A version of this sermon was originally preached by me at Fairplain Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022.
CW: brief mention of the death of an adult child, unjust execution, self-harm, mention of the idea that demons cause mental illness.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross with a few other women – the cast changes depending on which gospel you read – John includes Jesus’ mother – who can imagine how she felt watching her son be executed?!
Only John’s gospel includes any of the disciples at the foot of the cross, and then it’s only John.
They stood beside the cross, not really knowing what to do or where to go from here.
Mary had been a true believer, probably ever since Jesus cast out seven demons from her, probably in her hometown of Magdala, just a few miles from Capernaum.
As you know, demons, in the gospel accounts, are supernatural spirits who either harm or make the people they torment to harm themselves and others.
Demons are set up in contrast to the angels. Angels do God’s work in the world, which can be done with or without angels, and demons do Satan’s work in the world, which can also be done with or without Satan.
Some demons made people unable to speak or see or both; others bent people down; others made children throw themselves in fire or water, or caused seizures, or gave them strength to break chains and run around and cut themselves. One demon held a women bent over for years.
We might think about demons as spirits that trick people into doing evil, but that idea doesn’t really show up in the gospels. Demons in the gospels are just supernatural evil spirits who serve Satan and hurt people.
If there was bad in the world, it was the power of Satan; Jesus came bringing the kingdom of God and driving out Satan and Satan’s agents, the demons, at every turn. Not every ailment is attributed to demons, but many are, especially ailments that seem like mental illness.
Luke doesn’t tell us anything about Mary Magdalene’s demons or what they’re doing to her, only that there were seven of them, and whatever suffering Jesus freed her from, she became a true believer.
When we think of Jesus, we usually think of him followed by the twelve disciples, but Luke tells us there were others, including three women who get named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna.
“Magdalene” isn’t a last name, it’s the name of a town near Capernaum. Jesus is “the Nazarene” because he’s from Nazareth, Mary is “Magdalene” because she’s from Magdala.
That geographic note is important because you need to know that Magdala and Jerusalem are… not close. It’s “only” a 2-something-hour drive south today, but the walk is about 33 hours, so it’d probably take 3 days minimum to walk there. You don’t just up and hike all over the county and then a distance that’s basically here to Fort Wayne with an itinerant rabbi because you think he’s nice.
She was committed.
After that day when Jesus ditched Mary’s demons, Mary followed Jesus all around Galilee. She listened to his teaching, watched him perform miracles and heal the sick and cast out other demons.
Imagine – someone brings a child with a demon and she looks at the kid and nods and says, “I know a guy.”
“Yeah, bring that kid to Jesus. He’ll take care of it.” She knows from experience.
Oh, and she did one thing the 12 male disciples aren’t recorded as having done: she financially supported him.
She and Joanna and Susanna and some others thought Jesus’ message and work was so important that not only did they follow him around, they pooled their own money, or got money from their husbands (Joanna’s husband ran Herod’s house so he was probably making BANK), to keep it going.
Later commenters, like most famously, Pope Gregory the Great, turned Mary Magdalene into a prostitute or a sinner, maybe because there’s NO other way women can make money, and certainly not in the Bible, unless you count Priscilla making tents or Lydia who was a merchant or the midwives or judges or… you get the idea. But there’s no biblical evidence for that.
But what was it like to follow Jesus around and support him?
Does she go to the market and haggle with the vendors for a bulk discount, enough to feed a hungry rabbi and his disciples?
Make friends with the other women who come to hear Jesus preach who might have extra space for a sleepy disciple; slip them a few coins and say “If they cost more than that, hit me up next time I’m in town”?
The folks she’s negotiating with know she’s from out of town, but does she let them take advantage of her? Maybe at first, probably not for very long. “Jesus healed your child, surely you can do a little something in return.”
Did she look suspiciously at Judas when he said there was no money left in the treasury after she’d just given him 10 denarii the day before and there hadn’t been any major expenses?
Did she hear the parable of the woman looking for a lost coin and think, “Jesus, that coin went to buy your lunch that day.”
Did she make friends with Mary of Bethany? When Jesus called for Mary in Bethany, did she and Mary of Bethany yell back in chorus, “Which one?”
When Jesus told the parable of the 10 virgins – 5 who had oil and 5 who didn’t – did Mary make a mental note to make sure they had enough oil for the next few nights?
When their gospel tour reached Jerusalem, did she help arrange for the parade on Palm Sunday? Was she the first to toss her cloak on the ground? Surely she was there shouting Hosanna.
Did she nod appreciatively when he cleared the temple? Feel her heart fill up with fury when others misunderstood him – it seemed like on purpose? – Could she almost answer the questions for Jesus because she knew his heart, by heart?
Was she in the upper room? AJL says absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence.
In the garden when he was arrested? Was she one of the disciples who fled? It seems reasonable, if not likely.
And she was for sure there when he died. The synoptic gospels put her at a distance; John puts her close.
Maybe she’s why we know what Jesus said from the cross; maybe she relayed his words to the gospel writers, who were perhaps hiding as far away as possible for fear they might be arrested and executed too – the Romans weren’t shy about crucifying people they thought might be a problem.
But Mary Magdalene was there.
She was there when a soldier stuck a spear in Jesus’ side and blood and water flowed out.
Then Joseph came, probably flanked by a few guards and a servant or two, maybe a donkey or a cart, and took Jesus’ body down from the cross.
Mary and her friends followed as Joseph and Nicodemus did some preparations and put the body in Joseph’s new family tomb.
Then, I guess, they went back to wherever they were staying in town. Probably together.
They rested on the Sabbath, and bright and early the morning of the first day of the week – Sunday for them, but functionally “Monday” for us, they went back to the tomb.
Which brings us to this morning’s gospel reading.
John 20:1-18, (New Revised Standard Version)
1. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Messiah out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3. Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7. and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9. for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12. and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14. When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16. Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17. Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Savior”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. The gospel of the Lord.
Mary was the first evangelist. One of his earliest supporters, the first to see him alive, the first to hear the resurrected Jesus speak her name, and the first to tell the news of his resurrection to his disciples.
In the gospel accounts, only in Luke does she appear before the crucifixion, and only in one brief note. Wherever she appears aside from Luke 8, she’s just called “Mary Magdalene,” as though everyone reading the story would immediately know who she was. “Oh yeah, and Mary was there.”
She’s referred to by name in the gospels more than most of the 12 disciples, who are only referred to as “the twelve.”
She got called a prostitute by later readers. John Calvin figured out the mixup, but Catholic Church until 1969 with Pope Paul VI to remove that idea, but she had been considered a saint long before.
A lore developed around her. In the middle ages people wrote biographies about her, often turning her from a victim of demonization into a sinner.
St. Thomas Aquinas called her the Apostle to the Apostles, and Israeli-born historian Tal Ilan suggests that Mary is not only the first evangelist, but, as the one who brought the news of Jesus’ resurrection back to the disciples, and the first to believe it herself, Ilan suggests M.M. is in fact the founder of the Christian faith.
So as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead this morning, spare a thought for this woman – this woman whose generous support helped allow him to leave the carpenter’s shop, who followed him all over Gallillee and to Jerusalem, stood by him until the end, who was the first to see him upon his resurrection, and who was the first to announce, “CHRIST IS RISEN!”
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
One thought on “The First Evangelist”
Thank you for sharing your sermon and your work. May you continue to be blessed in your faith and your growth. Happy Easter.