to learn the lingo of the people he met there so that they too would come to know the life-changing love of Christ? We know he did because some of the oldest monasteries in this world began in Spain thanks to James’ efforts. And Peter? He didn’t care if he had to stand before the Holy Roman Emperor himself (which he supposedly did). He was going to find a way to pass on the good news of God’s unending love for us all as we know in Christ. . . . And you know, I just wonder. If they could do it; all those years ago. In a world that seemed absolutely foreign to them, among people who most probably seemed so incredibly different from them; then what about us? Why can’t we? . . . Why can’t we?
HPC: each and every one of us are NEW CREATIONS. We can leave behind the old and continue to forge a future as ambassadors for Christ some-20 centuries after folks first began it. Because it’s God’s work in those who follow and love and continue to learn from the One who revealed the heights and depths and lengths of God’s love for this whole world. We have in our DNA all we need to become what God needs us to be individually and collectively, today and tomorrow, for this community right here in the world around this building where we all come to worship each week. We can do it; for in us, God has made a new creation to be about God’s work right here and right now! . . . I know it’s still Lent, but that good news makes me want to shout already: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! And Amen!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen!
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