Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we prepare to celebrate communion today, let us remember with joy the witness of Saint Mary Magdalene and St. James, the apostles entrusted to announce the gospel. The memory of their words and deeds in announcing the risen Lord Jesus Christ continues to shape our imagination of what it means to be disciples. In this pandemic time, what it means to be a disciple must engage the depth of this world’s need and our own gifts as children of God serving a in a variety of capacities. So as we consider the lives of these beloved figures of our faith, we have been given a memory of two saints who far from being otherworldly folk, are alike us in so many ways. Typically when one thinks of a saint, one images a figure like Theresa of Calcutta whose life is so infused with piety that we can never hope to reach that measure of grace. But I think that completely misunderstands what it really means to reflect on the memory of saints. To reflect on the lives of St. James and St. Mary Magdalene means to see be encouraged to bear witness to Jesus just as we are; sinners and saints at the same time.
To some extent, I think that to some extent the myths behind these two saints lends some credence to the idea that we can never be like them; never be saints. Take the story of the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella. After the death of St. James, two of his disciples took his body to the Northeastern corner of Spain and there buried him. Centuries later, folks walked along what is now known as the via de Santiago de Compostella in order to encounter the sacred presence of St. James buried there. While I do think that pilgrimages do serve a spiritually purgative function, the story of St. James here seems to highlight this disparity between saintliness and our discipleship. Or let us consider the life of St. Mary Magdalene as the church has considered her over the centuries. From the early church to the present time, folks have considered Mary to be the antithesis of natural virtue. She has been depicted as a demon possessed women who was a prostitute but reformed her life. She’s consider the model for hospital systems throughout the world. And yet I get the impression that the church, in particular the male hierarchy throughout the centuries, did not know what to do with St. Mary Magdalene as a preacher of the gospel. Rather than acknowledge her calling, history has shown that men like Gregory the Great preferred to have her not as a disciple but as an object of constant reform; she’s always the sinner, seldom the saint. And so this question of what it means to be a sinner and saint seems to obscure the discipleship these two saints lived. Ultimately, it obscures how we ought to see our own discipleship as bearing witness to the God who in Christ meets the world’s deepest needs.
In today’s first reading, one does not easily see St. James’ discipleship. Rather, we hear a story of a crowd-pleasing ruler who put to death one of the leaders of the church. It seems like an open and shut case then of capriciousness meets power. But let us consider the life of St. James up to this point in the story. Called by Jesus by the shore of Galilee, St. James and his brother John were tenacious fisherman known by the moniker, the Sons of Thunder. With Peter alongside them, these two sons of Thunder followed Jesus everywhere in his ministry and were a part of the company of apostles who saw the risen Lord. But there is one story in particular that sheds some light as to the type of disciple James was at his death. Mark relates in his Gospel that after Jesus announced his death a third time, James and John asked Jesus that if he would make them the head honchos in his kingdom. So Jesus asks them would you be willing to drink the cup that I drink and that baptism by which I will be baptized; essentially are you willing to lay down your lives for others? They agree and Jesus likewise predicts the same. James would die but he would die in service to others.
Of course, I do not advocate martyrdom as a form of discipleship but there is much to learn about James’ discipleship. In his tenacity, he served others to the point of losing his life. Discipleship has this tenacious character in that as one begins to understand the great need of folks, one begins to see that it takes a rigorous individual to bear witness to God’s life giving grace in Christ. For many of us here, the idea of being tenacious seems to be associated with being boisterous like a street preacher one sees on the television. But again look at the text. St. James isn’t boisterous in his discipleship but understands that God’s grace meets human needs with human hands and minds. Your minds and our minds. Your convictions and our conviction. All of these serve our neighbor when we in conviction bear witness to the God who is for those who are in deep need around us.
In today’s Gospel, one see the complexity of the person of St. Mary Magdalene as she wrestles with grief and announces the gospel with joy. For many of us, this depiction of St. Mary Magdalene describes our own experience of having lost a loved one. When she encounters the empty tomb, it seems as if Jesus’ death was not only consummate but insignificant to the wider world. Someone must have taken his body. Someone must have stolen it and taken it elsewhere. Her search for the Lord’s body isn’t one of an other worldly saint but it is so close to our hearts as if we took are weeping with Mary. Jesus has to call her by her name, he has to name her experience order for her to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Her discipleship here is not one of the inconsolable friend but of the one who is searching out for her beloved companions. How many people today are doing the same and yet being unable to be consoled by the presence of their loved ones; the final words of grace? Yes the very life of Mary here is a form of discipleship for us who suffer grief and loss at this time of pandemic. How are we naming those people and acknowledging their suffering? This, my siblings in Christ, is discipleship. This is pure grace and gospel for those in great need. Announcing the Gospel isn’t just me here at the pulpit. It is you speaking Jesus’ tender words to those like Mary Magdalene.
But her discipleship does not end there. She is called and sent to proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is going to ascend in heaven that we may have the Spirit of truth to guide and comfort us. And in this account, her story ends on an uncertain note. How did the men receive her witness? The gospel of Luke shows us that they dismissed her and the other women. If only they understood that without the discipleship and call of Mary, there would be not proclamation of the Risen Lord Christ. Upon the pillar of Mary and the countless other women leaders, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, pastors, bishops and teachers, stands the proclamation that gives life and healing to those in great need. Who are the women in your life that have proclaimed and continue to proclaim to you the life-giving grace of God in Christ? When did you first hear the great exclamation of Mary, “I have seen the Lord,” as grace to you? As we consider what it means to be a disciple of Christ, bearing witness to his life-giving grace, let us continue to lift the lives and the witnesses of women who today are