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Bishop Erik Gronberg, Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod
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Easter A – April 12, 2020
Since our theme is Mary Magdalene, consider this prayer of the day I composed:
Almighty God, you granted the apostle Mary Magdalene to be the first witness of the resurrection, and the first to announce the good news. Following her example, may we also be witnesses of the resurrection, witnesses of Christ to the world, until that day when we see him in glory, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon. God shows no partiality. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. They put him to death on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day…
Jeremiah 31:1-6 – I have loved you with an everlasting love. I will build you again. Vineyards will once again be planted in Samaria.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 – On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
Colossians 3:1-4 – So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is.
Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon. God shows no partiality. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. They put him to death on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day…
John 20:1-18 – Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb… Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Matthew 28:1-10 – But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
Coronavirus on Easter
It seems to me that people need to hear a word of hope now more than ever. Above all, our message must be one of hope. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Thou anointed my head with oil! My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
We must preach hope. Still, such hope should not be illusory hope. It must be a hope grounded in the truth. We are not science-deniers. We do not pretend that we are not in a pandemic. We do not ignore the earnest pleas of health officials who know all-too-well the bell curve of epidemics. We do not selfishly act in ways that will hurt or endanger our neighbor, exposing the most vulnerable among us to potential infection. We do not go to the grocery and hoard. Because those are the actions of those who live in fear. Those who live with hope act differently.
We proclaim life in the midst of death. We know that the virus will have its day, and it’s way, and then it will be defeated. It will go to the dust like all sickness and death that has been declared temporary in the resurrection Christ. And even for those who succumb to its virile and viral embrace, we proclaim a word of hope at the edge of the grave. Even at the grave we sing our song, “Alleluia! Alleluia!” God has conquered death. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of things to come. He is the firstborn of a new humanity, being revealed.
Mary Magdalene is in every resurrection account in the New Testament. She was a follower during his earthly ministry. She was healed by Jesus. She was a philanthropist who supported his ministry financially. She was present at the crucifixion of Jesus. She stood in the midst of death. She was the first to stand before the empty tomb. She was the first to encounter the risen Christ. She was the first to tell others, the very definition of an apostle. “I have seen the Lord.”
Today’s post focuses at length on Mary as the first apostle. There may be more here than you can digest with all that’s going on. That’s okay. It will be waiting for you when you are ready.
Have you see the risen Christ? Where have you seen Christ? Can you point to places, even in the midst of this crisis, where you have seen the face of God revealed? Can you name them in your sermon? Where have you seen Christ? In simple acts of kindness and generosity? In the sacrificial love of another? Have you seen the Lord?
I see death around us, but I have seen the Lord.
I see fear and anxiety poking up, but I have seen the Lord.
I see a wave of sickness rising up on the horizon, but I have seen the Lord.
So let us trust the God who loves us with an everlasting love stronger than the grave. Let us heed the words of the angel to Mary, “Be not afraid!”
Women in the Bible
This year, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in our church, a great blessing that is still sadly maligned by some. It is also the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in this country. We have much to celebrate.
I have been reading a lot about women in the Bible, and considering how I might preach them intentionally this year, and into the future. This is easier said than done. Of the 1700 names in the Bible, only 137 of them are women, roughly 8%. 93 have spoken words recorded, of which 49 are named, says Alice Connor in Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation.
Indeed, looking at the appointed texts for the Revised Common Lectionary, one can see that there are only a few stories that involve women in the next 35 weeks of this lectionary year:
- April 12, 2020: Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, Matthew 28
- April 26, 2020: The other disciple on the Road to Emmaus could be Mary, Clopas’ wife
- July 5, 2020: Rebekah
- July 26, 2020: Leah and Rachel
- August 16, 2020: Jesus heals the Canaanite woman
That’s it. We have to keep in mind that the Bible comes from a patriarchal society. It is a book written by men, about men. Unfortunately, many of the stories about women don’t show up in the lectionary. If their stories are going to be heard, we are going to have to make space for this. I might suggest a sermon series this summer or this fall that focuses on some of these stories, below. Or sprinkle them throughout the year, culminating in Mary the mother of Jesus at Christmas.
- Eve: Is any story in the Bible more misunderstood?
- Sarah and Hagar
- Lot’s daughters: another misused story…
- Lot’s wife
- Potiphar’s wife, whose false accusations get Joseph thrown in jail.
- Puah and Shiprah, two Hebrew midwives who disobey Pharaoh’s command to kill all newborn Hebrew boys, one of many stories that don’t appear in the lectionary
- Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued and raised Moses
- Zipporah, Moses’ wife who protects him from God wanting to kill him.
- Sephora, Moses’ Ethiopian wife
- Miriam, Moses’ sister, a prophetess
- Tamar, another story you have never heard told in church, but part of David’s and Jesus’ genealogy
- Cozbi, a woman slain by Phinehas before the Midian War
- Rahab, Jericho prostitute in Joshua
- Delilah, who betrays Samson
- The Levite’s concubine, raped to death
- Jephthah’s daughter
- Deborah and Jael
- The witch of Endor
- Queen Jezebel
- The widow of Zarephath
- Athaliah, daughter of Jezebel and King Ahab
- The Shunammite woman
- 4 unnamed wives
- Prophetess Huldah
- Abagail and David.
- Sauzanna. Daniel.
- Ruth, a Romance Novel. Naomi. Harvest festival. Illegal aliens. Naomi and her boys are refugees from a natural disaster. Moabites have fled across the border.
- The lover of Song of Solomon
- Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ patron
- Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus
- Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus
- Herodias /Salome
- The widow of Nain
- The Canaanite woman/Syro-Phoenician woman
- The woman at the well
- The woman caught in adultery
- The woman with the alabaster jar
- Phoebe, Paul’s patron
- Priscilla and Aquila, pastors and tentmakers.
- Lydia, businesswoman with a house church
- Junia, greatest among the apostles
- Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s mother and grandmother
- And all the church leaders mentioned by Paul and John: Junia, Julia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Mary, Claudia, Damaris, Drusilla, Persis, Chloe, Lydia, Euodia, Synthyche, and the “elect lady” to whom 2 John was written—the only biblical book directly addressed to a woman…
We could spend quite some time telling the stories, and probably we should. I will get this started (today actually), but I’m gonna need your help.
Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle, Witness to the Resurrection
Mary from Magdala?
Magdala means “tower” in Aramaic: מגדלא, Hebrew: מגדל (Migdal) and Arabic: المجدل (al-Majdal). Magdala was an ancient city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee a few miles north of Tiberias. Until the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, there was a small Palestinian Arab village called al-Majdal at the site. Now there is a town there known as Migdal.
Archaeological excavations suggest the settlement began during the Hellenistic period, 100 years before Christ, or more. Excavations in 2009–2013 uncovered an ancient synagogue, called the “Migdal Synagogue,” the oldest synagogue found in the Galilee. Here is the Magdala stone found there, the earliest menorah of that period to be discovered outside of Jerusalem.
There are seven Mary’s in the New Testament. It turns out it was a pretty popular name. Mary Magdalene often gets confused with one or more of them. Mary is often confused with the woman who brings the alabaster jar of ointment to Jesus, anointing his feet and sensually drying them with her hair. She gets confused with the woman who is a “sinner,” encountered by Jesus in the home of a Pharisee. In art and literature she is portrayed as a prostitute, but that’s not what the Bible says.
Liz Curtis Higgs, in her book Bad Girls of the Bible, finds it interesting that we want to make a prostitute out of Mary Magdalene. In fact, there seems to be a tendency to make bad girls out of many of the women in the Bible. Men want a bad girl, but then they want to despise her at the same time. Men want prostitutes, but they want to look down on them as well. Higgs explores this phenomenon.
So let’s begin with the Bible actually says. Keep in mind, my notes are not intended to be a sermon. This is background information. We all learned homiletics that in order to write a good sermon you need to know who you’re talking to, what they need, and what’s going on in the world. Most of this post contain exegetical work and a few ideas that might inspire your preparation.
Mary Magdalene in the Bible
Mary Magdalene is mentioned 13 times in the New Testament: three times in Matthew (27:56, 61; 28:1), four times in Mark (15:40, 47; 16:1, 9), twice in Luke (8:2; 24:10), and four times in John (n 19:25; 20:1, 11, 18). Taken together, we see a picture of a woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, who then subsequently traveled with Jesus and supported his ministry financially. She was one of a few women at the crucifixion, and the first to witness his resurrection.
I’ll start with Mark, since we believe this to be the first of the four Gospels written. Of the 660 versus in Mark, 600 of them are copied into Matthew and Luke.
In Mark 15:40-41 we are told:
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
So the women watched the crucifixion from a distance. Mary Magdalene was one, and also another Mary, identified by her three children: James, Joses and Salome. These women consist of women from up north in Galilee, women who have been funding Jesus’ ministry, and also some women from Jerusalem.
The story continues with Joseph of Arimathea financing Jesus’ burial. In verse 47 we learn Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was “buried.” In chapter 16 we read: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
Mary is identified the second and third times as simply the mother of James, but her daughter Salome comes along with spices. They get up early and go to the tomb just after sunrise. The stone has already been rolled away. They see a young man in a white robe who says, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” (Μὴ ἐκθαμβεῖσθε: Ἰησοῦν ζητεῖτε τὸν Ναζαρηνὸν τὸν ἐσταυρωμένον: ἠγέρθη, οὐκ ἔστιν ὧδε: ἴδε ὁ τόπος ὅπου ἔθηκαν αὐτόν.) The white-robed young man tells them to go tell the disciples.
Verse 9 says, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Some versions of Mark and here. Others have an additional ending that says they did indeed go tell the disciples. Descending includes some resurrection appearances.
Matthew’s account is similar, though he changes some of the details. Mary Magdalene is among the women watching the crucifixion “from a distance.” Matthew 27:55-56 says,
Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
The other Mary is mother of James and Joseph now. Joseph may be Mark’s Joses, and Salome simply omitted. They sit opposite the tomb after Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus and rolls the stone in place.
In Matthew 28:1, the two Marys go to the tomb at dawn. Unlike Mark, the stone is not yet rolled away. Matthew adds an earthquake, and an angel like lightning who rolls away the stone. The angels says to not be afraid, and instructs the women to share the good news with the disciples, but Jesus makes a surprise appearance.
Matthew 28:1-10 is our gospel text for Easter this year A in The Revised Common Lectionary.
Mary Magdalene appears earlier in Luke’s Gospel than the other gospels, where she does not appear until the crucifixion. Luke 8:1-3 says,
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”
This is the third time we have heard that Mary Magdalene in the other women are philanthropists. Later the same chapter, Luke tells us about the sinful woman with the alabaster jar of ointment who dries Jesus’ feet with her hair, at the Pharisee’s house, forever confusing the women.
The seven demons is new information, peculiar to Luke’s gospel. What were her demons? Alcoholism? Depression? Suicidal tendencies? Self-loathing? Self-mutilation? We are not told. Certainly, prostitution is not mentioned or even hinted. Richard Rohr, in his book Universal Christ, suggests that perhaps sex is our demon, not hers.
Lk 23:55-56 tells us, “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.” Mary Magdalene is not yet identified as one of those women, but soon she will be.
Luke 24 begins with the now famous Easter proclamation,
… on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Luke keeps Mark’s original claim that the stone was already rolled away when the women arrived. No earthquake like Matthew. Mark’s young man in a white robe, which Matthew changes to an angel like lightning, is now two men in dazzling outfits. I like it. They even give theological instruction.
Then Luke mentions Mary Magdalene, Joanna (not Salome as in Matthew) and the other Mary, who is simply the mother of James. Oh, and “some other women.”
We all know John’s Gospel is significantly different than the first three Gospels. It is sourced differently, and written later. It is much more interested in the cosmic Christ than the Jesus of history. Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene appears here as well. Her story is one of the few that shows up in all four Gospels, meaning it’s pretty important.
John 19 says, standing near the cross of Jesus are his mother, and his aunt, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Yet a different configuration of women. An aunt? And the other Mary is the “wife of Clopas.” It’s not inconceivable that the other Mary has Clopas as a husband, Joseph/Joses and James as sons and Salome as a daughter.
Keep Mary and Clopas in mind. In a few weeks, when we read the story of Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I will point out that only one of those disciples is named: Clopas, and the other disciple is unnamed. I will suggest that it is quite possible that the other disciple is his wife Mary.
In John 20, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb, a departure from the synoptic gospels. She doesn’t go after the sunrise, but while still dark, which would be bending the Sabbath rules? The stone is already removed, as in Mark and Luke. She immediately runs to get Peter, who comes to see, along with “the other disciple.”
John 20:11 tells us that
…Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary stands weeping at the tomb. Much artwork shows Mary Magdalene crying. For John there are two angels, like Luke. Mary confuses him for the gardener, but then he simply says her name, “Mary,” and she immediately recognizes him, responding, “Rabbi.” Or perhaps, “Rabbi?” Bible characters often don’t recognize Jesus at first. This will be the case with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Perhaps it is the same for us. We often don’t see Jesus, even when he is right in front of our faces.
The First Apostle
Acts 1:22 defines an apostle as a witness to the resurrection. If so, then Mary is the first apostle. She is not only a witness to the resurrection, but the first to encounter not just the physical earthly Jesus, but the resurrected Christ. She was the first to go and tell others.
Richard Rohr, in his book Universal Christ, says, “The first apostle was a woman.” (p. 191) he goes on to say,
Mary Magdalene’s unique and important role was not ordinarily acknowledged in the first centuries of almost entirely patriarchal Christianity. Most still imagined that all of the apostles were male, and therefore priesthood and ministry should be reserved for men (as if gender were a quality of the True Self, the restored Self, or the ontological self in God!). This argument is undone, it seems to me, by Christ appearing first to Mary after the resurrection, and by his charge for her to be his first witness. Yes, the men ended up getting sent out into the world, no doubt because only men were taken seriously as safe or legal witnesses or even religious teachers in most cultures at that time. (P. 192)
She was the first to witness not only the finite earthly Jesus, but also the resurrected Christ.
Rohr takes Jesus statement to her, “do not cling to me,“ as a statement about the universal Christ. He is no longer the finite earthly Jesus, but the universal Christ. Jesus is not the personal property of anyone. No religion or sect owns him.
If your Jesus remains too small, too sentimental (e.g., “Jesus, my personal boyfriend”), or too bound by time and culture, you do not get very far at all. For Jesus to become Christ, he must surpass the bounds of space and time, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender. Frankly, he must rise above any religion formed in his name that remains tribal, clannish, xenophobic, or exclusionary. Otherwise, he is not the “Savior of the World” (John 4:42) at all. (Rohr, p. 193)
Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:16b says, “…even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” When we are talking about the resurrected cosmic Christ, we are not talking about a resuscitated corpse, or some Walking Dead zombie. We are talking about something much bigger, a sacramental presence of God in and beyond the universe. Resurrection is not a particular event. It is a revelation that this is how God works in the universe.
I commend to you The chapter on Mary Magdalene in Alice Connor’s book, Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. It is thought-provoking, provocative and faithful to her role.
Mary sometimes is depicted with an egg. Eggs have always been a symbol of the resurrection: new life. There are also several legends. One holds that on Easter Sunday morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint Christ’s body, taking with her a basket of hard-boiled eggs to share with the women who accompanied her. When the risen Christ appeared to her the eggs in her basket turned bright red, or into many colors. This might serve as an object lesson for a children’s sermon, connecting Easter eggs to the story.
There are a couple of hymns you could sing to remember Mary Magdalene:
By All Your Saints (ELW 420 and 421)
Mary Magdalene, Apostle + July 22
16 For Magdalene we praise you,
steadfast at cross and tomb.
Your “Mary!” in the garden
dispelled her tears and gloom.
Apostle to th’apostles,
she ran to spread the word;
send us to shout the good news
that we have seen the Lord.
For All The Faithful Women (ELW 419)
9 We praise the other Mary
who came at Easer dawn
and near the tomb did tarry,
but found her Lord was gone.
As joyfully she saw him
in resurrection light,
may we by faith behold him,
the day who ends all night.
I encourage you to give Mary Magdalene some credit this Easter. Peter and Paul get plenty of time, but let’s face it, Mary was the first apostle, the first witness to the resurrection.