July 22, 2007

Sermon for St. Mary Magdalene - John 20.1-2, 10-18

When we observe a festival of a saint, we do so for two reasons: first, so we can give thanks to God and be comforted by how He worked in the saint; and second, so that we can imitate the saint in our own lives. What is there to imitate about Mary Magdalene? Older liturgical books have for the twenty-second of July this striking title: Mary Magdalene, Penitent. If we want to be Christians, it begins by being as Mary Magdalene: penitent.

The Gospel that used to be assigned for Mary Magdalene’s day was Luke 7, which says,

One of the Pharisees asked [Jesus] to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

Then Jesus says that this woman, a prostitute, has more love for God than the Pharisee does, because she rightly understands the forgiveness of sins. And to underscore the point, Jesus says to this prostitute, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Church fathers such as St. Augustine identified this woman as Mary Magdalene, perhaps because immediately afterward, St. Luke tells us in ch. 8 that “certain women [were with Jesus] who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—[one of them] Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons,” and several others are listed. Another reason may be that the forgiven prostitute is described as clinging onto Jesus just like Mary Magdalene is said to do in today’s Gospel.

But the Gospel reading has been changed in our new hymnal, because we know the woman in John 20 is Mary Magdalene, whereas we can only speculate that the forgiven prostitute is Mary Magdalene. At first I planned for us to read the old gospel reading today, but I decided to go with what is in our hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, for this reason: we should not all do our own thing. Part of being in our Synod, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, is that we agree to walk together, work together, pray together. Our church has given us a very good hymnal that should bind us together as a congregation, and bind all of our congregations together. It’s not perfect; every day I find something that I would do differently. But if it can be used without sin, we should agree together to follow our hymnbook. Rightly are this generation’s pop-worship services criticized for their shallow content, doctrinal deviations, and self-indulgent attitudes. But in avoiding those aberrations, it is all the more important that we not be “doing our own thing.” I am always saddened when I hear from people who have moved away who say that when they went to the Lutheran church in their new city they found that it was not recognizably Lutheran.

So to keep in step with our church, in Gospel freedom we follow the updated Gospel reading for St. Mary Magdalene’s day, even if that’s not one’s preferred choice. That could apply to all of our relationships, could it not? Whether in the church, or in our families, we remember the words of St. Paul: “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” What would happen if we stopped trying to get our way? In the rite for private confession the penitent acknowledges, “I have not let [God’s] love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed.”

Christian tradition has labeled Mary Magdalene a “penitent.” Whether she was a prostitute or not, we know that she was a penitent – because that is the definition of a Christian. God came to her out of love and freed her from her demons.

What does that mean? We cannot go too deeply into it today, but demonic activity takes a variety of forms. In rare cases of what is called total or “perfect possession,” the soul is completely overwhelmed by a demonic power; but in most cases a person is either afflicted—i.e., attacked—by an evil spirit, or else led into temptation by the enticement of a demon to sin.

In the Bible, Job is an example of a person who suffered at the hands of Satan; the devil destroyed his home and possessions, murdered his family, and then tormented Job with a painful illness. St. Peter is attacked by Satan, who asked to sift Peter like wheat; and Judas had the betrayal of Jesus put into his heart by Satan.

Now it is wrong to be superstitious and see demons in every shadow; but it is just as wrong—and far more dangerous—to imagine that there is no devil, no spiritual powers of wickedness, and suppose that you are never in spiritual danger. The opposite is true – we are at all times in danger, and so we should pray daily for the protection of the holy angels, and with the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer, cry out fervently, “Deliver us from evil,” or rather, “Deliver us from the evil one!”

Whatever the form of demonic affliction that had come upon St. Mary Magdalene, the Lord Jesus freed her. And she not only became a faithful disciple of Jesus, but she “provided for [Jesus] from [her] substance” [Lk. 8.3]. In other words, she was one of the women who gave money to support the Lord’s work. Why? Does the Lord need money? No. All is His. He could get it from the mouth of a fish if He needed to. But He allowed Mary to use her treasure in thanksgiving to the LORD. Why do we give offerings to the Lord’s Church? The Lord’s work is not really building buildings or paying bills, and it is not payment for some service rendered. You and I, like Mary Magdalene, have found forgiveness at the Lord’s feet, and in gratitude we want to bring the same grace to others who are tormented by demons of all different kinds. But let your giving be, as the Scripture says, “Not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Now I alluded earlier to our Lutheran Confessions, specifically AC XXI, which says that we remember the saints, such as Mary Magdalene, because “their good works are to be an example for us,” so we can imitate them. We should imitate Mary Magdalene by being ourselves penitent, that is, continually sorry for our sins; and also by being cheerful givers, supporting the Lord’s work with our treasure.

But it is most important to remember Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection. She saw the Lord Jesus, risen in His body, literally, actually, truly from the dead. And doesn’t her experience there embody the experience of fallen humanity? She is standing in a graveyard, crying in the face of death. We have no answer to that horror, and our lives flow steadily on to their inevitable end, and we labor with fear and suffering and anger and greediness and jealousy that overwhelms us in this experience of our own slow dying and the death of those we love all around us. Man makes up fictions about souls being liberated from the body as from a prison, and about people moving on to bright lights in better places. But deep down we know that we have no objective proof of any of these lies that we tell ourselves and others. But right there, at that moment of despair and angst, as Mary Magdalene stands among the tombs, come the angels, and then again Jesus, saying to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

And then another question: “What are you looking for?” What are you looking for? Money? Control over others? A bit of pleasure before life’s end? Or are you wandering through graveyards, as though Jesus remained dead, your sins held against you, with the grave the inevitable conclusion to your brief life?

But then, weeping, looking for a dead Jesus, she knows Him by His voice, when He calls her by name, as the Good Shepherd to His sheep. She knows Him—it is the Lord Jesus, bodily raised, triumphant from the grave! Now there is no reason to weep! Christ is risen, the demons are routed, death has lost its sting.

And Mary Magdalene the penitent, Mary Magdalene the woman freed from seven demons, becomes Mary Magdalene, chosen by God to be the first eyewitness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. She becomes the Apostle to the Apostles, racing to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen.

Thank God for giving us an example in Mary Magdalene as a penitent and as a cheerful giver. But most of all thank God for giving us St. Mary Magdalene’s eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Because of her, we also get to hear the words of Jesus for our comfort: “Why are you weeping?” and know that Christ Jesus our Lord will wipe away all of our tears, remove all of our sins, and bring us with Him through the grave into the company of Mary Magdalene and all the company of penitents whom the Lord called by name and made His saints. Thanks be to God!

Now, as at Easter, let us remember the testimony of St. Mary Magdalene:

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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