(This is a sermon in our 10-week Wonder Women of Faith series. This week’s Wonder Woman is Mary Magdalene. The sermon Scripture is John’s resurrection account, John 20:1-18. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here.)
How many of you read Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, or saw the Tom Hanks movie based on it?
Then you know the “truth” about Mary Magdalene. That she secretly married Jesus. That she was pregnant when he was crucified. That she gave birth to his child and there are descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene living among us RIGHT NOW!
Oh, and some of the best evidence for this is Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, where Mary Magdalene lays her head on Jesus’ shoulder disguised as an apostle.
Mary Magdalene is one of the most important women in the Bible. She is one of the most important people in the Bible. She is also one of the most slandered – people have been making stuff up about her for a couple thousand years.
And no wonder. For folks who want to challenge the truth of the Gospels, she is a witness who must be discredited.
To men who have historically held power in the church – and still do – she is a woman who threatens the legitimacy of the patriarchy.
But listen: “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ at Easter and when she announced his resurrection to the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the church on earth, for only to her had been revealed the Paschal Mystery. Any discussion of women in the church begins with this.”
That was a quote from Jesuit priest James Martin.
“Any discussion of women in the church” begins with Mary Magdalene. She – not a man – was the first witness to the risen Christ. She – not a man – was the first preacher of the risen Christ.
So who was Mary Magdalene, really?
In the Bible, we first find her mentioned in Luke Chapter 8:
“Jesus traveled 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 women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
So this group of women who traveled with Jesus had means – they had money – to support Jesus’ ministry. They were well-connected – one of them was married to the manager of King Herod’s household. And they had been cured by Jesus.
Mary Magdalene is listed first, which means she was probably the leader of this band of Jesus’s female followers. Luke says she had seven demons cast out of her. That could mean several things – that she had been cured seven times, or that she was completely cured as seven was the number that symbolized completion. As we’ve seen in other Bible accounts of people identified as possessed by demons, her symptoms would have appeared to us as something like epilepsy or mental illness.
Mary Magdalene had been troubled and tormented by something serious. She was a victim of illness, not someone who brought trouble on herself. Jesus had set her free.
Now in gratitude she followed him. She was a DISCIPLE – disciple means a follower. I know we usually think of Jesus’ disciples as men, but Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus was as much a disciple as the men with whom we are more familiar. She is mentioned by name in the Bible more often than most of those 12 disciples. Mary Magdalene can help us broaden our vision of what a disciple looks like – that we are ALL disciples when we follow Jesus, whether we are men or women.
Not only did Mary follow Jesus and lead the other women disciples, she also supported his ministry financially. She put her money where her faith was – another trait of a disciple. Perhaps she was a widow who had been left money by a wealthy husband, or maybe she had established some kind of business in Magdala, her hometown (and the origin of “Magdalene”).
This may not be the Mary Magdalene you thought you knew. Not only have people falsely, without any Biblical support, claimed that she had some kind of relationship with Jesus beyond teacher and disciple, perhaps you have heard she was a prostitute or some other kind of sexually promiscuous woman. In Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary Sings, “And I’ve had so many men before, in many different ways.”
Promiscuity is certainly a charge men make when they want to discredit or dismiss a powerful or influential woman. We saw that with the Woman at the Well in last week’s sermon.
The widespread disparagement of Mary Magdalene’s character can be attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. In 591 he pronounced that Mary Magdalene was the same person as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. He also said she was the same person as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. So Pope Gregory the Great combined three women into one, and in doing so both minimized the witness and importance of women in the Gospel accounts and slandered Mary Magdalene along with Mary of Bethany and the other woman.
Pope Gregory said the “seven demons” that had been cast out of Mary Magdalene represented the seven deadly sins. So therefore she was guilty of all of them (especially the sexual ones).
Pope Gregory took the story of Mary of Bethany (a completely different woman) anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and gave it a prurient twist – he said the ointment had been previously used by her for sensual purposes. And he took the description of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears – another completely different woman – as a “Sinner” to show Mary Magdalene was a beautiful, vain and lustful young woman saved from a life of sin by Jesus.
None of this has anything to do with Mary Magdalene, and all of it is a symptom of sexism if not misogyny that results from a church ruled by a patriarchy. Women must be put in their place and kept there, lest women take a place equal to men.
Jesus promised that “The last will be first.” Certainly, that statement applied to women who were last in the culture in which Jesus lived and ministered. In Mary Magdalene we have an example of Jesus’ intention that women be lifted up, not kept in status below that of men. If we think about Jesus coming to lift up the least, the lost, the last, and the left out, that would certainly describe women at the time of Jesus.
But Mary Magdalene cannot be kept down! You may make up things about her, conflate her with other women and otherwise attempt to malign and defame her, but you cannot discount her role in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along with a few other women, and perhaps one of the twelve male disciples, she was one of the few with the loyalty and guts to show up at Jesus’ resurrection when almost all of his male followers went into hiding.
And there she was going to the tomb at dawn on that first Easter Sunday, going to properly prepare the body of her teacher – her rabbi – for permanent burial.
But the tomb was empty.
John tells us that she ran to tell Peter and another disciple that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Those disciples raced to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and left.
Mary remained at the tomb. She was crying. She was crying because she had seen Jesus die and because now his body had apparently been stolen. She had lost everything.
After a brief encounter with two angels in the tomb who asked her why she was crying, she turned around and saw someone standing there.
The tomb was in a garden, so she assumed it was the gardener. John tells us it was Jesus but Mary did not recognize him. Why not? She did not expect to see him there in front of her, talking or even breathing. He was dead. She had seen him die. She had seen his body placed in the tomb.
Jesus asked her why she was crying. He asked who she was looking for.
She responded, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Then it happened. Jesus said her name.
She responded with recognition. “Rabbi.”
Jesus told her not to hold onto him – she had work to do! Go and tell the disciples!
And she went – the very first preacher with the good news that Christ is Risen! The very first Easter preacher. The first evangelist of the risen Christ. The “Apostle to the Apostles.”
She went and said, “I have seen the Lord!”
Mary Magdalene was trusted with the message of resurrection, the best news EVER. Death does not have the final word. The old order has been turned upside down – LIFE follows DEATH.
But notice Mary does not preach a sermon of theology. She does not quote Scripture or speculate on the mechanics of resurrection. No. She carries her own experience of the risen Christ to the other disciples. “I have seen the Lord!”
What an example for our life as disciples. What an example for our own witness. We are sent into the world to share our experience of Christ – to tell others how and where and in whom we have seen our living Savior, Jesus Christ.
And Mary reminds us that in the church there is no distinction between men and women, no jobs – especially the pastoral office – that are reserved for men alone. Over the years, men have perpetuated their leadership in the church by dismissing and denigrating women such as Mary Magdalene. But let us return to the example of Jesus.
I saw this on a t-shirt advertised on Facebook this week:
Jesus Protected women.
Honored women publicly.
Released the voice of women.
Confided in women.
Was funded by women.
Celebrated women by name.
Learned from women.
And spoke of women as examples to follow