Fearless and Courageous – July 22, 2018
May God’s word only be spoken and heard here, in the name of the God who creates, redeems and sustains us. AMEN.
For the second time this summer a major saint’s day has fallen on a Sunday. And so we’ve taken advantage of it and as we celebrated the Birth of St. John the Baptist last month, today we honor St. Mary Magdalene.
All four Gospels give St. Mary Magdalene a unique place among Jesus’ followers. Given that all the Gospels were written 40+ years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, that she wasn’t there to tell her own story, the fact that her story carried on, enforces the importance and impact of this amazing woman was part of the tradition.
Probably from Magdala by the Sea of Galilee, she is described as having been healed by Jesus before accompanying him during his ministry. She was present at His Crucifixion and Burial, and who went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body. She was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce His Resurrection to the apostles. Accordingly, she is referred to in early Christian writings as “the apostle to the apostles.”
There has been much confusion, if not deliberate misunderstanding around her. For centuries she was falsely remembered — at least in the West — as a forgiven prostitute. She has been conflated with the unnamed woman in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus’ feet. This is not justified by scripture. From this, plus the statement that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2), has risen the tradition that she had been a prostitute before she met Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is identified as first among “the many women” who had followed Jesus from Galilee and had “provided for him”. Luke 8 names her among “some women” who, with the Twelve, accompany Jesus as he “went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” This group of women are those reported to have been “cured” by Jesus “of evil spirits and infirmities”, with Mary Magdalene herself being one “from whom seven demons had gone out.” Luke also writes of Mary’s prominence among a highly unusual combination of male and female disciples who travel with Jesus. Equally remarkable, given the social norms of the day, is the gospel’s report that Mary Magdalene and the other women provided for Jesus and the male disciples “out of their own resources” as they journeyed together.
Between being healed, bank-rolling Jesus’ ministry and being the first witness to the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene was an active participant in Jesus’ work. Still and all, when we read the Gospel lists of Jesus’ “official” disciples, her name isn’t there, we only read of twelve men.
Then we have this morning’s Gospel, when Jesus instructs her to “go to my brothers and say to them…” In other words, “go tell the ones who are hiding, the cowardly men, those afraid to be here themselves, the good news that I am risen.” Having grown up in a tradition that only acknowledged those twelve men as the official “disciples/apostles” I too have been grateful to learn that Mary Magdalene was equal to them all. And probably then some.
Mary Magdalene was looking into a cave that first Easter morning. And it turned out there were indeed some creatures in the dark cave. Two angels. So apparently not your average tomb. The angels are pretty observant, mind you. They can see the state Mary’s in. They say to her, “Why are you crying?” You can tell these angels have never done a course in pastoral care. Because the first thing you learn in pastoral care is, “Never ask, ‘Why?’ “Why?” is a useless question. It’s threatening, paralyzing and conversation-stopping. It’s almost certain to make the person cry all the more, because if they could give a satisfactory answer, they probably wouldn’t be crying, duh.
Mary, to her credit, doesn’t say, “That’s not a very helpful question. What kind of an angel are you?” She says, instead, graciously, “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”
Mary was crying because she was facing her sense of loss in the face of death, her sense of fragility, and weakness, and loneliness and powerlessness. In this moment, especially, this is who Jesus is. He’s the one who overcomes death, and transforms the fragile, the weak, the lonely and the powerless. Staring into the tomb she began to realize whom she is looking for.
And suddenly Jesus speaks to her. When he calls her by name, when Mary first realizes she is speaking with none other than her risen Lord, she’s dumbfounded, flabbergasted. She addresses him as “Rabbouni,” teacher, rabbi, making clear that she too uses the same title and also is a disciple.
Jesus immediately tells her not to hold onto him. Rather, he sends her away, instructing her to go to the twelve and tell them the Good News. Here is the primary act of personal faith, of personal casting out fear, that Mary displays. To cling, to grab too tightly, is not love. It is fear. Fear that the one you love may leave, fear that unless you possess and control the object of your love you will enter into loneliness and despair, fear that a lack of immediate, easy access means that love has died. So Mary does not cling. “Do not fear, only believe.”
But this is not merely a command to let go; it is a command to go out. It is an instruction to go into a world of religious chaos and political instability, all the while insisting on joy. It is an instruction to go to the twelve, who are, in fear after the death of their Lord and collapse of their religious movement, hiding indoors. It is an instruction to remind these men what their Christian faith has always been, what it has always asked of them: “Do not fear, only believe.”
Surely, then, Mary Magdalene is a saint of casting out fear, and of choosing faith. Her testimony to the Twelve is a testimony that rings true today. We too, often find ourselves living in a world where truth and love seem to have been vanquished, where deceit and hateful speech are commonplace. We too, feel the strong urge to hide indoors, pull the covers over our heads, to wait out the storm. We too, are often confused, hurt, left with our own bitter tears or stunned and fearful silence.
At the same time, we too are commanded to go, to go out from this place. Every Sunday the last sentence in our worship bulletin is, “The worship is over, the service begins.” Our service is to tell others, in word or deed, that we too have seen the Lord, we too have experienced a glimmer of hope in the fear and chaos that seems to be our world. And because we’ve seen and touched that hope, we are strengthened to share it, in whatever small way we can.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has reminded us that God has a dream, and that you and I, as Mary Magdalene was, are part of that dream. “‘I have a dream,’ God says. ‘Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. . . My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.’” “I have a dream,” God says.
Mary’s words to the disciples changed the world. You and I are called to share in her mission, to make God’s dream a reality in our lives and in the lives of all those we encounter.
 Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, Doubleday, New York, 2004, pp. 19-20.