Mary Magdalene. Apostle to the apostles, proclaimer to the proclaimers , the one sent forth to those sent forth.
At first it seemed to me that this is perhaps all we need to know. But it’s not. Mary’s story has been obscured and twisted and manipulated too much not to tell you more of it.
Most of you probably already know that it says nowhere in the gospels that Mary was a prostitute. Many of you have probably already realized that Mary was the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, as we heard in today’s gospel reading.
Mary’s name is mentioned at least twelve times in the four Gospels, more than most of the other apostles. Luke and Mark tell us that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. But then we hear nothing of her from Paul or in the Acts of the Apostles.
Less known is the legend that Mary gained an audience with the Emperor Tiberius. Upon meeting him, she held an egg in her hand and said, “Christ is risen!” The Emperor scoffed, saying that a person rising from the dead was as likely as a white egg turning red. Lo and behold, the egg in Mary’s hand turned red.
In the apocryphal Gospel of Mary, an early extrabiblical gospel that gained notoriety through Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, there is an interesting pair of conversations between Mary and the other disciples. The Savior has departed from the disciples, having commanded them to “preach the gospel of the Kingdom.” The disciples are grieved, and weep, saying, “How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare Him, how will they spare us?” Mary stands up and encourages them. Peter then asks Mary to tell them what she heard from the Savior, since He “loved you more than the rest of woman.” Mary then proceeds to tell them what she has heard. When she has finished, Andrew expresses doubt that Jesus has said these things to Mary, for “these teachings are strange ideas.” Peter chimes in and begins to question what Mary has said, not for its content, but because these “strange ideas” have come through a woman: “Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?”
Mary weeps. Levi, God bless him, comes to her defense, saying, “Peter, you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well.” This strange little gospel then ends with the line, “And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.”
In these stories about Mary we have a picture of someone whose call is to proclaim, to tell her story, her truth, no matter how unbelievable, to say “Christ is risen” when all others know is his death. This is someone whose story is powerful enough, and whose presence was apparently compelling enough, that there is a memory—even though it didn’t make it into the Bible—of her standing before the most powerful person in her world and with simple words and action proclaiming the good news.
How do we recognize the bearer of good news? What do we do when the one proclaiming hard to understand truth doesn’t look “right”?
Recently we as a culture been wrestling with our own dismissal of certain witnesses, as story after story of African Americans stopped, arrested, injured, and killed have been making headlines. I’m not going to argue the merits of any particular case. What strikes me as important is the way in which African American folks are saying, in response to the shock and horror of the rest of us, “Why are you surprised? We’ve lived with these stories our whole lives. The publicity may be new, but the stories aren’t.” And people like me will respond, “But I didn’t know. No one told me.”
I wonder, in light of Mary Magdalene’s witness, whether that’s true. I suspect that if we’d had ears to hear, as Jesus often recommended, we would have known. To what extent do we ignore or deny certain stories because of who tells them? We may, like Andrew in the Gospel of Mary, say, “these are strange ideas”—he, you’ll note, is not corrected by his fellow disciples. It is Peter, however, who says, that because Mary is a woman, Jesus could not have set her apart for special knowledge, he is the one rebuked by Levi. The problem is doubting the source because of who the source is.
The issues around African American experiences of injustice are complex and thorny, fraught in ways that made me wonder whether I should even talk about this today. I won’t be able to untangle the questions of power and privilege, assumptions about values, the histories of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, disrupted family relationships and violated communities. Or class issues or voting rights or poverty or drugs or education or infrastructure or jobs or straight-up prejudice. We must as a culture begin to look at, analyze, and untangle these issues, since we are all trapped in their webs. But that is more than a Sunday sermon can accomplish.
What I want to highlight, is that the Gospel, the good news of healing and dignity and new life that Jesus preached and that his life and ministry, death, and resurrection confirmed, has, from the beginning, been proclaimed by inappropriate witnesses, people without power, people without status, people who are simply not to be believed. The first witness to the resurrection, the first proclaimer of the triumph of life over death, was a woman—a powerful, articulate, faithful, and courageous woman, one who followed Jesus, who stood by the cross when most of the men had left, who planned to care for her Lord and friend’s body after death, and yet, someone who would not have been considered competent to offer legal testimony because she was a woman. And even within the Church, we have conspired to silence her with twisted stories about her identity, and through her exclusion, to exclude others.
This is the trick: if we really hear these strange stories—both the proclaiming of the Gospel good news and the disturbing experiences of our African American brothers and sisters—we will have to change. Truth being proclaimed from unexpected places forces us to see the world differently, to understand ourselves differently, even to think about God differently. We must loosen our grips on our assumptions about the world and about the people we think we know, and loosen our grips on our assumptions about who we think we are, opening our eyes to the fact that being “nice people” isn’t enough, that having a few black friends isn’t enough, that declaring “but I’m not a racist” isn’t enough.
Mary Magdalene invites us to hear her testimony—the tomb is empty, the Lord is risen—and through this invites us to listen to the testimonies around us, the truths that we miss because their tellers don’t have the trappings of sanctioned truth: the poor, the stranger, the child, the foreigner, the prisoner, the hungry, the sick, the thirsty, the Other. All the people that Jesus already told us to attend to and to serve. Listen, Mary says. Look, she says, holding out her simple gift. Christ is risen. The world is not what you assumed.
Let those who have ears, let us hear.