Mary Magdalene

The Christian Faith operates from a worldview that we honor the saints of old.  You can’t read through any significant part of the Bible without hearing the refrain, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  To know their God means you need to know those Old Testament saints and their stories.

The great faith chapter in the New Testament, Hebrews 11, starts out by saying, “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the conviction of what we do not see.”  That chapter then starts to remember and honor the Old Testament saints, beginning with Abel in the book of Genesis and ending with those who refused to renounce the faith in the Old Testament Apocrypha book of 2nd Maccabees.

So, what does our honoring of the saints look like today?  Our Lutheran Confessions say that we honor the saints by thanking God for them, and what He did through them.  For that’s how it is: we are to see God working in our lives and the lives of others.  And when we properly honor the saints of old, we learn that the Church did not start with us.  Instead, the Holy Spirit has brought us into a long train of believers.

We also honor the saints of old by imitating their faith in Jesus.  When we learn their stories, we learn how they lived as sinners whom Jesus has cleansed by His blood.  For that’s how it is: the saints of old would have us look to Jesus, the founder and finisher of their faith–and ours!

And finally, we honor the saints by imitating their works in the places where God has called us to serve.  They inspire us to stretch ourselves and not become complacent in the living out of our faith.  Through them, God shows us that, even though we are sinners and that sin taints our every deed, we can still be instruments in God’s hands, through whom He serves and blesses others.

And so this morning we find ourselves at the tomb of Jesus.  It is early in the morning of that fateful first day of the week.  Mary from the town of Magdela, known by most as simply Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb with the other women to complete the burial of Jesus.  They rose early that morning to bring spices and oils to anoint His body.  They made their way during twilight to the tomb.

But when they got there, they found the large stone was no longer sealing the tomb.  And so Mary assumed the worst.  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”  For it’s hard to believe this business of resurrection because who here has ever seen a dead man rise?

Yet, we confess the resurrection every Sunday in the Creed.  We believe in the body’s resurrection and the life everlasting.  Eternal life means life in a body risen from the dead.  It’s as the Old Testament saint Job confessed: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand on the earth.  Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet I will see God in my flesh” (Job 19:26).

But when we face the death of someone we love, when we stand at the grave, when we see headstone after headstone in the cemetery, we have a hard time making sense of that “resurrection.”  So did Mary Magdalene.

Mary’s dear friend Jesus was dead.  He had been killed by crucifixion.  She was there at the foot of the cross until the end.  And now His body was gone.  It was too much for her to bear.

Later, when Peter and John are examining the tomb and see the folded linens, Mary stood outside.  Her eyes were flooded with tears of grief.  Her deep sobs cut through the still, dark morning air.  Yet, she musters enough courage to look into the open tomb, and there she sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been.  One angel was at the head, the other at the foot.

If Mary remembered her lessons from the books of Moses, she might have remembered the Ark of the Covenant with its two angels flanking the mercy seat, the gold cover where the blood of the atoning sacrifice was poured.  Here, on this stone ledge, the Sacrifice for the sin of the world had lain.  And the angels look in awe.

But Mary doesn’t recall that.  Grief has a way of clouding what we learn in church and Sunday School.  That’s why we never outgrow our need for the catechism or Sunday School.  We need to learn and relearn God’s truths, like emergency procedures, for the times when we will need them.

The angels ask Mary, “Why are you weeping?”  Again, she says, “They’ve taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”  This time, it’s personal; she says, “My Lord.”

So, what do we know about Mary?  The Gospels tell us that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her.  Later, she was among the group of faithful women who followed Jesus and stood with Him at His cross.  That’s all we know about her.  She loved the Lord and worshiped Him.  And she was grief-stricken when she found His tomb open and His body gone.

Amid her tears and grief, Jesus comes to her.  “Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?”  At first, she doesn’t recognize Him.  She thinks He’s the gardener and retells the sad story and pleads with Him.  “If you took him, tell me where you put him, so I can go to him.”

But Jesus has come to her and calls her by name: “Mary.”  And then, at the sound of her name, she knows.  Tears of joy replace her tears of sorrow.  “Rabboni,” she cries; “My rabbi, my teacher.”  And she falls down and embraces His feet.  She’d lost Him once; she wasn’t letting go of Him again.

Jesus says to her, “Don’t keep on holding me.  There’s no need to hang on.  I’m not going anywhere.  I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  I will be with you always, in ways you can’t yet even imagine.  But now, go and tell my brothers that I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.  And so Mary went and told the disciples.

She is the first eyewitness of the resurrection, the first one sent by Jesus to the disciples.  Her lips are the first to say these glorious words: “I have seen the Lord!”  Later that day, the disciples would see Him, but she was the first–the first eyewitness, a woman.

Perhaps, that doesn’t mean as much to us today–but, in Jesus’ day, that was something!  That Mary was a chosen disciple of Jesus and could call Him “rabbi,” was radical enough.  But that Jesus should select her to bring the faith-creating truth to the Twelve is off the charts.  A woman’s testimony had no legal standing in Jesus’ day.  And yet Jesus sends her to tell what she had seen.  Indeed, Jesus has instituted the New Covenant.

Is it beginning to make sense?  If God can use Mary, He can use you, and He can use me.  If God can use a woman, whom demons had once controlled, then He can use you and me, we who have not been so brazenly in the thrall of Satan.  This, God teaches us through Mary.

And so, today, we thank God for Mary of Magdala.  She was the first eyewitness and proclaimer of Christ’s resurrection.  She boldly proclaimed the risen Lord to a group of men who were predisposed not to believe her, simply because she was a woman.

We also remember her faith, a faith forged by the Word of Christ and His Spirit.  She was a sinner, not because she once had seven demons, but because she was born a sinner, just as you and I are.  Her demons were a spiritual sickness over which Jesus displayed His power.  She trusted Jesus who healed her.  And, in that trust, she followed Him all the way to the cross and did not abandon Him.

We remember her works of faith and devotion, her tears of grief and joy.  We remember her happy embrace of the risen Lord and the joyous news the Lord put on her lips, “I have seen the Lord!”  We number her among the privileged eyewitnesses whose testimony is the foundation of our faith.  For if Christ has not been raised, our faith is worthless, and we are sill in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).  But Mary Magdalene speaks to us through the words of Scripture and declares: “I have seen the Lord.”

Like Mary, the Lord also sends us.  He sends us from His divine service to those who do not know, have not heard, and do not believe.  It’s true: we have not seen the Lord as Mary did.  That is not given to us.  But we have heard Him in His Word.  We have felt His touch in Baptism.  We have received His absolving words of forgiveness.  We have knelt at His table and received His Body and Blood, so we may also embrace Him as Mary did that first resurrection day.

And so, like Mary, we also have something to tell.  Jesus is Lord, Savior, and Teacher for all.  His death atones for our sin.  His life is now our life.  His glory is our glory.  We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting because Jesus Himself is risen from the dead and now lives and reigns to all eternity.

For Mary Magdalene, the first eyewitness and proclaimer of the resurrection, we praise, honor, and give glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.