The past few weeks we’ve been reflecting on some of Jesus’ disciples and what they can teach us about saying “yes” to the call to follow Jesus, or you could say the call to seek God and salvation through faith in Jesus and in the Way of Jesus.
Now, when it comes to discipleship, Mary Magdalene deserves her due.
In the New Testament we know her as the leader of the women who were Jesus’ disciples. She’s also named as a patron of the Jesus’ movement. Mary Magdalene is never referred to as so-an-so’s wife or mother or sister – which is unusual. So historians say she probably was an independent woman of some financial means, which was possible for some women at the time.
Contrary to popular belief, she was not a prostitute – that’s an invention from centuries later. We know Jesus healed Mary of bad spirits that possessed her, but that’s it. Jesus did break bread with women who worked the streets, which caused a scandal. He offered them grace rather than judgment, and many of them did come to be part of the Jesus movement. But Mary was not one of them. The gospel writers would have been clear if she was, because she was a noteworthy disciple whom they often mention by name.
Mary is always named as the leader of the other female disciples. She and a couple others, including Jesus’ mother Mary, are the only ones not to abandon Jesus in the end. When Jesus was arrested, the male disciples all spooked and fled. But the female disciples, led by Mary Magdalene, stayed and bore witness to Christ’s suffering. They prepared his body for burial. And Mary is the first person to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection and then go and tell the others.
That’s why early Christians called her the “apostle to the apostles.” Think about that, Mary Magdalene, “The apostle to the apostles.”
The story gets even more interesting. Fast forward to the late 1800s: in Egypt people discovered an ancient papyrus manuscript called the Gospel of Mary. And since then they’ve found another partial copy and a third snippet.
According to this recovered gospel, Mary Magdalene was the disciple who was closest to Jesus, she was the one disciple who really got it, who really received the full gift that Jesus offered. And then after Jesus’ resurrection, it was Mary who stepped up among the other disciples with full spiritual authority.
Now, as you know, the Gospel of Mary is not in our New Testament. It could have been lost to history. It’s likely someone tried to erase it from history. And as a matter of fact, what we have of the gospel is only a part of it. Most of it is missing, including the first half or more. What we do have is much of the second half. What we have begins after Jesus’ death, with the resurrected Jesus having come back to teach the disciples. Jesus then leaves. And you’ll see what happens next. For the heresy hunters among us, God bless you. Some people do consider this book heresy. You all deserve the opportunity to judge for yourself. Overall on the subject of heresy I want to say that Shakespeare had it right that “it is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it.” And if I commit heresy this morning that’s on me, God help me. I usually commit orthodoxy, God help me. And more than anything else I want to commit love, love in the name of God. I want to help us fall more in love with Jesus and more in love with God and more in love with this busted, beautiful world.
I’ve had the privilege to study this stuff, and I feel a responsibility to share with you that what’s in the New Testament is not all there is of early Christian testimony and creativity … there are more expressions of the love of God that manifest with Jesus than what was recorded in the New Testament, and some of these are very exciting.
The first two centuries after Jesus’ death was this incredibly dynamic, creative, uncertain, messy, combative, spirit-filled, inspired time for the movement of Jesus followers. There was just this explosion of the Spirit. And the disciples burst out of the gates and went all over the place to share that Spirit of Christ as they experienced it.
Apostles went to Egypt, Ethiopia, Turkey and Greece and Rome and into continental Europe and the Balkans, and east to Persia and China and India … all fomenting a movement that brought together women and men and eunuchs and children and slaves and soldiers and Jews and Egyptians and Greeks and Celts and Romans and rich folks and poor folks, all breaking bread together and baptizing and healing and teaching and sharing in this spiritual insurrection of the living God, which breaks boundaries that people use to divide.
And I’ll tell you, Thomas’ take on Jesus was a little different than Mary’s, which was a little different than Andrew’s and Peter’s and Philip’s and Paul’s. They each seemed to have their communities of followers, many of whom wrote down their teachings as scriptures. “This is what Matthew said about Jesus,” that’s the Gospel of Matthew. Same with Mark, Luke and John. And we now know there’s also a Gospel of Phillip, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of the Nazarenes, Gospel of Mary… and even a Gospel of Judas. These are called non-canonical Gospels, all accounts of Jesus that are not in our Bible.
The picture is that Early Christianity was a much more diverse movement than the institutional orthodoxy makes it out to be – and I should say also that orthodoxy itself has more room than it often gets credit for.
So, for the record I’m not saying that anything goes. We can’t just say whatever we want about Jesus and God, whatever just feels good. And some of this stuff in these non-canonical gospels is just bonkers, in my opinion, and in some cases, I believe, dangerous. But some of it is totally inspired and totally life giving and can breathe new life into a 21st Century Christianity that, let’s face it, too often has sucked the life out of Christ and sucked the life out of the words of scripture and has chosen worldly power over true discipleship to Jesus.
I see that true discipleship in the Gospel of Mary. It’s different from what we’re used to, and kinda surprising and fresh and in some ways strange. But I see in this gospel the Jesus that I’ve fallen in love with. I feel the presence of the same Spirit of life and healing and enlightenment, speaking for myself. So let’s hear from the book. We won’t hear all of it. Come on Wednesday night for that. Two quick notes: “The Realm” is another way to translate “The Kingdom,” meaning the “Kingdom of Heaven.” “Child of Humanity,” is another way to translation the “Son of Man” that Jesus talks a lot about in our New Testament.
First Reading From the “Gospel of Mary” When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all saying, “Peace be with you. Bear my peace within yourselves. Beware that no one lead you astray saying, ‘Look over here! Or ‘Look over there!’ For the Child of Humanity is within you. Follow it! Those who seek it will find it. Go then and proclaim the good news of the Realm. Do not lay down any rules beyond what I determined for you, nor give a law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it.” When he had said this, he departed. But the disciples were pained. They wept greatly, saying, “How shall we go to the nations and proclaim the good news of the Child of Humanity? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?” Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, and said to her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be pained, nor doubt, for all his grace will be with you and shelter you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and make us Humans.” When Mary said this, she turned their heart to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior. Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember, which you know and we do not, nor have we heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will tell you.” And she began to say to them these words…
What Mary does here is share with the other disciples a holy experience that Jesus has guided her through. I’ll tell you more about that, but for now I want you to see the arc of the story. So we pick up after Mary finishes telling the other disciples what Jesus had revealed to her.
Second Reading From the Gospel of Mary After Mary said this, she was silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. But Andrew responded and said to the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about what she has said, I do not believe that the Savior said this, for certainly these teachings are strange ideas.” Peter responded and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned the about the Savior, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and all listen to her? Did he choose her over us?” Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother, Peter, what are you thinking? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am telling lies about the Savior?” Levi responded and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been an angry person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her? Surely the Savior’s knowledge of her is trustworthy. That is why he loved her more than us. Rather, let us be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and proclaim the good news, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.”
“If the Savior made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her?” Mary Magdalene is the only one who is not afraid after Jesus leaves. The men are all scared. They’re in tears. If they do what Jesus asked them and go out and share the good news, they’re afraid they’ll meet the same fate as Jesus.
Mary responds to the other disciples’ fear with calm and strength, with peace, and deep faith.
She speaks with authority and leads them to turn their hearts to the Good and to remember what the Savior taught them.
Now, it’s interesting what happens next. It’s Peter who first invites Mary to share what Jesus had taught her. But then he and Andrew get jealous and angry, their pride and petty beliefs about women get in the way of hearing what she has to teach. That’s a shame. And you’ll see that this anger and pettiness is exactly what Mary teaches we can overcome when we know the truth of our true natures.
Levi on the other hand hears her, and hears the truth of what she says.
So, let me try to do justice to what she teaches.
The Good News according to Mary Magdalene:
The Savior came as the perfect human, the Child of Humanity, in union with God, an embodiment of the Good.
The Savior taught that sin is not real in and of itself. Sin is the consequence of us forgetting our true nature, which is a spiritual nature of God by God from God for God, free of the powers and passions of this limited, material world. This true nature is called the Child of Humanity.
We won’t find this Child of Humanity by looking outside of ourselves. Rather the Savior himself guides us to find it from within ourselves.
Jesus gave certain laws or precepts about how to live according to this Child of Humanity, within us, from God, how to have our hearts turned to the Good, how to act in ways that are free of the powers and passions of this world. But he cautions the disciples not to make any more rules than what he set down because rulemaking itself can be a trap that gets us stuck in those powers and passions. Now, what we have of the Gospel of Mary does not spell out the laws that Jesus gave.
But Mary does at some point invoke, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” And I’d say that what she teaches is totally in the same spirit of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in the Bible. I think we’d all do well as Christians to stay focused on those principles and insights in the Sermon on the Mount.
What’s unique about the Gospel of Mary is that it tells the story of the resurrected Savior guiding Mary’s soul in using these principles and insights in a journey to union with God as a true Child of Humanity. This journey for Mary did not happen after death, but within life.
This journey involves the soul ascending through stages of development. And at each stage a Power of the fallen world tries to block the soul and entice her or trick her into believing that the soul belongs to that Power and not to God. These Powers are things like Desire, Ignorance, Eagerness for Death, the foolish Wisdom of the Flesh, the false Wisdom of Wrath -anger and judgment and punishment.
What Mary tells the other disciples is how her Soul faces of these Powers and responds to their temptations with this great stability and poise and peace centered in the insight, the knowledge that she got from the Savior. This insight, this knowledge is that she as a Soul belongs to a greater God, she is at home in a Realm that is free and that is Good.
The Good News of Mary Magdalene.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered Feb. 5, 2018, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)