Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the risen Jesus. She was one of Jesus’ most devoted followers because of the love he had shown her, such as freeing her from the demons that tormented her. Like Mary, we can trust that God can bring new life and hope to our own lives.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: John 20:1-18
I want to start off with a meme:
“In the interests of biblical accuracy, all the preaching about the resurrection this Easter Sunday will be done by women.”
Kate or Hija, maybe you should have been preaching today. We’ll think about it for the future.
Of all the people who followed Jesus through the events of his last week, we can make a case that Mary Magdalene is the one whose devotion to Jesus was the deepest.
Most of Jesus disciples couldn’t bear to see Jesus suffer on the cross, or they got scared away in the Garden of Gethsemane, so they were nowhere to be found on the day of his crucifixion.
But Mary Magdalene and several other women who were followers of Jesus were there until Jesus breathed his last breath and said “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!”
And on the third day after Jesus died, early in the morning while it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial.
When she saw that Jesus’ body wasn’t there, Mary went and found Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved and told them that the stone was rolled away and someone had taken Jesus out of his tomb.
Who was this “disciple whom Jesus loved”? You may know that this is how the author of this gospel, John, described himself. You gotta love this—
I mean, I’ve heard of shameless plugs, but John letting everyone know that he was THE ONE that Jesus loved would make the shameless plug hall of fame! I guess when you write the book you can take certain liberties, right?
Anyway, back to the story. So Peter and John raced to the tomb, saw that Jesus clothes were in the tomb but his body wasn’t there. But it says that they still couldn’t understand what was going on. And they went back home.
But Mary Madgalene stuck around. And she was overcome by grief and was weeping outside the tomb. She wept because she had lost one of her closest friends, and she was also upset because she wanted to make sure that Jesus had a proper burial and his body had been taken away.
That’s when she had the famous conversation with whom she thought was the gardener, but who ended up being the risen Jesus. When Jesus called her by name “Mary”, she knew exactly who it was.
“Rabboni, (Teacher)!” she cried out. And Jesus says to her “Don’t hold onto me, because I haven’t gone up into heaven yet. Go and tell the other disciples about me.”
The passage ends by saying that Mary went and announced to the disciples “I have seen the Lord!”.
Exactly who was this Mary? There are a lot of Marys mentioned in the Bible, but this Mary is the one from the Magdala region by the Sea of Galilee.
Contrary to some ways that she is portrayed in movies, she is not the sinful woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet, nor is she the woman who was caught in adultery and almost stoned by a self-righteous crowd of religious leaders.
Mary Magdalene was one of several women who were with Jesus from almost the beginning, soon after he called his twelve male disciples.
And there was also Susanna, and Joanna, wife of Chuzpa who managed the king’s household.
No, we don’t hear as much about the women who followed Jesus, many who probably followed as closely as the twelve men did. In that patriarchal culture, where men wrote the accounts of Jesus’ life,
The role and significance of Jesus’ women disciples was often underreported, not seen as important. And their voices were silenced in that male-dominated society, and when they did speak up, their testimony was often not taken seriously.
Luke also reports that some of these same women were present with Mary Magdalene when she told the male disciples that Jesus had risen. And these guys didn’t take them seriously, they thought what the women were saying was “nonsense”. (Luke 24:11)
Women today who have been silenced or not taken seriously sometimes say “She persisted”, and that could be said of Mary Magdalene as well.
Also in that culture, women didn’t normally travel with Rabbis—in fact, a Rabbi wasn’t even supposed to speak to his wife in public.
But Jesus wasn’t your typical rabbi; he broke cultural norms in a lot of ways, one of which was including women in his traveling band of followers.
And not only did women follow Jesus, they also helped provide for his ministry financially, they gave “out of their means”, Luke says, which was also unheard of in a society where men usually controlled the purse strings of the household.
So Mary Magdalene wasn’t alone as a women in her dedication to Jesus and his Kingdom. But in many ways she stands out in her deep devotion and commitment to Jesus.
Jesus had driven the devil out of Mary, literally, casting seven demons out of her. We don’t know exactly what those demons were, but Mary was set free in a way that she had never experienced before. And she was filled with gratitude to Jesus.
It’s said that “Those who receive the most from God are often the most grateful.” And this is certainly true in Mary’s case.
We can probably all think of a time when we were filled with gratitude to God for something that God did for us or when we experienced what feels like an extra measure of God’s goodness, grace or love in our lives.
One thing that comes to my mind is the opportunity to live overseas in Bolivia for 8 years, working with church leaders, helping start a new congregation, building relationships with our neighbors, learning to understand a new culture and speak a new language,
Karen and I raising our children there in their early years, and how we had such a supportive network of Bolivian friends as well as coworkers with the mission board and with Mennonite Central Committee.
Those years were often challenging and hard, but we were blessed in so many ways, and I’m so grateful to God for opening the door for us to live and serve in Bolivia.
I’ll say more about one of our Bolivian friends in a bit, but back to Mary for a minute.
One of my former seminary professors, Willard Swartley, wrote a commentary on the gospel of John and in the section of John 20 wrote that Mary Magdalene was
“most likely she was driven by love, a deep love for the best friend she ever had”
We see this love expressed in Mary’s commitment to stand by Jesus’ side through thick and thin, by her being the first one to go to the tomb, by her weeping with raw emotion outside of the tomb, and by her excitement when Jesus called her name and she realized that she had seen her Lord.
Even though Mary Magdalene doesn’t get as much press as some of the male disciples, she was a true follower of Jesus whose testimony inspires us and challenges all of us to become more faithful and devoted disciples.
I want to close with a story of a woman from our church in Bolivia who reminds me a lot of Mary Magdalene. Her name was Estela Copede.
Hermana Estela, as we would say, “sister Estela”, was one of the first people who we got to know when we began our ministry in a barrio on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
She was part of the first Bible study group that met in our home. When we began having worship services, we met in the local schoolhouse where Estela was the caretaker, so it was like she opened up her home to our emerging church.
Estela’s family could barely get by financially. She and her husband had seven children, one of which was in a wheelchair and needed a lot of extra help.
Estela fought a lot of demons. One of her biggest demons took the form of her husband, who was verbally and physically abusive to his family.
Things were especially bad on the weekends. Like a lot of workers in Bolivia in those days, he would get paid in cash on Fridays. And like a lot of men, he would go out before going home that night and spend half of his paycheck or more on alcohol, drinking the night and his paycheck away.
That would leave the family strapped for cash to buy groceries, pay the rent, and take care of other basic necessities. And also living in fear of what things might be like when her got home.
Estela also had another demon, this one of a physical nature. She had a goiter on her neck the size of a softball, which had grown so large due to lack of iodine in her diet and not getting treated for it earlier.
The lump on her neck understandable made Estela her uncomfortable and very self-conscious, and could pose some more serious health risks if it was not removed.
It turned out that a Catholic social service ministry in our community came up with money for her to have the operation to remove it. But when Estela’s husband found out about it he said, “I don’t want you getting that goiter taken out. “It would make you pretty and other men would pay attention to you”.
He was a jealous and controlling man, and Estela was held back so much by him.
But Estela had the support and encouragement of other people around her to go ahead with the operation. And she had walked with Jesus long enough and close enough to know that she was a beloved child of God.
And these things gave her the courage and the dignity to get the goiter taken out. This whole experience gave hermana Estela a new confidence and a new lease on life. She wouldn’t put up with her husband’s abuse anymore, and he moved out.
She was set free from some of the demons that haunted her, just like Mary Magdalene.
Estela grew in her service too her community and to her church. She had been baptized as an infant, but decided that she wanted to be baptized as an adult,
and I was honored to be part of her baptism service on a new property that our congregation had bought to build our very own church building.
One of my favorite memories of hermana Estela has to do with Easter.
Every year there was a big Easter sunrise service held in the soccer stadium in the city of Santa Cruz. We would actually watch the sun rise at the service, so that means we had to leave while it was still pitch dark outside.
We had a big old green Ford pickup truck that had been passed down from mission workers who had been in Bolivia before us. We would pile as many people from our church as possible into the back of the truck and head over to the stadium.
One year I went outside rather early to pull the truck out of the driveway before any got there, and lo and behold Hermana Estela was sitting outside the gate, all ready to go.
I said, Buenos Dias, hermana. Estas temprano—you’re here so early! She said, I don’t have a watch so I just judged what time it was by how far the moon was up in the sky. I wanted to make sure not to miss the sunrise service.
Hermana Estela was a beloved and dedicated member of our church, Iglesia Menonita Sinai until she passed away several years after we left Bolivia.
Here is a photo of Estela reading scripture at one of our worship services. She struggled to read fluently, because of her humble background,
and she was a very soft-spoken person, but when she read scripture, she read it with such authority and conviction that you could feel the power of the Word of God just filling up the room.
Like Mary Magdalene, Estela Copede was a passionate follower of Jesus with an amazing testimony. Like Mary, Estela was changed through the power of the risen Jesus in her life. She is someone who can join in the chorus of people like Mary and say “I have seen the Lord!”
We’re going to sing a song of response called “In the Bulb There is a Flower”. At our house, some tulips have just appeared in our flower bed this week. Maybe you have had some come up as well.
This song uses the image of a flower bulb or a seed as a metaphor for how God is at work under the surface of our lives, often in ways that we are not aware of, in ways that sometimes God alone can see.
Sometimes those times feel barren to us, or confusing, or dark. Maybe during this season of Lent you have experienced this in some way. But the song reminds us that we can trust that God can bring about new life out of the old, new hope when there has been despair, resurrection out of death,
Like God did with Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, and Hermana Estela.
As we sing, I invite you to reflect on what the words of this song might mean to you this Easter, and in this particular season of your life.