Last Fall I preached a series of sermons here at St. Margaret’s about ‘Bible People you Might Not Remember’. These were not the ‘stars’ of the biblical stories; they weren’t the people who would have gotten their names up in lights in movies. They were the ‘ordinary people’ in Bible times, the people who were only mentioned a few times in the scriptures. But their stories are still interesting and compelling, and there’s a lot for us to learn from them about how God uses folks just like you and me in his plan to share his love and his message with the world.
Well, I had a lot of good comments about that series, and since there’s no shortage of Bible people to talk about, I thought I’d have another kick at the cat this Fall. So for the next six weeks we’re going to think about ‘More Bible People You May Not Remember’. And we’re going to start today with the story of Mary Magdalene.
Now, I must admit right off the bat that Mary Magdalene is hardly unknown these days. Thanks to Dan Brown and his bestselling book The DaVinci Code, pretty well everyone knows – or at least thinks they know - that Mary Magdalene was secretly married to Jesus, that they had children whose descendants are still alive today, and that there is a secret society, the Priory of Sion, that exists to protect those descendants and preserve this story. And because everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, especially if it involves taking a kick at the Catholic Church, these ideas continue to thrive in our popular culture, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of historians think there’s absolutely no evidence for them.
I’m not going to spend any time today going through the various theories mentioned in Dan Brown’s book; it would take a good hour just to examine them all, and I don’t think you want to sit here for an hour while I do it. What I want to do instead is simply to examine what we can actually know about Mary Magdalene from the pages of the New Testament, and then ask what her story has to say to us today as twenty-first century followers of Jesus.
The title ‘Magdalene’ tells us that Mary was from the little fishing village of Magdala, situated on the northeast corner of the lake of Galilee in an area where we know Jesus preached his gospel message. As you know Jesus traveled around from village to village, healing the sick and preaching his message, and he recruited followers who went with him and shared in his work. But one of the things that made Jesus unusual is that he recruited both male and female followers. This would have been seen as a great scandal by many Jewish people of his day, who believed that women should only travel with members of their own family. This was one of the ways that the gospel of Jesus broke new ground and broke down old barriers and social structures; as usual, Jesus was way ahead of his time here, and it took the church quite a while to catch up with him!
Mary was one of those women who traveled with Jesus. We first meet her in a brief passage in Luke 8:1-3; you might like to turn to it with me:
Soon afterwards, Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
What do we learn about Mary from this passage? Well, to begin with she is included in a list of women who had been ‘cured of evil spirits and infirmities’, and she was apparently a particularly outstanding case, ‘from whom seven demons had gone out’. Seven is the number of perfection in the Bible, so we should understand from this that Mary was understood to be completely under the power of evil.
As you know, the gospels have many stories of Jesus delivering people from the power of evil spirits. Some modern people have assumed that this is simply a pre-scientific way of describing epilepsy or mental illness, and indeed there are some examples in the gospels that sound very like epilepsy. But not all of them fall into this category. Demonic possession is sometimes associated with physical illness as well, but Luke was a doctor and carefully distinguished between ordinary illness and illness that he attributed to the power of the devil and his minions.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Jesus and his apostles believed firmly that there is a powerful and malignant force of evil in the world, a force that is totally opposed to God and God’s love and wants to dominate and devour people for its own ends. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist, Scott Peck, agrees. In his book ‘The People of the Lie’ he makes a compelling case for his belief in the existence of these evil powers, and he tells of his experiences of trying to help people who were held in bondage by them.
So Mary had somehow fallen under the domination of the powers of evil. How this had happened we aren’t told, nor are we told how it showed itself in her life – was it some sort of physical illness, or mental disturbance, or compulsively immoral behaviour? We just don’t know. But what we do know is that she had been delivered from these evil forces, and although the text does not specifically say that Jesus was her deliverer, it’s strongly suggested by the context.
What effect had this deliverance had on Mary? Well, first, she had left everything to follow Jesus. We aren’t told what sort of personal commitments she had – whether she was married, for instance, or had children, or what her social standing was in the community. The fact that she is included in a list of women who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their personal means seems to suggest that she had some disposable income, and that she was in control of it – in other words, that she wasn’t completely dependent on a husband’s income. But whatever sort of life she had lived before, she had left it behind and was now traveling around with Jesus and the twelve.
And her commitment to Jesus had reached her wallet, which is almost always the last part of us to be converted to faith in Christ! Many of us come to faith in Christ and follow him for years without really giving serious thought to what it means for our finances. Mary, however, was so captivated with Jesus and his message and what he had done for her that she gave gladly and generously to help make his mission possible.
We don’t hear of Mary again until the week before the crucifixion, but we assume that she continued to travel and to support Jesus and the twelve. But when we get to Holy Week, Mary and the other women have a very high profile. It’s often been pointed out that, with the exception of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (probably John), women were the last at the cross when Jesus died, the first at the empty tomb after his resurrection, and the first to see the risen Jesus on Easter morning. It’s all the more remarkable that this has been included in the gospels, because in those days the testimony of women was not admissible in court. No one making up a fanciful story at that time would have suggested that women were the first witnesses of the event. The fact that the gospel writers give them this role speaks volumes for their honesty.
So, the gospels tell us that when Jesus was hanging on the cross, a group of women were watching from afar – the same group, in fact, that had been traveling with him and providing for him – and Mary of Magdala is the first to be listed. The male disciples, with the exception of John, had denied, betrayed or deserted Jesus, but not Mary and the women. After Jesus died and was removed from the cross, we’re told that Mary and at least one other woman were there when Joseph of Arimathea placed the body in the tomb, and they immediately went home to prepare spices to anoint the body, obviously feeling that Joseph and the men hadn’t done a proper job of it! However, they had to wait until the Sabbath day was over before they could go back to the tomb.
There are some contradictions in the gospel accounts of Easter Sunday morning, and this is what we should expect; after all the disciples were remembering an event for which there was absolutely no precedent, and no doubt each of them recalled different aspects of it. What we can discern from the stories we have is that early in the morning Mary and the other women went back to the tomb, to find the stone rolled away and the body gone. At some point they had an encounter with at least one angel, or ‘a man dressed in white’, who told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and instructed them to go and tell the disciples. So they did, running back to the upper room in fear and trembling.
John tells us that he and Peter ran to the tomb, and that Mary of Magdala followed them. The two men entered the tomb and found everything as she had said. They left, but Mary stayed behind, weeping at the tomb. We can only imagine her desolation; not only had the Lord she loved been brutally executed, but now she was even denied the consolation of being able to minister to his dead body.
The story of what happened next can only have come from Mary herself. You can find it in John 20:11-18:
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’. When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’. Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
So here is Mary of Magdala, who had once been so completely under the control of the forces of evil that she was said to have been possessed by seven demons. Now she is the one who is given the privilege of being the first to see the risen Lord alive again, and the first to take that word of personal testimony to others. Other people had joined her in passing on the angels’ message that Jesus had risen, but that was only hearsay. Mary was the first to be able to say from her own personal experience, “I know that he is alive again from the dead, because I’ve seen him myself, and he spoke to me”. So Mary is the first evangelist of the early church – the first to bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to other people.
What does Mary’s story have to say to us today?
Well, first of all it’s a story of transformation. A lot of people don’t think that transformation is possible. Popeye the sailor man once famously said, “I yam what I yam”, and many would echo that: this is me, what you see is what you get, take it or leave it. And there are also many who long for transformation but have given up hope that it can ever happen; people in bondage to the power of alcohol or drugs or other addictions are the ones who spring to mind immediately.
But the gospel tells us that change is possible. Millions of A.A. members around the world today testify to the power of God to set them free from alcoholism. Many Christians would tell personal stories of real changes that God has brought about in their lives, setting them free from old habits and addictions and leading them into the new way of Jesus. Jesus once said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). The life of Mary of Magdala testifies to this truth.
Secondly, Mary’s life is a story of inclusion. In the time of Jesus, as we’ve pointed out, there were strict limitations on what women could and couldn’t do, but Jesus simply ignored those limitations. He talked to women in public although this was frowned on; he included them in his conversations; he allowed them to travel with him and his disciples – which would have been seen as scandalous – and he gladly accepted their generosity in supporting him and his colleagues. And then, to top it all, he gave them the privilege of being the first witnesses of his resurrection and the first to bear personal testimony to the fact that he was alive.
As we’ve said, it took the church a long time to catch up with Jesus here, and even today there are huge portions of the church that are a long way from regarding women as Jesus does. And of course there are other marginalised people in society, and Jesus continues to reach out to them and include them in the circle of his disciples and in the team he sends out in mission to the world. No one needs to be left out. Everyone is made in the image of God, and everyone who has met the risen Lord can take his message to others.
And this leads us to the last thing I want to say: Mary’s story is a story of evangelism. She will forever be remembered as the first person to tell someone else that she knew Jesus was risen from the dead because she had met him. That message is given to you and me to share as well. Our experience of the risen Jesus is probably not as dramatic as Mary’s, but we know that he is making a difference in our lives day by day, and we can share that story with other people. That’s not an obligation laid on us – it’s a joy and a privilege we’ve been given.
When I was a teenager I read Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning, which told the story of his personal discovery of the power of the Holy Spirit and of the changes that God brought about in his life as a result. It was that book that motivated me to find out how I could get to know God personally myself. Dennis Bennett was like Mary – he was sharing his own experience, but his story had the power to move others and set them on the road toward Christ. That’s what it did for me, and I will always be grateful.
Mary of Magdala reminds us that Jesus Christ can change our lives and set us free. She reminds us that Jesus is always reaching out to marginalised people, including them in his circle of friends and giving them a place on his mission team. And she reminds us of the tremendous privilege and joy we’ve been given – to tell others about our encounter with the risen Lord and the difference he’s making in our lives. May God give us grace to follow her example and share in her joy.
(Note: I acknowledge the help of Ben Witherington's article in the preparation of this sermon).