As I mentioned last week, I attended Sunday morning services at St. James’ Piccadilly in London a fortnight ago.
On the surface the church is quite different from St Paul’s. It is a magnificent neo-classicistic stone building designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century. But as soon as you look past the architecture, you discover people that very much resemble the people here at St. Paul’s: And just like here, there are amazing, faithful, and awesome folk at St. James Piccadilly: Folk like the five people, who slept in the pews overnight, because there was no other place in one of the richest and most expensive cities in the world. Folk like the deeply religious elderly lady that knelt next to me, her prayer palpably powerful and world-changing. Folk like the blue-haired woman in the front pew whose colourful dress spoke of God’s laughter and God’s rainbow in the sky. Folk like the two young women chatting nervously before the service as this was their first time in a church in a long while. Folk like the gay bear two rows behind me singing with a bass that could be felt in every fibre of your being. Folk like the young family who had chosen wisely to raise their young child in the love of God by joining this diverse community of faith. Folk like the middle-aged man, who obviously didn’t attend the 11am service, but rather the 11:12am service. Or folk like the transgendered woman who invited people to join her in a discussion group.
Yep, this could have easily been a Sunday here at St. Paul’s.
I smiled realizing that the Spirit of God, who acts and moves so powerfully among our wonderful and crazy community, also acts and moves powerfully among the wonderful and crazy community of St. James’ Piccadilly.
There was one difference, though: There were two priests that morning up front. And both of them were women! And it was lovely and powerful and Spirit-filled and deeply uplifting.
The sermon was preached by Mother Lindsay Meader, who focused on the Epistle reading of the day, the same reading you would have heard here at St. Pauls two weeks ago. And of course you all remember, right?
Well, let me remind you: It was a text from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
Paul’s interaction with the church at Corinth had been a bit strained. He even had to justify himself, making sure that the Corinthians weren’t thinking he was on a big ‘ole power-trip. So he insisted that he was merely doing Christ’s bidding. He was no better person than anyone else. In fact, he was flawed. Half way through the pericope we hear Paul write and I quote:
On … my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. … But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.
A thorn was given me in the flesh. What a powerful image!
Lindsay, the preacher, and I joked about this image afterwards, because St. James’ is a bit of a thorn in the flesh of the Bishop of London as they openly affirm the diversity of God’s rainbow people. And I believe we here at St. Paul’s are a bit of a thorn in the flesh, too, not so much of our own bishop, but of other bishops, and of many out there in the church.
And this is a good thing. In fact, it is an excellent thing. Being “a thorn in the flesh” is a characteristic that is fundamental to the church’s identity: We are supposed to be a thorn in the flesh of the powerful and mighty, the self-indulgent and self-centred, the ignorant and careless, the heartless warmongers and scrupulous profit-seekers, the cocky and entitled, and we are supposed to be a thorn in the flesh of cynical atheists and know-it-all religionists. It’s what we supposed do and who we supposed to be.
And this is exactly why we today celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene, who was a major thorn in the flesh of so many.
And she continues to be.
Mary Magdalene had been a follower of Jesus from almost the get go. Like the 12 disciples she had recognized that something special was unearthed in the life and teachings of this itinerant preacher. In fact, she trusted, believed, and understood that the love of God was fully, compassionately, uniquely, and abundantly revealed in Jesus, who paid her a lot of attention and placed her in a position of leadership.
Yet, she wasn’t supposed to be so important – at least not according to those who were in power, who had something to say in the world and in the religious establishment. After all, she was a woman, a mere woman, something less than a man, something less than Peter, James, and later Paul.
Still, unlike the supposedly strong men, this “feeble woman” together with other “feeble women” did not run from the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. And Mary Magdalene, who was supposedly tainted by her gender, was the first, the very first to encounter the risen Jesus.
Not so feeble anymore, eh?
The risen Jesus chose to show himself first to a woman, chose to reveal first to a woman that the divine love cannot be killed and buried and done away with. How this must have irked the protagonists of a patriarchal society and church! Through Mary Magdalene God really disturbed the waters. Yet, the waters needed to be disturbed, because these waters, these exclusive, male traditions drowned life and suffocated those on the margins – and not just them.
Yes, Mary Magdalene became a thorn in the flesh of powerful men reminding them who they are, whose they are, and whom they had to serve.
An apocryphal story lets Mary Magdalene even travel to face the Emperor. And she put him in his place as a creature not at all at par with the Creator, who is Lord of lords and King of kings. And even though this story most likely never happened, it speaks of how this woman became a prophetic voice in the church. She was equal to the apostles, in fact, she was an apostle and bishop in her own right.
Mary Magdalene was a thorn in the flesh in a male-dominated world. And her prophetic voice still urges us on today to become thorns in the flesh of all those who shut out God’s prodding and urging, those, who want to silence God’s compassion, God’s reconciliation, God’s justice and peace, those, who chose to ignore the majesty of God. We are called to be like her: to remind the world who we are, whose we are, and whom we have to serve. The community of the faithful is called to be a thorn:
- A thorn, for example, in the flesh of developers here in BC. After mud and water buried lives and livelihoods, we will comfort the afflicted and embrace those who suffer. But we must also ask hard questions about our encroachment onto nature and our mindlessness in dealing with creation.
- Or a thorn in the flesh of politicians and those enjoying societal apathy in the wake of the shootings in Colorado. The victims have a special place in the heart of God and in the ministry of the church. But our doors must also remain open for the perpetrator and his family and we must challenge the current lack of gun control, must witness to our interdependence as members of the human family, and must strongly decry any attempt to call this heinous crime a “divine retribution.”
- Or a thorn in the flesh of an established church that maintains that things are going well, when in fact we are in danger of losing our soul to agendas, to infighting, and to one-sided interpretations of the Gospel. God became one of us in Jesus not just to save souls for eternity and equally not just to promote justice and peace. It’s not about either or, it’s about both and.
These are but three examples. There are many more. Whenever people get too complacent, too smug, too self-centred, too removed from God’s will we must voice objection, must become a thorn.
And this includes our own lives too!
At this point I must confess that I was very selective in quoting from 2 Corinthians. I left out the part where Paul describes his thorn, whatever it was, as “a messenger of Satan to torment me.”
Now, I must stress that I am not implying that Mary Magdalene was “a messenger of Satan to torment.” Not at all! In fact, the stories that turn Mary Magdalene into a prostitute not only are non-biblical, but I believe they were invented to discredit her and to remove her from her rightful place amongst the hierarchy of the early church.
No, Mary Magdalene was a beautiful and a strong woman.
And yet, because she was woman, she was seen as weak, because men denied her access to leadership.
But God chose her, chose her not despite of her “weakness,” but because of it.
And this is exactly of what Paul speaks. He experienced his thorn, his weakness as a torment, as something that made him unworthy and ineffective. And yet, God chose him because of it. Paul furthermore wrote: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Power is made perfect in weakness.
This could also have been Mary Magdalene’s motto, who rebelled against the role forced upon her by a patriarchal society, a role that considered her weak. Instead she embrace this supposed weakness as the beauty God intended for her, a beauty that was of equal statue, equal value, and equal status as those of her male co-apostles.
Power is made perfect in weakness.
Mary Magdalene reminds us that God doesn’t look at us the way we or others do. But God looks at us and sees the image of God reflected back. God calls us his beloved children, not despite of our weaknesses, but because of them. God smiles at us, at you and at me, and then offers us in Jesus a brother who will lead us from death to life, just like Mary Magdalene.
And to remember this over and over again is well worth having a thorn like Mary Magdalene stuck in our flesh.