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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Folks Like Us - Mary Magdalene (Easter 2007)


John 20:1-18

"Folks Like Us: Mary Magdalene"

James McTyre

April 8, 2007 - Easter

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

The sermons for the month of April are all about the Bible characters in the Easter Story. Each week, we're looking at one of the people from the story and seeing what they can teach us. The idea is that these people were people before they were saints; in other words, they were folks like us. This week we're talking about Mary Magdalene. Which is something people have done for a long time. And not all the talk has been good.

I grew up hearing that before Mary Magdalene was a disciple, she was a woman of ill-repute (wink-wink, nod-nod). Most historians now say this was an ugly rumor started by church fathers who couldn't stand the idea of a woman being so important. It's a standard ploy - if you can't dispute the facts, do a little character assassination.

But nowadays, Mary Magdalene's getting some character elevation. If you read or saw "The DaVinci Code," or if you've heard the buzz about James Cameron's new book and documentary, "The Jesus Tomb," then you're familiar with the idea that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus, and they had at least one child, which led to secret societies and albino assassin monks.

We don't have time to go into either of these today. Suffice to say, people have been talking about Mary behind her back for 2000 years. And it's more like stuff from a gossip magazine than from the Bible. So what do we know for sure? From Luke 8, we know that Mary was healed of seven demons, and we know that she and several other women gave financial support to the ministries of Jesus. We know that she came from the fishing village of Magdala - she was a "Magdal-ene." We know that Mary became part of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples. We know from today's lesson that she was the first person to see the risen Lord, so she was the “Apostle to the Apostles.” She preached the first Christian sermon and, remarkably, it was really short (five words - "I have seen the Lord"). Most of what we know about Mary Magdalene comes from today's scripture. It's not much, but I think as we try to figure out what Easter means, the example of Mary has a lot to say to folks like us. So let's talk about what happened that first Easter.

At Easter, Jesus returns. The last time his disciples saw him, Jesus was nailed on a cross. Or maybe they saw his body wrapped for burial. But now, on Easter, we know that Jesus returns - the same person, but with new life. The same Jesus, but a glorious, resurrected life, life that arose victorious over the powers of sin and death. Christ returns - and shares this life with all the disciples, with you and me, new life - for all the world. This power, this new life, changes us. It's not anything we do, it's the power of the message itself, and when we “get it,” we change. Whether you call that point of understanding, "getting saved," or "born again," or just "um-hmm, I'm starting to understand," -- whatever you call it, when you "get it," that power, that message, that new life gets into your heart, your mind, your soul and it changes you, forever. Jesus returns. We change.

In these 18 verses, Mary returns, too. In fact, if you look closely, you see that Mary spends pretty much all of this story returning to places she's already been. Between verse 1 and verse 18 Mary does a lot of returning, and at the end it turns out she's not the same person. I think that's an incredibly important clue to help us “get it” when we think of Easter. Mary returns. And Mary changes.

The story starts out with Mary's first return. She returns to Jesus' tomb, and finds the stone rolled away. So she returns to the other disciples to tell them Jesus' body is missing. Then she returns again to the tomb, and stands outside weeping. And then later, after she's encountered Jesus' return, she returns once more to the disciples. How has Mary changed from verse 1 through return after return? What happens to her?

This story is so beautiful, so rich. There's so much going on. But put everything else aside for just a minute and listen to how Mary talks. On her first return to the disciples, she announces, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” Listen to how Mary refers to herself. "We do not know where they have laid him." She calls herself, “We.” Some people think this means there were more women than just Mary who went to the graveyard. Not in John's telling. In this gospel, she's alone. And in John's version, when she talks about herself, “she” is a “we.” That's something Americans just don't get. We're I/me/my kind of people. In other countries, though, they read what Mary said and they know exactly what she means. You see, in other countries - such as the one where Mary and Jesus lived - in "primitive" cultures, they have this thing called, "Modesty." It's considered a virtue. In our culture modesty's something you have to shed if you want to get ahead. In Mary's culture, if you were scared of what you were saying, if you were worried what people would think of you for saying something so bold, you'd refer to yourself as, "We," instead of "I." Mary's being modest.

But look down to verse 18, when she becomes the first Christian evangelist and preaches the first post-Resurrection Christian sermon. Mary returns, again, to the disciples. And if she thought she had some crazy news to report when she told them Jesus was missing... if she thought she had the news flash of the millennium the first time... just wait until she lets loose now.

Return, return, return – change. In just 18 verses, Mary has gone from mourning at the tomb, to fear that the body's been stolen, to the humiliation of having to tell the news, to weeping at the tomb, to being angry at that darn gardener, to the miracle of seeing her beloved Lord and Teacher alive and hearing him call her name. She has returned to the cemetery, returned to the house, returned again to the cemetery, returned again to the house. She keeps returning until finally, the reality of Easter calls her name - she gets it; she's changed.

So when sad, timid, humble, grieving, angry, awe-stricken Mary returns to the disciples the second time, she doesn't say, "Um, excuse me, brothers, but 'we' think we may have had a little religious experience.” She says, "I have seen the Lord!" "I!" "Me!" It's not that Mary has gotten over her modesty; it's that belief has overtaken her life. This is not an immodest woman; this is a faithful evangelist. She speaks because she knows the Easter message, and the message has made her new. She won't return – she can't return – to how she was that morning. “I have seen the Lord,” is raw, reborn boldness. It's not a question of afraid or not afraid. Mary Magdalene knows. She knows. And she's telling. Jesus has returned. He's changed. Mary has returned. She's changed. What about you?

Easter is a day when a lot of people return to church. Maybe you haven't been here in a while. That's OK. You're here today, and that's great. Maybe you've never been to church before. Maybe you came because you're curious, or because your mom made you, or some other reason. For a lot of people, going to church feels like returning to some graveyard of the past. That's exactly where Mary Magdalene thought she was going. She thought she was going to tend the graveyard of her faith. Returning, because – I don't know – that's just what you do on Easter. But here's what Mary discovered in less than an hour, and this IS something we know for sure about her. She found out that the graveyard was really a life-yard. She returned, she returned, she returned – and then, -- she “got it.” The message of the gospel, the truth of Easter, spoke to her, personally, and her soul lit up like a flame. “I have seen the Lord.” Mary changed. If you're returning to church because it's Easter, great. Maybe you like the music, maybe you like the Children's Sermon, maybe you like just sitting still for an hour. Whatever the reason, if anything in worship speaks to you, let me encourage you to return next Sunday, and the Sunday after that. And then maybe start getting involved volunteering or in a Sunday School class. Just keep returning. And I say that not because we're trying to grow the membership. If that happens, fine, but that's not the point. I believe - and the Bible bears witness to this in Mary Magdalene – I believe that if you keep returning, you will “get it.” The message of Easter will light up your soul like a flame. If you just keep returning, before you understand what's happening, you'll change. You'll be changed by the message and by the living presence of Jesus Christ.

And you core people who are here every single week, whose pew cushion matches your contours: Maybe the message of Easter has become not a return to faith, but a routine. Something you do because – I don't know – that's just what you do. Let me encourage you to intentionally, consciously preach Mary's sermon. Tell your story. Tell someone, “I have seen the Lord,” whether through your words, or your actions, or your prayers. Imagine where we'd all be if Mary Magdalene had spoken with Jesus in the graveyard-slash-garden and had then just gone to lunch. If Mary hadn't returned to the disciples, if she hadn't preached her sermon, how would the world have known the Easter story? You say, “Oh, somebody else would have done it.” But Jesus chose her. Jesus spoke her name. Jesus gave her news to share, a job to do, and she did it. Just telling the news changed her. Telling the news will change you. Telling the news can change the people you tell it to, by your words, your actions, your prayers.

And that is God's command to all of us here today. God has brought you here for a reason. Don't let the word of Jesus Christ, don't let the message of Easter become yesterday's news. And make sure you get the story straight. The news is not, “Mary Magdalene saw the Lord.” It's not, “That church has seen the Lord.” The news isn't, “The choir sang about the Lord, or the preacher talked about the Lord (for a lot more than five words).” Get it straight. The news is, “I have seen the Lord.” Maybe you can't say that today. Maybe you're going to have to keep returning, and returning, and returning again. The true hope of the Bible, the assurance of the Holy Spirit is, you will say it. You'll change. Because Jesus changed. Because Mary changed. Because that's what happens to people who return. Even folks like us.