22 July 2018
St Mary Magdalene
Song of Songs 3:1-4, John 20:1-2, 11-18
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we think about the earthly ministry of Jesus, that very short period of between one and three years between his baptism in the Jordan and his crucifixion, it is very easy, still, to imagine it as being a very male activity. Jesus and his 12 male disciples traveling around the countryside healing and teaching and preaching. And that impression of exclusive masculinity is reinforced in our imaginations by images such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which makes the early church look like a men-only dining club.
And there is no hiding from the fact, not that I want to, that the church itself has proved most effective at reinforcing that men-only image by excluding women from leadership within the church for so long. Whilst I am proud that the Church of England has started to redress that balance, albeit relatively recently, we should not forget that there are large sections of the church, Catholic and Evangelical and also some Anglicans that still have not done so.
The feast we are celebrating today, St Mary Magdalene, ought to remind us quite forcefully that women were very much a part of that first community of the church – and not simply a peripheral part – Mary Magdalene is often called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ because, when they were hiding in fear, she was the one chosen to bring them the good news of the resurrection.
But before we go there I should name and shame an elephant in the room. I have already mentioned Leonardo Da Vinci and, in the context of Mary Magdalene, that may make some of you think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which claimed that Mary and Jesus were married and had children and created a bloodline which continues to this day. It may be worth simply making the point that the Da Vinci code is not a work either of theology or of history, it is to be found in the fiction section for a reason. And I’m not saying that because I was told to by secret operatives from either the Vatican or Lambeth Palace. Believe me, my life doesn’t get that interesting!
But, having said that, it is possible to see where the spark of that idea came from. Mary Magdalene was a powerful female figure who was obviously close to Jesus and who obviously loved Jesus. Should we be shocked by that? Aren’t we all called to love Jesus? If we are supposed to love him, who have not met him face to face, then why shouldn’t he generate love amongst those who knew him and spent time with him? Our problem is that our language and our concept of love is so impoverished that we assume that love must lead to sex. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb in tears, that is the action of a person who knows love. But, when she saw Jesus what did she call him? Rabbi. She loved Jesus, her rabbi, her teacher, with a passion. But passion meant suffering before it meant sex.
And sex brings us to another elephant in the room. Good job we have a big room. In the popular imagination, and even in much renaissance artwork, Mary Magdalene is often associated with the repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. We can all, perhaps, be forgiven for making that link because it was first made by Pope Gregory the Great, but it is not actually supported by any biblical evidence. But, even if it were the case, and I had this discussion with Janice so forgive me, would it matter a jot? Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that if we come to Jesus and seek forgiveness of our sins, then they are forgiven and that we are a new creation, with slate wiped clean? If, in Christ, we are a new creation then no one should be haunted by what they were before Christ. So it is deeply unfair to associate Mary Magdalene with the prostitute label both because the bible doesn’t make that connection and because, even if she were, she had been forgiven by Jesus personally, which is forgiveness indeed.
It seems to me, and please forgive me if this is too controversial for a Sunday morning, that for a long time the church could only cope with women in a binary fashion. They were either virgins or they were prostitutes. Either way they could be put into a different category from the male disciples. What the church has been very bad at coping with is the concept that one could be a powerful, brave, loving disciple who was also a women. That is the Mary Magdalene we are called to remember today.
So, having said that there is no biblical evidence either that she married Jesus or that she was a prostitute, what do we actually know about this follower of Jesus?
In Luke 8 we learn two important things about her: firstly, that she had been cured by Jesus, and that ‘seven demons’ had come out of her. We don’t see this healing, except in this passing comment, so we cannot be exactly sure what happened but it seems reasonably clear that her following of Jesus started with her being healed by him. I hear so often from people that they don’t feel good enough to come to church, but we are reminded time and again that we don’t make ourselves good and then come to Jesus, rather it is our coming to Jesus which takes away our sins.
We also learn from Luke that Mary Magdalene was part of a group of women that were travelling with the disciples as they went about. It is worth looking at that a moment – Luke 8:1-3 if you have pew bible:
“After this Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him and also some woman who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Mary (called Magdalene)…Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household [cast your minds back to last week and the beheading of John the Baptist – well the wife of the manager of Herod’s household is now going about with Jesus] …Susanna and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
Although only three woman are named (and Mary Magdalene is named first in this and other lists, suggesting that she is the most important) we are told that there were many others and that these women were financing Jesus and the Twelve out of their own means. It is worth letting that sink in – this was far from being a men-only club. At this point in Jesus’ ministry it was not simply Jesus and the Twelve disciples who were going from place to place but there were also many women, and the women were financing the whole thing. Actually, and this amused me, I presume that the manager of Herod’s household was quite well paid and if he gave his wife Joanna any money then, indirectly, Herod was helping to finance Jesus’ ministry.
But putting money to one side for the moment, it is clear that Mary, and these other women, were very much a part of Jesus’ peripatetic ministry from an early point.
And it Mary featured at an early point in Jesus’ ministry then we also know that she stuck with him right to the end, and beyond. As most of you know there are often subtle, but important, differences between the various gospel accounts as they were written at different times and for different audiences, but one of the striking things is that Mary Magdalene is a consistent character as being a witness to the crucifixion and, as we heard this morning, as the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning. In all four of the Gospels it is Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb, either simply to mourn or to anoint his body, and it is she that first receives the message that Jesus has risen.
The resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning is the most important moment in the whole Christian story and Jesus does not appear to Peter, who has not yet been forgiven for denying him, or to any of the other men who are hiding in fear of the Romans. He appears first to this women, a woman who has loved him deeply as both her healer and her Rabbi, and he gives her the task of announcing that most wonderful and important message that Jesus is Alive. She is truly an apostle to the apostles.
Although this church is dedicated to St Mary the mother of Jesus I hope there is much we can learn from this other Mary.
Firstly I hope that the Church in its wider sense can really take to heart that the ministry of Jesus was not a men-only club but that, for its time, it was radically inclusive of women and he gave them a status and a dignity often denied them by their own society.
As followers of Jesus, and therefore as fellow disciples with Mary Magdalene, we can learn that we come to Jesus not because we are perfect but because we are in need of healing.
We can learn that our healing by Jesus ought to produce untold depths of love out of gratitude for what he has done for us.
We can learn to stick by Jesus through thick and thin, and to be courageous in our love for him when others have fled and hid.
And, finally, we can learn to pick up the baton of her message to the world and never be afraid to announce that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive.