Reading Luke 8: 1-3
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
We’ve just heard a very short – a matter-of-fact, yet intriguing – passage from Luke’s gospel about some of the women who accompanied and supported Jesus and his disciples as they travelled the dusty roads of ancient Palestine spreading the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God.
Among them was Mary Magdalene – hence why this passage is appointed to be read on the day of this church’s Patronal festival. In many ways it looks like a bit of a throwaway passage. But there aren’t that many mentions of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, so we have to take what we can.
Now, it may seem perverse to start my sermon this evening with a few words about another of these women, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. But, to be honest, I just can’t resist it. And here’s why.
The New Testament, and especially the gospels, contain many instances of what have been called undesigned coincidences, whereby the veracity of stories in the New Testament seems to be corroborated by details we find scattered elsewhere among its pages. Central to this notion is the fact that the books of the New Testament were written by many different authors using different sources. But because these books are based on fact, they hang together.
So let’s lurch briefly over to Matthew’s gospel chapter 14. King Herod hears reports about Jesus and tells his servants that John the Baptist, whom he had had killed, has been raised from the dead. There then follows the story of John’s execution.
Now, the story of this execution may well have been common knowledge – or at least it may have been a story that was doing the rounds. The intriguing question is this: how did Matthew come by this additional information that tells us that Herod – some time later and in relation to Jesus – confided to his servants his belief that Jesus was John risen from the dead?
But we know that Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza – one of Herod’s servants – was a follower of Jesus. She would most likely have been privy to this kind of detail. She could well have been the source of this information.
We cannot of course say that for certain but we can say that this is exactly the sort of thing we’d expect if the gospels are based in fact and not in legend. Undesigned coincidences would bubble up all over the place. And they do.
Now, if these undesigned coincidences are valid, and I think that at the very least they are intriguing, the trustworthiness of the New Testament is enhanced by the very variety of sources and authors to be found within its pages. And any kind of collusion between authors is ruled out by the random, coincidental, the almost throwaway nature of much of this information – as with Joanna and Chuza and the private words of King Herod.
Variety, it appears, is a virtue in itself.
And so it is with the number of gospels that tell us the story of Jesus. Four gospels, four different portraits, four different perspectives make up our picture of Christ. They all come at us from a slightly different angle but all are indispensable. Despite their differences they form a cohesive whole. The whole is all the more cohesive because of their differences. We get a fuller and deeper picture of Jesus than we would if we only had one gospel.
Again, variety is a virtue in itself.
A variety of people make up the body of Christ, St Paul’s image for the followers of Jesus in their totality. The human body has many parts, all playing an essential role. So has the body of Christ. No one member of Christ’s body can do everything and even if someone were uniquely gifted and capable, that person wouldn’t have the time to do everything. But the fact is, no-one is good at everything. No-one is the right person to do everything. We all have our particular gifts and our particular weaknesses.
Sometimes what we can do is dictated in large part by social convention. And we have an example of that even in the brevity of our passage from Luke. The men have the leadership roles, women have the supporting roles. That was the way things were in those days. We certainly wouldn’t choose it to be like that nowadays, certainly not in this parish.
But, quite apart from the gender issue, not everyone is called to play a starring role or an overtly important role or a glamorous role. The church needs a whole bunch of different people doing a whole bunch of different things – some prominent, some more supportive, some conspicuous, some less so. That’s the nature of the body of Christ.
They say that no-one is indispensable and in a sense that is true. But in the body of Christ and in a deeper sense everyone is indispensable. We all have a part to play in the flourishing of Christ’s church.
As with Mary Magdalene things change sometimes with the passage of time. At this stage in the gospel story she, along with the others, is playing a supportive role, it would seem out of gratitude for being cured by Jesus of a severe mental illness.
But come Easter morning and she is the first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. She becomes the apostle to the apostles, as Jesus sends her to tell the good news to the disciples. And here we are two thousand years later and Mary Magdalene is known throughout the world. Churches are dedicated in her name.
But if we are given a more prominent role, as Mary was, let it not go to our heads.
As part of the body of Christ, we can go from obscurity to prominence without pride or arrogance, from prominence to obscurity without resentment, in the knowledge that in God’s eyes we are all equally indispensable and all equally loved. Variety is a virtue but variety does not imply any fundamental inequality. This is no Orwellian playing with words. Some are not more equal than others.