Being broken, being whole: A sermon on the patronal festival of St Mary Magdalene

This sermon was preached at Piddington with Horton Church, which is jointly dedicated to St John and St Mary Magdalene, at a service of praise celebrating the patronal festival of St Mary Magdalene on July the 22nd, 2018. The accompanying reading for this sermon was John 20 , verses 1 and 11 – 18. 

In today’s Gospel, we are witnesses to a moment of wonderful intimacy. First Mary Magdalene, them Simon Peter and another disciple – whom tradition lends us to believe is John – have come to the garden, after three days hiding in fear. They enter the tomb and discover the folded cloths. And so Peter and John set off running back to the other disciples. And like Doctor Who, they never stop running – running towards the foundation of the church, and the spread of the good news. In their haste to act, they leave Mary Magdalene behind at the tomb. In that moment, she is distraught, and alone.

While some passages of the Bible are told in great narrative sweeps – ‘and then he went to Jerusalem’, or ‘after many years they left that place’, here time seems to stand still, and we can trace Mary’s footsteps that morning. We know that the garden is beside the place where Jesus died, and outside the protection and sanctity of the city walls. In the early morning, Mary – and in some of the other gospels, a few other women who followed and loved Jesus – make the uncertain and quite possibly unsafe journey out to this garden. To do so, they have to pass the site of the cross, where they had witnessed Jesus tortured and killed – and possibly pass others enduring the same fate.  The danger of being a woman, walking alone in the early morning in an occupied land, is considerable.

There are a few things that speak to me about Mary Magdalene in this moment. Firstly, I wonder whether she was left behind, or if she chose to remain, to think and pray, and probably most urgently, have space to grieve. Over the proceeding days the disciples had likely been crowded together, wondering what to do next. Perhaps this is the first moment since his death when Mary has had a moment alone.

There must have been a lot of emotions running through the disciples’ minds at the sight of the empty tomb. John says that the disciples saw and believed, and so we can assume that among those emotions were joy and excitement. But there was probably also confusion and anxiety, and I imagine that there was also fear. What if someone had stolen Jesus’ body, or it had been moved by the Romans? As I imagine this scene I’m picturing Peter and John experiencing a massive adrenaline rush. They’re relieved, excited, anxious to talk about it and do something, and so they go running off. Now the gospeller does not tell us how they feel. We only have a record of their actions. But he makes a point of telling us how Mary feels. And in that moment, Mary is heartbroken. All the tiredness and confusion and sadness of the last few days crashes down on her. I’m sure there have been times in all our lives when we have felt like that. And so she has a proper cry.

The second thing that occurred to me as I reflected on this passage is its similarity to another passage in John: the resurrection of Lazarus in chapters 11 and 12. It’s useful to remember that this had only happened a few weeks before, and that Mary Magdalene would almost certainly have been with Jesus when it happened. She had seen him resurrect a man. And she had seen him weep for his dead friend. Now, nothing happens in the gospel of John by accident. The similarities in his telling of the two stories are intended to make us, the reader, draw parallels between them. And so we remember what Jesus says to Martha before he calls Lazarus from his tomb: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ Mary Magdalene’s whole life points to Jesus, and in this moment she and the gospel writer are pointing directly at his power over death.

But before the resurrection, before Mary turns to see her beloved Lord, there is a moment of grief, one shared by Jesus before he calls Lazarus back to life. Mary has come to the tomb ready to see her Lord broken and destroyed. In accordance with Jewish traditions, she has come to anoint his body. There is no preparation adequate for that experience – for entering a tomb of a man three days dead and decomposing, to try and add honour and love to a death which has had all dignity and reverence stripped from it. There are good historical reasons why Mary Magdalene was there – the soldiers supposed to be guarding the tomb would have been unlikely to let any of his male disciples in – but I think that Mary is there for a deeper reason than historical coincidence. I believe that Mary was there because, of all the disciples, she understood how to love even when you, and everything you know, is broken. Much of Mary’s life is apocryphal. We have to make educated guesses in some places. But one thing we can be sure of is that Mary knew those depths of grief and brokenness. We’re told that she was ‘possessed by seven spirits’, and whether we believe she was possessed by spirits, or suffering from mental or physical illness, we can imagine how isolating and miserable her life may have been. She seems to have no home to return to, no husband or family; she has given her entire life to following Jesus. I’m not sure that in that moment of grief and confusion at the tomb she understands that Jesus is resurrected; the reality of his physical death is there in the crosses she’s walked past, the stone of the tomb, the body she’s expecting to find. But her love for him remains constant because she understands truly and deeply how constant his love is for her.

In the days leading up to Jesus’ death, and before his resurrection, we see the disciples and those around them grappling with the meaning of his coming death., and when Jesus is crucified, undoubtedly there were people who looked on and saw brokenness and failure. But Mary Magdalene, looking at her Lord, sees his love for all of us. And in that moment, it doesn’t stop her from grieving, from all those feelings of despair and hurt. But her love is constant, and it keeps her standing there beside the tomb. But even in that moment of darkness she knows that she is loved and she responds in love. And it is love that recognises Jesus when he calls her by name.

Love and brokenness are woven together. In the resurrection Jesus has to be broken so that we all be made whole. Think of the moment in the Eucharist when we break the bread. It has to stop being a perfect, round wafer so that it can be divided among us. But by sharing that broken bread, our share in Jesus’ broken body, we all become one. To put it simply: Jesus is in the brokenness of our lives. He’s with us in the hurt and the anguish. When we’re grieving. When we don’t know where to turn. And how do we trust in this? Because his first choice, the first thing he did after his resurrection, was to appear to comfort a broken, scared woman, whose heart was crying out for him. As John writes in his first letter, perfect love drives out all fear. The short excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we read tonight describes this passage through brokenness; one has died for all, therefore all have died. But because God’s love is with us and dies for us, we come through our brokenness and pain. And we don’t come through it the same. Paul says that we will be a new creation because we are in Christ. His love makes us whole.

Over the last few years, as I’ve struggled to discern where God is taking me, I’ve often expressed a wish for a routemap. Why are there no signs, no useful books, no university classes, telling you what God wants with your life and how to get there? And after a few years of saying this, I’ve started to notice a pattern. Over and over, someone wiser than me has pointed out that the journey to Christ does not begin with a particular achievement. It doesn’t start and end like a bible study course. For me, it didn’t ‘end’ when I joined a new monastic community last August, and it won’t end when I move to another community later this year. I’m reminded that where I am now is a part of that journey.

There was a day, a few months into my time in community, when I was convinced I’d completely failed. I’d had an argument with the other members of my community, and I felt like everything around me was damaged beyond repair. I thought about leaving. I sat in my room and felt crushed.

Although the next morning I got up and we all struggled on, that brokenness didn’t disappear on its own. We lived alongside it. But we also prayed alongside it. And in that hurt, Jesus was present, and I found that I loved the people I was living alongside more than I had even been able to before. Where we seek to know God, we must always respond to brokenness with love. 2 Corinthians makes it clear: Christ goes with us through our brokenness, so that we may be made new, and have life in him. The promise made to us is not that we will avoid grief or pain or fear, but that Jesus will go with us through it, and bring us out the other side.

Writing this sermon, I’ve thought about the times in my life when I’ve felt like Mary, sitting beside the empty tomb feeling desperate. We know that the tomb is empty because Jesus is alive. But it also speaks of his absence, and sometimes that can seem more real.

I’d like each of you to think about where you are on that journey, and where you’ve been. Perhaps you’re on the journey to the garden – finding that God sometimes takes us to difficult places. Or it could be that you see yourself in the joy of Simon Peter and the other disciple, racing off to tell the world! Maybe you’re like Mary, waiting at the tomb, or perhaps you can see yourself in her in that moment of joy when she recognises the Lord.

Our call as Christians can feel hard because love is not given to us with ease, or prosperity, or even always understanding. But love first, love Christ who first loved you, and you will be made new in Christ.

And finally, remember that wherever you are, you are close to Christ. Let all that is in you respond in love.

and if you’ve reached the bottom of this sermon, go and read 1 John 4, which talks of love in better words than I could ever find.