The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 15, 2015
University Baptist Church
What can be said about Mary Magdalene that has not already been said by Dan Brown? Well, a lot actually. Thank God. Brown did help us to open our minds to the first century community. There was diversity there. There was a struggle over whose groups continued and whose disappeared. Which groups would become holy writ? Which would be relegated to the ash heap of history?
As Deidre said in her story, we took the entire season of Lent nine years ago to look at the stories of Mary Magdalene and the traditions that surrounded her. Through the mind of renegade catholic theologian Jane Schaberg and Gayla Marty’s adaptation of her book on Mary, we traversed her history, her silencing and her refusal to disappear. From her abandoned birthplace of Magdala, which the Biblical tourism industry ignores, to her appearance in the Gospels, her disappearance after the resurrection, to the many writings of the first couple of centuries ignored by the established church, to her gleeful festivals in France, we looked at this. Schaberg’s muse was Virginia Wolfe, an often misunderstood and vilified poet who was also ahead of her time. It was as if Jane was channeling Virginia in their quest for Mary Magdalene.
But that was so nine years ago. The DaVinci Code came and went, and we’ll never look at the Mona Lisa the same way again.
But now, just as it was nine years ago, a woman is in the race for the White house. The same woman, in fact. And regardless of what you think about her, ask yourself if a man would receive the same kind of scrutiny that she does. In the latest email scandal, I am reminded of whitewater scandals and Rush Limbaugh vilifying her laugh and others criticizing her tears. It seems like a witch-hunt. Is it easier to do to her because she is a woman? A woman with a less than healthy marriage? A woman of power and influence? A woman who aspires to leadership only to be diminished by the men around her? And I would hope that we could be better than that.
Let’s get back to Mary Magdalene. We are talking about her, right?
In the New Testament, she appears only in the Gospels. And when she appears, it is sparingly. The 12 disciples are all men, but Mary Magdalene is clearly present. She is the only one mentioned at the resurrection in all four gospels. She is said to have had seven demons cast out of her by Jesus.
She is conflated with other women, many of whom are not named. Thanks to art, movies and popes, she is the unnamed women accused of adultery in John 8. She is the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar who anoints Jesus’ feet with costly nard, a ritual used in both marriage ceremonies and devotion. She is seen as the Jezebel, the woman of ill-repute who tarnishes Jesus’ holy image. Even though Jesus says that the Gospel will be preached in memory of her.
In the extra-biblical literature, she is a major figure. She is mentioned in the Gospel of Phillip as Jesus’ spouse. She has her own Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Most of it was preserved in tact and rediscovered in the late 1800’s. In it, she says that she and Jesus share some intimate details about life and about God, on a deeper, more ethereal level. She encourages us to seek that deeper meaning.
Peter, her nemesis, is none too thrilled that Jesus imparts this wisdom, this intuition to Mary instead of him. He says: “Did he really speak to a woman secretly, without our knowledge, and not openly? Are we to turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”
Mary responded by saying: “My brother Peter, what do you think?
Do you think I concocted this in my heart or I am lying about the savior?” The implied answer is yes. Then another disciple Levi responded to Peter in Mary’s defense: “Peter you are always angry. Now I see you contending against this woman as if against an adversary. The savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us. We should be ashamed…and we should preach the gospel, without making any rule or law other than what the savior said.” (The Gospel according to Mary Magdalene)
Such intrigue. The church decided that they needed a patriarchal lineage dating to Peter. So they did away with this other strain of Christianity, for the sake of unity. And Mary’s Gospel and much of her story was buried away. But you can’t keep a good woman down forever. She demands to be heard.
So, one of the things we can say definitively about Mary Magdalene is that she was in Jesus’ circle.
We know that she was a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.
What we don’t know is if she had seven demons healed from her or what were the nature of the demons.
We don’t know if she was married to Jesus.
We don’t know if she wrote anything, even if there is a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene.
We don’t know if she went to France, if she had children or anything else really.
What we do know is that she has been a lightening rod for criticism of women. We know that she was a leader in the early church. And that she was not just systematically ignored. She was in fact excluded from the biblical account story of the early church. But she was a witness and she could not be silenced. We are here today to reclaim her place amongst the church of Jesus Christ, or at least this local manifestation of the church.
Jean Lubke and I attended the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Rome, Italy way back in 2009. We had just read Rita Nakashima Brock’s book’ Saving Paradise: How Christianity exchanged love for this world for Crucifixion and Empire”. At the end of the conference, Jean and I spent a day in Rome looking at some of the churches that Rita described in her book. We could see how the earlier church art was dominated by flower scenes and a little paradise on earth. The later church art was dominated by crucifixes and held a much more somber tone, granting paradise as something to be attained after a life of suffering.
At the end of a long day, we stumbled into a forgotten little church near the Pantheon. It was called the church of Mary Magdalene. The sanctuary was lined with two-story-tall statues of women, with names on them: virtue, purity, humility, fidelity, etc. The medieval organ façade was filled with nymphs and women, gold adorned, dancing and cavorting on gleeful joy. I looked in vain for any architectural history of the church. It wasn’t in any guidebooks. But here it was in the shadows of the patriarchal Vatican City, a monument to Mary Magdalen with her silent mute statues listening to the dancing and spinning reeds of the old instrument. The two were a juxtaposition, just like Mary and Peter. And I was drawn to that little church, largely because of her witness.
I’m not particularly interested in whether or not Jesus and Mary were married. Some people are sure they were and others are sure she wasn’t. It’s just not that important to me.
What I want to know is what she can tell us about women in the first century and what we can know about women today.
She was courageous. Probably the most courageous of Jesus’ inner circle. In a time when women were dismissed, there was Mary, disrupting the status quo, courageously making a name for herself, claiming her place at the table.
One thing we know about Mary. She was a witness.
To what are we witnesses?
At colleges and universities across the country, students and faculty and staff are being trained in bystander behavior. We have been trained to recognize when we witness wrongdoing, particularly abuse. We are trained to witness it and be so uncomfortable about it that we will not simply be bystanders. We will stand there in the gap and do what we can to stop the behavior. And in the process we will be creating a new kind of community where there is little tolerance of violence. We will even be intolerant of intolerance.
A scathing report was recently released out of Ferguson, MO. It exposed the depth of racism in the Ferguson Police system—a pressure cooker bound to explode. While people were enraged at the shooting of Michael Brown, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The weight of the abuse people have witnessed was too much to keep silent. So it erupted into the streets. Those, like DJ Tice in today’s Star Tribune editorial page, who are concerned that there has been too little press about the exoneration of police officer Darren Wilson, miss the real point. People who have been witnesses to racism cannot ignore it, no matter how much white America tries to minimize it.
What do you witness?
What ancient injustices still have their echoes?
In this age of cell phones and videos and social media, we had better believe that there are not only witnesses to our behavior, but witnesses with power—witnesses who can share the story so that you can be a witness too. Just ask the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Oklahoma State University. Their racist chants were not just sung with alcohol’s lubrication in the safety of a bus. They were broadcast and exposed to the world, showing us how far we have to still go until people of color are safe on a bus let alone our streets.
Maybe the witness work we need to do is not just to observe, but to give voice to our understanding. Maybe our witnessing needs to be taking to the streets and saying that our God wants better for us and our community.
In Baptist life, at least in the south, witness is not just a noun, but a verb. We are witnesses when we see something and understand. But when we share the good news, we witness to a needy world. A protestor is a witness but they are also witnessing to a better reality. Witnessing so the message will not be forgotten or forsaken.
The protestors at the Mall of America were witnessing to a world deafened by consumerism and white privilege. These witnesses were saying that black lives matter and they refused to be silenced.
What have you witnessed?
What ancient injustices need to be addressed?
What act of kindness have you seen?
What glimmer of hope do you cling to?
What message begs to be sent to a person in need?
What systems beg to be redeemed?
What do you want to witness?
Mary was a witness and we are witnesses too.
She was a witness for courage and grace under fire.
Daughters and sons of Mary Magdalene, may you too be so bold, so courageous, so grace-filled that you might lead us to a new way of understanding the deeper things of God. And may the rest of us have the humility and the courage to hear and heed your warnings. May we have the grace to experience and see it all.