Uncharted Territory

a sermon for the festival of Mary Magdalene, Apostle

Ruth 1:6-18 and John 20:1-2, 11-18

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This week at Vacation Bible School 145 children and around 75 volunteers all participated in a Rolling River Rampage. The theme of whitewater rafting was carried throughout the week, and each day, in order to enforce the day’s Bible lesson, campers “went to the river” and found something.

For example, on Monday we found adventure on the river, and we heard the story of Jesus’ calling his disciples. When Jesus tells them to fish for people he is preparing them for adventure. The life of a disciple contains lots of new tasks and not knowing what comes next. The second day of Vacation Bible School we found acceptance on the river, and that was tied in to the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home. On the third day we found joy on the river, on the fourth day we found rest on the river, and on the last day we heard the story that comes at the very end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples he would be with them until the end of the age. On that day we found peace on the river. I thought this was a clever way to tie one of the main points of each Scripture lesson to the theme of river exploration.

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Well, July 22 is the church’s commemoration of Mary Magdalene, and if we were extend Vacation Bible School to today and tie the theme to her, would get on the river and find nothing. It would be an empty river. We would expect to find something, just like we had every other day before—we would walk down to the river with our paddles and our life-vests and be prepared to deal with another theme or lesson— but nothing would be there. That’s what happens to Mary Magdalene. She comes down to the cemetery outside Jerusalem not with her rafting gear but with her oils and spices for anointing the dead, and the body of Jesus isn’t there.

Mentioned at some point by all four gospel writers as a person involved in Jesus’ ministry, Mary of Magdala becomes the first person in history to show up at a tomb and find nothing there because the body has been brought back to life. Mary Magdalene, about whom we know so little but who is featured so prominently in Jesus’ life, becomes the first person to come face to face with the full force of the life-giving power of God in Jesus Christ.  As one poet once put it, “She, while Apostles shrank, could dangers brave/ “last at his cross and earliest at his grave.”[1]

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“Descent from the Cross” (Van der Weyden, 1435). Mary Magdalene is the figure on the far right, weeping.

At first, however, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus’ body has been removed and taken to another place. When Jesus himself addresses her, she first mistakes him for the gardener. It’s fascinating that she confuses him with a gardener, for what does a gardener do but work to bring new life from the earth? When he finally calls her by her name, she recognizes him as her Lord.

It is so often the knowledge that Jesus knows us and calls us which brings clarity to whatever situation we’re in. In seminary we were taught by a pastoral care professor to make sure we placed a cross or a clear visual image of Jesus in our study so that people could see it when they came in. It was in Jesus’ name and presence that people would share things with us…and like Mary they may feel comforted by a God who addresses us so intimately.

Once she realizes who it is, Mary doesn’t want to leave him, and I think that sounds like a totally normal reaction. If I had lost someone close to me, especially in a terrible death like that, and I saw them again, I wouldn’t be able to leave them so easily. However, Jesus instead tells her to go to the disciples and announce that he is ascending to God, and astoundingly, she does. So great was her faith and devotion to Jesus that she immediately does what he commands. She goes to them and says, “I have seen the Lord” and in John’s gospel, to see something means to understand it, to know it, to perceive what is really going on. Mary Magdalene is really the first believer in the resurrection.

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“Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection” (Ivanov, 1835)

All of the disciples will eventually have to grapple with what Mary Magdalene saw because they will see it too, but right at the beginning—right there at the tomb before anyone else—Mary Magdalene finds herself in uncharted territory. It is a whole new rolling river rampage—one that rolls completely differently than anything that has come before it. Like Ruth before her, who ventures into uncharted territory by bravely and dutifully staying with Naomi her mother-in-law and going into a foreign land where she would be a stranger instead of turning back and staying in the land she already knew, Mary Magdalene is a pioneer for God’s kingdom. The territory that Mary ventures into is one where God is victorious over death. Is it a reality where the power of sin, death, and the devil are undone. God and sinners are reconciled. Weeping turns to rejoicing. The One who was crucified is now risen. The Gardener is always bringing forth new life.

She may be the first witness to the resurrection, and many Sundays during the year, her name is mentioned as a part of our Holy Communion liturgy from behind the altar, and yet the church has not always known how to handle Mary Magdalene, and has to some degree mishandled the truth about her. Because Luke tells us at one point that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, and because at least one woman by the name of Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, it has long been assumed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute whom Jesus redeemed from that line of work. There is nothing in the New Testament that tells us to connect those dots that way. Unfortunately, early on Mary Magdalene was so closely associated with Jesus that legends began to surface about the nature of her relationship with him. Movies and books have been written suggesting the two of them were secretly married or had children together. Again, all of this does nothing but to concentrate on Mary Magdalene in a negative way or mainly in terms of her sexuality which is unfortunately what often happens with a lot of women, both then and now. There are a lot of legends and traditions associated with Mary Magdalene, including a popular and ancient story that ties her to the creation of the Easter egg, which is why in a lot of ancient paintings and icons of Mary she is holding a red egg.

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What we do know from Scripture is that Mary Magdalene witnessed Jesus’ death, she was there at his burial, and she witnessed his first resurrection appearance. This puts her first into the uncharted territory where God is doing something brand new with creation. It is news that, if you believe it, changes your perspective on everything. God is re-making the world into a place where the holy can dwell forever. It is a place where compassion and mercy and love have the upper hand. It is a place where God promises to heal our brokenness and turn our weeping into joy. It is a creation where Jesus, the suffering and merciful Lord Jesus, is Lord of all.

Mary Magdalene, perhaps more than any other person, reminds us is first and foremost that Christian faith is about an event, a piece of news—that is is a message about something particular that happened. It is so tempting, especially in this day and age, I believe, to try to reduce Christian faith to just a set of values or ideals. We can catch ourselves saying things like “Christian faith is really, at its core, about peace or love or accepting others.” Or we’ll say it’s about following the Ten Commandments and learning what the Bible tells us to do, like Scripture is a just a self-help rule book. Or we’ll try to boil Christianity down to a philosophy or concept, like treat others the way you want to be treated. But Christian faith is not a concept or value system. It contains values and ideas, and good ones, at that, but Christian faith, the faith of Jesus, is inherently a message: Jesus is risen. The message is this: Mary has seen the Lord. She didn’t find his body. She found new life. And now the universe and everything in it—even everything that has been snatched away by death and sin—belongs to God again.

That is what’s so exciting about what happens to Caroline in her baptism this morning. She starts her life learning about this uncharted territory where death isn’t the end, where Jesus is risen, where God’s love reigns forever. And, like Mary Magdalene, it will be her turn to tell that message to others…with her words and with her life.

One of the other things I noticed during Vacation Bible School this past week was how excited the youth were to take part as leaders. Once you finish 5th grade here, you age out of being a Vacation Bible School student but you are eligible to serve as a helper, whether that be in one of the stations like crafts or science. And I could see this week that a lot of those youth took very seriously this role of helper. It’s like they’ve been hearing the messages of God’s love in VBS for years, and now they want to help tell it. They move from role of listener and receiver to role of proclaimer: from being a disciple (one who learns) to being an apostle (one who is sent).

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At one point on Friday I was speaking with a parent who was standing in line to pick up her young child. She was saying that next year her children would be aging out and I said to get them involved as helpers because we’ve found that when they’re young youth they love to take on that role of telling the story. And right at that point I felt this nudge on my leg—the nudge not of a human but of something metal, and then a hand on my side. I turned around to find that Ms. Sophie Wilson, age 96, was pushing me with her walker. She looked at me and said, “All of us young youth like to help out here!” This was probably her 60th Vacation Bible School.

How are you living into God’s possibilities of new life? I could ask you how are you living God’s adventure, acceptance, joy, rest, and peace as one of his disciples? But today a challenge for us all is: how are we sharing this message, reporting in our words and in our actions what Mary Magdalene did not discover on the river that morning? Because of Jesus’ cross, we are apostles, and this whole life is holy, gracious, exciting, and joyous unchartered territory.

Thanks be to God!

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Sara Bareilles played Mary Magdalene in NBS’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” in 2018.

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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