Mary Magdalene: A shining example of service to Christ
- Order of Service: Common Service, p15
- Lessons: Proverbs 31:10-31, Philippians 4:1-7, John 20:1-2, 11-18
- Hymns: 225, 552 (1, 14, 3), 369, 411
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Some might see these verses confirming the view that a woman’s place, even in the church, is in the kitchen. After all, what did these women do for Jesus and His apostles? Well, if you read carefully, the answer isn’t simply, “Made food and cleaned up after the men.” Luke says, These women were helping to support them out of their own means. That sounds like more than just cooking and washing up afterwards. That sounds more like how Proverbs 31 described wives and women, doesn’t it? Think of some of the words and phrases you heard there as applying to these women:
- Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value;
- She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life;
- She provides food for her family…out of her earnings;
- She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard;
- She sets about her work vigorously;
- She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy;
- She is clothed with strength and dignity;
- She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
That’s a far cry from the chauvinist dream of barefoot and pregnant women working in the kitchen while the men smoke cigars and drink brandy solving the world’s problems, or at least drinking beer watching football.
So, on the one hand, we discover that maybe women can do more than cook and clean for Jesus. On the other hand, though the verb translated “helping to support” relates to the nouns for “deacon” and “minister,” these verses don’t argue for ordaining women as pastors. Here we see these women serve their Lord in a variety of ways, even including cooking and cleaning. Now, add this twist: perhaps cooking and cleaning are far more important acts of service than you ever imagined, so important, in fact, that we could say that in some ways they are equal to the work done by pastors in pulpits and along communion rails. I can easily imagine Jesus saying about Mary Magdalene what Paul said about two women in the Philippian congregation: These women…have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel (Philippians 4:3, NIV84).
Again, let’s be clear. Jesus didn’t call any of these women into the pastoral ministry. Mary Magdalene, even though she was the first to see the resurrected Lord and reported His resurrection back to the apostles, was not the first woman pastor. That office remains reserved for men, like the apostles and their successors down through the centuries until today, according to the words of St. Paul, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man…. For Adam was formed first, then Eve (1 Timothy 2:12-13, NIV84). Yet, despite being denied that office, that didn’t stop her, and all women, from serving her Lord. Right away in 1 Timothy Paul points to an incredible act of service: But women will be saved through childbearing (2:15, NIV84). What a contrast to today’s world that denigrates and minimizes the role of moms and motherhood, that sneers at the stay-at-home mom, that defines a successful woman as one who breaks free from such a “traditional” and “patriarchal” role. Paul reminds us of this task for which God uniquely prepared and suited women: to preserve the human race. Further, Paul reminds us that without a woman, there’d have been no Jesus. Remember Galatians 4? God sent His Son, born of a woman (4:4, NIV84).
Luke, however, doesn’t describe the service of these women in terms of childbearing. That’s not to say that they weren’t mothers or didn’t become mothers. Luke doesn’t establish for us here the first convent, and make Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene the first nuns who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and take as their only husband Christ and His Church. We know that Joanna was married to Cuza, an important man in King Herod’s palace. We have no evidence that she abandoned that marriage to serve Christ. Rather, her faith led her into this particular form of service, led her, and these other women to organize the first Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society.
What a wretched society. First, you have the wife of a manager from the household of John the Baptist’s killer, King Herod, and she perhaps a slave’s wife. Remember, Joseph managed Potiphar’s household while yet a slave. Then you have Mary Magdalene, once possessed by seven demons. What must her pre-Jesus life have been like? While we have no evidence to identify Mary Magdalene as the woman caught in adultery from John 8, or the sinful woman washing Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, as some have identified her throughout church history, the fact that she was demon possessed doesn’t auger well for her prior spiritual condition. Like the same St. Paul quoted above, Mary no doubt would have said, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life (1 Tim. 1:15-16, NIV84). Whatever unknown sinful depravity led to Mary’s demon possession, Jesus ended her possession and called her to faith in Him. And by the Holy Spirit’s work, she followed. In the words of our Lutheran Confessions, Faith precedes, love follows.
Neither Christ, nor Mary, let her demonic past hold her back, because to serve Christ doesn’t require a perfect past. Actually, it’s more important to contrast the past with the present and the future: “This is what I was before and without Christ – the chief of sinners! Now look at what I am, in Christ – one upon whom He showed mercy!” So Mary proudly proclaimed as she supported Christ throughout His ministry. So too we proudly proclaim, even as we listen to the bones rattle ominously in our closets.
Mary’s past, and the past sins, diseases and very literal demons of the other women did not stop them from following Christ and did not stop Christ from taking them into His service, or the Holy Spirit from bringing them to faith. That’s the radical nature of forgiveness and grace. On account of Christ, our sins don’t count against us anymore: Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul told the Romans (5:1, NIV84). And then there’s that famous interior dialogue of Paul’s in Romans 7 and 8, I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!… Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering (7:23-25a, 8:1-3, NIV84).
First comes the faith in Christ. Then comes the service. It’s axiomatic. Jesus says so. When only one ex-leper returns to thank Jesus, our Lord says, “Were not all 10 healed?” as much as to say, “All ten should be thanking me.” As Jesus describes Judgment Day in Matthew 25, He points to believers and says, “Here’s heaven prepared for you. You fed me. You clothed me. You helped me. You took care of me.” And to the unbelievers He says, “You go to hell, because you did none of those things.” Again, as much as to say, “If you believe in me, you will offer your life in service. If you don’t believe in me, you won’t.”
How can it be any other way? Jesus freed Mary from seven demons, and even more, He freed her from the debt and burden and guilt of her sins by living and dying for her. Of course, she serves Him. Our love follows His love. So too Joanna, Susanna, and many others. So too the apostles. So too countless millions of other Christians, including us. When the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Christ, when the blood of Christ washes over us in baptism, when the body and blood of Christ reenergizes us in the Sacrament, that energy we direct into service for Christ. And the Holy Spirit reminds us in Luke and Proverbs and Philippians and John that service takes on many forms. Thus spoke St. Paul to the Corinthians: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret (1 Cor. 12:27-30, NIV84)? Mary equaled an apostle in service, even though she wouldn’t ever get to be an apostle. Laity equal clergy in service, even though the one isn’t the other. The list could go on, husbands and wives, bosses and employees, masters and servants, men and women, adults and children, and so forth and so on. We serve as God calls us, as God makes us able. But most importantly, we serve because of our faith in Christ, that love He had for us that compels us now as we heard not too long ago: Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Cor. 5:14-15, NIV84). That sanctifies our service. Not the title “pastor” or “father” or “mother” or “elder” or “chairman” or “president” or “man” or “woman” or whatever. Rather, the title we covet, the title that makes our service holy, is the title we received from the Holy Spirit: “Christian.” In Christ the old has gone, the new has come. No longer are we demon possessed sinners, but rather saints, helping to support Christ out of our own means. Amen.