Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Virgin Mary is Necessary to Salvation

It has long been a tradition at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge to transfer certain Feast Days of the Church Calendar for observance on Sundays, and that includes the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.  Since I became rector of St. Luke's in January 2013, and with the bishop's permission, we have maintained that tradition.

Below is my sermon from today for St. Mary the Virgin.  I decided to touch on why the Virgin Mary is necessary to our salvation, and how our salvation hinges on the consent of this poor Jewish peasant girl.

When I turn my thoughts to the Virgin Mary's response to the angel Gabriel, it never fails to inspire awe.  Truly, she deserves our veneration and deepest respect.

Mary & Child Icon Sinai 13th century.jpg

"Mary & Child Icon Sinai 13th century" by Unknown - Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: "Die Ikone". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a kid, I had virtually no idea who the Virgin Mary was. She was all but invisible.

In the Methodist church of my childhood, for example, I cannot recall a single time that St. Mary the virgin mother of our Lord Jesus Christ was the focus of a sermon or a Sunday school lesson. We used the Apostles’ Creed on Sundays, so she received a kind of ‘honorable mention’ in our worship. And every Advent we had the largest outdoor Nativity scene in town. But there was never any attempt to directly talk about her significance for the Christian faith and life. It was almost as though she didn’t exist.

The same thing was true at the boarding school I attended. Even though we had mandatory chapel services each school day for the four years I was there, the Virgin Mary never once showed up. In fact, I don’t recall hearing anything about any of the saints during those years.

That’s really sad. For in a world hungry for beauty, truth, moral integrity, and spiritual transformation, the saints provide concrete examples of what it looks like for one’s very being to radiate the love and mercy of God. They serve as role models that can inspire all of us to obedience and faithful discipleship.

Of all of the saints of God, that is particularly true of the blessed Virgin Mary. If we were to name some of the qualities that set her apart as special and unique, we could cite things like prayerfulness, humility, joyful submission to the will and word of God, and absolute loyalty and devotion to Jesus.

It’s precisely because of these qualities that Christians have honored Mary going all the way back to the earliest days of the Church.

And Holy Scripture celebrates the special place of Mary in the story of the Christian faith. 

Both St. Matthew and St. Luke testify to the Church’s conviction that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. The Gospels also tell us that Mary - along with many other women - played a vital role in meeting Jesus’ needs during his earthly ministry. On that dark day at Calvary, as Jesus died in agony on the cross forsaken by most of the male disciples, Mary was there keeping agonizing watch over her precious child. Mary was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit transformed fearful disciples into bold witnesses to the resurrection. From beginning to end, Mary was there bearing witness to the virtues of faithfulness, obedience, courage, and perseverance.

We also know from St. Luke that Mary was the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan to bring Jesus into the world.

Think for a moment of other biblical stories where God calls somebody (usually a man) to do a great work. Typically, the man offers one of the following responses to God:

“I’m not smart enough!”

“I don’t have a good speaking voice!”

“I’m just a boy, I can’t handle this!”

“I’m not worthy!”

Time and time again, God gets an earful of excuses and false humility.

By contrast, how does the teenage, unwed, virgin Mary respond to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah, the Savior of the world?

First, overcome with awe and wonder, she asks a question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answers her question, telling her that God’s power will overshadow her and that with God, all things are possible.

And so how does Mary respond? Does she try to pawn the offer off on to somebody else? Does she complain about how unworthy she is, or how afraid this makes her feel, or how this is something she’s simply too young to handle?

No. Instead, Mary responds with some of the most memorable words in all of Holy Scripture:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Without further questions, without bargaining, and with tremendous courage, Mary voluntarily and completely submits herself to God’s will. It’s an act of courage that forever stands as a supreme example of what it means to be faithful and obedient to God.

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine what would have happened if Mary had said “no” to God’s plan for salvation through Jesus. What if her fears about what her fiancé Joseph and everybody else would think about an unmarried young woman getting pregnant had determined her response? What if Mary had refused to cooperate with God?

Let’s be clear: if Mary had said “no,” then Jesus would never have been born. And if Jesus was never born, if the Second Person of the Trinity had never become fully human, then he could never have died on the cross and been raised from dead. And if the death and resurrection of Jesus had never happened, then we would still be dead in our sins with no hope for life beyond the grave.

Without the Virgin Mary, there is no Jesus. That means the Virgin Mary is necessary to salvation. That’s how critically important her consent to God’s plan was.

Of course, someone might object and say, “Oh sure, Mary could have said ‘no,’ but then God would have found somebody else to bring Jesus into the world.”

But that completely misses the point about the awesome mystery at work here!

The God we meet in the Bible doesn’t force salvation on anybody. Yes, God always makes the first move. But God also respects our free will by allowing us to respond without coercion.

Just as God chose the people of Israel, God chose Mary. God chose a young girl who was an absolute nobody in her society to conceive and give birth to the Lord of all creation. And it was all contingent on Mary’s consent. 

Just imagine: the future destiny of the world hung in the balance between the simple “yes” or “no” of a poor Jewish peasant girl!

If Mary had said “no,” that one little word would have slammed the door shut on the world’s hope for salvation. But thanks be to God, Mary said “yes.” And by saying “yes,” Mary rightfully deserves our veneration and our highest respect.

The 19th Century Episcopal priest William Porcher DuBose put it well when he wrote:

“Christ was born not merely out of the womb but of the faith and obedience of his Virgin Mother.”

In the face of a life-shattering proposal that would forever alter the course of world history, Mary believed God. Even though she couldn’t even begin to understand how all of this would work out, she trusted that God would take care of her. She trusted that God would work wonders through her son. By trusting God, Mary put her life and the life of her unborn child into God’s hands in a way that said, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

Words fail to express the great mystery God has wrought through this willing servant. For in the Virgin Mary’s womb, God came into union with humanity, making it possible for our sins and infirmities to be taken into the Divine Life for healing. And so she who was a little lower than the angels has been exalted far above all principalities and powers ever to make intercession for us. She is the victorious leader of all who strive for holiness of life.

And so it is right, and a good and joyful thing, that we should give thanks and show the deepest respect for the Virgin Mary, whose willingness to conceive and give birth to Jesus made the Incarnation and our salvation possible.


William G. said...

I had the same experience growing up in Methodism, although as you know I went the Orthodox route, although not without developing a major crush on Anglicansism. Specifically what drove me to join the Orthodox was when the Church of the Nativity was besieged and no one in my Methodist youth group was even remotely perturbed.

That said, upon researching the early Methodists, and in particular the very close contact Wesley had with the Orthodox (including being secretly ordained as a bishop by HG Erasmus of Arcadia; in 19th century many Anglo Caolics followed in his footsteps), and Wesley's high Trinitarian theology, I am convinced this represents a degeneration of authentic Wesleyan Methodism. After all, Wesley did refer to Mary as having remained throughout her life a "pure and unspotted virgin", rejecting the more extreme low church view that Jesus had literal half brothers such as James.

I think what happened is that in the revivals of the late 18th and early 19th century, in the US, the Methodists heavily interacted and commingled with the early Congregationalist settlers, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians, the result being a sharp blurring of the denominational distinctions that had heretofore existed. In like manner, in the UK, the schismatic British Methodists, whose mere existence I feel Wesley would have objected to, at least in his prime, closely interacted with other nonconformists, and bea,e to some extent a refugee camp for Anglicans alienated by the increasingly high church nature of the Established Church.

This had the effect of suppressing much of Wesley's teaching. The use of liturgical prayer (for example from Wesley's edited BCP, The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America), the emphasis on the Holy Trinity, and weekly communion, all important features of 18th century Methodist practice , disappeared. I'm working on a traditionalist, read Wesleyan, service book for the use of traditionalist Methodists, and I will email you a copy of the manuscript for your review (we have spoken before in that forum).

At any rate, suffice it to say, Mariology would not have vanished in its entirety in the Methodist church had authentic Wesleyan teaching been preserved.

David Leleaux said...

I mean this with all due respect.Nowhere in the bible are we told that salvation is through Mary. Nor do we need her approval for salvation. Our salvation is by grace and our belief in Jesus the Christ, his blood shed at Calvary, followed by his fulfillment of scripture rising on the third day. To teach anything different is a lie of the devil designed to lead souls astray. While Mary was a pious woman and the mother of Jesus; she was only a mortal woman. We are never told anywhere in the Gospels or scripture to worship her. Next thing we'll be hearing is that Jesus condoned certain hard to control sins.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for offering historical perspective and many interesting points, William G. I'm not terribly well-versed in Methodist history, but sense is that you are right about how things would have been different if authentic Wesleyan teaching had been preserved in areas such as Mariology.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for your comments, David. I appreciate your feedback, but I think you've missed my point. Nowhere do I suggest that Mary is anything more than human. Nowhere do I say that Mary should be worshiped. Nowhere do I make her co-equal with or more important than her Son.

But I do say - and quite strongly - that Mary deserves veneration. And I note that veneration (showing great respect, reverence) is not the same thing as worship (ascribing absolute value). Only God is worthy of worship. But Mary and all of the saints are worthy of veneration. The Bible also is worthy of veneration.

Another priest put it well when he wrote: "Is the Virgin Mary necessary to salvation? Yes. Because if you don't have her, you do not have the birth of Christ. No Mary. No Jesus. Necessary."

William G. said...

Strictly speaking, the penal substitutionary atonement theory presented by David is not the belief of the early church, but originated with Anselm of Canterbury as a refinement of Augustinian theology, and was further developed in a morose direction by Calvin.

While the early church was unanimous in saying that through Christ's blood, we had been ransomed, it was also unanimous in saying that our economy of salvation depends upon Christ taking up the corrupted human nature and sanctifying it, and Mary for her part was a lynchpin in this soteriological model, known as recapitulation, which one finds in all the great Fathers: Irenaeus, Athanasius, who gave us the 27 book New Testament. Canon that is universally accepted, and John Chrysostom, in that she was a new Eve, canceling out the disobedience of Eve through her obedience and pious fidelity.

Lastly one might note that those churches with a high mariology as part of their official dogma, as opposed to the Eipscopal Church where it is so what of an optional adding for Anglo Catholic parishes, have been among the most vocal to object to abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, the ordination of women and homosexuals, er cetera. One thinks here of the Orthodox, Eastern and Oriental, as well as the Roman Caholics, who even forbid the remarriage of divorcees, and the Assyrian Church of the East, which venerates Mary but does not refer to her as theotokos, but rather merely as the Mother of Christ.

It is ironic however that this aversion to Mary among Protestants, many of whom at least ostensibly respect the council of Ephesus, results in them being more reluctant to venerate her than the Nestorians. As for the early church, they loved Mary, as one can tell from their writings, and would be aghast at the belief systems espoused by some low church Calvinists and evangelicals. Father Owen is correct to say that no Mary means no incarnation; she had to willingly assent to bear the Christ. One furthermore should not even ask what would have happened had she said no, for God is omniscient, and suck a line of inquiry will produce only the fruits of impiety and speculative blasphemy.

William G. said...

Lastly, I think a good test for whether ones Marian devotion is deficient is to consider whether one cares, that is to say, really cares, more about Mary, than about ones possessions, such as ones luxury car. It puts everything in perspective when you realize mournfully that many, yourself at times included, have thought more fondly about their worldy possessions than the blessed Virgin.

Doug Simmons said...

Having grown up in the Southern Baptist way, but with exposure to the Roman Catholic Church on and off from an early age, my views on Mary probably fall somewhere in the middle of the possible range. I'm not given to forms of Mariolatry, but I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea of veneration of Mary as one of the "special saints." I do find no reason scripturally to support her "perpetual virginity," however, and have no problem with the idea of half-brothers or sisters (whether along side of step-siblings or not).

That there could have been no incarnation ("No Mary, No Jesus") I find to be debatable, though. At the risk of sounding too Calvinistic, are we really comfortable suggesting that the sovereign will of God, His "Plan of Salvation," could or would have been thwarted by the simple refusal of Mary to go along with the plan? It's one thing to say that in the omniscience of God He knew that she would say yes, but something else regarding the concept of free will to suggest that she had no choice in the matter. What if she had said, "I think not, find someone else?" Would we not then be venerating the "Blessed Virgin Susie" or something?

It is true that Mary is, and deserves to be, venerated because when the Angel spoke she said yes. But it is also true that the Bible that we have is the record of God's interaction with mankind and His special people. Just as we don't know if or how many other people God said "Get up and go to a far land" before Abram said, "Okay," and went (because the Bible isn't interested in all those potential "fathers of the people of God") we don't know what back-up plan God had in the selection of the "theotokos."

Let's be careful that in our desire to honor Mary for her faithful obedience we don't undermine eithr our understanding of God's sovereignty or the free will with which He has graciously created mankind.