Walking with Mary Magdalen

This Eastertide, I am doing something I have not done before: preaching a sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles. This is the sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C, April 24, 2022. The lectionary can be found here.

Open our minds that we might hear your truth.  
Open our hearts that we might know your love. 
Open our lives that we might share your Gospel to the ends of the earth.

At the end of my sermon last week, Easter Sunday, I shared an image I have of Mary Magdalen looking back as she leaves the tomb.  She realizes that the tomb is not empty but full of God’s promise, God’s love for all people, and hope for a transformed world.  Jesus has sent her on a mission to share this good news, a mission that we are called to join.  Like Mary Magdalen and all who walked this earth with Jesus before his death and resurrection, we are invited to figure out what it is we do, how we are to be, as people who share God’s love with the world.  It can be a daunting task, this calling to follow God’s Holy Spirit wherever she will lead.  It can be daunting as we undertake our personal faith journeys.  It can be daunting as we discern how to live our faith together, in community.  Daunting as it may be, we know from the Incarnation and the Resurrection that life with Jesus is transformed life, with blessings and grace beyond our wildest imaginings.

Part of the rhythm of our shared faith is that each Easter season, from the Second Sunday of Easter through the Seventh Sunday of Easter, our lectionary omits a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in favor of a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  Although not historical in the way we understand that word today, Acts is a history of the origins of Christianity and the Church.   Through the stories of many apostles (those who were in Jesus’ inner circle) and many more disciples, we hear about the trials and tribulations, successes and celebrations of those who responded to the call to share the Good News with as many as possible.  It is a beautifully compelling story about people from all walks of life coming to believe in Jesus and choosing to allow that belief to shape their lives, changing them forever.

Early in this story, in the second chapter of Acts, is a passage that is an integral part of our faith tradition:

“The devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because it is the first promise we make in the Baptismal Covenant, the covenant we renew each time we baptize someone.  The four promises that follow flow from it.  The five are intended to help us to better understand how to live our lives in ways consistent with our faith, to live as Jesus would have us live.

For the past several years, since at least the start of the search almost five years ago, you (and then we) have been discerning how God is working in this parish and what it is we are being called to do. This is something your Vestry and Finance Committee talk about all the time.  It is a frequent theme of other conversations, such as in Adult Formation and less formally.  It is conversation we all can engage in, together and in our personal prayer. 

The pandemic and then the flood added layers of complexity and, in some ways, distraction that we had no choice but to accept.  Now we are at the place in which we are not quite as unsure or reactive as we’ve had to be since March of 2020, even as we know we need to remain nimble and flexible, which is always a good thing when one is committed to following the Holy Spirit.   So, we are now ramping up a conversation we thought we would be having in early 2020, after we’d spent a year getting to know each other.

This Eastertide, as we pray and break bread together, we will explore what it means to be Church in a sermon series focused on the readings from Acts.  We’ll hear about Peter, Paul, and Silas, Tabitha and Lydia, as well as some unnamed people. We’ll ask ourselves how their stories, which we know are part of our story, can help us to better understand what it is God is calling us to do now. In other words, what does it look like for us to accept the invitation to walk alongside Mary Magdalen?

Today’s reading from Acts picks up in the early middle of the story with Peter blatantly defying the high priests’ orders not to teach in Jesus’ name, i.e. tell the good news of the Resurrection.  He clearly states that as “witnesses along with the Holy Spirit,” they “must obey God rather than any human authority.”  What happened before this point in the story might help us to better understand how the ministry of Peter and those he encountered connects to where we find ourselves today in ways that may be surprising.

From before the beginning of Acts, which is something of a continuation of Luke’s Gospel because they were written by the same person, Peter and others are on a mission that includes the Scriptures that formed Jesus and some of them, praying for and following God’s guidance, gathering, preaching, and testifying to their experiences of God.  In the telling and re-telling of Jesus’ story, they make following Jesus central to everything they do. 

Their mission is not just about telling the stories that connect the past and history with the present and future – they take action.  They actively participate in many “signs and wonders,” for which they give God the credit.  They commit to doing all things for the common good and to helping their neighbors in whatever ways are needed.  They praise and worship God every day.  There are highpoints, such as the many times thousands of people heard or overheard their stories about Jesus, believed, were baptized, and committed to living differently.  There are low points, such as when they are imprisoned or when a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, try to work both ends against the middle with horrible results.

They are doing all of this in times that sound a lot like the times in which we live today.  It seems as if little has changed in the past 2000 years. There is conflict and violence, devasting illness and oppression. There is so much chaos in the world and in the developing Church.  It seems that since the last supper, the apostles and disciples are being constantly surprised and that life with Jesus is not what they signed for, or at least not what they thought they were signing up for.  So, in some ways, little has changed.  What has not changed is God’s love for God’s people, Jesus’ presence with us, or the Holy Spirit’s desire to guide us to new life. Their stories illustrate how the Spirit works in or, maybe, despite the chaos to bring new life.

What the stories of the earliest Church tell us is that remaining grounded in the faith: relying on Scripture, prayer and worship, good works, and active love of neighbor can change the world in good and life-giving ways.  Holding the usual trappings of success loosely, taking risks and acting courageously in the face of deep fear and even threats, opens our hearts, minds, and lives to deeper experience of the abundance of God’s grace in ways that continually surprise and transform.

Though the specifics of the story in 2022 will be significantly different than those of the story from the first century, the basic premise is the same: 

God is God. God’s love is unconditional and unequivocal. 
We are Easter people. We believe in new life each and every day. 
We are people of faith. We believe in the power of prayerful discernment. 
We are people of the Word. We believe in the wisdom of our holy Scriptures. 
We are Episcopalians. We believe in the ministry of the baptized. 
We are St. Stephen’s. We believe in the power of love to transform us and the world.

Won’t you join your leadership and me as we walk with Mary Magdalen out of the Easter tomb?

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

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