Sermon: Mary Magdalene

I do enjoy reading. I’ve got my theology books that keep me company, but when it comes to relaxing, I’m all about the fiction. I particularly like how the authors develop and describe the characters.

J.K. Rowling described Harry Potter: “Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.” In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not that I would ever read such a book!), Stieg Larson described Lisbeth Salander as “an information junkie with a delinquent child’s take on morals and ethics.”

If the author is good, when we read these descriptions, we start to get images in our head of what these characters look like and what they are all about, just like when you visit on the phone with someone you’ve never met. You get this idea of what they will look like, even though that often turns out to be completely wrong (I made that mistake on a few blind dates). Even so, we get these images in our head, and until we are proven wrong, we will cling to them.

In a similar manner, the apostles and others who were with Jesus thought they knew who he was. As we’ve discussed before, some thought he would be this great king, a military leader come to free them from the oppressive Romans, while others saw him as a prophet, or great rabbi. Even though they may occasionally get it right – Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” – they still didn’t fully understand; therefore, they had these ideas about who Jesus was that weren’t always correct, so before the Good News could be taken into the world, that image they held had to be corrected.

Our Gospel reading begins this process of correction and greater understanding. At the tomb, on the day of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene turned and recognized Jesus, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

“Do not hold on to me” is sometimes seen as Jesus saying, “Do not touch me,” but in the very next chapter we have Jesus telling Thomas, “Reach your hand out and put it into my side.” So, do not touch me doesn’t fit. Instead, what we see happening is Mary Magdalene projecting onto the Risen Lord the image she has of him in her mind, that of Rabbi and Teacher. And Jesus, by saying, “Do not hold on to me” is saying, “Do not cling to the limited image you have of me as a teacher. Things are different now.” As Paul said in our epistle, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Mary was clinging to her understanding of Jesus before his death and resurrection. She was holding on to a world where, through sin, humankind was separated from the Father. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, that relationship has been made new:

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:12)

Which is why Jesus was able to say to her and the apostles, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” No longer is it, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” but now, “In Our Father’s house.”

You have read about Jesus. You’ve heard preaching about his nature and attributes. You, like Mary Magdalene – the Apostle to the Apostles – have this image of Jesus in your mind. Question: Is that image an accurate portrayal of the Risen Lord or are you holding onto an image that is – perhaps not wrong – but too small? Limited? We will never fully understand God, but by asking the Holy Spirit to help us let go of what we think we know, that understanding can be broadened, so that we might more fully know the God and Father of us all.

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