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Women in the World of Jesus: Mary Magdalene

April 8, 2007

John 20:1-18

This morning, I went to an Easter sunrise service. Someone asked, “Why would you do that? It is not like you did not have a few other things to do today.” I said, “I wanted to hear a good sermon.” I did hear a good sermon, one based on the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark. That earliest gospel’s resurrection account is similar to the one here in the Gospel of John. Both accounts have an undertone of fear and uncertainty. You have to understand that when we come to Easter, we come with a sense of hope and anticipation. We decorate the Sanctuary, and we come dressed in new clothes. We know this is a day of celebration. It is a day of thanksgiving.

Those early Christians who first experienced the empty tomb thought that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, that someone was up to mischief. The scriptures uniformly tell us that the first reaction people had when they realized that the tomb was empty was one of fear, of trembling and uncertainty. It was not until they saw the resurrected Christ that their despair changed to joy. Our faith is not rooted and grounded in an empty tomb. The tomb certainly was empty. I have seen the tomb; it is still empty. Our faith is rooted and grounded in a resurrected Christ. Our Savior is alive.

The sermon today focuses on the very first person who saw that truth, who experienced that reality, who knew that Jesus was alive and took that message to others. Her name is Mary Magdalene.

John Grisham’s book The Innocent Man is a true story about a young baseball player from Oklahoma who had many rough edges in his life. Unjustly accused of murder, he spent eleven years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.

Mary Magdalene has been the subject of ecclesiastical gossip, not for eleven years but for about 2,000 years. People have described her in a way that probably has not one grain of truth. They have wrongly accused her. Just recently, a program on the Discovery Channel entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus followed the best-seller book of fiction by Dan Brown called The Da Vinci Code. Those two sources were predicated on a book released in the early 1980s, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. An idea that started in the early twentieth century claimed that Mary and Jesus had a romantic relationship and that they were actually married to each other. You hear overtones of that claim in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene sings, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which includes the line, “I’ve met so many men before.” This idea that Jesus and Mary were married has no grain of evidence in the Bible.

Is this relationship possible? It was certainly unusual for a rabbi to remain unmarried; but you must remember that from the outset Jesus recognized his mission as the Son of God. It is unlikely that Jesus would have married Mary or anyone. Early in his ministry, he told his disciples he would have to suffer and die. Nothing indicates that they had a romantic relationship. Mary and Jesus did have a special relationship though, one that was important. She simply loved him as any of the other disciples loved him.

Another rumor about Mary Magdalene goes back even further. Some have unjustly accused her of being a harlot, a prostitute. Allow me to call your attention to Luke 7:36-50. This gospel does not provide the name of the woman who comes in from the street while Jesus is dining at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Identified only as “sinful,” this woman weeps as she washes the feet of Jesus. She lets her hair down, using it to dry the feet of Jesus. This display, very unusual public behavior for a woman in the first century, signals that she is seductive. Then this woman anoints the feet of Jesus with perfume from a small bottle of ointment, probably carried around her neck. Prostitutes often carried a vial of ointment to perfume their bed. These actions have led people to conclude that this woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet was a sinful prostitute.

A reference to Mary Magdalene follows this story in Luke 8. You see there a list of “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna, the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others.” Because Mary Magdalene’s name appears in those verses, the early church, a man named Gregory in particular, identified the sinful woman of Chapter 7, as Mary Magdalene of Chapter 8. It is an unfortunate linking because I do not believe they are the same person.

We know a lot about Mary Magdalene if we can just read and pay attention to the scriptures. Two verses contain most of what we know about her. Her name simply meant that she was from the town of Magdala, a small fishing village about two hour’s walking distance from Capernaum. The town is located on the Sea of Galilee. The manner of identification tells us that she is single. Most of the time, women were identified as somebody’s wife or mother. She is no one’s wife, at least at this point. She is no one’s mother. It is entirely probable that she is a widow.

We also know that Jesus had healed Mary Magdalene of seven demons. Many have speculated about the nature of these seven demons. We do not know what they were or what how this demon-possession manifested itself in her life. We do know that the “demons” had caused her serious problems. We can only imagine about her mental state prior to Jesus’ healing. In that day and time, people did not diagnose illnesses in the way we diagnose now. They described illnesses that are common to human life by saying that someone was demon-possessed. We do know from others that this affliction was most often associated with mental illness. Following her healing, Mary Magdalene became a devoted follower of Jesus. We see her standing at the foot of the cross. We see her here at the tomb.

The medieval church named seven deadly sins, and it was just almost too much for the medieval mind not to make the correlation between Mary’s seven demons and the seven deadly sins. Once the church made that association, many considered Mary the worst sinner because she exhibited all seven deadly sins. One of the popes first made that decree.

Renaissance paintings often depicted Mary Magdalene as a woman with long, flowing red hair, red because the prophet Isaiah mentioned sins “as scarlet…red as crimson” (Isaiah 1:18). People associated the woman in the Luke 7 passage, who has long hair, with Mary Magdalene; but she was not the scandalous harlot that some have made her out to be.

Mary Magdalene was a woman of financial means. She probably has some kind of inheritance, maybe from her deceased husband. Perhaps her father left her an inheritance. She is probably not wealthy in the way we would think of wealth, but she certainly has some way of supporting the ministry of Jesus. It is so interesting to note that Luke names the women in Chapter 8, Verse 2. In addition to Mary Magdalene, Luke mentions Johanna, the wife of a financial manager in Herod’s court. We know nothing about Susanna. We do know these women were significant to the ministry of Jesus. They followed him and supported him financially. They were helping to support the disciples through their own financial resources.

Mary Magdalene was a leader among the disciples. She definitely had a place of prominence, a place of leadership. Think of the disciple group as having what we might call a women’s auxiliary, a name that goes back for many Baptists. Mary Magdalene’s name appeared first in lists of women associated with Jesus – at the cross, at the tomb – except when lists included Mary, the mother of Jesus. In that case, the name of Jesus’ mother appeared first. In 1896, a manuscript entitled “The Gospel of Mary” was discovered in an Egyptian library. No one would say that manuscript is a part of Scripture, but that little document explains that Mary was a strong leader among the entire apostle group, not just among the women. The Roman Catholic Church had called her the Apostle to the Apostles. She received that remarkable designation because she was the first to see Jesus as the resurrected Lord. Jesus gives her a commission, “Go, and tell my disciples…” She tells the other disciples that Jesus has conquered death, that he has been raised from the dead.

On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and grieves in the way any widow would. If you have lost your husband, every grief is like that same grief repeatedly. She is there to anoint the body of Jesus with spices – do something loving for Jesus. When she finds that his body is gone, she tells the disciples. They run to see for themselves, then leave. As Mary remains, weeping outside the empty tomb, a person she thinks is the gardener speaks to her. When the person calls her name, she knows immediately that it is not the gardener; it is her Lord. The most important information to know about Mary is that she knew Jesus, and he knew her. They had a personal relationship. Mary knew the compassion in his eyes. She knew the authority in his voice. She knew his healing touch. She knew Jesus as the Savior. She loved Jesus. In this encounter at the tomb, she believes that Jesus is the risen Christ. She believes it so much that she tells others.

It is not enough just to study the Bible. It is not enough just to read stories about the people in the Bible. We must ask, “Do you know Jesus? Do you love him? Do you know how much he loves you? Have you experienced Christ in your life?” For centuries, people have debated the truth of the resurrection. We sing a hymn that puts it as clearly and as succinctly as I know how, “You ask me how I know he lives: He lives within my heart.”

Does the risen Christ live in your heart? If you have never made that decision, could I invite you to accept Christ today? Accept the Christ who died for your sins, the Christ who conquered death so that you could live and have the gift of eternal life. As we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” we invite your response.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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