This sermon was preached at St John's Purbrook on the Feast of Mary Magdalene - 22 July 2018.
There are rather a lot of Marys to be found in the Gospels. Mary was a very popular name in 1st Century Israel and Judea. We know, of course, of Mary the Mother of Jesus. Then there’s Mary of Bethany (who is sometimes confused with Mary Magdalene, but who was the ‘sinful woman’ who anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair).
There is another Mary – literally called ‘the other Mary’ - whom Matthew lists as part of the group of women who were witnesses to Jesus’ burial. In fact, I rather imagine that – in those days - if you were to stand in the street and call out ‘Mary!’ you’d get quite a few responses!
This makes the task of teasing out the story of Mary Magdalene a little bit of a challenge. So let’s review what we know – and a little bit of the legends which have accreted around her.
Mary was a Jewish woman, who according to all four Gospels travelled with Jesus as one of his followers. She was a witness to his crucifixion, burial and resurrection. According to Matthew, Luke and John’s Gospels, Mary was the one who told Peter and the other male apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead. So, she is often referred to as the ‘apostle to the apostles’.
Mary is actually mentioned by name twelve times in the gospels – more than most of the apostles, in fact. Her ‘surname’, of Magdalene, most likely meant that she came from the fishing town of Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Luke’s Gospel list’s Mary as one of the women who travelled with Jesus and who helped support his ministry out of their own resources. That indicates that she was probably a wealthy woman. The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her. Seven is a symbolic number in Scripture – meaning completeness. So to say that someone had seven demons in them was to say that they were completely consumed by whatever illness or malady was afflicting them. Clearly, therefore, Mary had reason to be very grateful to Jesus, for the healing that she had received.
And that, frankly, is all that we really know about Mary in factual terms. During the middle ages, there were many other tales told about her. For a start, as I’ve already said, she was often mixed up with the sinful ‘Mary of Bethany’, or even with the woman caught in adultery (whose name we don’t know…but it was probably Mary as well!). Even more elaborate medieval legends tell exaggerated tales of Mary’s wealth and beauty, as well as her alleged journey to Southern France. There were even speculations, somewhat fuelled by various second and third century Gnostic writings, which suggestively described Mary’s as Jesus’ wife, or lover. Maybe even the mother, by Jesus, of the line of Merovingians! But there is nothing in Scripture to support such an idea. Not that this stops the likes of Dan Brown from creating some highly entertaining stories about the possibilities.
So if you don’t mind, I’d like to focus on what we DO know about Mary – and to ask ourselves what we can learn from her real story.
I think there are two words which we can hang an understanding of Mary on. They are ‘wealthy’ and ‘witness’. Let me see if I can break those down for you.
As I’ve already said, Mary was clearly independently wealthy. We don’t know why. Perhaps she was the widow of a wealthy man? But clearly, she was wealthy enough not to have to work for a living, and to have the leisure to travel around with Jesus. More than that, as I’ve said, she was one of those who supported Jesus’ ministry out of her own resources. We must not miss this detail. It’s tempting for us to imagine that Jesus and his first followers didn’t need money. Perhaps we imagine that Jesus would just ‘miracle-up’ some food every time they were hungry, or some new clothes when their old ones wore out. But Jesus’s ministry was rooted in the real world, just as ours is. And we know that the Disciples carried a purse – in fact Judas seems to have been the Honorary Treasurer for their little group.
And so, right at the beginning of the story of the church, the way in which we use our wealth becomes an important issue. Mary Magdalene used her wealth to support and enhance Jesus’ ministry. She understood that the work of God needs money to be invested in it. It is part of God’s way of working with human beings that he chooses to work through us. We are God’s hands and feet to a world in need. God uses our hands to touch the world, our feet to spread his good news, and our wealth to build his Kingdom on earth. Mary understood that. I wonder whether we really do? I wonder what the church of today would look like if all its members really understood what sacrificial giving for the work of God looks like. Perhaps we would spend much less time holding jumble sales to keep the roof on, and much more time devoted to sharing God’s love with our neighbours in need.
So Mary Magdalene can be an inspiration to us in terms of the way we use our wealth. And the second word I suggest we hold in our minds about her is the word ‘Witness’.
I’ve already mentioned that according to Matthew, Luke and John, Mary was the one sent to the male apostles with the news of the Resurrection. We must not miss the significance of this. According to Jesus law, women were unreliable witnesses. Anyone from Jewish society of the time who heard that a woman had been sent by Jesus to tell men the news would have struggled to get their head around it. Even at the moment of his greatest triumph, it seems that Jesus was still keen to declare that in his Kingdom there was no room for old fashioned, patriarchal, misogyny. The word ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent’. By being the first witness to the news of the Resurrection, Mary, despite her gender, became the first ‘one who was sent’ – and so, effectively, the first Apostle.
Now I realise of course that as a church which has recently experienced the ministry of woman, thanks to dear Connie, St John’s Purbrook is not likely to be holding on to out-dated notions of male and female roles in ministry. But it is our task to make sure that we use each and every opportunity to tell others that Jesus is never concerned about our gender. Our value to God has nothing to do with whether we are male or female, or perhaps even trans-gender. Each of us is equally loved and regarded by God. And each of us is called, like the Magdalene, to be a witness to the world. Each of us, in some sense, is an apostle – for we are sent out with the good news of God’s love for the world on our lips.
By meditating today on Mary of Magdala, may you come to know how much God wants to partner with you in the work of building his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. May you learn the joy of releasing your wealth to that task, and the joy of knowing that you too are ‘one who is sent’ for the work of God. Amen.