The First Apostle: Mary Magdalene

John 20:1-18

This morning I want to talk to you about the first apostle.  Children sometimes ask me about the difference between an apostle and an epistle. It is easy to tell them apart. An apostle will not fit into an envelope. When Jesus wanted to send his very best, he did not just send an epistle, he sent an apostle. In fact he sent more than one.

When Jesus lived in Galilee, he appointed twelve apostles to be with him, and he sent them out to announce that the kingdom of God was at hand.  The kingdoms of Jerusalem and Rome rejected the kingdom of God, and killed the king,Jesus. But on the third day after his death, God raised him up in accordance with the scriptures. And Jesus showed himself alive to his apostles by many proofs, then he sent them out into the world to announce his victory over sin and death for all of us.

The apostles of Jesus were a diverse group. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector, and Simon the Cananaean was a political activist. Paul, who came later, supported himself as a tentmaker. The first Apostle, Mary Magdalene was not one of the twelve, and we do not know her profession. According to Luke 8, she may have been a woman of means, for she was one of the women who gave financial support to Jesus and his.

Now most of us like to believe we are progressive thinkers. However, most of us are more affected by the time and place in which we live than we are willing to admit. If we had been charged by Jesus to help him select the first apostle, few of us, male or female would have chosen Mary Magdalene. Mary had three big liabilities. 

First, she was not one of the sons of Israel, she was a daughter of Israel. Today, a woman runs General Motors, Great Britain and Germany.  A a woman very nearly ran our country, besides that, we have 25 women in the United States Senate, and 127 women in the House of Representatives. In 1st Century Jerusalem, women did not have those same opportunities. A select few exercised great power, like Herodias, wife of Herod; but most male Jews still rose up in the morning to pray:  “O LORD, I thank you that I am not leper, or a Gentile, or a woman.” In this case of Mary Magdalene, history is stranger than fiction.  As a daughter of Israel, Mary could not even testify in a court of law, yet Jesus chose her to be the first to bear witness to his Resurrection, and she has done that for almost 2000 years.

Second, Mary had a reputation. The time and place matters not. Some people have always been ready to think the worst of any woman occupying a prominent role in life. Men are the biggest offenders, but women offend too. Some people, male and female, have identified Mary Magdalene with the nameless woman in John 8 who was caught in the very act of adultery, then spared by Jesus. Perhaps you remember how Jesus put down that woman accusers saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!” Other people have identified Mary Magdalene with  the nameless woman in Luke 7 who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, and dried them with her hair. Everyone in the house of Simon, the Pharisee, knew that the woman was a prostitute. When Simon saw her touching Jesus, he though, “If this man Jesus was a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman she is.”  Jesus knew what Simon was thinking, because he immediately explained to him that those who are forgiven little love little, but those who are forgiven much love a whole lot more. Still others have suggested a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary. One elaborate story was popularized by Dan Brown in his book, “The DiVinci Code.” This story maintained that Jesus didn’t die on the cross he merely swooned, going into a coma. Later, after Jesus  was taken down from the cross, he recovered, met up with Mary Magdalene, and eloped with her to France, where they had a long and happy life, and raised two children. I have a word for this: Hogwash! None of these stories about Mary is based on anything more than circumstantial evidence and innuendo. And none of them finds lasting support in the pages of the New Testament. Still, they remain almost as popular among unbelievers as the story obliquely reported in Matthew 27, about how the Disciples of Jesus stole his body themselves, so that they could say he was raised from the dead.

Third, and this cannot be denied, at one time, Mary lacked mental stability.  In Luke 8:2 we read that when Jesus healed Mary, seven devils had gone out of her. In most HR departments that would be a deal breaker. Human beings are hard on one another. When we see people who have made a mistake, or had a hard time, we think the worst of them so we can think better of ourselves. The truth is that all of us live through times of quiet desperation, and sometimes we say things, and do things that we are ashamed of. And some of us are dumb enough to pose for pictures, or present evidence against ourselves on Facebook. Jesus once said that what we do in secret, would someday be shouted from the housetops. (That day has come!) I though of this saying of Jesus this past week when I yelled some really unkind things at my wife, and the Alexa in my study asked me if I really wanted to put that in an email and send it to all my contacts?  I made up the part about Alexa; but, I for one am glad that my wife, like my God, sees me at my worst, and says, “Let’s forget that!” And then chooses to remember me when I am at my best!

You would and I would not have chosen Mary to be the first apostle, but she was chosen because she had a number of outstanding qualifications.  I will mention three.

1. Mary was a prime candidate for “the First Apostle,” because unlike the vast majority of the twelve, she followed Jesus to the bitter end.

According to the uniform record of the gospels, Jesus predicted that Peter, and all the other apostles, would deny him. According to Luke 22, Jesus must have thought that Peter was the best of the twelve, because he told Peter than when he had “turned again,” he should strengthen his brethren. Perhaps Jesus should have looked elsewhere. According to John 19, the Beloved disciple, whom most scholars identify with John the Son of Zebedee, one of the youngest of the apostles, stayed true when Peter did not. The Fourth Gospel tells us that the beloved disciple was standing at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene, while, at best, the other apostles looked on from a distance. No doubt Mary Magdalene was still there when Jesus said, “It is finished!” I can’t imagine how she felt. Even today, the events of Good Friday fill us with mixed emotions. How does the hymnist put it:

“It is finished!” shall we raise, Songs of sorrow, or of praise;
Mourn to see the Savior die, Or proclaim his victory?
Lamb of God, thy death hath given. Pardon, peace and hope of heaven.
“It is finished!” let us raise, Songs of thankfulness and praise.

2. Mary was a prime candidate for “the First Apostle,” because Mary looked for ways to serve him even after his death.

John frequently omits things he knows to be well covered in the other gospels, like the institution of the Holy Communion at the Last supper. Likewise, we must look outside the Fourth Gospel, to the synoptics, if we are to know that Mary Magdalene followed Joseph of Arimathea when he laid the lifeless body of Jesus in the garden tomb. Both Mark and Luke tell us that Mary went to the tomb early on Sunday morning with the express purpose of anointing his body for burial.  According to the Fourth Gospel, Joseph and Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, had already done that, using a hundred pounds of spices. In the Fourth Gospel, Mary goes to the tomb out of simple devotion to Jesus. According to the New Testament, love, “never gives up.” Love, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Many of us know from experience that “love is stronger than death.” This is particularly so in the early days of our grief, because in the early days of our grief, our loss does not seem real. It was Emily Dickinson who wrote:

The distance that the dead have gone, does not at first appear;
Their coming back seems likely, for many an ardent year.

I know this truth for a fact, and I am frequently reminded of it.  My mother died at 9:11 p.m. on  September 10, 2018 less than 3 hours from her 95th birthday.  Many times since her death, I have made some happy discovery, whether in the pages of a book, or in an antique shop, or on some busy street; and I have wanted to share that with her, and I have supposed that I would do that, right up to the moment I reached into my pocket to take out my phone. On several occasions, only after I have grasped the phone, have I remembered that a phone call will no longer reach her. So I say to her, what I always said when calling, “Hello, my mother!” And in my mind I still here her response, “Hello, my son.”

I think my grief is a healthy grief.  We certainly do not want to be manage grief like Theodore Roosevelt. After the death of his first wife, Alice Lee, Roosevelt determined never to speak of her again. He did not even speak of her to her own daughter, Alice Longworth Roosevelt; and his daughter said that, to her knowledge, he never spoke of her to anyone. How much better to be like my friend, Kay. Kay lost her daughter, Elizabeth, just before her daughter’s sixteenth birthday. A short time later, Kay established a college scholarship in her daughter’s memory, and she encouraged me to speak of her often. “Speaking of her keeps her near,” she said. There is sometimes a fine line, between speaking too much of our grief, and speaking too little. According to the New Testament, the important thing is that “we do not grieve as other do who have no hope.” Many who have loved and lost, think that they will never see their loved one again. We who stand with the tradition of the First Apostle, know differently. Her testimony encourages us. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, in words that are so simple as to be sublime.  All of us want the kind of faith she had.  This morning for the first time in more than thirty years, I stood outside the Home Church as we sang:

Hail, all hail, victorious Lord and Savior,
Thou has broken the bonds of death;
Grant us as to Mary the great favor,
To embrace your feet in faith.
Thou hast for us, the curse endured;
And For us eternal life procured.
Joyful we with one accord;
Hail thee as our Risen Lord.

3. It may be that Mary was a prime candidate for the First Apostle, simply because she was in the right place at the right time.

According to the account before us this morning, Mary went to the garden early, and stayed awhile. Mary’s time in the garden was broken by a fretful trip to tell Peter and the other disciples that “they”, the terrible “they” had taken the body of Jesus away, and “we” do not where they laid him.

The text says that Peter and John ran to investigate. They found the tomb empty, and they saw some peculiar things. For instance, according to a translation by John Stott, the “napkin” that had covered the face and head of Jesus had collapsed upon itself, like a beachball, left on a shelf with a slow leak.  It was as if the head and face of Jesus had just passed through it and vanished.

Of course, according to the text, the disciples still did not know the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. In the final analysis, the 4th Gospel agrees with the other three, and most especially with St. Paul. It was not the empty tomb which produced faith in the disciples, for a tomb can be emptied by many people for many reasons. Only the appearances of the Risen Christ produced faith.

As far as we know, the first appearance of the risen Christ was to the First Apostle, Mary Magdalene. According to the text, Mary did not recognize Jesus at first. She saw him in his transformed body, and she thought he was the gardener, perhaps because he was so toned, and tanned and fit. She did not recognize him at first, but as Jesus himself had said, “the sheep, know the Shepherd’s voice,” and when Jesus said, “Mary!,” Mary Magdalene knew him immediately, and she responded, “Rabboni!” Which is the Hebrew word for “teacher.”

Jesus taught Mary Magdalene many things!  He taught her about life, and friendship, and forgiveness, and new beginnings.  He taught her about death, and a love that is stronger than death. Finally, he taught her about the Eternal Life which waits for her and for us in the bright land beyond the darkness of the grave.

Mary Magdalene was the First Apostle, but after John 20 she fades into obscurity. It may be that she is mentioned with “the women” in Acts 1, after that, there is nothing. Eventually, like all of us, she died. I loved all of Lent and Holy Week, here at Fries. I missed just one things. We used to sing a song at the Good Friday Lovefeast that I always associated with Mary.  It would not have sounded strange on her lips. It goes:

Farewell, mortality; Jesus is mine.
Welcome, eternity; Jesus is mine.
Welcome, O Loved and Blest,
Welcome, sweet scenes of rest,
Welcome, my Savior’s breast;
Jesus is mine.


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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