Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Yesterday was the Feast of Mary Magdalene, one of the most important figures in the New Testament. This congregation knows that she was the first to speak the Gospel, the good news of the Resurrection. But she was also one of the few disciples to accompany Jesus at his crucifixion: all the men abandoned him. Tradition holds that she was a prostitute until she met Jesus, but this is false. Instead, we first meet her in the eighth chapter of Luke, just before Luke starts his version of the parable discourse we’ve been reading in Matthew. In fact, just before Jesus gives the parable of the sower, he casts seven demons out of Mary Magdalene. Jesus healed her, and she followed him, together with many others, from lowly fishermen to King Herod’s courtesans. And, if the Gospels are any indication, her testimony of Jesus’s resurrection may also have been one of the first recorded instances of mansplaining: He is risen! she says to Peter, who then says, “You don’t know what you saw.”
Paul has been speaking to us over the past few weeks about life in the Spirit and death in the flesh, the law of the Spirit freeing us, the law of death killing us. Paul will also talk about being captive to sin or captive to God, captive to death or captive to the life God gives. You can see this in Mary’s own story, and the sufferings she has had to endure. I don’t know what she must have thought about her social status when she was finally freed from her demons, but I imagine she felt and unbelievable degree of freedom, which she promptly attributed to this man from Galilee. I am also willing to bet that she felt her freedom increase as she followed him. I am willing to bet that seeing him die could have been more crushing than getting possessed by eight demons, and I believe that nothing could ever compare to that moment when she saw his face in the garden and recognized him as Lord.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us,” Paul writes. I think Mary would agree with this. And I think they both would not hesitate to witness to us, to tell us what it means to be children of God: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’, it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and join heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Everything in Paul finds its meaning in the cross—the suffering of our lives, the glory of dying with God.
Now, it’s important to know that Paul here is not simply talking about meaningless suffering, if there is any such thing. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man very much acquainted with suffering and the darkness of depression and despair once wrote:
My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation.
In those last sentences, King quotes Paul, the theologian of suffering, that the cross is the stumbling block to the wise and the strong of the world. And yet there is something that happens to people like King and Paul and Mary Magdalene, the people whose suffering comes from their discipleship. The cross comes to meet each of them in their suffering, just as the cross comes to meet each of us in our own suffering to transform pain into meaning. The great pastor Henri Nouwen asked, “Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?” To that question, even God said, “I shall take away suffering by entering it.” The cross gives meaning even to suffering—to suffer on account of the cross is to be part of the redemptive work of God. Martin Luther said that one of the marks of the church is that it suffers—not for just any reason, but for the life of the world.
Unearned suffering is redemptive, King said. I think he means something like the weeds and the wheat. How that wheat must have suffered, growing together with the weeds. They would have become a bad crop, stunted, yielding less than their counterparts in other fields. The weeds flourish, the wheat fades. But the wheat grows to bear fruit. The weeds—in the parable at least, not biologically speaking—serve only themselves. They’re takers. And so the angels sift them out.
The Spirit of God screams from us like the spirit of Christ screaming from the cross—“Abba! Father.” As God’s adopted, we name God as Christ, God’s son, did. The Holy Spirit hearkens to the Father as it broods over the waters, as it moves in our time and place. It cries within you when you pray in the midst of your trials. It is gives you every ounce of strength you need and more, because the sufferings of this present world are nothing compared to the love of God who redeems it. Amen.
Reverend John Flack