Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 24 July 2016, St Mary’s, morning

Readings  Psalm 42.1-7; 2 Corinthians 5.14-17 and John 20.1-18

Preacher  Ruth Martin, Reader in the Richmond Team Ministry

Reputation is everything. We set such store by reputation that, once lost, it is virtually impossible to recover, and the more you are in the public eye, the harder it becomes. Mistakes might be made, apologised for and life set on a straighter path, but as human beings we are naturally drawn to what went wrong rather than what is put right. Then we have the judgements we each make in our times, in our own societies about events and people. Donald Trump, Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn and President Erdogan this week. Yet whilst I see in Erdogan the ruthless pursuit of power and the use of authority to suppress opponents, a Turkish taxi driver I had this week sees the inevitable resolution of problems that have simmered for years in a country dominated by the deliberate use of state institutions to embed people of a particular political persuasion- or to root them out -and Erdogan’s opponents today were his allies in doing just that the last time round. There is usually a different perspective to ponder, whatever the judgement   of history over time.

Mary Magdalene through the line of history has had a rough time of it in many ways, both in reputation and in judgements made. Firstly she is a woman who was healed of seven demons, and because that number seemed to indicate a great depth of sinfulness, assumptions were made about what that sinning might have been and in the 6th century it was decided, officially, she must have been a prostitute[1]. Never mind that the Greek for prostitute was never used in the original text, but rather, a word that could have been translated as not paying taxes! In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church finally said that they had got it wrong- Mary Magdalene had not been a prostitute after all. The dodgy reputation lingers and the judgement lingers too. In Art Mary Magdalene is more often depicted as the penitent than the apostle to the apostles.

Even before then, in the Council of Nicaea, her own Gospel, together with the Gospel of St Thomas, had been narrowly rejected when our fathers of the early church decided which of the early Christian texts should become part of the canon[2]. Her Gospel was rejected, like Thomas’ because it was seen as too close to the movement known as Gnosticism, even though Mary’s gospel, focussed on the growth of faith from within, recognising the Call of Jesus Christ and responding to it within – did not fit fully there anyway.

We do know from our authorised and approved scriptures that she was healed by Jesus (in Luke and Mark[3]), that she and other women followed Jesus, stood at the foot of the cross in love and support during his agonies[4], followed his body to its resting place[5] and in every single one of the gospels, Mary Magdalene returned with other women to that place the day after, very early[6]. In Matthew, Luke and John, Mary Magdalene is named as being the first to witness to the risen Lord. In Luke we hear that this was not believed[7], and was discounted as an idle tale. And so the marginalisation of women, such a key given in the society of her day but one that Jesus deliberately and consciously sought to set aside, resumed its place.

Poor Mary, poor us- issues of prior reputation, judgement. To top it all, then as now, constraints of the society in which people find their voices drowned because of basic identities, whether of gender, sexuality, age, religious beliefs – as present now as they were then.

It is only in the Gospel we have today, in John, that Mary Magdalene is alone when she has her own encounter with the risen Lord and this has much to say to each of us today as we celebrate our patronal festival. In particular, why Mary, why was she the first? So it is that in telling the disciples, she became the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles.

I would like to suggest that this was primarily because of her openness. For example what if Mary had been healed of the seven ‘deadly sins’ (after all the number seven has a particular resonance in scripture) : gluttony, covetousness, envy, anger, lust, pride and sloth – well, we can imagine that if anyone overcame all of that such a sanctified person would be more open than most- more open as so much had been overcome . If we set aside the sins, but focus on the breadth and depth of wholeness which must have followed,   here is where it can take us.

She meets Jesus at the tomb, that place of death, and it is easy to imagine that she receives important teaching here. This must have been extraordinary to try and absorb – there is fear as well as amazement, and she rushes to tell the disciples.

So first she encounters loss, grief and then in her persistence in finding Jesus she finds herself open to God. So first the openness.

Secondly the persistence. She has persistently been seeking Jesus, following him through his ministry, his death, she is still seeking him on that first morning, early, as the dawn is preparing itself.

Thirdly in seeking she finds, although what she finds is not what she expected, as she did not recognise Jesus at first. We know that doubt and fear and amazement was still to linger in the other disciples (it is after this encounter that we see in John’s gospel, the encounter with Thomas who had still not been able to believe). So where does this leave us?

No matter how certain our own faith, there is the element of mystery in faith, of the supernatural and unfathomable and –whether we are men or women -of the feminine. Mary is both radical- following a man who was not related to her- and conventional. In our own times it is usually the women who follow their disgraced and shamed menfolk, who mourn the imprisonments and deaths which are instituted by repressive authorities, and who often have the personal courage to seek the truth about those they have loved and lost. Syria, Palestine, perhaps Turkey soon too.

So Mary is both mysterious and predictable, radical and conventional, yet was so open to God that she saw what others could not yet see, and understand what others could not yet understand.

In the story of Mary Magdalene’s journey that morning from John we might see our own dread of loss, fear of journeying beyond what we know and understand, the bewilderment when God seems absent in our lives, the unwillingness to venture out in new frontiers of our journey of discipleship, even the danger of clinging too tightly to what and who we have known.

Yet it was the dawning of hope, for her and for us, the hope when we seek, and persist in seeking, when we find and when we are found. And so as we enter a new chapter in the life of this worshipping community, to be led by a woman, let us pray for all that we will learn together in that journey and give thanks for Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles. Amen.

[1] Homily 33 of Pope Gregory , AD 591

[2]Convened by Emperor Constantine AD 325

[3] Mark 16.9, Luke 8.2

[4] Luke 23.55 , John 19.25

[5] Matt 27.61,66;Mark 15.47, Luke 23.55

[6] Matt28.1,Mark16.2,Luke24.10,John 20 ff

[7] Luke 24.11

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