Monday, August 16, 2010

Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption
August 15, 2010
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA

In my sermon two weeks ago, I mentioned a quotation from Dr. Paul Zahl regarding preaching for him personally, and how he hated it because if he were truly preaching to Gospel, and actually convicting himself in the process the entire experience was a Golgotha in which he was constantly being confronted with his sinfulness and his need for redemption. One of the points he wanted us to recognize was that in order for the preacher to be authentic he truly had to know himself, and part of the exercise true Gospel centered, Biblical preaching was the genuine need for self-examination and acknowledgment of our own sinfulness in order to help connect the message of Scripture to those sitting in the pew. However, the pulpit is not the preacher’s confessional booth. It is not a place for me to unload my stuff upon you all, and for me to work out my own personal issues.

I’m not going to break that rule this morning, but I am going to make a point of self-disclosure. If someone had told me that when I was growing up attending a parochial school affiliated with the PCA, and being influenced by a staunch evangelical priest in Montgomery, that I would be standing here this morning having written a sermon for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I would have told you that you were absolutely out of your mind. For some, that may come as a shock because of my Anglo-Catholic propensities and fervent love for catholic faith and order. For others, you may have grown up in the Bible Belt, and anything that wreaked of papalism or Romism you reject outright, and I had better get somewhere quickly because even mentioning words like the Assumption has already put me in hot water. For some, you might still be trying to remember what that Assumpta-whatever word was that?! Whichever the case may be, I pray that we all might allow what we heard from Holy Scripture a few moments ago to permeate our thoughts this morning, as we seek to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us through Word and Sacrament.

The feast that we commemorate this morning is certainly one that evokes a variety of thoughts and emotions. One thing that we do know about this feast is that there is no direct record of its occurrence in Holy Scripture. We cannot quote chapter and verse that says that Mary, like Elijah or Enoch, did not die a physical death. We do however lean heavily on the teachings of the church and Apostolic Fathers for much of the extra-Biblical material that have remained since the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We read these writings through the lens of Holy Scripture, and where it does not disagree, we are free to believe or reject those teachings. Our own Articles of Religion in the back of the Prayer Book declares that we may freely reject those beliefs that cannot be proven by Holy Writ and not require them as essential elements necessary for salvation.

So what gives here? Why on earth would we put forward something like the Assumption of both body and soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary as something to be celebrated and pondered this morning?

For me personally, I believe that a teaching such as this one should lead us not on a quest to figure out its validity, but into a greater recognition of the majesty and awe of Almighty God. After all, that is the primary aim of mankind – the worship and adoration of our Creator. In my humble opinion, this is the centerpiece of this feast day because it helps draw a direct link between our Yes to God and the Grace that flows from the Godhead.

On All Saints’ Day 1950, Pope Pius XII, declared as Roman Catholic dogma, that “By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, they declare today the Dormition of the Theotokos. Dormition is another word for falling asleep, and they teach that Mary did die a natural death, but on the third day following her death that she was resurrected, both body and soul, and has passed through judgment, and awaits with all the church expectant the general resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come as we say in the Creeds.

What do Anglican say?

Exactly what you would expect we would say – Yes. The official position of the Anglican Church is not one requiring dogmatic assertion to the Assumption of Blessed Mary, nor do we reject it as anathema, or something to be disbelieved. “The Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed statement on the Virgin Mary assigns a place for both the Dormition and the Assumption in Anglican devotion.”

Back to my question a few minutes ago, so what? What on earth does this feast day have to do with me?

I’m glad you mentally asked that question because I hope that this begins to answer those questions.

One of the attributes that can be gleaned about Mary from Holy Scripture is her roles as the quintessential example of what saying yes to God looks like in the face of utter peril. As we usually discuss during the Season of Advent, Mary faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of being found pregnant during her betrothal to Joseph, and his knowing that the child she was carrying was not his. In that culture, betrothal was a legally binding obligation, and to speak quite literally, Mary would have been seen as damaged goods. In the eyes of the world, who was going to believe that she was in fact telling the truth and had not fornicated with another man resulting in the child that was growing within her? The penalty for her unfaithfulness could have meant her stoning to death for violating the sacred bonds of betrothal and her forthcoming marriage.

We have no idea what could have been going through Mary’s mind – all we know is that she pondered them in her heart. In the face of scorn, shame, dismissal, rejection, persecution, Blessed Mary declares, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.” That is quite frankly a remarkable statement. For a girl her age, she exhibits a depth of faith far beyond her years. It is no wonder that when she goes to visit her cousin Elisabeth who is also pregnant that there is a recognition of that depth when she declares, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Mary then goes on to praise God in the words that are said at each recitation of the service of Evening Prayer, the Magnificat that we heard just a few minutes ago.

One of the dogmas of our faith is the belief in the dual nature of Jesus, his complete divinity and complete humanity. God’s plan for salvation was that He would enter time and space and become a man so that one day our humanity might be redeemed forever and we might live with God for all eternity. Part of Jesus’ dual nature was what he inherited from his mother. God showered one woman with unimaginable grace to be the bearer of His Son, and thus the title that has been rightly attributed to her is the Theotokos or God bearer. When seen in this light, I don’t find it a difficult stretch at all to believe that if God were to shower her with His grace when she bore the Saviour of the world in her womb that He might also shower her with His grace at the end of her life and receive her body and soul to dwell with him for eternity.

Whether one believes whole heartedly the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or rejects it outright, we should still see in Mary an example that we all might hope to emulate. This is certainly not something that must be believed as a matter of Christian dogma, and I’m fairly sure that one’s position on the Assumption isn’t part of the entrance questionnaire for heaven.

What we can take away from this Feast day is the example of one woman who walked with and followed her son Jesus all throughout her life, who wept at his feet when he breathed his last, and following his resurrection declared his glory to all the world. That, brethren, as Christian disciples is the model that we all must follow, each and every day of our lives.

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