During Christmastide (December 24, 2015 – January 6, 2016) my scripture reading and prayer led me to spend much time thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think it’s unfortunate that the Protestant tradition pays so little attention to her. We tend to focus our attention much more on the twelve men who accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him. The gospel writers list their names. Particular attention is given to the three who comprise Jesus’ inner circle: Simon Peter and the two brothers, James and John. Mary and the other women are given more tangential roles by the gospel writers. We need to remember they were also part of the community of disciples who followed Jesus. We also need to remember the women are the disciples who stayed with Jesus while he suffered and died on the cross. They were the first to discover the empty tomb, encounter the risen Christ, and report the incredible news of the resurrection to the eleven men.
Reading the lessons for the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmastide convinced me Mary is the first disciple of Jesus Christ. In fact, I think Mary has much to teach us about discipleship.
First, Mary had the benefit of knowing her son is God’s son. This news was brought to her by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38). She is an ordinary young woman with no social standing from a remote region of the Roman Empire. At first she questioned the angel. After listening to his assurances, and that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived in her old age, Mary accepted the news and gave herself to God’s mission: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s response brings to mind the promises made at baptism. She gave herself to God’s purpose without reservation.
Like Mary, Christians, and people seeking to become Christian, have the benefit of knowing who Jesus is. They know he is God’s son, the second person of the Trinity, the Lord of the universe, and King of kings. The Twelve did not have the benefit of this knowledge when they responded to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.”
Second, Mary gave her whole self to God. She believed the promises given by Gabriel. Her belief led her to give her body to God’s mission. She felt her body change as the infant Jesus grew within her womb. This brings to mind the words of Charles Wesley in a hymn describing the nature of discipleship that culminates with “forms the Savior in the soul.” For Mary the Savior was formed in her womb and her soul. Her entire self, body, mind, emotions, and spirit helped to give birth to God’s Son.
Mary’s experience tells us that discipleship is much more than intellectual assent to belief in Jesus, doctrines, or creeds. Belief is certainly important. But on its own belief is not faith, which is the gift of a relationship with the crucified and living Jesus Christ. Faith involves the whole self: body, mind, and soul. Christian faith is necessarily relational and incarnational. This is what John Wesley meant when he wrote “…there is no holiness but social holiness.” Relationship requires physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual participation. Discipleship is a relationship with the living Christ that requires your whole self: body, mind, spirit.
Third, Mary was changed. Ask any woman who has given birth and she will tell you that the experience of pregnancy and childbirth changed her in multiple ways. The most obvious change is the physical. But women also experience emotional and spiritual changes during and after pregnancy. Her life after childbirth is different than it was before. This is obvious. Before she was singular. Now she is a mother, with all the responsibilities that come with motherhood. Before pregnancy and birth Mary only had to care for herself. Afterward she was responsible for caring for her baby and herself. Her life and her identity were transformed by God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Discipleship also changes a Christian. Your sins are forgiven. God’s love brings a relational change when you accept God’s acceptance of you. Christ crucified and risen welcomes you into life in God’s household as a citizen of God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit works in you to equip you to walk with Jesus and join his mission in the world. The Spirit helps to form new habits and attitudes that reflect the way of Jesus. John Wesley called these “holy tempers.” The Apostle Paul called them “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The Spirit also gives you a community that promises to surround you with love and forgiveness, to help you grow in your trust of God and be found faithful in your service to others. They promise to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way of Jesus. When a person who does not know Jesus encounters a disciple of Jesus Christ they should get a glimpse of what God’s way of love and justice look and feel like.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is his first disciple. While the Eleven apostles have much to teach us, we also need to look to Mary. Her life teaches us much about the nature and cost of discipleship. Her life, witness, and song give us a glimpse of God’s love and life in God’s kingdom (see Luke 1:46-56). Let us remember Mary’s example as we reaffirm our covenant with God and continue our walk with Christ in the world he loves.