THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES | PART 6 Acts 20:7-12
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
This, the sixth in a series of sermons on The Acts, happens to fall on Mother’s Day, so I thought I would begin by talking about Mary, the Mother of God. My favorite time to talk about Mary is during Advent, when she is celebrated as the Birth-giver: “The Holy Spirit will come on you,” the angel in Luke’s Gospel says, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). All of creation, through the many generations following Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, had groaned in travail, until the Mother of our Creator, the Mother of Our Savior, the Mother of Grace and Mercy, was born and then conformed – by the grace of God – her will entirely to his.
I do not doubt that Mary is the most exalted of all God’s creatures. Regrettably, Mary is neglected in Protestant worship and doctrine, because most of what we know about Mary comes from tradition, rather than Scripture. In The Acts, for instance, Mary is mentioned only once: Luke includes her among the company of women who pray with the disciples in the upper room, between Ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1.14). To me, however, the infrequency of Mary’s mention seems beside the point. We recall that she is now a widow, and widows are especially vulnerable in Palestinian Jewish society. This is why the disciples are specifically instructed to look after the widows in the church. The last we hear of Mary’s husband Joseph, a carpenter, like his son, is when he travels with the pilgrims who go to Jerusalem, at the time Jesus was left behind in the temple. There is no mention of Joseph during the public ministry of Jesus, or at his crucifixion, so we presume Joseph died before then. With the subsequent loss of her son, Mary would have been destitute, had it not been for the provision Jesus made for his beloved disciple, John, to take care of her. At the crucifixion, Jesus tells his mother, “Woman, here is your son”, and to the Beloved Disciple he says, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). Jesus designates John to take care of his mother, but he also designates Mary to take care of John, the youngest of the apostles. Mary would live out her life, after the crucifixion, in the company of John and the other disciples.
The pre-Reformation churches have many lovely traditions about Mary, which are rooted in her motherhood and relationship with her son. Prominent among these is her assumption into heaven. When Mary reached old age, early church tradition has it that she did not die; her son spared her corruption, and she passed directly into his heavenly presence.[i] Ever since, Mary intercedes with her son, on behalf of the church; she has become a mother of us all. When she says to her son, “Remember your promise of mercy,” Jesus comes to the help of his servants.
Why should we find this surprising? In the Song of Mary, we hear her described as “God’s lowly servant,” and then we sing, “God has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55). We hear how Jesus hides himself from the proud, the conceited, and the mighty; but he blesses his mother, and he is merciful toward her: the song says, “God has done great things for her.”
Mary is an example to the church:
- She proclaims the greatness of the Lord
- Her spirit rejoices in God her Savior
- She serves God as a lowly servant
- She is blessed
- She calls the name of God holy
- She fears God
- She is filled with good things.
As exemplar, Mary effects “all generations,” especially the apostles of the first church of Jerusalem, with whom she lives her daily life. She is self-effacing, exerting a quiet, but sure influence, for “with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). The humility of Mary is the virtue that made it possible for her to carry the Son of God and his tremendous Splendor in her womb. After the Nativity, Mary’s humility only deepens, as she raises her child and observes the humility he shows. Mary, the lowly servant, mother of the suffering servant, and heavenly mother of us all: what an example she gives to us, for Mother’s Day. When we contemplate the Virgin Theotokos, Mother of God, we are “transformed by holiness.”
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you:
blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The importance of holiness in the life of the early church is depicted throughout The Acts. The prayer during the selection of the twelfth apostle in Chapter 1 (24-25), and the prayer following the arrest and release of Peter and John in Chapter 4 (23-31), are examples of the whole church turning to prayer, not for individual needs, but for community needs. Mary is part of the assembly that prays in Chapter 1, and the prayer in Chapter 4 has been described as “corporate humility expressed in turning to the Master.”[ii] In both prayers we find Mary’s example. The church serves “God the creator” who is “Master over all his creatures.”[iii] The virtue of humility develops out of the apprehension of our lowly place in creation and our utter dependency on a merciful God.
Holy Communion, our breaking of bread, celebrates this twofold knowledge: knowing God and knowing ourselves. The distinct identity of the Christian church that forms as a consequence of its early persecution includes the central elements of today’s worship: Word and Table. Paul’s sermon and the assembly’s memorial of the Last Supper, celebrated in Troas on the first day of the week, are “prolonged” from sundown until past midnight. Paul’s revival of the youth, who falls while asleep from an upstairs window, testifies to the life-giving power and might of belonging to the family of God (Acts 20:7-12), and gives us confidence, as when we “stitch the day onto heaven,” praying Isaac the Syrian’s aspiration: “O God, come to my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me.”[iv]
In his speech to Cornelius and his friends, Peter says anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:35). It is the will of our Lord that we may all be one: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Division enters the church through the delusions of pride, the sin that opposes the righteousness of humility with greed, self-indulgence, envy, and injustice. The judgments of Ananias and Sapphiria in Chapter 5 emphasize “the reality of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence in the church, and the solemn practical implications of that fact” and establishes the importance of the principle of church discipline.[v] The divine act “serves to remind the community of its call to holiness and its loyalty to God.”[vi] In John’s vision of Revelation, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life” (Rev 22:14).
The Apostle Paul provides us with a further example of holiness. Paul describes himself as “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind” (Acts 20:19), using the word humility to connote servant, as in Servant of Christ. Matthew Henry writes, “The elders knew that Paul was no designing, self-seeking man. [He] who would in any office serve the Lord acceptably, and profitably to others, must do it with humility;”[vii] Gill adds, “Meaning, in the ministration of the Gospel, being conscious to himself of his own weakness and insufficiency in himself for such service.”[viii] In Philippians, Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phi 2:3), and Lightfoot comments, “for St. Paul as for St. Peter the life of Christ had conferred a divine honour upon all forms of lowliness and service, and every Christian was bidden to an imitation of One Who had said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29).
The church is not a human institution. The church is divinely administered by Jesus through his Spirit for the salvation of his people on earth. Perhaps the neglect of Mary, the Mother of us all, in Protestant worship and doctrine, makes the church family dysfunctional. Why would we not honor the mother of our Lord? If we cannot express our affection for Mary, the Mother of us all, how are we to love our brothers and sisters? Do we not expect to see people saved by our testimony? Are we not right to expect people to repent and believe in Jesus? Do we not have expectations of ourselves? On this Mother’s Day, let us put ourselves prayerfully before God, and ask to be blessed by Mary’s example. Let us remember Mary’s humility, and ask to be transformed by holiness. Let us, remembering our own mothers, and how they wanted to be close to us, move closer to Mary, so she too can be near us.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt 19:14). Jesus teaches us to love God with a childlike heart, the same heart with which we love our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. The archangel Gabriel gives voice to the family of God’s love for Mary, Mother of God, with words delivered from heaven: “Rejoice, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with You. Blessed are You among women, and blessed is the fruit of Your womb, for You have borne the Savior of our souls.”[ix]
And all the people said, Amen.
[i] After Mary’s assumption, John moved to Ephesus, from there he wrote his three epistles. John was later banished by Roman authorities, in the late 1st century, to the Greek island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. He was the youngest of the apostles and the longest surviving. John died at Ephesus, around AD 98.
[ii] Darrell L Bock, Acts, BECNT, 204
[iii] Darrell L Bock, ibid
[iv] by Jerome Bertram, Jesus, Teach Us To Pray (Ignatius Press, 2010)
[v] F.F. Bruce, Commentary On the Book of Acts, 1975, 112
[vi] Darrell L Bock, ibid, 227
[vii] Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, Acts 20:17-27
[viii] Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible
[ix] “Hail Mary Prayer” of the Orthodox Church, composed from Luke 1:28, 1:42