As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Mary Magdalene, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Easter Sunday 16 April, 2017. The Reading was John 20:1-18. It was part of a sermon series based on The Skit Guys’ ‘Who do you say I am?‘ series. You can watch the Mary Magdalene video on their webpage.
Women in the Bible
How many women are mentioned by name in the Gospels? Do you know? There are some women who are featured but not named, such as the woman from Samaria in John 4, but there are 14 women who are mentioned by name. Because they are named, they have some importance, either referencing the Old Testament stories, or are evidence of the historical accuracy of the events, as people in the community would know them by name and could confirm the events. Of these 14 named women, three (Rachel, Rahab, and Ruth) are people who appear in the Old Testament, so it is just a reference by name. Of the remaining 11, 5 – Susanna, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza (Lk 8:3), Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Mt 27:56), Salome (Mk 15:40; 16:1) and Mary, the wife of Clopas (Jn 19:25), are mentioned only by name and have no real effect on the story. That leaves us with 6. Anna the Prophetess is found in three verses of Luke 2:36-38, but has no words attributed to her. 5. Mary, and her sister Martha appears in John 11 and Luke 10. 3. In Luke 1, we read of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and we have the incredible proclamation by Elizabeth about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in verses Lk 1:42-45. It is Elizabeth that we find the first words of dialogue attributed to a woman, in verse 25. That leaves us with 2, and they both go by the name Mary.
These two Mary’s are the only women who are mentioned in all four Gospels. We have Mary, the mother of Jesus; and Mary Magdalene. Given that we know how important Mary, mother of Jesus is to the story, the fact that Mary Magdalene is the only other named woman that rates a mention in all four Gospels tells us that her role is particularly important. So let’s take a look at her story.
In Luke 8, Mary is mentioned as part of a group of women that followed Jesus around with his disciples. It mentioned that she had seven demons in her, of which it’s implied that Jesus cast those demons out. These women are said to have provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their resources – similarly in Mark 15:41 she is mentioned as having followed Jesus around and having provided for him. From this, we can assume that Mary is a woman of some means – in Mark 16:1, we read that it is Mary, the mother of James, Salome, and Mary Magdalene who brought the spices to anoint the body of Jesus. These spices would have been expensive to purchase, so we can assume that she has some wealth behind her, something quite odd for the society of the day.
Mary is mentioned to have been a witness at the crucifixion of Christ. While Mark and Matthew mention her as being part of a group of women watching from a distance, in John she is mentioned as part of a group standing near the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Some commentators say that the women – being often overlooked by the authorities – had a lot more freedom to be able to watch and move about without attracting the attention of the Chief Priests since their testimony would have been inadmissible in court under Jewish law, as opposed to the disciples, who would all have been in hiding by this stage.
And so it’s in this context that we see Mary come to be the central figure. She has appeared throughout the gospel story, is listed as having been a close follower of Jesus, and we see her as one of the first people to come and visit Jesus’ tomb. The reason she was visiting the tomb was to try and anoint Jesus’ body – the Jews believed that the soul of a body doesn’t leave a person until the fourth day – hence why Jesus waited a couple of days before departing when he heard Lazarus was sick, so that the miracle would be doubly miraculous, as he was healed on the fourth day, when the soul was supposed to have left. Mary had hoped to be able to anoint Jesus’ body on the third day so that Jesus’ soul wouldn’t be scared away by the sight and smell of his body – as that was the Jewish belief. Perhaps she had believed some of Jesus’ teachings, but didn’t understand and thought that these things were to happen after Christ’s death, but wouldn’t happen if his soul had been scared away.
Even those with the most faith can come up short
Mary is, perhaps, the person who had the most faith. She believed that Jesus would fulfill the things that he had said. Perhaps she lingered at the cross because she believed that Jesus would find a way to beat crucifixion. Perhaps she followed after his body was taken down in the hope that Jesus wasn’t really dead. And perhaps Mary returned to the tomb in the hope that the soul of Christ would be the one to fulfill his teachings.
And isn’t that so often the case? We can be absolutely assured of our faith in something – but come up short in our understanding. We saw with Peter through his denial of Christ. And again Peter, on his arrival at the tomb, sees the linen wrappings, and no body, but still doesn’t understand. Still doesn’t believe. And Thomas, one of the twelve, after all his friends had told them what they have seen, still won’t believe until he sees it for himself. These are some of the people we hold up as examples of our faith, but when push comes to shove their belief of what Jesus was capable of was lacking.
And so it is with us. Sometimes we lack the belief of what God is capable of. We say God is capable of all things… but in our hearts we say that God won’t do this, or God won’t do that. Maybe we pray to God for healing, but don’t trust that God will put the things in place to let that healing happen. Maybe we pray to God, asking to bring in new people to our church, but don’t allow God to speak through us in our daily lives.
We need to always believe for more
We need to believe for more. We need to believe that God can and will do more.
Jesus rose from the dead – he did the impossible. And he chose to tell that news to Mary first of all – he didn’t appear to any of the twelve, but to Mary. Perhaps he realised that the men, in their patriarchal society, wouldn’t embrace the role of women in the church as well as he had hoped – so he put it right there. At the scene of his most incredible miracle, it is Mary who is the first witness.
Jesus’ view of the kingdom of God always included those on the margins – the poor, the sick, the women, the outsiders, the Gentiles. Jesus included them when other Jewish teachers were excluding them.
Sometimes, we do the same thing. We want to limit our church. We want to limit who can come in and who cannot. Sure, we may not stick up a sign saying that, but do our actions both in our church and in our community reflect who is welcome?
Sometimes, we limit what we believe others are capable of. Or we limit what we think we’re capable of. We think that we couldn’t talk to someone about our faith, or we couldn’t help out with this or that ministry, or we couldn’t do whatever. Now, sometimes there is a physical limitation – and I understand that. I’m not going to get up here and suggest that Bill should be leading our Mainly Music sessions, for example.
However, we can believe that God will do more through us, and will do more in our community, and do more than we think. This is the God who beat death, after all. We need to believe for more, because God is all powerful, and all welcoming, and all loving.
When we believe for more, we will see incredible things
When we believe for more, we will see incredible things. Mary was an outcast – she had seven demons inside her, and would have been excluded from her community. When Jesus healed her, she joined him and his disciples and followed them around. She saw the incredible things that Jesus did. And at the resurrection, she was chosen to be the one to tell the disciples that Jesus was alive. To be the one to tell the disciples that there was more to the story, that they didn’t have to lose hope. That they were about to be launched into something that would change the world, so far outside of their small Jewish worldview. God had more in store for the disciples than they could have ever imagined.
In the same way, God has more in store for us than we can ever imagine. And God has more in store for you than you can ever imagine.
We can see greater things when we believe for more
Believe for more. Believe for greater things. Believe in the one who rose from the dead. Whether you’re the disciples who are in hiding, or the Peter and John who looked in the tomb but didn’t understand, or whether you’re Mary who faithfully followed, and did what she thought was right – believe for more. Believe in the one who welcomes all, believe in the one who died for all, believe in the one who rose for all. Because when we believe for more, God will use us and show us even more incredible things.