Expectation Realized, Love Enfleshed

497442661 image courtesy of Irina Panyukova, Getty Images, click to link …. Gospel of Luke 1:39-55 …. celebrating the ministry of the Rev. Joy Myers ….  

For a long time, there have been December discussions about the place of Jesus’ mother Mary in the worship and devotional practices of the Church. Some Roman Catholics who hold Mary in especially high regard would like to see her elevated by the Church to a new status they call “co-redeemer.”[1] Most Protestants don’t believe the biblical evidence supports such a change, but many still have called for a renewed emphasis on Mary. When it comes to celebrating Jesus’ entrance and exit from earth, Mary’s life and example are worth remembering, they say, “because she was the first and the last disciple to reach out during his life.”[2]

When we look to the four biblical gospels for guidance, we find different perspectives on Mary.

John tells us that Jesus “became flesh and lived among us”[3], but doesn’t speak about the details of his birth. Mary’s appearance in John’s gospel comes in association with the wedding at Cana of Galilee, where she urges her son to help out the bridegroom whose imperfect party planning resulted in a shortage of wines for the guests. Jesus’ responds like the 15-year-old son I used to be when my mother asked me to clean my room: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come”[4].

Mark contributes to the impression that Jesus’ relationship with his mother was not always close. Early in his ministry, the third chapter says, his family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has lost his mind’”[5]. When Jesus is told that his mother, brothers, and sisters have arrived asking for him, he responds with a remarkable lack of warmth, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers!” “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[6]

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary is silent. She is a partner and witness to the birth of the Messiah, but her personality is hidden. We are left to imagine her thoughts and feelings.

In contrast to these other biblical accounts, it is remarkable that Luke gives so much attention to recording details of Mary’s story. We see Mary’s humble response to the angel Gabriel. We witness her reception by her relative Elizabeth who is also pregnant with Jesus’ cousin John, who will one day announce his ministry to the world. We hear Mary’s eloquent song of praise.

Later, Luke continues his story of the early Church by writing the Acts of the Apostles. There we read that in the days following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, a small band of Jesus’ closest followers meet in an upper room in Jerusalem. Luke is careful to let us know that Mary is there. Whatever doubt and despair she experienced in the past, after the resurrection and ascension she is firmly in the camp of the disciples.

When I step back from the biblical accounts, and think what makes Mary so powerfully attractive to so many Christians, I have three thoughts.

First, and quite simply, she is a woman. For the most part, the world of the Bible is shaped by male leaders and authors. In our age of growing sensitivity to the gifts and leadership role of women, it’s natural to have new appreciation for Mary’s gifts and leadership role.

Second, it also seems natural to think a mother has special influence. For example, before I was invited to preach at my home church this fall, the first reports of the pending invitation came through my Mom. The interim pastor had wondered aloud in my mother’s presence about it. “Do you think John would know who I am if I try to phone him? Do you think he might accept an invitation?” For those who have found men to be inattentive or uninterested, it might seem like they stand a better chance of having prayers answered by approaching Jesus through his mother.

Third, I imagine Mary is powerfully attractive because of the steadfast love we believe that she had for Jesus. There is a sense in which she is the female counterpart to the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. She teaches us something central about the character of God: as we say in our Brief Statement of Faith, “Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.”

Nearly a dozen years ago, many Christians were moved by the portrayal of Mary in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Mary witnessed Jesus’ scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers, but the film asks us to imagine what it would have been like if she had. In the film, Mary sops up Jesus’ blood, and kisses his bloody face. As Jesus stumbles while carrying the cross, her mind flashes back to a moment in childhood when he fell. As he cried, Mary was able to cradle him in her arms in a way impossible during his passion.

Reflecting on this scene, John Buchanan retired editor of the Christian Century magazine, once said, “We’re inclined, you and I, to think about our faith in terms of ideas and propositions and truth claims. Mary reminds us that our faith is a response to a love that was expressed not in a carefully reasoned treatise, but in a human life.”[7]

As I thought about love expressed, not in a carefully reasoned treatise, but rather in a human life, I couldn’t help but make a connection to today’s special celebration. I don’t want to make Joy uncomfortable by comparing her to Mary. But I do see in the story of Joy’s ministry some parallels. Back in 2004 and 2005, our congregation engaged in self-reflection and goal setting. We created our own carefully reasoned treatises: a “Study Report of Mission, Program, Staffing, and Facility,” and a “Ministry Plan” with 37 specific recommendations, some of which hinged on the call of a new Associate Pastor. Sometimes, it wasn’t easy to see what that process and paperwork had to do with sharing the love of Jesus Christ. Then, some of the words about love were enfleshed in the person of Joy. There was the day-to-day interaction, the planning and preparation of team meetings and fundraisers, and the living together in the community of all-night lock-ins and mission trips. There was the talking and the listening and the studying and the praying, and, somewhere along the way, many of you experienced love enfleshed in a human life, love richer than the words on the page of a ministry plan could ever express.

I don’t want to make Joy uncomfortable by drawing too much attention to her, though I suppose I’ve already done it. Actually, Joy and I and any Presbyterian minister worth his or her credentials aims at drawing attention to Someone else. Many years ago, I was privileged to serve as the Committee on Ministry liaison when Dr. John B. was leaving Hope Presbyterian in Springfield after a long pastorate. In a tender moment, Dr. B. said, “I know that many of you had hoped I would be here to officiate your wedding, or baptize your child, or officiate your funeral. But, when that moment comes, the important thing is not that I am here to read the words of the 23rd Psalm, but rather that the One to whom the 23rd Psalm witnesses, the Good Shepherd, will be here.”

There’s something like that going on today. Many of you are here to thank Joy, to celebrate Joy, and that’s a good and wonderful thing. But I think Joy will feel most honored to the extent that through her love, you recognize and worship the God who has been behind and underneath her loving relationships with you. May her ministry, like the example of Mary, draw us near to worship at the cradle of Christ. He is, in the words of the old poet George Herbert, “Such a Way, as gives us breath; Such a Truth, as ends all strife … such a Life, as killeth death …. Such a joy, as none can move: Such a love, as none can part ….[8]

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

[1] http://www.markmiravalle.com/uncategorized/09/mary-co-redemptrix-a-dogmatic-crowning-for-the-queen/

[2] David Van Biema, “Hail, Mary,” Time, 21 March 2005, pp. 61-62.

[3] John 1:14.

[4] John 2:4.

[5] Mark 3:21.

[6] Mark 3:33-34, Matthew 12:48-50, Luke 8:19-21.

[7] Van Biema, p. 69.

[8] George Herbert, “The Call,” in The Temple, 1633

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~ by JohnH1962 on December 20, 2015.