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The Rest of the Story: The Apostle to the Apostles

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.'  John 14:25-26

At 76 Anna Robertson had very little left since her husband had died seven years prior. She fought the emptiness with farm chores but soon life demanded a slower pace. Her daughter suggested she take on embroidery which turned out to be a great suggestion, but arthritis grew worse. Her hands were wrapped with bandages, and she even tried a home remedy of 3 cups of milk with 3-5 drops of turpentine! Of course it didn’t help; at night the aches kept her awake and could no longer embroider. But she would not set herself out to pasture. 


While reminiscing with her sister they recalled as a little girl she liked drawing using anything she could find to add color, from berry juice to colored chalk, even the paint used to mark the livestock. Now Anna marched up the attic to retrieve an old canvas used to patch a threshing machine cover and some old house paint. She never had an art lesson or even heard of Picasso or Van Gogh but for the next 25 years she produced 1,500 paintings, capturing the admiration of art lovers around the world. And now you know the rest of the story of Anna Robertson better known around the world as …..Grandma Moses. (adapted from Paul Harvey jr. the rest of the story)


Mary Magdalene and Grandma Moses both had the first phase of their lives pass rather unremarkably and with thoughts that their impact would never been known beyond a handful of people. But the rest of the story for Mary turns out to be far more fascinating than even that of the amazing, gifted, and bold Grandma Moses.


I imagine this surprises you since what we know about Mary Magdalene from scripture only amounts to a few verses. While those verses are captivating, they hardly convey that of a world-mover.


But our knowledge and our impression of Mary Magdalene is sparse in today's world.Not because of what Mary did but rather what preachers, historians, and others have done through the ages.


Sadly, the stories of many critical figures in history have been relegated to footnotes or, even worse, were twisted in order to fit societal expectations and prejudices, because of their gender, race, or class.


Overall recent modern scholarship has sought to remedy these. For example, history has taught us that explorer Robert Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole! At least that was what I learned growing up. However deeper examination of the historical facts seemed to indicate that an African American man, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ookqueah were the first.


But history can be even worse by not only sidelining people but actively distorting their role in order to control the narrative.


While it is true that throughout the history of the Christian Church women were often relegated to inferior roles, it was not a uniform occurrence. There is a particularly unfortunate twist to the story of Mary Magdalene which becomes more powerful upon reading texts outside of the Bible.


Perhaps you do remember one fact about Mary, the same one I learned growing up. She was a prostitute.


Only there is absolutely no reason to believe this. Nothing in the Bible. Nothing in the other ancient literature either. But in 591, Pope Gregory the Great sealed this myth by identifying her with an unnamed woman in the Gospels. This unsupported reading enabled the early church to downplay her role and pave the way to exclude women from key roles in the Church, despite Jesus’ own use of women as key leaders in the faith.  


It was critical for the Church to seek to diminish her role for one reason—to exclude women from the formal ministry. Not only in the ancient church, but all the way up to only a few decades ago. And it was fabrications like those committed by Gregory the Great that enabled the power structures to maintain their dominance. For in fact, women and Mary Magdalene were critical to the growth of the early church.


It is true Jesus’ disciples were 12 men. But even the writing of this list and the extensive recording of those encounters, as opposed to His conversations with women, disclose cultural bias in the authors. 


As the texts tell the life of Jesus, without even realizing it, they cannot help but disclose something about Jesus’ discipling of women as well as men.


…There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41)


or


…The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8:1-3)


These two texts teach us several things. 


First, Jesus traveled with women as well as men and was teaching both groups together at times. Women were not only relegated to household duties and random encounters with Jesus. The texts tell us there were many women and named several to indicate their prominence. Not only were they with Jesus in his teaching ministry they were the ones who endured when things became dangerous. Whereas the men scattered at the crucifixion, the women remained. 


Mary Magdalene was one of them.


Secondly, the church depended upon the women financially! At a time in history when men controlled even more of the wealth than they do today, it was women who gave the financial backing to Jesus’ enterprise! 


In fact, in the whole New Testament, against multiple examples of women there may be only one example of a man financially supporting the early church! The early church clearly heavily depended upon the financial generosity of women.


And Mary Magdalene was among them.


Furthermore, Mary Magdalene has a unique role in the history of the Church. Upon Jesus’ resurrection, he gave the privilege of his first appearance not to Peter or John but to Mary Magdalene and he gave her a task,


…Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.


This means, upon Jesus’ command, Mary taught men about the Resurrection. She wasn’t keeping silent! In this case Mary wasn’t just one of them. She was pre-eminent among them!


She was an apostle to the apostles as she came to be known in the next centuries!  Her impact and fame, like that of Doubting Thomas who went to India (whom we learned of last week) grew far beyond a few verses in scripture. 


In writings dating to the second and third century, such as the Dialogue of the SaviorSophia of Jesus ChristGospel of PhillipPistis Mary, and the Gospel of Mary, she was a key figure alongside the male disciples, often besting them in faithfulness and understanding. There are dozens of examples in which she is a teacher to men and given special tasks by Jesus. In one work, Jesus says to her and a few others, "I have given you authority over all things as children of light," and finally Jesus tells Mary directly, "Your heart is directed to the Kingdom of Heaven more than all your brothers."


Though these are not Biblical writings, the sheer weight of these ancient texts about Mary Magdalene indicates a very high likelihood that she indeed played a critical role both before and after Jesus’ death – just as the 12 disciples did. Perhaps most importantly, her role as Apostle to the Apostles appears again and again, being developed more fully in these works – showing she was a leader of men, a teacher to all, and a preacher of the gospel.


I believe Mary Magdalene belongs right alongside the 12, not only because of her ministry with Jesus but her work afterwards.


The next time you think about the role of women throughout the history of the Church you'll remember that there was never a time when women weren't critical leaders in spreadingthe gospel. The next time you think about the early Church you'll remember to be thankful for critical financial support of women, for the courage of women who suffered martyrdom, for the courage of women who stood up to the powers and principalities of their time, for the courage of women who stood by the cross. And now you know the rest of the story of the Apostle to the Apostles appointed by the Jesus Himself, Mary Magdalene. Amen.

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