Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sermon for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene - Jn 20:1-2, 10-18

                                                                                    St. Mary Magdalene
                                                                                    Jn 20:1-2, 10-18

            The life of the Church, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was a place filled with saints.  This is something that had already begun in late antiquity and then continued to accelerate through the centuries into the medieval period.
            Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was of course the most important saint for the Church. However many other saints had significant roles.  People prayed to the saints because they seemed more accessible than God.  A famous example is, of course, Martin Luther who when caught out in the open in a storm prayed to St. Anne and promised to become a monk if she would help him.  The merits of the saints were believed to be part of the treasury of merit that provided an important part of the explanation for how the Church was able to reduce time in purgatory through indulgences.
            The saints of the church multiplied constantly, and this actually produced some practical issues.  The Church had a lectionary – assigned readings that were to be read during the year.  However, there were so many saints’ days that they took over and dominated the readings – they were constantly bumping off the normal Scripture readings in favor of those for the saint whose day it was.  Periodically different regions of the Church would try to pare down the list of saints by removing the less important ones.  Yet no sooner had this been done, when immediately new ones were being added and once again the list grew.
            When the Reformation took place, Luther and the Lutherans acted to remove those things that were contrary to Scripture.  So obviously, prayer to the saints and the idea of their merits being given to you had to go.  Like the medieval Church, they too realized that the list of saints had gotten completely out of hand. So, they reduced the list of saints on the church calendar to those that were in Scripture.
            But at the same time, their goal was a reformation and not a revolution.  The assumption was that there were many practices of the Church that taught the faith and were good for her.  This was true of the saints.  The abuses of the past did not mean that remembering the saints was a bad thing; far from it.  Instead said there were three good reasons to continue to do so. 
            First, we give thanks to God because he has given faithful servants to the Church. Second, by remembering them our own faith is strengthened as we see the mercy that God extended to these believers.  And finally, the saints are examples whose faith and holy living we seek to imitate according to our callings in life – our vocations.
            This morning is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene and so these three points will serve as the guide for us as we remember and think about Mary.  We begin by giving thanks that God gave her as a faithful servant.  Mary was faithful in serving our Lord, and we will talk more about that in moment.  But for starter we need to consider how God used that faithful service.
            In the chapter before our reading, John had described the crucifixion and said, “but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  Mary Magadlene was there at the end.  She was there to hear Jesus Christ cry out, “It is finished” as he died. She was there to see the soldier plunge the spear into his side to guarantee that Jesus was dead.
            Matthew tells us that on that Friday afternoon, when Joseph of Arimathea asked Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body and then buried him, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”  They had to leave because the Sabbath began at sundown.  However, we learn in our Gospel lesson, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” 
            At the first opportunity on Sunday morning, Mary was there back at the tomb.  She found that the body of Jesus was not there.  And then, we hear in our text that she met the risen Lord. We give thanks because as God’s faithful servant, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection.
            Mary teaches us that Jesus’ resurrection really happened.  As St. Paul clearly told the Corinthians, the Gospel stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Mary reminds us that this is not a myth.  Instead, it happened in Palestine in the first century while Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea.  The fact that the Scriptures say Mary – a woman – was the first to meet the risen Lord lends additional credibility because if you were making up this story that is the last person you would use.  A woman in that culture could not serve as a legal witness.  Yet here we have Mary Magdalene as witness to the risen Lord because that is what happened.
            In Mary Magdalene we find a remarkable example of God’s mercy.  The Scriptures tell us only two things about Mary.  First, we learn that she was from the village of Magdala.  That’s why she is called Mary Magdalene.  First century Jews in Palestine had no last name. A person was identified either by their father or the place they were from.
            Luke tells us the other piece of information when he reports: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
            Mary had been a deeply troubled woman.  She was known as someone who had been possessed by seven demons, that is, she was profoundly afflicted. Think of the kind people our society today institutionalizes, and then add on top of that the pejorative spiritual connotations of being controlled by the devil.
            You would be hard pressed to find a more marginal figure in the world of first century Palestine than Mary Magdalene.  You would be hard pressed to find someone who had less perceived value and worth. And yet, Jesus Christ freed her from these demonic powers.  He showed love and care toward her.  The Lord enabled her to be his follower. And then he even chose her to be the first to meet him as the risen Lord.
            The same thing can be said about you and your spiritual condition.  As a descendant of Adam and Eve, you were conceived and born with the devil as your Lord. Yet God acted in Jesus Christ to redeem you, a lost and condemned person. He acted to free you from slavery to sin, death and the devil. God did this through the holy precious blood, and innocent suffering and death of his Son, Jesus Christ.
            Jesus Christ was crucified in order to win forgiveness for you.  Yet on the third day, Mary Magdalene met the risen Lord because the Holy Spirit did not allow Jesus to remain dead.  Instead the Spirit raised and transformed Jesus’ body so that he can never die again. 
            Jesus’ Spirit has now freed you from the devil.  He did this through the Gospel as he called you to faith. He made you a new creation in Christ.  You were born again through water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism and so now, Jesus is your Lord. Because you are a baptized Christian who confesses Jesus as Lord you know you that are God’s child and that salvation is yours. As Paul told the Romans, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
            Because this is so, Mary Magdalene is now an example of the faith and holy living we seek to imitate according to our callings in life.  Mary followed the Lord – literally.  She became part of the group that supported and ministered to Jesus and the disciples. 
            We know that some of the women, like Joanna who was the wife of the man who managed King Herod Antipas’ estate, had financial means at their disposal and used this to support the ministry.  Considering Mary’s condition before she met Jesus, it seems unlikely that she was in a position to help in this way.  Clearly she did in other ways.
            The most important thing we see in Mary is her devotion to Jesus and her unwillingness to be separated from him.  She traveled with him during his ministry. She was there at the cross when he died. She was there at the tomb when he was buried.  She returned to the tomb at the first possible opportunity, in order to anoint Jesus’ body and make sure it was properly buried with spices.  And because this was so, she was the first to counter the risen Lord.
            Mary Magdalene teaches us that Jesus Christ comes first in our life.  After Jesus cast out the demons, Mary could have thought, “Now it is time to get on with the life I should have had!  This is my time!”  Instead, she made all of her time about Jesus.
            The same is true for you.  All of your time is to be about Jesus Christ.  Your time is to be spent receiving what Jesus gives – his Means of Grace – through which he gives forgiveness and nourishes faith.  And because this happens, your time is then spent in love and service toward others.  You become the instrument Jesus uses to help others.  Mary Magdalene reminds us that God has given our lives a divine purpose and value in Jesus Christ.

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