The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      22nd July 2018
Mary Magdalene's True Vocation and Ours
Ayla Lepine

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Mark 15. 40 – 16. 7


‘Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas gave Mary Magdalene a powerful title: he called her the Apostle to the Apostles. In John’s Gospel, she preaches, ‘I have seen the Lord!’, after her encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Women’s words make up just 1.2% of all the words in the Bible, so Mary Magdalene’s proclamation is all the more important for us and for the Gospel. Between the moment she recognises Christ and the moment she meets the disciples with this shocking truth, Mary Magdalene is the Church. Just her, alone, delivering a truth very few are able to accept. There are few people in history who have been so courageous.


In Mark’s version, which we’ve just heard, the empty tomb is a different story but it points in the same direction. The women arrive, Mary Magdalene among them. They don’t understand what they see, a mysterious man tells them Jesus is alive (and some have suggested the man is the resurrected Jesus himself) and they respond with fear and silence. They are told something that they’ve heard before but is still beyond belief, at least at first. Anyone would be shocked into silence by the depth of the holiness and incredulity in this still yet wild moment.


But the Church rightly celebrates Mary Magdalene as a radical teacher. She did take this man’s claim at the tomb in Mark’s Gospel seriously, and did act upon it. She is told to go to the disciples and tell them what she’s seen. She is told to trust Jesus’ promises. Filled with fear, overwhelmed by silence, she presses on. She is also overwhelmed by love itself, even in the depth of fear. And this is a love that cannot be encompassed in a feeling or in an activity; it is the love that is life’s whole meaning and purpose. 


When St Theresa of Lisieux described finding her true purpose in life, she used a lot of capital letters. Her autobiography shouts from the page. She wrestled with a competing set of callings, to be ‘a warrior, a priest, a doctor’.. And then she returned to scripture, and something clicked together powerfully:


Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love, my vocation, at last I have found it…MY VOCATION IS LOVE!’


All the roles and activities she first imagined lead to an epiphany about the nature of love. And love alone. All activity, no matter what it is, flows from this greater truth.  She says, ‘the smallest act of PURE LOVE is worth more than all else.’


The discovery that loving God is life’s meaning and purpose stimulates courageous change. It cannot help but do so. As the black American writer Angela Davis put it, ‘Sometimes we have to do the work, even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible.’ That work might be sharing the Gospel in welcoming the homeless, housing a refugee family, calling out racism, resisting violence, protesting political corruption. The driver for doing that work, for justice and for hope, is love itself. 


Mark’s account of the empty tomb early on the first day of the week takes us into the pit of grief.  The women arrive with spices for Jesus’ dead body, but this is a very strange and irrational thing to do. The corpse would already be decomposing, the spices should have been part of an earlier moment in ritual burial (indeed, other narratives tidy up this point), and the women don’t expect the tomb to be accessible anyway, surprised as they are when the extremely heavy stone in front of the tomb has been removed.


If they expected the tomb to be sealed, what were they doing with the spices? The women are not behaving rationally, feeling Jesus’ death keenly and attempting to cling to something of their familiar rituals. The tomb itself is not behaving logically either: no stone, no corpse. But there is the voice of the young man in the tomb, asking Mary Magdalene to teach people that God is alive.


He says, ‘‘Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ In other words, he says ‘tell it like Jesus told it.’ Mary Magdalene may resist the truth, run from it, and be afraid of it, but she must confront it. She must speak out. 


Last Wednesday a delegation from Irish Parliament came to visit Hampstead’s churchyard, seeking the resting place of Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth. This was part of an event marking the centenary of voting rights for women. Buried together beneath a grave with a quotation from Sappho, Gore-Booth and Roper were suffragists, theologians, and writers.


Amongst their many projects was Urania, a small feminist magazine. Every issue featured the same poem by Gore-Booth on the front page:

‘Life that vibrates in every breathing form,

Truth that looks out over the window sill,

And Love that is calling us home out of the storm.’


Life, love and truth. Whether it brought rejection, arrest, imprisonment, or pain, advocating for women to be heard, to speak out in public life, and to participate in political decision-making, was a task that had to be done. When Mary Magdalene finds her voice, she too speaks of Life, Love, and Truth. To say that Jesus rose from the dead is to say that we are all promised that God’s love ‘vibrates in every breathing form.’


In speaking the truth while trusting that ‘love is calling us home out of the storm’, Gore-Booth, Roper, and countless numbers of named and unnamed men and women in Christian history. They can all trace their courage to speak back to the moment that the divine young man at the tomb affirmed Mary Magdalene’s true vocation: to trust that Jesus’ love is real. That his life, death, and life again is real. And to tell people about it, driven by a love that is present in all of us, and in every child of God. 


The instruction Mary Magdalene receives is the whole of the Gospel’s instruction to each of us. We are all Mary Magdalene, receiving the truth of Jesus’ resurrection though, frankly, often unsure of what to do with this precious reality. And yet, the mysterious figure the women meet at the empty tomb gives the answer: tell people that Jesus is truly alive. Even from a starting point of fear, confusion, or silence, let us find our voices. Let us tell the bold truth of God’s love, alive in every glorious creature and in every corner of the world. Amen.





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