This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.
I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon. It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove. Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing. But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories. And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.
Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.
Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us. It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction. It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with. And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”
The story begins in darkness, early in the morning. In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.
Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation. She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back. Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes). And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.
And she weeps. Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation. Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.” The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.
Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name. John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him. In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.
So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated. She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord. She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices. She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.
All of this is well and good. We too should seek with persistence. We too should love the light and weep at the darkness. We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice. As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.
But wait; there’s more to the story. The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved. One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen. Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.” And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.
Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus. Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her. She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness. Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.” He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight. And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.
The relevance of this is that all three are given their place. Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter. Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word. And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community. At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.
Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here. John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach. Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.
But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle. He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex. Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community. More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!
So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.
By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.
That’s John’s version, anyway. But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.