In this series, we’ve been looking at six people who were part of the Passion of Jesus and their response to him. We began with Pontius Pilate, whose primary focus was on looking out for his own interests, even if it meant that Jesus would face an unjust execution. We looked at Barabbas, whose revolutionary zealotry was aimed at the quick fix in getting rid of the Romans, rather than hearing Jesus’ call to peace, non-violence, and loving one’s enemies. We discussed Joseph of Arimathea, who kept his admiration for Jesus a secret until after he was crucified. We took on the curious story of Pilate’s wife and her dream—a dream about Jesus that troubled her and threatened her way of life. And last week, we followed Simon of Cyrene, the reluctant cross-bearer who followed Jesus up the hill of Golgotha.
What these five characters have in common is there relative distance from Jesus. Even though they are key characters in the story, each remains somewhat detached as they appear and disappear from the narrative in as little as one verse. In some sense, they represent the kind of Christ followers that many people wind up becoming—self-serving, zealous for the wrong things, secretive, troubled, and reluctant. We have compared and contrasted their engagement with Jesus, learned what we know of their stories, and drawn some conclusions about the kind of followers whom Jesus is actually looking for.
But today, we save the best for last. In fact, I would argue that of all the would-be followers of Jesus in the Gospel narrative, it is this one who stands out in terms of faithfulness, dedication, and persistence. Unlike the powerful Pontius Pilate, the revolutionary Barabbas, or the elite Jewish leader Joseph of Arimathea, this character has no power. Unlike Pilate’s wife she is not overly privileged, nor does she play her role reluctantly at first, like Simon the Cyrene. And yet, she is present at nearly every point of the Passion of Jesus. She is no doubt with the small crowd who waved palms as Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives into the city. She stood on the fringes of the crowd as Jesus taught in the temple; she may have been in the Garden of Gethsemane watching from the shadows as Jesus prayed. She was certainly there at the foot of the cross when Jesus died, unlike most of his male disciples. And she was there when Jesus was buried, even coming back a couple of days later to check on the body.
She is Mary Magdalene—whom we might consider to be one of the first true disciples of Jesus.
We don’t know a lot about her, historically speaking. We know that “Magdalene” probably refers to the fact that she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Luke 8:1-3 tells us two facts about her: that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, and that she was apparently wealthy enough to be one of the women who provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their resources. Demonic possession was, of course, a powerful thing from which to be delivered and it seems like Mary’s first encounter with Jesus was so liberating that it changed her life and made her into a follower.
Tradition, however, has tried to glom together several portraits of women in the Gospels into one picture of Mary. Some have seen her as the woman caught in adultery, suggesting a past as a prostitute (John 8:1-11). Others have identified her as the sinful woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ head (John 12:3) or as the other sinful woman who threw herself at Jesus’ feet and wiped her tears with her hair (Luke 7:38). Connecting those women to Mary seems to be more guilt by association than the actual intent of the text, as if getting rid of seven demons wasn’t enough of a past to overcome!
Of course, we’ve also seen in recent years how popular fiction has tried to suggest that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus’ wife. The wildly popular book The DaVinci Code laid out the theory that the clean shavenl feminine-looking disciple next to Jesus in DaVinci’s “Last Supper” was actually Mary Magdalene, which somehow means that Jesus and Mary were secretly married and had a love child who was the real “Holy Grail” that the Knights Templar guarded and Monty Python’s King Arthur kept looking for while banging coconuts together. More recently, another one of these late 2nd-4th century Gnostic texts was discovered in which Harvard scholars revealed that shocking news that Jesus was reported to have said, “My wife….” Of course, that particular document is now suspected of being a forgery, which proves that just because some scholar publishes a finding, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Dan Brown would have done well to take note of that fact before penning a wild and fanciful theory in the guise of a novel (which, actually, was a fun read—but also why it is housed on the shelf in the fiction section).
If Jesus was really married, the Gospels would most likely have told us so, and as the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon puts it, “Let us be satisfied to pause where the Holy Spirit lays aside his pen.” There is no historical indication, at any rate, that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, but there is certainly an indication that she loved Jesus as her Lord and Rabbi. Indeed, it seems like she is the only person following Jesus at this point in the Gospels that isn’t looking out for herself in some way. She is fully devoted to the one who saved her.
Which leads us to the story where Mary is featured—the story of the empty tomb. In the Synoptic Gospels it is Mary along with several other women who come back to the tomb early on Sunday morning to complete the work of anointing the body of Jesus for burial. In John’s Gospel, however, it is Mary who comes alone. When she arrives, she sees the stone rolled away from the entrance and the body of Jesus gone. Suspecting grave robbery, a practice so common in the Roman world that the emperor Tiberias had to issue an edict condemning it, she ran to find Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (which probably refers to John himself) to tell them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” The ‘we’ may support the claims of the Synoptics that other women were present, but at any rate John will focus on Mary. Peter and John run to the tomb and find it empty but, curiously, the grave clothes are still there, with the head piece neatly rolled up as if someone had taken the time to do it. This wasn’t the work of grave robbers, clearly, who would have gotten in and out as quickly as possible. Remember the story of Lazarus, who comes out of the tomb still wearing the cloth. Something new had happened.
Mary is the first to tell the other disciples about the absence of the body of Jesus, but like the other disciples she is still confused by what it means. Surely she had heard Jesus talk about his death and resurrection, but she could not fathom it. And yet, when Peter and John “returned to their homes” to keep hiding from the authorities, it was Mary who stayed behind, just like she had stayed at the foot of the cross. She would not leave Jesus, even when the others did.
And because Mary stayed, she was the one to whom the good news was first revealed. Here is one of the great pieces of evidence for the truth and authenticity of the resurrection accounts—that the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus was a woman. Women, of course, were not considered to be reliable witnesses in a court of law, thus if you were going to make up a story about the empty tomb and the risen Christ, the last person you would want to publicize as testifying to that fact would be a woman, and particularly a woman who had previously been possessed by demons! And yet, all the Gospels tell us, unapologetically, incredibly, that the women are the first witnesses and, in turn, the first evangelists of the good news of Christ being risen from the dead.
But there’s even more to the story than that. In fact, I think John wants us to see Mary Magdalene as the first person in history to see a glimpse of the new creation made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. Remember that John begins his Gospel by referring to the beginning of creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1). Jesus is the Word of God made flesh that dwelt among us (v. 18), which demonstrates that God entered the world in person for a specific purpose—to redeem his people and his creation. And here, at the end of the Gospel, in the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, we see the mission of God and the incarnate Word revealed—the new creation begun.
It’s no coincidence that John reminds us that it is “the first day of the week.” Just like he is harkening us back to the beginning of Genesis at the beginning of his Gospel, here John tells us that, just like God started creating on the “first day,” the resurrection of Jesus is a new “first day” for the new creation made possible by his death and his rising from the dead. When we read the text through that lens, we see that the images John is using in the story of Mary at the tomb are actually echoes back to the Genesis story.
The story takes place in a garden, just like the human story in Genesis 2 begins in a garden. The tomb in the garden is empty—the death that entered the garden in Genesis through human sin is now, curiously, not in play. The one who died is no longer buried in the ground but free from it. Then John adds this curious little detail: two angels are sitting on either side of the burial slab—one at the head, one at the feet. John’s Jewish readers would have made a connection to this detail that we often miss.
In Exodus, we read about the Ark of the Covenant, which was a gold box roughly 45 inches in length, topped with two cherubim, two angels, on either side of the lid. Inside the box were the tablets of the covenant given to Moses. The Ark represented the presence of God, and as God told Moses and the people, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the Ark of the Covenant, I will meet with you there” (Exodus 25:22). There, between two images of angels, God would meet with, dwell with, his people wherever the ark was. By the time of Jesus, the ark had been missing for some 500 years, taken away during the invasion of the Babylonians and it hasn’t been seen since (though it may be in a warehouse in Washington, DC, I’ve heard). But here in John’s Gospel we see this very same image—but this time there is nothing between the angels. Why? because the very same God who was present with the Ark is now the very same God, incarnated in Jesus Christ who was risen from the dead. No ark is needed anymore, because the living Christ is dwelling with his people in person and forever!
But then, John takes us back again to Genesis, where it all began—with a man and a woman standing alone in a garden. “Why are you weeping?” the man asks her. “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” In the Genesis story, it was God who was searching for lost humanity in the garden, here it is a human searching for her Lord. It’s no coincidence, either, that Mary believes that the man talking to her is the gardener. We assume she is mistaken, of course, but the truth is that he is the original gardener, the one who “was in the beginning with God.” But then he calls her by name: “Mary!” And she recognizes him. She gets to witness the beginning of the new creation, the reversal of the brokenness of the old one, the death that kept the creation in bondage now defeated. The new Adam, as Paul calls Jesus, and the new Eve stand at the beginning of something very new.
But the union of this Adam and this Eve isn’t designed to make children out of a sexual relationship, a la The DaVinci Code. It will birth children, however—but they are children of God. Go back again earlier in John’s Gospel—1:12 – “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” And how are those children of God born? How did we become part of the family of God? Well, you could argue that it all began when Mary Magdalene gave birth to the true Holy Grail, which is the good news of her Lord’s resurrection from the dead. She gave birth to new children of God by going and telling the story to the first hearers. Every Christian, every child of God, finds his or her spiritual ancestry in the first public words she spoke after seeing the resurrected Jesus: “I have seen the Lord!”
Mary got to see it—the risen Christ, the new creation, the birth of the gospel—and, according to John, she got to see it primarily because she was the only one who stayed with Jesus all the way through—from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the cross to the resurrection. She got to see it all because she was faithful, never wavering from her devotion to the Lord. She was the first evangelist, the most faithful disciple, the one who, along with the other women, gave the first sermon in the history of the church. “I have seen the Lord!”
This is real discipleship—staying with Jesus through everything. Some wash their hands of Jesus out of self-interest. Some would rather fight for their rights than do the things that make for peace. Some will stay in the shadows and admire Jesus from a distance. Some will be troubled by him because he haunts their dreams of wealth and success. Others will follow, but only reluctantly and when compelled to do so.
But blessed are disciples like Mary, who stay with Jesus until they see the good news of the Gospel, the promise of the new creation, come in its fullness. Blessed are disciples, like Mary, who remember the sin and the demons from which they have been delivered by the healing and forgiving word of Jesus Christ. Blessed are disciples like Mary, who seek the Lord with passion. Blessed are disciples like Mary who give birth to children of God by going from the garden to the world and witnessing to the truth: “I have seen the Lord!” Blessed are disciples like Mary, who will announce the good news to anyone who will listen!
Recently I was listening to someone who was criticizing our Methodist denomination for ordaining women. “Women shouldn’t speak in church,” he said, taking a single verse from Ephesians out of context. “Well, thank God they did,” I said.” Remember that the first Christian sermon was given by a woman to men who had been in hiding out at home. Without her, we probably wouldn’t have a church in the first place.”
She was the first evangelist, a true disciple. She was with Jesus on Palm Sunday, with him on Good Friday, and was the first to see him on Easter. It is appropriate that we begin Holy Week by seeing it through the eyes of the one who saw it all.
May we follow her example and tell people how we have seen the Lord present and at work in our own lives as people of the new creation!
Wells, Samuel. Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection. Zondervan: 2006.