The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      22nd July 2018
Listening to Mary Magdelene
Jeremy Fletcher

John 20. 1,2; 11 - 18

You would have thought that coming to a view on what someone is saying would be simple. Communication takes place using verbal and visual language. We weigh it up, and decide. The problem is that we participate using ears and eyes which are conditioned and affected by our histories and attitudes. Some of these are conscious: think of Nathanael in John’s Gospel who cannot believe that Jesus is worth a hearing because he knows that nothing good could come from Nazareth. Some of them are unconscious. No one who works in recruitment now can be unaware of ‘unconscious bias’ – the way in which we have attitudes about others which may cause us to discriminate, even if we think we don’t. 

How else to explain the way the male followers of Jesus dismiss the witness of the women who told them that the tomb was empty and that they had met the risen Lord. The Gospel writers, brutally honestly in the light of later events, say that the men think it is an ‘idle tale’ (Luke), and ‘would not believe it’ (Mark). All four Gospels name Mary Magdalene in these events. She was, initially, not heard. The Scriptures, however, gave her the prominent place in proclaiming the news of the resurrection, and, in telling the story of how she was not initially listened to, have primed us to make sure that we do so now. Like the disciples, we have the capacity to impose our own biases on her witness.

Think of how Mary Magdalene has been portrayed and depicted. The recent release of a film starring Rooney Mara enabled a re-evaluation of her role and place in cultural history. One commentator says that “the whole history of western civilisation is epitomised in the cult of Mary Magdalene’. That’s quite a start to an article, and it is persuasively done. History, and cultures, have painted Mary in ways which have revealed more about unconscious bias, particularly of men about women, than they have about Mary herself. How will we listen to her witness given such history? 

It is without doubt that early Christians thought very highly of the Mary who was from the town called Magdala. She is honoured in some of the earliest writings of the growing church. We know more about her than some of the twelve who followed Jesus and were first called apostles. In the early church she was – deliberately - called the Apostle to the apostles. She first saw the empty tomb. She first saw the risen Christ. And today we can learn much from her. She waited, watched, and met the risen Christ. I hadn’t really spotted before that in John’s Gospel Mary is the first witness of both aspects of the resurrection – the empty tomb and the risen Christ.

Remember that Mark and Luke tell us that her story was dismissed until the men had seen for themselves. Remember that our response to Mary will be overlaid with the conflation of various Gospel accounts of ‘fallen’ women, making her the women who anoints Jesus, a redeemed prostitute, the woman at the well, the adulteress brought before Jesus. No matter that, after 1000 years, the Roman Catholic church declared all this to be untrue. Such assertions and beliefs rattle on, whether we are conscious of them or not. Perhaps it is possible to acknowledge all this, and then read slowly and carefully, and listen to Mary afresh. 

I hope we will be able to do this inspired by John. In this Gospel we surely hear Mary’s own account: her own incomprehension, her own desire to hold on to Jesus, her own growing belief and joy that Jesus had been raised, her recounting of the most intimate of conversations with the risen Christ.  In John she tells all, and ends with ‘I have seen the Lord’. There is no description of how this was received at the time. It’s as if she is saying it to us now. How will we listen? What will our response be?

I like the way Mary waits, looks, slows down. The men are full of bluster and action – they see the empty tomb and clear off. Mary waits – and the fruit of this is to meet with Jesus. After she has given time and careful attention and thought she is then able to run and tell– ‘they have taken the Lord’, the first time; ’I have seen the Lord’ the second time. Blessed are those who like Mary become apostles – messengers – because they wait, and take in, who see, and then tell. Blessed are those who listen, and believe, who do not dismiss, who become fellow followers, apostles together. 

If those who take it in are blessed, then I have to listen carefully to her account of speaking with Jesus, and to his command not to ‘hold on’, not to touch. I find it difficult on a human level. After his death and burial he was incontrovertibly alive. This was a man who had welcomed a woman pouring ointment on him and wiping him with her hair, who was easy in intimacy and inspired passionate friendship and sacrifice. What more natural reaction could there have been than to embrace him? Not yet, says Jesus. There will be embracing, and touching, when I have ascended. Mary, in speaking to us, introduces us to a new relationship with Christ, by telling us the story against herself. 

How will we hold the risen Christ? By allowing the risen Christ to hold us. In Communion we the risen Christ is placed in our hands in bread and wine. In the font the risen Christ embraces us in the water of baptism, anoints us with the oil of initiation. In the kiss of Peace we hold the hand of the Christ in whose image we are made and in whose image we are being restored. In the cry of the poor, the outcast and the unloved we are touched by the Christ who dwells in each one. I hear Jesus say to Mary: “Don’t touch me now – for one day you will be held by me as by no other.” Blessed are those who know that they are held by Christ, and who offer that loving touch themselves.

Mary tells us: I have seen the Lord. Can we hear? Can we see? And how will we tell? 

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