“Mary Magdalene: A Saint For All”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 22, 2018
Today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. Feast days are a way for the Church to remember and celebrate important people and events. We don’t do a whole lot with saints in the Presbyterian tradition; our Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican siblings pray to the saints and display statues and pictures of them in their sanctuaries. There isn’t a thing wrong with these practices, it’s just not our tradition. However, we do recognize that there have been and are special men and women who can teach us a lot about life, about God, and about how to faithfully follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene is one of those people.
Before we dig into what Mary Magdalene can teach us about following Jesus, we need to dispel some of the myths surrounding her. Ever since Dan Brown published The DaVinci Code, Mary Magdalene has been the subject of much mystery and speculation. The biggest myth about Mary Magdalene is a terrible lie that she was a prostitute. The truth that comes to us from the gospels is that Mary Magdalene was not attached to anyone. We know this because the Gospel writers identify her by her first name and her place of birth. If she had any relationship at all with her family or with a husband, her second name would have been her father’s family name or her husband’s family name. Since there is no evidence of Mary being married or attached to a particular family, the gospel writers distinguish her from the other Marys in Jesus’ life by calling her Mary of Magdala.
In gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable that he summarizes by saying, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Put this little gem of a sentences together with Mary Magdalene’s un-attached-ness to family or a husband, in a society where women were expected to live under the protection of a man, and the prostitute myth and lie is born. The earliest commentators on the Bible just thought Mary fit that category, and Christian imagination has gone wild since. In the Medieval period, scholars think Mary Magdalene was confused with Mary of Egypt, who was a well-known prostitute who converted to Christianity. Mary of Egypt died on July 22, and with some terrible record-keeping that is how we come to celebrate Mary Magdalene on this day, July 22.
Mary Magdalene was also not Jesus’ wife—that’s another myth about Mary that has gotten some traction since The DaVinci Code. This claim was invented by the Cathars, a little Christian sect that thrived in France between the 12thand 14thcenturies. Catharism was a mix of Christianity and Eastern religion, which emphasized marriage as the highest spiritual value. The Cathars believed that being married in life provided for a whole new realm of experiences in death. They simply could not imagine Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of The World, unmarried. So, they began the legend of Jesus being married to the woman he had the most contact with in the gospels: Mary Magdalene.
The myth about a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene got the most attention in the not so distant past. Pierre Plantard, a pretender to power in France after WWII claimed to have evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had in fact been married and had produced a child. Plantard produced pieces of parchment that supposedly told the tale of the courtship between Mary Magdalene and the Lord, and for a few years they were displayed in the national museum in France. But after some very simple research, the documents were uncovered as fake, and Plantard was exposed as the fraud that he was.
So now that we’ve put away some of the myths and lies about Mary Magdalene, lets think about how she is portrayed in the Gospels and at what she can teach us about following Jesus.
We can learn persistence from Mary Magdalene. She was the first person to the tomb on Easter morning in John’s story. Custom mandated that Jesus’ loved one visit his tomb for several days after his burial. Bravely, Mary observed this custom early on Easter morning, and she did it by herself. When she arrived at Jesus’ tomb she was stunned: the huge rock, that was supposed to seal the tomb, was gone. Immediately, she ran to get help, thinking that the body of Jesus had been stolen. After the disciples came and saw for themselves that the tomb was empty, did they stick around to look for Jesus or to comfort Mary or to ask around for witnesses? No. They went back home. But Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, she did not give up. And when ‘the gardener’ called her name, she became the first witness of Christ’s resurrection.
Sometimes we give up too quickly, don’t we? When it comes to God, I think we very often pray for help, ask for the things we need, and when we don’t hear a positive answer we wonder why God ignored our prayers. Or we ask God to intervene in a situation and then micromanage God by trying to solve the problem on our own. Its not just about God, either—we give up on each other too quickly, too. When someone doesn’t meet our expectations, when we disagree with each other, when communication breaks down and we get wrapped up in a big tangled ball of misunderstanding, we walk away, we push away, we write each other off. Mary Magdalene shows us how holy it is to stick around, to push through, to persist. She waited. She didn’t let outward appearance deter her from what she was seeking. She wanted to see Jesus, and even though the other disciples ran away, she stayed.
We can learn authenticity from Mary Magdalene. The Mary Magdalene that stood outside of the empty tomb of Jesus, weeping, is the exact same Mary Magdalene that just months before Christ’s death got down on her hands and knees and washed his feet with her tears and her hair. Come hell or high or high water, she was all-in for Jesus. She pled with the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” . She didn’t try to cover up her love for Jesus, she didn’t try to hide her sadness and fear, she didn’t try to be anyone other than who she was: a sad disciple whose teacher and Lord had just died. She also didn’t shy away from the impossible—she actually thought she could carry Jesus’ lifeless body back to the tomb.
It is just easier to put on a good show sometimes. It is easier to ignore the pain than to feel it and find out where it comes from. It is easier to push the fear and terror down into the dark than to allow it to see the light of God’s day. It is easier to assume, to have tunnel vision, to pretend that what you don’t know doesn’t exist and won’t hurt you. Somewhere along the line Christians were duped in thinking we had to be like ducks on a pond: calm and cool above the surface even and especially if we are paddling for our lives down below. Mary shows us how nonsensical that is. Mary shows us that God is not looking for us to be some polished version of ourselves. Mary shows us that God doesn’t need us to be put together when we’re torn up inside. No, Mary shows us that God wants us as we are, exactly how God created us to be, flaws and brokenness and beauty all wrapped together.
We can learn about joy from Mary Magdalene. Once she realized that the gardener was not the gardener, she screamed, “Teacher!” and went to announce to the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead just as he said he would. Barnard of Clairvaux, an 11thcentury monk, called Mary Magdalene the “Apostle to The Apostles.” The only reason Peter and James and John and the other disciples could go and proclaim the good news of Jesus is because Mary Magdalene told them the good news first. She stayed, she saw Jesus, and she was bursting at the seams with so much joy that it spilled out and propelled others into the world with the good news.
That is the very essence of Christian life. Strip away the pomp and ceremony, the liturgy and the buildings and the titles, the scholarship and the how-to books—to be a disciple of Jesus is to have so much joy in Christ’s resurrection that it spills out of you and into the lives of other people. That joy comes from the truth that we have been set free by Christ’s resurrection. We are no longer defined by our sin, by our mortality, by our failure or we weakness. Christ’ resurrection identifies us as God’s elect, God’s redeemed, the apple of God’s eye. Because we are free, we do not have to be afraid. We can listen more than we speak. We can sit with the hard questions and uneasy answers. We can embrace one another as fellow children of God. We can disagree and still worship and learn and serve together. When we do these things, the joy, its spill out, it is contagious, it spreads, and God uses it to change the world.
Persistence, authenticity, and joy—Mary Magdalene is a saint for all people because none of these things require super-human powers. Mary Magdalene did not do anything in her life that we can’t go out and do right after this service. It takes some courage, though. It takes courage to stick around, with God and with one another. It takes courage to be who God created you to be. It takes courage, especially these days, to have and hold the tangible joy of Christ’s resurrection. But the good news of the Gospel for us today is this: each and every one of us here has everything we need to live and be robust followers of Jesus Christ just like Mary Magdalene. God has given each one of us a unique set of skills and talents and gifts, and God has shown us the unique and different ways we can use them for the good of the Kingdom. We just have to take a step and trust in God’s promise that we go nowhere by accident and do nothing by coincidence.
My friends in Christ, Mary Magdalene holds a unique place in the history of Jesus and in the history of our faith. She was the first and only one to find the empty tomb on Easter and she was the first and only one that day to meet Jesus face to face. Be persistent in your prayers and be persistent in your relationships. Be who God created you to be, not who you think the world wants you to be. Be joyful. And the same thing will happen to you that happen to Mary Magdalene: the Lord will call your name and you will see him face to face. May be so for you and for me. Amen.