Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Replacing Faith with Love

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

This Saturday is the feast of Mary Magdalene, but at St. John's we are celebrating a little early because we do not have a service on Saturday and because this is a feast that we don't want to miss. There's something about the faith and witness of Mary Magdalene that, unlike that of almost every other hero of our faith, invites us to give a part of ourselves to Jesus that we rarely think to give.

Her story is obscured by conflicting accounts in the gospel--perhaps obscured because the writers did not quite know how to express her relationship with Jesus in words. Luke describes her as one from whom seven demons had gone out. Mark echoes this part of the story but only in the longer ending--the part that we're almost certain was added on long after Mark's original account was finished. Some blend different stories together and think of her as the repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair, but there's no evidence of that in the gospel except that the gospel makes it clear that she had deep devotion for her Lord. The only portrayal of Mary Magdalene that is consistent across the gospel accounts is that of a woman who stood by the cross and watched Jesus take his last breath and of the first witness to the empty tomb. No wonder the story got a little mixed up. No words, no story of demon-possession and exorcism, no tale of a prostitute's cleansing tears, could overstate a love like that.

I don't think it's an accident that the kind of devotion that held Mary Magdalene by the cross is the same devotion that enabled her to be the first one to see that Jesus had risen. On Easter Day, our focus is on the risen Lord, and the Magdalene's role in the story takes a back seat. On this occasion, however, we have the opportunity to see how a love like hers opened up the path to redemption that all of us enjoy.

See again the story of Easter through her gaze of love and devotion (John 20:1, 11-18). "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed." According to John, she was the only one who came. And why did she go? What did she expect to see? Not that he had been raised, for the angels and even Jesus himself caught her completely off guard. No, she made her pilgrimage to the tomb because she could not let him go. Even though he had been taken from her, she refused to give up her love for him. She wanted to be near him. She would rather bathe in the agony of her loss than try to move on. To that devotion, in response to that love, God made the miracle of Easter manifest to her.

I wonder whether anyone else could have seen it first. Had anyone else been strolling through that cemetery in those predawn hours, I wonder whether they could have seen what Mary saw. Somehow, I suspect that her unfailing, unbreakable love for Jesus unlocked the truth of the empty tomb in a way that could not have been true for anyone else. Only pure love could make a love like that come into the light of day.

How do you love Jesus? Do you love him when you come to church once or twice a week? Do you love him when you say your prayers each day? Do you love him enough to go on a mission trip or deliver flowers to shut-ins or write a big check to the church? Or do you love him in that way that holds you to the cross and brings you weeping to the tomb? Do you love him with such unshakable devotion that he has to speak to you and say, "Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to my Father?"

If we want to see the risen Lord, if we want to discover the miracle of Easter, we must love Jesus as Mary Magdalene loved him--with that strange love that surpasses even the love we have for friend or parent or child or spouse. We must be recklessly devoted to our Lord. We must set aside axioms of intellectual assent, doctrines of the church, and quotations from the Bible, and simply and purely love the one who is our true first love. Only love like that can bring perfect love into the light of day. May we love Jesus as he has loved us.

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