Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer of Saints: Mary Magdalene

When we were expecting a child, my wife and I came up with a list of 20 names—some from the dictionary of saints, and others from our heads. We finally settled on Madeline, which is the Anglicized form of the French version of “Magdalene” (though we kept the French spelling). Her feast day is this coming this Tuesday, July 22nd, so I thought we'd talk about her in this summer of saints.

She has always been a popular saint, with many churches and institutions named after her. C.S. Lewis taught at Magdalene College in Oxford (though if you’re in Oxford, you’ll have to ask for “Maudlin College.” It took me about a day and a half to figure that one out.) Contrary to what you may have heard, she was not Jesus’ girlfriend (or wife), and it's very unlikely that was she a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene is introduced in the gospel story in Luke 8:1-3. Jesus “went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out . . . and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” 

She was a rich woman from the town of Magdala, near the Sea of Galilee. She was known as the Magdalene because of her very common first name and she is noted to have funded Jesus’ ministry and travels in Galilee.

In the Middle Ages, she was often misidentified with the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, the context indicating a repentant prostitute. She was also confused with Mary of Bethany, which seems even more odd. Why would one person be described as from both Magdala and Bethany.

The real Magdalene was exorcised and healed by the Savior, changing her life forever. She remained a devoted follower and close to him through the end, being one of those few at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb. Both John and Mark’s gospels say that she was the first to see the risen Lord.

Some of the earliest traditions and commentaries seem to suggest that instead of being possessed by seven demons (possession is predicated upon a surrendering of the will), she was obsessed—or harassed—by seven demons. The Eastern fathers insist that she was a holy and devout person even before her deliverance and conversion.

Just imagine that for a moment, being harassed by demons. Seven malevolent spirits have made it their life’s work to ruin yours—to take away your happiness, your health, your well-being, your peace of mind, your sanity, your self-determination. She was under the constant attack of darkness until she was set free by the light of the world.

Aside from this brief introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, all the other references to her in the gospels come at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When the world turned dark for Jesus, she was there for him. She, with his mother and with John, stayed with Christ through his trail when all the others among the Twelve ran away and deserted him.

When he was being whipped, she was there. When he was mocked as a king with a robe and a crown of thorns, she was there. When he was carrying his cross, she was there. When his hands and feet and side were pierced and bled, she was there. When he breathed his last, she was there. When they laid him in the stone tomb, she was there. She wept as he bled and her heart broke with his.

To be like Mary Magdalene is to be there for Jesus has he has been there for us. In the Eastern Church, she is given the title of Holy Myrrh-Bearer because she came to the tomb carrying spices for Jesus’ burial. She was there to support her Lord’s work with a final gift, but when she arrived, found much more than she expected.

The door was already rolled away and Jesus was not there. Fearing it was one last act of sacrilege, she went and told the apostles. Peter and John came running to inspect the tomb. And it was not yet clear exactly what had happened. When they left, Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping.

Then two angels ask her why she is weeping. She says because “someone took away the body my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around and bumps into what she thinks is the gardener who asks her the same question. She gives the same answer. The joyfulness of the moment simply will not allow her tears to persist. Both angels and the risen Lord intervene to cheer her up.

When Jesus calls her by name, she looks up and recognizes him. Jesus tells us her that this is not the time to embrace, but to go tell others. Apostle literally means “one who is sent.” In this sense, she has been called “Equal to the Apostles” or as St Augustine put it, “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Usually this title is identified with those twelve patriarchs of a renewed Israel,but sometimes we see it used in this informal sense. Paul and Barnabas were the “Apostles to the Gentiles.” Cyril and Methodius were the “Apostles to the Slavs.” Patrick was the “Apostle to the Irish.” James Lloyd Breck was the “Apostle to the Wilderness.”

This is the only case I know of where someone is called an apostle because they are sent to bear witness to the risen Lord not to the outside world, but to the church herself. Jesus said, “Go tell my brethren . . .”

To be like Mary Magdalene is encourage fellow believers with the truth of the gospel: Jesus is risen from the dead; he is now alive, and he is there for you. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. Mary Magdalene, the holy Myrrh-bearer and "Apostle to the Apostles."

Summer of Saints: John Damascene

Perhaps like me, you have watched with growing alarm the Jihadist trail of conquest of the new group called ISIS—the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. It has left a path of destruction from the Syrian civil war to the outskirts of Baghdad in the effort to built a new Caliphate.

They are regarded as especially brutal and callous—murdering without hesitation. They are being very successful at killing the few Christians left in the area and demolishing churches, but those are not their only targets.

Earlier this month in the Iraqi province of Nineveh, the militants blew up mosques and then took sledgehammers in hand to personally demolish the tombs of the biblical prophets Seth and Jonah—which were commonly revered by Jews, Christians, and most Muslims.

But these ISIS Mohammedan warriors ascribe to the puritanical Wahhabist movement, which is iconoclastic and thus vehemently opposed to the veneration of tombs like these or anything that would be an artistic depiction of God, prophets, saints, or any other holy thing.

What you may not know is that this is not the first time that religious zealots have destroyed holy shrines with hammers in this part of the world, and that back then, Christians were doing this. In 725 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III touched off the iconoclastic period when he ordered the destruction of images throughout the Roman empire, beginning with an icon of Christ, to which miraculous powers had been attributed.

Into this controversy came a powerful mother and an old monk name John. He was born in the year 676 in Damascus, Syria, the capital of the Moslem Umayyad Empire which stretched from Spain to India.

John succeeded his father at the court of the Caliph, but was not satisfied and left after three years to become a monk and priest at St Saba's in Jerusalem. He labored long and hard there in the patient work of theology and liturgy, becoming one of the greatest hymnists of the East as well as the last of the early Church Fathers and first of the medieval scholastics.

John’s writings defended the faith against Moslems, and other Christian heretics. He was called John of golden streams because of his eloquence. He was a man of deep learning and simple piety, who wrote and spoke in a way that people could understand.

Iconoclasm fell in and out of favor with the emperors for a hundred years (and with it, periods of legal image-breaking and persecution) until a female regent named Theodora (her name means “lover of God”) would finally end it for good. The Second Council of Nicaea was confirmed and the images restored in 842—an event still celebrated to this day throughout the Eastern Church on the First Sunday in Lent as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” And with Nicaea II, the orthodox, catholic expression of Christianity became “the Church of the Seven Councils.”

John of Damascus was highly praised at this ecumenical council He had picked up on German of Constantinople’s original defense of images back when iconoclasm first broke out, and articulated it well.

German and John explained how the so-called “worship” given to the images was different in kind from the worship of God, but also derived from it. Following their theological defense, the council defined that the images were to be restored and rightly honored.

The Second Council of Nicaea stated: “For the more frequently one contemplates these images, the more gladly he will be led to remember their prototypes, and the more will he be drawn to it and inclined to give it . . . a respectful veneration (proskynesis), but not however, the veritable worship (latria) which, according to our faith, belongs to God alone. But as is done for the image of the revered and life-giving cross and the holy gospels and other sacred objects, let an oblation of incense and lights be made to give honor to these images according to the pious custom of the ancients, for the honor given to an image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerates an image venerates in it the person represented.” 

If John were writing after the invention of photography, he would have said, "Look, if one can take a picture of Christ, one can paint a picture of Christ.” The fact that the divine Word did indeed become flesh is very important. For St John Damascene, matter truly matters.

In his First Apology for Images, he wrote: “In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake; who willed to make his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. . . . God’s body is God because it is joined to his person by a union which shall never pass away. . . . I salute all the rest of mater with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. . . . Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable; nothing God has made is despicable.” 

Speaking of Jesus, St Paul wrote, “He is the ikon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What was seen on the outside it what was on the inside—God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just come to save your soul, he came to save your body—because that’s the real you, the whole you: body and soul.

We must remember also that matter truly matters. The church is not only concerned with the spiritual and the hereafter, but also with the physical in the here-and-now.

People matter, families matter, peace and violence matters, justice matters, safety matters, hunger matters, life and death matters, creation matters. All that God has made, he has also acted to redeem. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. John of Damascus.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Summer of Saints: Becket and More

When I was growing up, we attended the First Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA. My father worked in the sound booth at the back of the balcony in church. So I’d often get to go up with him for the service.

On the back wall, above the sound booth are two large flags—American and Christian. And there is something unique about that American flag in that church. It’s the current configuration of the stars and stripes, but it is not red, white, and blue. It’s red, white and purple.

The flag looks like it’s made of silk, so maybe that has something to do with the reason for the odd color. And I’m not sure, but I think the blue field on the Xn flag is purple too. Seeing those stars on that blueish purple field left an impression on me. Since the only red, white, and purple American flag I’ve ever seen is in a church, it reminds me that America should look different from a Christian perspective. As a people with dual citizenship—in our country and in God’s kingdom—we can transcend the merely secular point of view.

With that in mind, I wanted to talk about two English saints today. That might seem like a strange choice so close to our own Independence Day. But these are two martyrs who became martyrs because they stood up for the liberties of God’s people against the tyranny of the crown—Sir Thomas More and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

More’s memory has (of course) been celebrated by Roman Catholics in England since Reformation times. He was officially canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and he has been recognized on the Church of England’s calendar since 1980. His Anglican feast day is actually today, July 6th.

Opposition to Lutheran ideas spreading through Europe was one of the things that More shared with King Henry VIII. Some have even suggested that More helped Henry write his book denouncing Luther that won him the papal title Defender of the Faith. But then it was religious opinions that drove them apart.

Henry became convinced that he was cursed and that his marriage to his sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon was invalid. The King sought a judgment of annulment from the pope, who just happened to be a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V. So the pope kept putting off a response to the king’s request.

A papal legate had heard the case in England, but been recalled before giving judgment. The king asked why he even had to appeal the matter to a foreign bishop at all. There were plenty of bishops in England who could decide the matter. This led to a series of parliamentary bills which renounced all papal jurisdiction in England and let the annulment be granted locally.

As chancellor, More was the only one of the King’s advisers to oppose both the quest for an annulment and the King’s new title Supreme Head of the Church of England. He hoped to resign and retire quietly, but his hand was forced. As a former high official he had to take the Oath of Supremacy which included the title that More felt not only trampled upon the rights of the church to govern its own affairs, but also intruded upon the law of Christ.

His refusal along with only one bishop (John Fisher of Rochester) was considered treason. Both were beheaded in 1535 for standing up for the church’s rights. More’s last words were, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Another Thomas (Becket) had lost his life in the king’s service for similar reasons. 400 years earlier, Thomas Becket and King Henry II became close friends. Becket was a nobleman and a politician who was also a deacon. Seeing his administrative skills, the king appointed him chancellor. And because he had proved so capable and such a loyal friend, King Henry secured Becket’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The King thought the move would help consolidate his power over church and state. But God began to work on Thomas’s heart after his consecration. His pastoral responsibilities changed him. Becket loved his flock. Instead of being the king’s puppet, he became his bitter rival as Becket vigorously defended the rights of the church.

The feud became so contentious that Becket lived in exile in France for 6 years. He returned to England through a fragile truce which didn’t last long. After grumbling about Thomas, some knights did the king a favor and went to the cathedral to rid him of the troublesome archbishop. Before he was beheaded, Becket said, “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus, and in the defense of the Church.” The king did public penance after the slaughter.

The event helped solidify the Charter of Liberties, and later the Magna Carta, whose first clause is “the Church of England shall be free,” and which enshrined those rights of the church (that two Thomas’ died defending) into England’s developing constitution.

Both Thomases were basically politicians, both chancellors of England, both devoted public servants, both loyal to a King Henry as a personal friend, both had the experience of a growing faith and devotion to God which became stronger and stronger as pressure on them grew, and both, in the end, decided to follow their consciences by being obedient to God rather than to men.

As I’ve said before, it will become more and more difficult in the coming years to be a faithful Christian in our changing culture that is leaving its heritage. Some may even argue that an American that sees red, white, purple on the flag and had pledged to follow God first might love his country less.

I believe that the love of God helps a Christian love his country more, not less. We are people who recognize that all of us are created equal—in the same image of the same God, who gave us the rights we enjoy. Like Thomas Becket and Thomas More, we will not stand idly by and let mere men try to take away what God has given. We are America’s good servants, but God’s first.

I believe that this nation is the greatest on earth. I think America might be the greatest country that ever has been. And if God will give us saints like Becket and More, then God will have truly blessed America.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Summer of Saints: Peter and Paul

Today we begin our sermon series: “A Summer of Saints." It’s a good day to do so, not just because it’s the second Sunday of the summer, but more importantly, because it is also the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul—two apostles who replaced Romulus and Remus as the founders of Christian Rome and its empire. Ordinarily, when a feast falls on a Sunday (even a major feast) it is postponed, but during the green seasons, these feast days may take precedence.

The importance of the pivotal figures cannot be overstated. Pope St. Clement I called them “the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church.” St Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that each of them had special apostolic vocations.

As the leader of the Twelve, Peter was also the leader of the church after Pentecost. Under the Holy Spirit’s direction, Peter welcomed the first Gentiles into the Church. Yet, in a strange turn of events, it was Paul who was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while Peter remained the apostle to the Jews, bringing both together in one Church of Christ—Peter laboring from the inside (as it were) and Paul from the outside.

St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Peter alone deserved to represent the entire Church. And because of that role which he alone had, he merited to hear the words: “To you I shall give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” . . . [because Peter] represented the unity and universality of the Church.”

Paul clearly recognized that leadership and that authority vested in Peter, yet at the same time, as a brother in Christ and a brother apostle, Paul did not hesitate to hold Peter openly accountable—even rebuking him at Antioch for his mistreatment of Gentiles.

These two men began as unlikely heroes. In Mt 16:18, Simon became one of those few people in scripture God whom renamed. Instead of Simon, Jesus called him “Peter” (or “Rock”). It must have seemed like a strange choice, for he was anything but. Simon was not steady and immovable. He was impulsive, hot-headed, unreliable. But Pope St. Leo the Great said Peter was made firm by the strength of Jesus. For God, our future is more important than our past. God did not name him for the simple fisherman he was, but for the great fisher of men God called him to become. (Interestingly, in Rev 2:17, it says we are all given new names one day.)

Paul (who was once called Saul) was not given a new name. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name—a common habit at the time. But Saul, a well-trained rabbi and “Hebrew of Hebrews” as he said, was a persecutor of the church, who by God’s grace became Paul—the apostle to the Gentile world, planting churches far and wide after his roadside encounter with the risen Lord.

Peter and Paul, unlikely heroes who somehow came to labor together for Christ also both ended up in Rome, dying in his Name under Nero’s persecution. And we must point out that both men went willingly to their deaths. Circumstances provided a way out, but neither of them took it, preferring instead to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

Peter’s leadership in the Church took him first to Antioch (where we were first called Christians) and then later in about the 50s to the imperial capital of Rome. The Emperor Nero unleashed a vicious persecution in 64, blaming Christians for the great fire of Rome. At this point, Christians were rounded up and thrown in prison. Some were thrown to the lions in the games, some crucified. And some were burned alive as human torches to light the imperial gardens at night. Those who could, decided to flee the city. Among them was Peter.

But departing by the Appian Way, Peter saw a familiar face on the road. It was of a man who is not fleeing, but walking toward the very heart of Rome. Echoing Jn 13:36, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (or “Where are you going, Lord?”). Jesus responded that he was “going to Rome to be crucified again.”

Jesus had once appeared to Peter after the resurrection, urging him to be a pastor. “Do you love me? If you do, then feed my lambs, tend my sheep.” Peter had once said he would follow Jesus to death, but then denied him three times (see John 13:37-38).

When Jesus restored him, he told Peter that one day, men would tie him up and take him where he did not want to go—alluding to Peter’s death. Peter decided there on the road he would follow Jesus, even back to Rome. Peter was one chosen to be crucified, but because Peter said he was not worthy to die like Christ, they crucified him upside-down and buried him there on Vatican hill.

In Acts 21, Paul was at the center of a temple riot and arrested on false accusations. Because of his Roman citizenship, he exercised his rights of appeal. Years later, the Jewish complaint about the incident had died down and the Romans wanted to be rid of him, but at his own insistence Paul continued to be shuffled around in the judicial system.

At one point, Agrippa remarked to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32). Paul himself said he feels guided by the hand of Providence, but does not know the ultimate reason why until an angel tells him that Paul is under divine protection on his journey to Caesar.

If he stayed the course, Paul could be guaranteed an audience for the gospel. With that opportunity, he could either glorify God by Caesar's conversion or by Paul's own martyrdom. Historically, God would grant both. Paul fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith. He glorified God by a martyr’s death in Rome, with a merciful beheading according to his rights as a citizen and was buried there outside the walls.

Just about 250 years later, the Roman Emperor was led to his own conversion by an event similar to those which changed the lives of Peter and Paul on the road—a vision in the heavens and a message from the Savior of men.