Note: Each year, Hope Lutheran’s local chapter of the Women of the ELCA, or WELCA, observes Bold Women Sunday in February. I, as the pastor, choose a Biblical woman to focus on for that day. So today we talked about Mary Magdalene, and had a mini-Easter celebration. Here is the sermon.
Mary Magdalene is probably the most well-known woman of the New Testament next to Mary, the mother of Jesus. And yet, she is one of those women that we think we all know, but in reality, we don’t. How many movie portrayals of Jesus’ life has Mary Magdalene shown up in? I can rattle off a few: Jesus Christ Superstar; The Passion of the Christ; The Last Temptation of Christ; last year’s movie, Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes, and probably many more. And in just about every single one of these movies, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a reformed prostitute. But yet, nowhere in Scripture does it say that she was a prostitute. The Gospel of Luke names Mary Magdalene as one of several women who were supporting Jesus out of their own finances, and it also says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her, but it does not say that she was a prostitute. So, why is she believed by many to be a prostitute? In the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory the Great, with no proof whatsoever, stated in a homily that he believed her to be the unnamed sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. And since everyone knew that for a woman to be sinful meant that she had to have been sexually promiscuous, poor Mary Magdalene suddenly became a prostitute. Even though there is nothing in the Gospels to indicate that this is true, it was assumed that because a pope said it, it must be true. The damage done, Mary Magdalene has been thought of in popular culture as a prostitute ever since, and still gets portrayed as such, even though the Roman Catholic Church said officially, in 1969, that Mary Magdalene was not the same woman as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.
Another popular portrayal of Mary Magdalene is the idea that she was in love with Jesus and may have secretly been married to him. Although an older idea, it became prominent again in Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, where one of the main characters turns out to be a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the Roman Catholic Church had covered up the knowledge that Jesus and Mary were a couple to suit their own purposes. Pure fiction, although I thought the book was very riveting when I first read it. This idea comes from well-meaning people who have studied Jewish culture and who have noted that it was highly unusual for a Jewish rabbi in the first century to be unmarried, and so they try to marry Jesus off. Mary Magdalene is the female disciple who is mentioned in all four resurrection accounts, plus the mention that Luke makes of her as a prominent figure among Jesus’ band of followers, so she becomes the ideal candidate for Jesus to have secretly married. But the truth is that, while yes, it would have been unusual for a Jewish rabbi not to have been married, it was not unheard of. And there is absolutely no evidence in the Gospels tying Mary Magdalene to Jesus in that way.
So, let’s get back to what we do know is true about Mary Magdalene. First, she was a prominent follower of Jesus, and she is mentioned in all four accounts of the resurrection. Second, she was an independent woman who had finances of her own and who supported Jesus with those finances, along with other female disciples. Third, Jesus drove seven demons out of her. And finally, as we see in today’s Gospel lesson from John, she was among the first of the women to see the risen Jesus and believe, and she was the one who ran and told the disciples, making her the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
Let’s then take a look at our Gospel lesson today. John 20 is the most detailed account of Mary Magdalene that we get in the Scriptures. Mary Magdalene was among the women who had been with Jesus when he was crucified, standing at the foot of the cross. She had seen him die, and she knew that people don’t come back from death, especially death by crucifixion. John doesn’t tell us why Mary was going to the tomb—in the other Gospel accounts, the women are going to anoint Jesus’ body, but in John’s, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already done that. So, perhaps Mary was going to the tomb to mourn and to say goodbye to Jesus. But when she got there, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. Now, we who live after the resurrection often wonder why Mary and the others were so slow to believe what Jesus had taught them. But the fact is that people simply don’t live again after dying, and so a teaching about resurrection is very hard to believe. And thus, Mary’s natural assumption is that grave robbers have come and stolen Jesus’ body. And so, not knowing what else to do, she runs to tell the male disciples.
As I was reading this story again and thinking about it, I realized something that I hadn’t clearly seen before: when Mary tells her story of the empty tomb, Peter and the other disciple come running and verify that the tomb is indeed empty. But they don’t do a blessed thing about it. Instead, they shrug their shoulders and go home. All right, let’s think about this for a moment. The men are the ones with the power in this society. They’ve just been told, and they’ve seen for themselves, that the body is gone. John tells us that they don’t yet understand that Jesus is risen from the dead. Therefore, they’re most likely operating under the assumption that Mary has made: the body has been stolen. And they’re not alarmed by this? Are they not wondering what’s happened? Are they simply afraid? Don’t they care? What in the name of God are these two guys thinking, to just go home like everything’s okay? And here’s the even more startling part of the story: Mary stays in the garden. She stays. She weeps, because not only is her Lord and Master dead, but now she doesn’t even know where his body has gone. She weeps in hopeless despair, and she bends over to look into the tomb one more time, just to be certain she didn’t miss anything.
The next thing that happens is even stranger. She suddenly sees two angels there asking her why she is weeping. Well, that would seem rather obvious. If you’re in or near a tomb, there’s a near 100% certainty that you are mourning someone you love who has died. But, Mary plays along and tells them about her pain. Then she turns around and sees Jesus. We don’t know why she doesn’t recognize him at first. It could have been that she wasn’t really looking at him. It could have been that her eyes were so swollen from the tears that she couldn’t really see clearly. Most of all, it’s probably that she still wasn’t expecting someone to come back from the dead. So Mary assumes that this guy is the gardener. And she outright accuses him of being a grave robber and says that she will go and get Jesus’ body! Mistaken in her assumption though she was, this is a bold, strong, and persistent woman.
And because Mary stays when the disciples leave, she is the first one to see the resurrected Jesus. She is the first one to believe the good news, because Peter and the other disciple who came with him only believed Mary’s story that the tomb was empty. And Mary is the first one to hear the risen Jesus call her name, and the first one privileged to bear the good news to the others that Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed! It is for this reason that she is named the Apostle to the Apostles.
Jesus is calling each one of us by name. Are we listening? And shall we go where he calls us to go? It has been my experience, as I have heard Jesus calling my name, that he is very persistent. He hasn’t let me go until I have listened to him and gone where I have heard him calling my name. And we see that in this story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus. She persisted. When the male disciples left, she persisted in doing what she thought was right: staying at the grave, weeping for her Lord and Master who she thought was dead, accusing the man she thought was the gardener of moving the body and demanding that he tell her where the body was so she could go and get it. And then, when Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes him, she persists: trying to hold onto him, and then, when Jesus redirects her attentions, going and announcing to the disciples that she has seen the Lord.
Jesus persists in calling us, flawed though we may be. And once he has called us, he expects us to be persistent in our calling: to share the good news that he is risen, and that he brings forgiveness for our sins. Now, one thing that persistent does not necessarily mean is to be obnoxious. One can be persistent in speaking of Jesus without being obnoxious about it. It simply means listening to the other person first, and then sharing your faith and what Jesus means to you when the moment calls for it. Persistence can also mean continuing to do the good works which Jesus has called us to do—not so that we can get to heaven, because Jesus has already accomplished that for us—but to help our neighbor who is in need. And when we are asked why we are doing these things, we use that as an opening to speak of Jesus, graciously, with gentleness and respect for the other, and how much Jesus loves all of us.
Contrary to what popular culture has said over many years, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute and she was not involved in a secret relationship with Jesus. So then, what is the image that this saint gives us? She gives us hope that women can be strong, whole, and independent on their own, and still be disciples of Jesus. She shows us that Jesus calls each one of us to a vocation of telling others that Jesus is risen, that he loves us, and that he forgives us. Whether female or male, Jesus loves us as whole human beings, no matter what our status is in life. And we are each given the commission to share this good news with everyone we meet, both in word and in deed. So, let’s be bold and persistent as Mary Magdalene was. Let’s go forth and tell everyone we meet that we have seen the Lord, and invite them to come and see as well. Amen.