Detail of St. James the Apostle by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1655, via Wikimedia Common
Saint James the Apostle
July 25, 2017
I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of the readings from Matthew and Acts for this day. It is in Matthew that we hear of the desire of the mother of James and John – and I am guessing she is speaking her sons’ desire too – that they be given places of honor next to Jesus. It is in Acts we learn that James is martyred at the hands of Roman power exercised through the person of Herod Agrippa. So James did indeed drink of the cup from which Jesus drank, but certainly it was not for what he or his mother was asking.
Ambition within a community, even a community gathered around Christ, is not unknown, but it is not Jesus’ way. He models a leadership style of the self-offering of the servant which ushers in true freedom. In the Collect for Peace from the Daily Office we pray, “…to serve you is perfect freedom.” This freedom which comes from being bound to service to another is a paradox. It is not unlike a kite, which when tethered to a string is able to live fully into its “kiteness,” that is, to be truly free to fulfill its purpose to fly and drift with the wind. If one was to cut the string, in a misguided attempt to set it free, it would come crashing to the ground and no longer do what it was created to do. Oddly, human beings often mistake the way of destruction for freedom.
Obedience is not a popular concept in today’s world. Yet, when we make baptismal promises, or take vows in ordination or in marriage, we are making promises of obedience not because it restricts our freedom, but because in giving ourselves to these promises we are set free to be and become who God has created us to be. The ordained deacon is called to be the icon of such obedient service, thereby calling all of the baptized to this vision of faithful living. Baptism is, if you will, our expulsion from slavery in Egypt, an old way of life that destroys and diminishes, into the exodus of moving with and toward God. All along we are invited to feed on the manna of Eucharist freely given, indeed to drink the cup Jesus drank in our desert journey leading us home.
Part of what we celebrate in the person of James the Apostle is his grounding in service to Christ that moved beyond the desire for power to the deeper place of servant. It set him free to where he could offer even his life in joyful service to God and God’s people. Christ offers this freedom to us all.
Mary Magdalene in a a detail of a 14th-c. painting in the Basilica di San Nicola da Tolentino, Italy, via Wikipedia
Saint Mary Magdalene
July 22, 2017
When one reads the scriptural record of this woman of faith, the negative ascriptions given to her over the centuries are quite astonishing, even puzzling. One wonders if there is not some kind of latent sexism at play here.
First, there is the common misconception that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Nothing in the Bible indicates that this was so. The city of Magdala was an important shipbuilding and trade center in its day and history indicates it had an unsavory reputation. Guilt by association does not necessarily apply, however.
Then there is the word “maudlin,” which is an alteration of the word “Magdalene,” from the practice of depicting her as a weeping, penitent sinner. Well yes, John’s Gospel does indicate that she wept at Jesus’ tomb when his body was found to be missing, a perfectly appropriate grief reaction to my mind. She also was healed by Jesus of some kind of spiritual and/or physical illness. But the definition of maudlin as “weakly and effusively sentimental” is a completely unfair characterization when it comes to Mary. Her story would indicate quite the opposite.
Mary Magdalene travelled with Jesus and supported the mission financially. She went with others to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body and in John’s account, was the first witness to the resurrection. The Eastern Church regards her as the equal of an apostle. Even more stunningly, it was Mary Magdalene who was present at the crucifixion after all of the other disciples had abandoned Jesus to save their own hide. I understand why the disciples ran. My point is that Mary of Magdala did not run, but chose to stay at the risk of her life. Her devotion to Jesus is unquestionable. After the resurrection the disciples went back home, but Mary “…wept and remained standing outside the tomb.”
What are we afraid of here – intimacy? Is it that the man Jesus seems to have had a close, loving relationship with an empowered woman as a disciple and it makes us nervous? Whatever the source of anxiety may be in the historical record surrounding her, it is important that we see in Mary Magdalene a person of strength who never stops her seeking of the Christ in his life or in his death. Gregory the Great said that “She longed for him whom she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him.”
We tend to find what we are looking for, positively and negatively. Mary was looking for Jesus and in her seeking heard her name called by the Savior of the world. Who was seeking whom? It is in our seeking that we are found.
July 4, 2017
The observance of this day on the Church’s calendar was born out of differences of perspective. Although lessons and prayers were appointed for a national observance in the Proposed Prayer Book of 1786, they were deleted by the General Convention of 1789 in deference to the majority of the clergy who had remained loyal to the British crown. Not until the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1928 was it restored.
For me a tension continues. I must confess that any time the life of prayer, worship and Scripture are aligned too closely with national desire I get nervous. I find that renditions of the flag of the United States printed on a page leaf in the front of a Bible especially troublesome. Such approaches too often cross the line into nationalism, an idolatry that blurs the distinction of the sovereignty of God and national purpose as if one is equal to the other. Deuteronomy 10:20 appointed for today says, “…him alone shall you worship.” Failure to be clear about this is pointed to through the work of The Southern Poverty Law Center. The alarming proliferation of extremist nationalist groups in the United States quoting the Bible and spewing racist, misogynist and intolerant hatred is well documented.
Please do not misunderstand. I am a patriot and am grateful that I am a citizen of the United States. As I travel I thank service men and women for their offering when I see them in airports. At the same time, I am very clear that the United States enjoys no favored position with God compared to any other country, people or tribe. The Collect for the Day asks of God that we “may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.” There is a proper place for grateful hearts for the sacrifices made to secure our land from tyranny and oppression. When at our best, we have been an example of liberty to many over the last 241 years.
Yet we also need to hear faithful and prophetic critique when what we do as a nation is in conflict with the Gospel, and be willing to confess our sin when we are the source of oppression. As disciples of Christ and yet citizens of a nation, what does loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and loving the stranger in our midst (Deuteronomy 10:19) look like in national policy? These are not small questions.
I was present for a poignant moment a few years ago when the United States was pondering going to war with Iraq. A bishop from another part of the Anglican Communion said, “I hope for the day that the words ‘God bless America’ are a prayer rather than a war cry.” May we be blessed, not for the gain of special status, but to be a blessing for the world.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.