Forgiven Sinners Gathered
Text: John 20:1-2, 10-18
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When it comes to people in the Bible, there are few individuals who have been the subject of speculation as much as St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrate today. But for all the speculation about her, there’s not much we know about her life before meeting Jesus. We know from the designation at the end of her name, Magdalene, that she was from the small village of Magdala, along the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. Some say that in her life before following Jesus she was a prostitute, but there’s no direct statement about that in the Scriptures. Others have completely made-up wild conspiracies about her, as found in cheap paperbacks like the Da Vinci Code that have even less evidence, or none at all. Some think that she may have been the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed Him with expensive ointment before His betrayal and crucifixion, but scholars are of different opinions about that.
What is known clearly from Scripture is that Mary Magdalene was an outcast before she met Jesus. We know that Jesus drove out seven demons from her, as Luke records. Being possessed in such a way would have certainly led to her being on the fringes of society. After all, demons are not known for treating those they afflict with any kind of mercy or grace. Some who were tormented by such cruel spirits were driven to cut themselves. Some lived in tombs. Others would be thrown into fire and water in an attempt to murder the person they were torturing. We don’t know the exact torments Mary Magdalene suffered under the tyranny of seven demons, but like the others who were possessed in the New Testament, we can safely assume that the evil one’s servants were cruel to Mary Magdalene and almost certainly caused her much harm, physically and spiritually. As they always do, they would have driven her to thoughts, words, and deeds that would have left her unclean and broken.
But then Jesus arrived. We don’t have a dramatic account of Jesus driving out the seven demons from her, as we have in other accounts of His exorcisms. This may have been to give her a little bit of privacy, as the gospel writers knew her personally and would have held her in great respect. But we know that St. Luke does record that Jesus had done this great work for her. And from the time He rescued her, she was found among the groups of disciples that followed Jesus throughout the region. She was even present at His crucifixion, when most of His disciples and even most of the Apostles had fled. She remained, at a distance where she could see, standing with some of the other women who were also following our Lord. And at His resurrection, Mary Magdalene is given great honor by being the first one our resurrected Lord speaks to. She has even been given the name, “Apostle to the Apostles” when Jesus tells her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.” She was the sent one to announce Jesus’ resurrection to the other sent ones.
There’s a lot that our Lord can teach us through the life of His servant Mary Magdalene without us needing to resort to salacious conspiracy theories or lies about her life. In her true story, we can clearly see that Jesus came to save us from very real and dangerous forces. He did battle with the forces of hell itself over Mary Magdalene, unwilling to surrender her or chalk her up as a loss, even when seven demons had made a fortress out of her soul. This shows us that Jesus did not come to redeem people from little sins and problems. It’s not as if He came to save people only if they cleaned up their act a little first, and only then would He step in, after they had shown some initiative at becoming righteous. No, He walks right into enemy territory and takes us right out of hell’s grip. He’s come to save people trapped by sin, by evil, and He’s not willing to concede that anyone is a lost cause.
We can also see that Jesus gave Mary Magdalene, and all who He has redeemed, a community. Remember, during the time of her possession, she would have been someone who made other people very uncomfortable to be around. They would know what types of things she had been driven to do while under the demons’ whip. But after Jesus saved her, washed her clean of her sins and past, made her whole again with God’s mercy, after that she had a community, a family. She was surrounded by people who believed as she did, that Jesus was the Son of God and had come to rescue them. She had a home among the disciples. The tradition is that she remained with the Church in Judea after Jesus’ resurrection. Some traditions say that she stayed there until she was forced out. Others have her living out her days surrounded by fellow believers. But this teaches us that we, the community of faith now, the Church, should be open to receive other fellow believers, those who have been brought out of darkness into light, even those with backgrounds and pasts different than ours. That’s something that most Christians could probably try better at doing. It’s something we should aspire to, particularly as a congregation and community. Would we welcome Mary Magdalene, a redeemed sinner, someone who would have been a complete outsider to our typical patterns and ways of life? Because this is what the Church is to be—a refuge for the forgiven, a place of healing for those who have been claimed by our Triune God in the waters of Baptism, a home where the lost can finally settle. As Jesus Himself has said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” Because of our Baptism, we now have a common heavenly Father. Let us be a home and family of the forgiven.
Finally, we can learn from the life of Mary Magdalene that we have who have been saved by Jesus can also be sent by Him with good news. This happens in different ways. Most of us will be sent to people around us, even people we know, just as Mary Magdalene was sent to the Apostles, men that she knew, to tell them the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life. So we can also be led to encourage the people we know and love, our family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, just as Mary did for the Apostles. And yes, sometimes some of us will be sent further out. It may become uncomfortable. One tradition about Mary Magdalene is that she was ultimately banished from Judea and sent into the Mediterranean in a boat without sails or rudder, set adrift until she finally landed in what’s now France, where she lived out her days in faithfulness, a stranger in a strange land. But it was there that she could tell others the reason for the hope that filled her: Jesus’ resurrection that guaranteed her own resurrection on the Last Day.
But we know that no matter what, our Lord will be with us. At His resurrection, He reassured and comforted Mary by speaking her name. This is what He has done for us, when our names were first spoken at the Baptismal font, whenever we hear the words “for you” at the Communion rail, whenever the pastor lays his hands on our head in Absolution. Your Jesus is risen and He is with you. He has brought you into His Church and He will continue to defend you from sin, death, and hell. He’s already won the victory on Easter. His victory is your victory. His Father is your Father. His home and family is your home and family. In the name of Jesus, the Risen One. Amen.