Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
21 July 2019 + Mary Magdalene, Apostle
John 20.1-2, 11-18
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
No one likes to be thought of as clingy. So it might seem strange to call Mary Magdalene, the apostle whose feast day we commemorate today, clingy. And yet, our gospel text literally shows her clinging to Jesus. Whatever we call it, one thing is certain: Mary’s devotion to Jesus, her teacher, runs deep. More than physically, Mary is a disciple who clings to Jesus.
When I was in high school, Mrs. Kearney was the teacher that everyone clung to. She taught English and was especially known for her engaging and entertaining British Literature and drama classes. Her passion for teaching was matched only by her flamboyant personality. She had a special liking for pink flamingos, and her classroom was filled with pictures, figurines, stuffed animals, and other flamingo memorabilia — many of which were gifts from current and former students. It also wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for alumni to come back to Lutheran High North, just to visit her.
Mrs. Kearney was also our student newspaper and yearbook advisor, and next to her drama kids, her journalist and editorial kids were really her inner circle. So you can imagine my delight when I was able to be a part of the yearbook staff my senior year… as the Academics section editor. Yes, I was that cool.
Just before my senior year, Mrs. Kearney was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The aftermath of chemo took her away from school for days at a time, but the remarkable thing about Mrs. Kearney: She remained as vivacious and entertaining as ever, and she kept teaching throughout three years of treatment. When she died, her funeral was filled with her students, myself included, and her impact was clear: Mrs. Kearney was a teacher people clung to.
We cling to those figures that have had that kind of impact on us — whether teachers, parents, grandparents, other mentors, or role models. We cling to them, and we grieve when they’re no longer with us physically. Mary’s grief was like that, too, for the teacher — rabbouni — who changed her life.
We don’t actually know a lot about Mary Magdalene. She’s mentioned only twelve times between all four gospels. Of those mentions, many are repetitive: All four gospels place Mary as an eyewitness to Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. That much is certain. But her backstory is more murky: She’s one of only a handful of women who are explicitly named among Jesus’s disciples. And the only other concrete detail: Luke tells us that Jesus drove out seven demons from her.
Later interpreters would also identify Mary Magdalene with the “sinful woman” in Luke and the woman caught in adultery in John, but there’s no evidence for either case.
What is clear: Mary Magdalene was an important woman. The gnostic gospels — the ones that didn’t make the cut in the New Testament — ascribed great importance to her: In one, Mary is Jesus’s primary dialogue partner; in two others, she’s even named as the “beloved disciple.”
For all we can never know about Mary Magdalene, we can at least surmise that she was there for the most pivotal moments of Jesus’s life, and Jesus was there for at least one of hers.
Which brings us to the garden: Mary is grieving and weeping, a detail mentioned four times in the span of five verses. Her grief is real and human. Anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one knows Mary’s grief. And when she arrives early that morning and his body is missing, it’s like her grief is ripped open all over again. And so she weeps.
Even when Jesus appears, she can’t recognize him at first — the person she once clung to when he was alive (the first time). Grief, we know, can do strange things like that. Until he says her name, and all at once, she knows, she cries out, and she clings to him!
And no wonder she wanted to hold on to him! She had already lost him and had to say goodbye once before. And so she clings to him, as if to say, No, not again…
Mary clings to Jesus. She clings to the teacher who healed her, who changed her life, who recognized her “demons” and her struggles, who saw her as a person and invited her into a life of being a disciple.
Where we might expect a happy reunion, we instead get: “Do not hold on to me…” Jesus’s words might sound harsh: Don’t be clingy. But here is one more lesson from rabbouni: “Go to my brothers [and sisters] and say to them… I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Notice the sense of relationship here. This is what John’s gospel has been trying to tell us from the very beginning: Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh and lived among us, the very God who became human for a time in order to show us what it means to be in relationship with God and God with us. That promise of a deep, abiding relationship didn’t die on the cross but is alive at the tomb — the relationship of the Father with Jesus and Jesus with the Father and the Father with us and us with each other. The relationship Jesus shares with God is meant for all of us. That is John’s Easter proclamation: God is with us still, and not even death can get in the way!
That is a promise worth clinging to! And Mary Magdalene gets it. She doesn’t hesitate a moment to go tell the other disciples the good news: I have seen the Lord! God is with us still!
Jesus couldn’t stick around forever. But he doesn’t leave us alone, just as he never left Mary alone. “Do not hold on to me…” as if to say: Don’t cling to me, but cling to the promise of relationship and the gift of community in me.
The first Sunday I served as assisting minister at my home congregation in Chicago we interred Elvina’s ashes in the memorial garden. I distinctly remember the feeling of holding her urn, a simple square, black plastic box, covered with its white pall, as we processed outside. This was a woman I never met, who died before I joined Holy Trinity, but a woman this congregation clung to. There, in the interment liturgy, we committed her ashes to the ground, a sacred way of “letting go.” That didn’t mean we clung to her any less, but in new ways: through the passion for service she instilled in our congregation and the social justice endowment fund set up in her memory.
“Do not hold on to me…” Jesus invites us not to cling to the past and the way things have always been, but instead to cling to the hope of the future and to envision a future of loving and living in relationship with God and with one another — a future breaking into the present, even now.
That is a promise worth clinging to. Good news worth clinging to. Mary Magdalene is the apostle who teaches us to cling to the things that matter, the things that abide. She shows us what it means to be in so deep a relationship with her teacher and with her God that she can’t help but burst with joy: I have seen the Lord!
This is where we see the Lord: in our community, in our service to our neighbors, in our pursuit of God’s justice for those who suffer and cry out, in our relationships with each other, in this meal of bread and wine that sustains us.
Cling to these things. With Mary Magdalene and all the witnesses of the resurrection, cling to God’s promise to be with us always and to keep showing up.