This sermon was preached in a parish church on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene 2018 based upon teh Ressurrection narrative from John’s Gospel here.
Mary Magdalene is my favourite biblical character. She is also one of the most important, and misunderstood characters.
Her name is the first bit of contention about her. A common claim is that she is named after a place called Magdala, however this is not certain. Luke 8 refers to her as “Mary, called Magdalene”. Not Mary of Magdalene, but Mary, AKA Magdalene.
Now Magdalene is a play on the Aramaic word Migdal which means tower. Jesus has always been one to give people nicknames so why wouldn’t he give Mary one as well. Mary the tower, or look out, or beacon. This works especially when we look at what she was called to do later….
She first appears in the narrative alongside other women, where the text claims she is healed of seven daemons by Jesus. She then dedicates her life to following him through out his ministry.
Across the four Gospels she is mentioned 12 times by name, more than most of the male Disciples, and is present at the crucifixion AND the resurrection.
She is a female big part player in a world that only gave big parts to men. She is the shining example of the inclusivity of God’s work, of the equality between male and female in the Kingdom of God.
Mary Magdalene is the hero the #metoo generation needs.
Throughout history Mary has had her character and story changed and manipulated.
She has been falsely assumed to be both the sinful woman who washes’ Jesus’ feet with her hair and Martha’s sister, though the text does not suggest this at all.
Mary Magdalene is almost certainly her own women.
Outside of the biblical text it gets worse for her.
In the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great, makes the completely unfounded claim that she was a former prostitute. A label that has stuck with her, despite no biblical evidence for it at all. Sadly this mislabelling has lead to her being dismissed, overlooked and vilified.
All this despite what happened when she encountered Christ, and dedicated herself to follow him.
Scholarship has also frequently dismissed her, with some commentators reading the resurrection appearance as a pity move by God, comforting a hysterical and grief-stricken woman, unable to control herself, before making his proper “real” resurrection appearances to the Disciples later.
What total nonsense…
Mary Magdalene represents all woman who have been over looked simply for their gender. For too long this has happened, and continues to happen. And I, as a male representative of the Church would like to apologise on behalf of the Church to all women who have been excluded, or ignored, or rejected, or vilified by the church. I am sorry.
But now! Mary Magdalene has been redeemed once again, she is no longer over looked, her history has been restored to the biblical accounts and she is placed rightly so, back on the pedestal of being the apostle to the apostles.
The one who was sent first to tell the Good News of the Resurrection.
For a brief period, Mary was the only person to know for sure that Jesus had come back. Imagine that, being the ONLY person in the entire world to know this amazing news. She is also the only person to receive a personal commission from Jesus at this magnitude. “Go and tell my Brothers.”
You Mary, you have the most important message of all time, you and you alone…..
Mary Magdalene the most trusted person on the plant.
Let’s move now to look at the passage in more detail.
The Gospel we’ve had read is my favourite of the Resurrection narratives. As I was preparing for this sermon I had my mind completely blown by the hidden depths and meaning of this simple text, so let me try to explain it as best I can and try and get you as excited as I was…..
Early in the morning when it was still dark… darkness in John’s gospel is used all over the place as a metaphor for a lack of understanding or knowledge. It’s still dark both literally, as the sun hasn’t come up, and for Mary, who is still living in the darkness of grief and unbelief in the resurrection.
She is searching for the body of Jesus …. You can feel the desperation as she looks. The deep yearning to find the body, echoing our old testament reading from the Song of Songs “I sought for the one my soul loves”. Her desperation is painfully vivid here.
Finally she encounters, but does not recognise, Him. Johns gospel begins with Jesus existing as the Word, before everything began and aiding in creation. Creation in Genesis of course begins with a garden, who creates gardens? Gardeners!
Jesus’ tomb is found in a garden. The story of creation and the world begins in a garden and then receives it’s fulfilment in a garden. The irony of Mary not recognising Jesus for who he is, but as a gardener instead is almost too much. In mistaking Jesus as a gardener she is actually truly, though unknowingly at that time, recognising Him for who he truly is, God – the Creator or Gardener of the universe!
Jesus calls her by name – another illusion to his true identity as God – Earlier in the Gospel Jesus has talked about the Good Shepherd, the one who will call His flock by name…
Here Jesus is calling the first of his new flock by name, and it is in doing this that she finally realises who He is, through tear drenched eyes she sees Jesus for who He truly is – alive and made new!
Now we get to the crucial part of the passage. We may need to get a bit technical here so bear with me.
Verse 17. “do not cling onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the father” This is not supposed to be read as a literal clinging on to. There are plenty of other appropriate words for a literal clinging or physical holding that the author does not use. Instead the word used more likely refers to a metaphorical clinging… a desire or need to hold on to Jesus.
Jesus is telling Mary to move on from her desire to cling on to Him… to switch her focus off of his physical body that she has been desperately searching for, and to cling on to something else..
The something else is where it gets even more complicated. The translation here is confusing… “I have not yet ascended to the father”… surely that would mean Jesus is still able to be physically clung to… He certainly won’t be after He has ascended.
So what is being said here…. Well according to one commentator the phrasing of the original Greek suggests that this could be phrased as a question instead… “am I not ascended to the father?”
Jesus is asking a rhetorical question, “am I not yet ascended to the father?”
The “ascended” Jesus is referring to here is also not to be confused with his literal ascension, regardless of whether it is a question or not, because Jesus is there he is clearly not referring to his ascension… instead he is refereeing to the ascension to his place of glory, at the Father’s side, through the Resurrection.
It is a metaphorical ascension to Glory not a literal ascension to Heaven that will come later. In his resurrection Jesus has ascended from his physical human form to the resurrected form he is appearing as now.
Still with me?……. Jesus says to Mary “do not cling on to the Jesus you thought you knew, because is not the new glorified, resurrected Jesus already here in front of you? If so why would you still cling on to what has gone before?”
Jesus is challenging Mary to believe her eyes and not her heart. The eyes which see the resurrection, over her heart which longs for the dead Jesus who has now gone. It’s a twist on John’s usual rhetoric in his gospel of blessing those who have believed without seeing. Mary see’s and is called to believe.
Now Mary is given a new command. “Go and tell my brothers” – one last bit of technical translation stuff – Commentators suggest that the “brothers” Jesus is referring to is not limited to the disciples or the 11 (that’s the 12 minus Judas). If it were limited to those the author would have used the words specifically referring to the 11 or disciples that he has previously been using. Instead he uses a word that refers to a wider set of people using a word that can include men and women. One commentator suggests “brethren” a word that can refer to all genders.
I am not making this point to argue for gender inclusivity, rather the point is that Jesus is calling Mary to go and tell ALL believers, not just the 11, that Jesus is risen. The whole community of believers, ie, the church, ie the Body of Christ.
Jesus finds Mary in her desperate search for the physical body of Christ on earth and tells her that she is looking in the wrong place. If she wants to find the body of Christ on earth, she needs to leave the tomb and go to the body of believers, because after the resurrection the church becomes the physical body of Christ. It is there that she will be able to finally cling onto the physical body of Jesus that she so desperately longs for.
The community of believers is where God has moved the body of the Lord after rolling the stone away and leaving the tomb empty.
Isn’t it sad therefore what has happened to her since that amazing Easter morning?
And it happens to others too.
Who here has been misunderstood, or mis represented.
Who has been bullied?
Excluded by others from things?
Who’s had people tell lies or make things up about them?
It’s horrible when that happens.
What’s wonderful about God though, is that God sees ’s through those things. And in His resurrection, Jesus has got rid of them.
The past doesn’t matter anymore, nor does what anyone says’ about you because in the resurrection God has made all things new.
If you believe in Jesus – you are made new, St Paul says we are a new creation. New, shiny!
Just as Jesus wiped away the tears of the grieving Mary he wipes away all the nasty things people say about us and makes us clean and fresh.
The wonder of this too is that it doesn’t just include the things other people say about us that aren’t true. It also gets rid of things we say about ourselves that aren’t true.
Who here believes they aren’t good enough, or not smart enough, or not good looking enough, or just not good at all?
God hears you say these things about yourselves and laughs, because God knows the truth.
And to God you are beautiful, you are good enough, and you are loved.
Just as God loved Mary Magdalene and came to her in her grief and made her new, despite all the terrible things people say about her. God does the same to each of you.
God see’s you and all the nasty things people might think or say, and all those negative things you think about yourself, and wipes them away, screws them up and throws them in the bin.
So…. Be open and have your heart changed, just as Mary did, and go and tell others that what they seek is here, waiting for them.
That the lies the world tells them about themselves are just that, lies. And that the real you is known and loved by God.
So…. What does all this mean for us today?
It means that for anyone searching for Jesus we are where He is to be found.
You and I collectively are the Body of Christ.
It’s also how we can recognise Jesus, by looking at each other here in Church.
Do not simply cling on to the words you read in the Bible or the stories you have heard. Go to your brothers and sisters in Christ and meet with the Risen Christ here in Church. John’s Gospel is an entire book written to encourage the Church to have faith and continue to meet in Jesus’ name and to believe.
And what does Mary Magdalene’s example and life teach us? Firstly to ignore those who would defame or vilify us, because the God who made us and knows us, also knows the lies spun against us and will return us to the glory we are owed.
She also teaches us that we should not hold onto the things of the past, but get up and go where Jesus has sent us, to proclaim the Good News and continue to seek after Him.
Do not cling onto the past, but instead embrace the new creation and new Life found in Jesus, and go and tell others that what they are seeking so earnestly for, is to be found here, with the body of Christ.
The book most of this is taken from is Sandra M. Shneider’s Written that you might believe, Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.