Pattern for Discipleship

July 22, 2012


St. Mary Magdalene. 22nd July

2 Cor. 5, 14-17; John 20, 1-2 & 11-18.

Mary Magdalene, who the Church remembers and celebrates today, has always been a favourite saint of mine. I’ve known the date of her feast day since I was a small child: when my parents were married, my father was RC and my mother wasn’t, so they weren’t allowed any of the trimmings for their wedding in a Catholic church – but because it was the feast day of Mary Magdalene, they got flowers, since the church was decorated in honour of her.

Then, as a grown up woman, I came to have a special affection for her, because, among all the female saints, she is one of the few who seems human enough to be person whom women today could try to emulate.

Even if Mary Magdalene is not the same person as the ‘woman who lived a sinful life’ of Luke 7.37 (and modern scholars say she’s not), she is clearly a very different sort of person  from the virgins, mystics, queens and wives and mothers who have usually been seen as suitable female candidates for canonisation. Her story offers hope and encouragement  to those who may have experienced the darker side of life, and yet who have been transformed and saved by encountering the love of God in Jesus. She is truly our sister in Christ.

Mary Magdalene is a particular inspiration to women ministers such as me, since in her we have the strongest evidence that Jesus accepted and used the ministry of women. If the qualifications for being called an apostle are that you were a companion of Jesus in his earthly life, an eyewitness of the resurrection, and were sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news to a specific group of people, then Mary Magdalene has a strong claim to the title of the first apostle. The Eastern Orthodox Church gives her that title: ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. How then can anyone say that women can’t be part of the apostolic succession?

By virtue of our baptism, we are actually all called to be apostles – to proclaim the gospel – and Mary Magdalene has important things to teach us about how we do that.

She shows us who Jesus calls to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven – not the clever, the rich, the respectable, the influential; he called the poor, the broken, the outcasts. He turned the world’s standards of who was suitable upside-down.

Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute, as she has so often been portrayed in art and literature; but the New Testament tells us that Jesus cured her of seven devils. Since, in biblical language, seven is the number of totality, these stories tell us she was regarded as completely possessed, completely in the power of evil, so far gone as to be beyond the reach of ordinary help, and so, completely separate from normal society.

Jesus wasn’t deterred by this. He touched her, he talked to her, he let her accompany him on his journeys, he gave her work to do for him, as he did with so many others who were sick, sinful and outcast. His total loving acceptance of all these damaged, rejected people, while they were still sick, sinful and outcast, transformed them into saints and messengers for him.

We are called to do the same. But do we?

It is so easy for us to fall back into the attitudes of the Scribes and Pharisees described in the Gospels; to try to make sure that only the pure and the perfect are admitted to our fellowship, and given authority in our churches. If we found in our congregation a woman who has achieved a high position in business or education, and another who shouts out during the service and eats all the biscuits in coffee time – which would we welcome, and which would we try to persuade to worship elsewhere? But which is the Magdalene?

Let me give you another example of what this means:

The the story of Mary Magdalene shows us how we should respond to the love of God in Christ. Jesus gave Mary freedom – from possession by evil and enslavement to Satan. Her response was immediately to give up that freedom, and to become his devoted slave. We are told in Luke 8.3 that Mary and other women who had been healed by Jesus, used their own resources to support him. She was clearly quite a wealthy woman, perhaps a widow or someone who ran her own business. Being exorcised from her demons would have allowed Mary to return to her normal life, to make money, to build a home and have a family, all the sorts of things a woman in her society was supposed to do. Instead she became a sort of ‘camp follower’ of Jesus and his disciples, so putting herself straight back into the category of the excluded again.

The total commitment that Mary Magdalene showed is what God in Christ demands of us. Again and again, in his teaching and in his parables, Jesus says that the only proper response to the call of the Kingdom of heaven is total commitment and unconditional obedience; “Go, sell all that you have, and follow me!”.

In baptism, we become the adopted children of God; but we also promise to be Christ’s faithful servants until the ends of our lives – and servants have to do as they are told, and go where they are sent. That is something we find hard to do. We want to do what we want with our lives and our property, rather than what God may want us to do with them.

Mary Magdalene give us a pattern of self-sacrifice and obedience to imitate. She continued in loving service to Jesus, even when she believed him to be dead and buried. What could such devotion and obedience mean in our lives? What have we got to offer, that God wants to use to build the Kingdom?

The final lesson we can learn about discipleship from Mary Magdalene is perhaps the hardest of all for us to accept. Mary gave her life to Jesus totally. Even after his death, that devotion continued. We can only imagine the extravagance of her joy when she heard his voice saying her name, and found he was no longer confined to the tomb. All she wanted to do was to hold on to him.

But then came the apparent rejection: “Don’t touch me. Don’t cling on to me . Go and tell………”

Mary was told to leave everything that was familiar to her about Jesus behind, and to go away in faith to take the message of the new life that was available in him. How hard she must have found that to do.

Her story shows us that, before we can take the Good News to others, we may have to stop clinging to things that prevent us from getting the message across. Many things may do this: traditional church structures, familiar music, buildings, the way we’ve always done things. The words Jesus spoke to Mary in the story in John’s Gospel, warn us of the danger of holding on too tight to things that are not central to the Gospel. Jesus says to us that we must be ready to let go of such things, however much they seem to be a part of how we know him. Only when we let go of these peripheral things will we find him, alive and already at work in the world around us.

Welcome as disciples those who don’t quite fit the usual pattern; respond with everything you’ve got; and don’t cling to things that limit God’s mission: the pattern for discipleship that Mary Magdalene offers us today.

Eternal God, Mary Magdalene was sent to proclaim the resurrection: in your mercy give us the courage to proclaim your forgiveness and peace.

Hymn for Mary Magdalene