Today is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of our church. Anglicans, Catholics, and even Muslims, have saints who are seen as protectors or guardians of particular places of worship. I suppose this is the reason I prefer to think of us as St Mary Magdalene Church rather than Broadmeadows/Dallas parish church. I like the personal connection Mary gives us to the communion of saints.
Who is Mary Magdalene? We really have to start with that question, because her identity in the gospels has been confused since medieval times. She was thought to be the unnamed prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and expensive perfume. The icon of our church, the jar of perfume with the tears streaming down over it, accepts this misunderstanding, that Mary was that prostitute. So she has come to represent Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness of the repentant sinner, and of her deep love for Jesus.
On our website I wrote that even though Mary is not the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (and there is now pretty much agreement that she wasn’t), the way Jesus accepts the woman who did anoint his feet is the way he accepts us all, especially anyone whom society says is an outcast for any reason. And we hope anyone can find that same kind of divine acceptance here at this church named after Mary.
Nowhere in the New Testament is Mary identified with the woman who anointed his feet. But we are told that Jesus delivered Mary from seven demons, without saying what they were. She could have had some mental or physical illness. Today Mary is recognised by the worldwide church for a most special reason: in John’s gospel, she is the first person to see Jesus on the day of resurrection. And he tells her to go and tell the others. So she has been given the title ‘the apostle to the apostles.’ This makes Mary’s ministry at least equal to that of the other apostles. And it makes all women’s ministry equal to that of men. Some churches have not yet recognised this. But we have as Anglicans. When Bp Philip retires this spring, our new area bishop is going to be a woman, the Rev Kate Proud.
From today’s reading, and what comes before it, we know several things about Mary. She was one of the women who was a follower of Jesus. With them she provided for his material needs, so she may have been wealthy. She was present with the other Marys at the foot of the cross, and also at his burial. And very early on the first Easter day, she went to the tomb. John doesn’t say she went there to anoint the body; she just went to the tomb. So we can reasonably assume she went there out of her great grief and sorrow, and to pray at the tomb. It is much the experience we may have had at our times of loss.
And then she finds the tomb empty. It is so extraordinary that she runs to tell the others. Peter and the Beloved Disciple (who was maybe John the author of the gospel) run to the tomb. And Mary returns a second time. Her sorrow was great, no doubt out of her great love for Jesus. And he comes to her, meeting her in her sadness.
For some, this is the way we meet the risen Lord, in a time of great sadness or distress, or when we have had a season of very intense prayer. We may have a sense in our hearts that he is calling us by name, just as he spoke tenderly to Mary.
Other disciples met the risen Lord in ways unique to them. Thomas in his doubt about the resurrection was invited by Jesus to reach out and touch his wounds. I can relate to that. In my times of doubt God has placed another person in my life who shows me again something of God in a way I did not expect. Oddly enough my cat has sometimes done that for me. Even more so it has happened in a conversation with a believing and faithful person who loves God.
Then there is Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus. How did he handle the resurrection, when he must have still had unresolved guilt over his denial? He had gone out and wept bitterly after that denial, so he must have been ashamed to meet Jesus. The risen Jesus met him on the beach around a campfire of cooked fish, where Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. The question was giving Peter a second chance. Jesus met Peter in his guilt and restored their relationship. We may have found the Lord has met us in a time of great shame for something we have done.
And then the two disciples on the day of resurrection who were walking along the road to Emmaus. They had heard the rumours that Jesus was alive, and they were in great confusion about it. Jesus came alongside them and explained the scriptures to them. They recognised him when he broke the bread at supper. Many down through the ages have met the risen Jesus in their study of the bible, or in the celebration of the Eucharist. That is the way I have met him, in bible study led by faithful Christians.
How have you met the risen Jesus? If you have, the experience will have been unique to you, just in the place where you happened to be.
The next and important question is, what happened after? For each of the disciples it meant being sent. When Jesus restored Peter, he told him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ In saying that, Jesus reaffirmed his declaration that Peter was the rock on which he would build his church. Peter was restored and sent.
Thomas was invited to touch the wounds of Jesus and lifted from his doubt. He would be sent like the rest of the disciples into all the world. Thomas made it eventually to India where he established the first churches there.
And Mary Magdalene. Jesus sent her to the other disciples with the greatest of news, that their Lord had risen from the dead. She was commissioned to be the apostle to the apostles.
In the presence of Christ we too are made whole and then sent. It is wonderful to enjoy what we have received through faith. But the blessings go sour if we just hold onto them. We are also called to share our blessings with others. As a church are we hearing the command to go and tell, as Mary did?
As Anglicans we are not great ones for praying to the saints. We prefer to go straight to the person in charge at the top. But today on Mary’s day we might just safely ask her to pray for us to the One she lovely so deeply. We can pray that like her we might recognise the risen Jesus; and that like her we might respond to his sending us to those in need of the hope that the resurrection provides.