Jeremiah 17:9-10 Luke 8:1-3 John 20:1-18
For years my heart has kept time with Mary Magdalene’s. She and I “resonate,” as we say today; she and I are “on the same page.” Now when you hear this, don’t go looking for psychosexual subtleties in me; don’t ask yourself, “Why is Victor so ‘taken’ with a woman who was a harlot?” The truth is, she wasn’t a harlot. For centuries the myth in the church at large has been that she was. Charles Wesley, the finest hymn writer in English and a man of uncommon biblical sophistication, nevertheless penned a hymn (unfortunately) with the line, “Ye Magdalens of lust,” as if Mary’s problem had been nymphomania. Charles Wesley was wrong. There is nothing in scripture to support this or anything like it. Therefore you can put aside all your speculations about me. I resonate with Mary for different reasons, many reasons. Before I tell you why, however, I want to acquaint you with Mary herself.
She came from Magdala. Magdala was a prosperous city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, halfway between Capernaum and Tiberias. The city flourished, thanks to the fishing, fish-curing, and shipbuilding industries, not to mention trading. The city was populated almost exclusively by Gentiles; almost, but not quite, for Mary was Jewish. Jesus, we know, rarely ventured into Gentile territory. Then how did he and Mary meet? We don’t know for certain just how or where or when. Most likely Mary, a prosperous businesswoman, met Jesus as she travelled about on business. We know she was prosperous, since she was one of the well-to-do women, Luke tells us, who financed the band of disciples and supported our Lord himself.
She has always spoken to my heart.
I: -- In the first place I have always been intrigued by the fact that seven devils had been cast out of her. “Seven” is the biblical symbol for wholeness or completeness or entirety. To say that she had been possessed of seven devils is not to say that she was a harlot; it is to say, however, that the evil which riddled her was serious, persistent, and systemic. It infected her wholly, like blood poisoning.
Mary would have had no difficulty believing the Reformation doctrine of Total Depravity. I too have no difficulty believing that doctrine which my Reformation foreparents insisted the gospel of redemption presupposes as surely as surgical heart-transplant presupposes cardiac crisis. Many people, however, repudiate the doctrine because they think it humanly demeaning or grossly exaggerated or simply untrue. Then let’s recall what our foreparents meant by it and what they didn’t.
When our Reformation ancestors spoke of total depravity they didn’t mean that people are worthless, vile, scum to be cast off as quickly as possible. On the contrary they knew that all humankind has been created in the image and likeness of God and can never obliterate that image, never forfeit it, never efface it however much we manage to deface it. It isn’t in our power to forfeit a worth, a dignity that is inalienable just because God has stamped every last one of us with it.
And so far from believing that human beings, fallen human beings that we most certainly are, are capable of no good whatsoever, those who said most about Total Depravity (the Calvinists and all their theological cousins) did the most good everywhere in the world. Calvinists, more than any other group of Christians, were ceaselessly active in education, politics and culture.
When our theological foreparents insisted that all humankind suffers from “total depravity” they never meant that we are all as thoroughly rotten as it’s possible to be. (Myself, I’m convinced that if you and I put our minds to it and tried hard, we could behave worse, much worse, than we do already.) Our foreparents knew that if we all behaved as wretchedly as we could then social existence would be impossible and the world uninhabitable. They never meant that we are morally “rotten to the core;” that the good we do is merely seeming good, only apparent good, only a disguise.
When our foreparents spoke of total depravity they did mean that there is no single area or aspect of my life that remains unaffected by sin. My parenting isn’t sin-free; my marriage isn’t sin-free; neither is my daily work; neither is my interaction with other people.
Our foreparents meant too that there is no single dimension of the individual herself which remains unaffected by sin. My reasoning is warped. (We call it rationalization.) My affections are warped. (I persistently love what I ought to loathe, and loathe what I ought to love.) My will is corrupted. (Even when I know what I should do, I find that I can’t do it.) Since scripture speaks of the individual’s “control centre,” what gathers up thinking, feeling, willing, discerning, as the “heart,” our foreparents meant by total depravity that everyone suffers from the gravest heart-defect. The prophet Jeremiah cries, “The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can understand it?” The psalmist laments, “Everyone has gone astray; everyone without exception.” Our Reformation foreparents simply meant that every last person needs now and will always need God’s pardon, God’s gift of new life, God’s restoration and recovery and reorientation.
In the aftermath of World War II Albert Speer, the economist who became chief economics architect of the Hitler regime; Speer remarked, “If you think that the tragedy which Germany now is means that the German people are different from everyone else in the world, then you haven’t learned anything.” Speer was right. Before we sanitize our reading of history we ought to understand that concentration camps weren’t a German invention. The British invented concentration camps during the Boer War, and in those camps more Dutch Afrikaaners died than perished under enemy fire during combat.
I believe the doctrine of Total Depravity. I have long been aware there’s no “corner” of me that can rescue the rest of me. I can’t think my way out of my sinnership, even though shallow rationalists tell me I can. I can’t will myself out of it, even though the power-trippers and control-”freaks” around me say it’s possible. I can’t feel my way out of it, even though the romantics in our midst think the corruption of the human heart can be sentimentalized away. I am aware that I am wholly, totally, constantly in need of God’s pardon and God’s renewal. When the prophet Ezekiel hears God promising a new heart and a new spirit, I know that God’s promise is my only hope and I had better look to him.
Mary Magdalene isn’t atypical with her “seven devils.” She is unusual, however, in her self-perception. She knows what she is before God. And of course she knows what he did for her in the person of his Son, the Nazarene whom she met and loved ever after.
II: -- I resonate with Mary Magdalene for another reason. Her gratitude impelled her to love Jesus and follow him forever. We should always remember that the one, substantive item which the church has to offer the world isn’t a complex theory or complicated proposal or supposedly sure-fire “ism” of some sort; the church’s only substantive offer to the world is a person, the person of the living Lord Jesus Christ. And this person all men and women everywhere are both summoned and invited to meet, love, adore, follow and serve. At Christmas time we read a dozen times over the glorious text from the first chapter of John’s gospel: “The Word (God’s living self-utterance and self-bestowal) became flesh, and dwelt among us.” This is what we read; but what lurks within us is something very different: “The Word became words, and because the Word became words, we have all kinds of words to spew out, even though no one appears to find our words particularly interesting or helpful.” The Word became flesh, in one man only, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate, resurrected to life by the Father, and now the Father’s gift to everyone everywhere.
Mary knew all of this ahead of us. Her heart always swelled at the name of Jesus. He, not a theory or a formula or a proposal; he alone had turned her life around. Her gratitude for that unspeakable gift which her Lord was for her; this constrained her to love him, adore him, obey him, exalt him, and support him and his work any way she could.
It wasn’t difficult for her heart to go out to him. After all she, together with those like her won to the master, had found him winsome. Jesus spoke of himself as “the good shepherd.” The Greek word he uses for “good” means “good” plus “attractive, winsome, compelling, comely, inviting.” “I am the fine shepherd.” The earliest Christians were attracted to Jesus as surely as they were repelled by the religious authorities. Why weren’t the authorities attractive? Jesus tells us why. “You load people down with backbreaking burdens, and then you don’t lift a finger to help them.”
Backbreaking burdens? Back then? What about now? Two generations ago religious backbreakers had to do chiefly with crushing moralistic burdens. People were told that they hadn’t managed to achieve whatever it was they were supposed to achieve in order to merit the designation “Christian.”
Today the perfectionistic burdens aren’t moralistic; they are psychological. People are told that if they are truly devout, real Christians, they will always have emotional tranquillity (did Jesus have tranquillity in the Garden of Gethsemane?); not so much as one minute (never mind forty days) of anxiety or confusion; never even a hint of perplexity or depression or grief. I’ve heard preachers tell people that “real” Christians are never afraid, never distressed, never stunned. Burdens are added when not a finger is lifted to help.
I understand why people found religious spokespersons repellent and Jesus attractive. Mary’s gratitude impelled her to cherish forever the One whose winsomeness left her unable to do anything else.
Once Mary became a disciple of Jesus, the light which he is shone ever more brightly amidst the murkiness surrounding her. Murkiness? What murkiness surrounded her? Mary was a close friend of Joanna; Joanna was the wife of Herod’s chief administrative officer. Herod was corrupt. Joanna would have known all about political intrigue and institutional corruption; trade-offs between Herod and Pilate; collusion between the religious institution and the state; under-the-table deals and favours and blackmailings; all of this carried on behind closed doors in the dead of the night. Joanna, Mary’s friend, wouldn’t have failed to “spill” all this to Mary. Mary knew how the world turned. Murky as it all was and still is, however, Jesus Christ, the light of the world, penetrated the murkiness and cheered her, subdued the despair that lapped at her, sustained her in her conviction that the light he is will ever be truth despite the corruption which cares nothing for righteousness and cares nothing for the victims it leaves behind.
We know how the world turns. We aren’t naïve. But neither are we overcome by the darkness and what happens in it. Jesus Christ is light. He is always light enough to enlighten us as to the fact and nature of the darkness (very important -- after all, if it weren’t for the light we’d never know that the darkness is dark.) He is light enough to illumine our way so that we know how and where and why we are to walk (more important.) He is light enough to light us up like a lighthouse that helps fetch others “home” (most important.)
It’s our gratitude to Jesus Christ that constrains us to love him and follow him. As we do we are bathed in the light which he is even as we reflect his light upon others. This was Mary Magdalene’s experience before it was ours.
III: -- Lastly, Mary was graced with a visitation and ignited with a vocation. The visitation occurred at the bleakest period of her life. Bereaved of her Lord and grief-soaked as well, she had planned only to deodorize a corpse -- when it happened: a visitation from the One who called her by name and then commissioned her to a service from which she would never shrink and of which she would never be ashamed.
“Graced with a visitation”: we understand what this means, if only because we have read the Easter story in John 20 a hundred times over, the story of the risen Christ’s speaking to Mary and capturing her heart. But “ignited with a vocation” – what does this mean?
Much confusion surrounds the notion of vocation. In the church we tend to use the word for God’s call to someone to enter the ordained ministry or become a missionary or (if we are Roman Catholics) to enter an order like the Jesuits or the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Sometimes we even say (but say incorrectly) that such people have been “called to fulltime Christian service” – as if other Christians were or ever could be mere part-time Christians.
Our perplexity is remedied when we return to Scripture, where vocation simply means call, the call wherewith everyone is called. Most elementally, Jesus Christ calls us into his company simply to be his friend. Once his friend he equips us to be his follower, learner, disciple. Once his disciple he appoints us to be his witness. At bottom vocation is just that: an invitation with the rigour of a summons, and a summons with the winsomeness of an invitation, to become and remain a friend of the Master for the sake of being his witness.
To be sure, within this foundational vocation there may be more specific callings: to be a missionary surgeon in Papua New Guinea, or to teach at a school for blind children in Zambia, or to be spiritual mentor to the 750 men who play hockey in the NHL. But such highly specific, ‘tailor-made’ vocations are always a second order or third order vocation. The primary vocation is Christ’s call to become his friend, follower and witness.
I find so very many younger Christians zealous and anxious in equal measure. They are zealous to get on with whatever God has in mind for them to do; they are anxious because they don’t yet know what God has in mind for them to do. They come to me and blurt, “I’m trying to find God’s will for my life,” exuding an anxiety bordering on desperation. My advice to them is simple: Don’t look for God’s will for your life; learn what God’s will is for anyone’s life, everyone’s life. And then if there’s a specific task for you within this, it will be made plain to you in God’s own time and his own way.
Several years ago a young man who belonged to a Roman Catholic order spoke with the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, hoping to get a sympathetic hearing from her. “My vocation is to work with lepers,” he complained to her, “but the superior of my order persists in obstructing my vocation; he has rules and preparatory work and study and training and exercises, together with a thousand silly tasks and no fewer humiliations, all of which interfere with my vocation to spend myself now for lepers.” Mother Teresa looked the young man in the eye for a few seconds and replied, “Brother, your vocation isn’t to work with lepers; your vocation is to belong to Jesus.” She was correct. Our vocation, always, is first and last to belong to our Lord.
Now it could be that the young man did have as well a vocation to work with lepers. But a vocation to work with lepers isn’t an alternative vocation to belonging to Jesus. We must belong to our Lord first, and if there’s to be a vocation within a vocation, as there was for Mother Teresa (first she was called to be a friend of Jesus, then specifically she was called to the mission field as a geography teacher in a girls’ school, then more specifically still she was called to work with the poorest of the poor); if there’s to be a vocation within a vocation so be it. But we mustn’t wait around for something dramatic while we overlook the foundational matter of living in the company of our Lord for the sake of upholding his truth.
Mary came back to the waiting disciples and primed them with her five-word message: “I have seen the Lord.” She primed them inasmuch as her visitation readied them for theirs when the risen One appeared to them later. While few of us today are privileged to see our Lord, resurrection appearances being rare, all Christians know themselves to have been addressed by him. We know that he has called us. Our vocation has ignited us and for this reason we know that we’ve been ‘lit.’ All we want now is that our vocation will ready other people for theirs when our Lord speaks to them.
Mary Magdalene. Someone whose total existence the Master turned around. Someone whose gratitude moved her to follow forever the One whose winsomeness had melted her heart. Someone for whom visitation and vocation left her running with good news -- “I have seen the Lord.” Someone whose good news has facilitated the calling to Christ of thousands like us who have heard her story.
Mary of Magdala. I have loved her for years.
Rev. Victor Shepherd