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Sermon for St. Mary Magdalene

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ August 6th, 2012

Sermon on St. John 20:10-21

St. Mary Magdalene

22 July 2012

+ Jesu Juva +

Today we are privileged to celebrate the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  Some might respond that we do not worship the saints, and that is quite correct.  But nobody is worshipping Mary Magdalene here this morning.  Rather, the Lutheran Confessions say that we keep the festivals and feast days of the saints (1) to give thanks for their faith, (2) to imitate their faith and life, and (3) to follow their works in our daily callings.  Today, then, we follow St. Mary Magdalene to the foot of the cross and rejoice with her in the wake of the resurrection.

Jesus had just died a horrible death for crimes He never committed.  The rocks had split open, the Temple veil had torn, and the bodies of many saints had been raised and had gone into Jerusalem.  A centurion had just confessed, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Mt 27:54).  In contrast to the disciples who betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus (except St. John), who was faithfully standing watch at the foot of the crucified?  We read in Matthew’s Gospel, “There were also many women there . . . among whom were Mary Magdalene” (27:55-56).  See the honor she deserves for standing by her Lord in His hour of need!  Jesus once cast seven demons out of her (Lk 8:2), which was probably the beginning of her faith and life in Christ.  How often did Jesus remind His disciples and other would-be followers that He must go to Jerusalem for His Passion, and they must follow Him and even die with Him.  Mary Magdalene, of whom not a word is recorded until after the resurrection, was present at the foot of the cross.  And even at His burial, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb” (Mt 27:61).  Since she was there for Jesus’ entire Passion, it should not surprise that Mary Magdalene is usually listed first in the “honor roll” of Jesus’ female followers.

This biblical portrait of Mary Magdalene as the faithful follower to Jesus contrasts the modern image of Mary as a prostitute.  Recall the story of the penitent prostitute in Luke 7[:36-50].  Remember the alabaster jar of oil, the anointing of Jesus’ feet, and the objection of the Pharisees.  Recall that Jesus received her worship, forgave her sins, and sent on her way to a new, sanctified life in word and deed.  It’s a wonderful story of repentance and faith, but through the years many have come to identify the penitent prostitute in Luke 7 as Mary Magdalene.  Some older hymnals even appoint Luke 7 as the Gospel Lesson for today, probably because Mary Magdalene is mentioned just after this story (Lk 8:2).  Similarly, the film, “The Passion of the Christ,” while otherwise excellent viewing and even good history, also portrays Mary Magdalene as the prostitute of Luke 7.  But again, there is no foundation to believe that Mary Magdalene was such a rebellious sinner.  If she was, she probably would not have her own feast day in our church year!

The Day of St. Mary Magdalene is a good day to “rescue” her from this misunderstanding and see her for whom she really was:  the wise woman of today’s OT lesson, whose wisdom led her to follow Jesus all the way to suffering, death, and burial.  See how the Christian life is lived under the cross!  It is the life that Jesus Himself described:  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  Deny your sinful self, Dearly Beloved!  Crucify everything in you that is not of Christ.  Return to the waters of baptism, see how you have offended God, and meditate on your transgressions against the Ten Commandments.  Then take up your cross – the cross of suffering for the sake of the Gospel, of taking a lonely stand for the right doctrine and confession, and being willing to “suffer all, even death” (Confirmation Rite) for the sake of the Christian faith.  Follow Him through life and death, even when the road is dark, and join Mary Magdalene and all the faithful so that, as we have just sung, “Our lives may sing [His] praise” (LSB 855.3).

So Mary Magdalene was present as Jesus suffered and died, but that was not the end of the story.  She was also there when Jesus rose from the dead.  Indeed, she is the beginning of the Easter story in most of the Gospels.  In St. John, for instance, we read, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early” (20:1).  After discovering an apparent robbery, she told the disciples what she had found.  Peter and John ran to the tomb and then returned to the upper room.  Then Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene.  Once again, she was there, faithfully waiting and watching for her Lord.  She saw the angels, along with the shroud and head cloth.  She wept.  Yet in the midst of her tears and grief, Jesus came to her.  “Woman, why are you weeping?  Who is it you are looking for?”  At first, she didn’t recognize him.  Think of it:  Would you expect someone who died two days ago to come and comfort you at their own grave?  She thought he was the gardener, who might be able to tell her where Jesus’ body was taken.  But this “gardener” called her by name:  “Mary.”  And the faithful sheep knew the voice of her Shepherd.  “Rabboni,” she replied.  “My rabbi;  my teacher.”  And she clung to her Lord.  She lost Him once.  She was not going to lose Him again.  And after His ascension, He would abide with her and His church in hidden yet miraculous ways.

This Easter narrative of Mary as the first witness to the resurrection contrasts the modern myth of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ secret wife.  As the rumor goes, Mary Magdalene was supposedly married to Jesus, but in secret.  The fanciful legend also claims that they had descendants, who of course lived in seclusion and might be hiding the bloodline of Jesus to this very day.  You are probably thinking of Dan Brown’s book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code, in which the beloved disciples reclining in Jesus’ bosom in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” is supposedly Mary Magdalene (Mrs. Jesus) instead of the Apostle John.  This is offensive enough.  But the idea that Mary and Jesus were married was actually promoted in a prior book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail.  In this novel, which Dan Brown hacked wholesale to make his millions on The Da Vinci Code, the quest for the holy grail, usually believed to be the holy chalice Jesus used on Maundy Thursday, is a code for the secret descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  So, as the novel goes, the search is not for a chalice (holy grail) at all, but for the biological heirs of Jesus and Mary (holy blood).

Did I mention how pleased we are to celebrate Mary’s day today and to help rescue her from these myths?  Mary Magdalene, far from being Jesus’ wife, was the first eyewitness of the resurrection, the first one to report to the disciples that Jesus was not in the tomb.  And just think of it:  a woman was the first one to proclaim the resurrection.  That Mary called Jesus “Rabonni” was radical enough.  Disciples were always men.  A woman’s testimony had no legal standing in Jesus’ day.  But Jesus said to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn 20:17).  What good news this is for us!  The resurrection must have the testimony of eyewitnesses for us to believe and be saved.  In Bible times, everything had to be established by at least 2-3 eyewitnesses.  No majority votes, by-laws, or resolutions. That’s how we would have tried to preach the resurrection, isn’t it?  “Madame Mary, I make a motion that we affirm that Jesus really rose from the dead.  Second!  All in favor?  Opposed?  Abstentions?  Passed!”  But that’s not how Jesus delivered the good news of the resurrection (and freedom and salvation and forgiveness) to us.  As we heard in our second lesson, it was through Mary, then many other witnesses, that the good news of life and salvation has come all the way to this pulpit, where we hear that Jesus lives that you and I might live;  and to this altar, where we celebrate the resurrection every time we eat His body and drink His blood.

From weeping at the Passion of our Lord to beholding His resurrection, such is the faith and life of St. Mary Magdalene, for whom we give thanks today.  As a faithful follower to the foot of the crucified One and the first to behold and proclaim the resurrection, it was for good reason that one Medieval Father (Bernard of Clairvaux) called her “the apostle to the apostles.”  She was sent by God to lead them and us to crucify our sins at the foot of the cross, and to live in the light and life of the resurrection.  As the hymn puts it, “As with joy she saw Him / In resurrection light, May we by faith behold Him, The Day who ends our night!” (LSB 855.11).  + INJ + Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY


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