Sunday 21 April 2019
With his 2003 best-seller, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown stirred up a fury of controversy around the figure of Mary Magdalene. He portrays Mary as the wife of Jesus, the mother of his secret child, the holy grail because she was the vessel for his holy bloodline, a secret that has been guarded through the centuries by a series of secret societies. This novel captivated the world and spurred all kinds of conversations about Mary, her role among the early disciples, and the sacred feminine. Of course, we have since learned that Dan Brown was rather loose with the things he portrayed as fact, preferring to tell a good story. That is, after all, what any good novelist would do.
Dan Brown was wrong about a lot of things, but one thing he was right about is that as the early church became more and more male-dominated, it became more and more afraid of Mary Magdalene. They didn’t like the idea of any woman being that close to Jesus, and so they portrayed her as a prostitute, a crazy person, an unstable woman who was just lucky to be a hanger-on of Jesus. None of that is supported by the witness we have in the bible.
The bible itself is aggravatingly quiet about Mary and her role in the Jesus group. This is what we do know: Mary was one of the many women who traveled with Jesus throughout his ministry, from the very beginning to the very end. She supported him and his mission financially. She was there at the crucifixion, after the male disciples had run away and hidden. She was the first to go to the tomb and find it empty. She was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. In other words, she is one of the most important people in the Jesus story.
The Gospel of John tells the story this way. On that Sunday morning, two days after Jesus was crucified, Mary of Magdala goes to the tomb and finds it empty. She runs back to find the other disciples, Peter and the beloved disciple, and they hurry to the tomb. Now, these are the guys you would expect to see the risen Christ. This is the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples—the unnamed disciple Jesus loved, and Peter, the leader of the twelve. These figures are the foundation of the church.
But Jesus doesn’t appear to them. They don’t see any angels. They don’t get any divine messages. All they see is an empty tomb, with the grave clothes left behind. And they believe what Mary had first told them, that Jesus’s body had been taken away to some undisclosed location.
But then we find Mary there at the tomb again, weeping, unconsolable. And for some reason, she decides to take another look inside. Peter and the beloved disciple had already gone in and looked inside—nothing there but some linen rags. But when Mary looks in, she finds two angels dressed in white. And then, there is Jesus himself, standing behind her. She doesn’t recognize him at first, but soon she does.
It would have made more sense for Jesus to appear to the men. In that culture, at that time, Peter and the other disciple would have been more credible as witnesses. They would have been believed where a woman would not. But Jesus doesn’t appear to them. Instead, he chooses Mary Magdalene as the first person to see him risen from the dead. He chooses her, and he gives her a sacred calling: to go and tell the others. When Jesus sends her, she actually becomes the first apostle. “Apostle” literally means someone who is sent out. That’s what Mary is. Jesus sends her out to tell the other disciples that he is risen and he is ascending to God. She is the apostola apostolorum—the apostle to the apostles, the very first witness to the glory of the resurrection.
Mary was not the most likely choice to be the first witness, and yet, Jesus chose to appear to her. And through her, others came to believe and to know the amazing grace offered in Jesus Christ.
When we look at ourselves, we might think that we aren’t the most likely witnesses either. We might think there are others who would be better suited, who would be more qualified. We might think there are others who would be better at sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, who would be more suited to proclaiming the Gospel. Other people have better stories than we do. Other people are more eloquent than we are. And yet, Jesus calls us, whether we think we are qualified or not.
We have a story of resurrection to tell. We have a story of Jesus’s victory over death. We have a story of everlasting life in Christ. We have a story of life beyond death, offered as a free gift to all.
But not only that, we have a story of life transformed in Christ. We have a story of addiction overcome. We have a story of grief made bearable. We have a story of hungry people who are fed. We have a story of life that finds its meaning in connection to God, of life that finds purpose in service to the world. We have a story of resurrection, and it doesn’t happen only after we die. Resurrection happens every day, wherever we find new life in Christ. We have a story to tell.
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church puts it bluntly. “The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the Gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and impact on an unbelieving world”.
We have a story to tell. We have new life in Jesus Christ. We have a God who loves us more than we can imagine and is just waiting for us to turn and accept that love and be made new. We have a reality that has been transformed by God’s grace. Isn’t that a story worth telling? Isn’t that a gift worth sharing?
We are called, like Mary Magdalene, to be apostles, to be those who are sent out into the world, to proclaim the grace of God that we have witnessed. Not just the grace that we have read about in the bible, but the grace that we have experienced in our own lives. So let us answer that call. Let us proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ through our lives. Let us proclaim the Gospel in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions, so that all the world may know the saving grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!