Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles


This sermon was prepared for presentation on July 22, the Feast Day for Mary Magdalene.  Pastor Jim’s sermon text is John 20:18, “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.”

Dear Friends in Christ,

Today we remember Mary Magdalene, a remarkable woman in the early church, a wonderful witness to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

At Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, today, the services are being led by women only in recognition of the vital role of women in the church today.  Pastor Debbie Frye is the pastor there and graduated from seminary with Pastor Carol 10 years ago.

The church I grew up in did not have women in major leadership roles, especially not at worship.  Only boys were acolytes.  There were no women pastors.  It was not until I was in high school that I can remember women being on the Church Council.  I am thankful to God for opening up His Church, so that we can say today that this church is open equally to leadership and service by  women and men.  I am grateful that the limiting church of my childhood isn’t even a memory for many of our children and youth.


Who was Mary Magdalene?  What do we know about her?  The Bible tells us that she was from Galilee, probably from the village of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Magdala not longer exists, only a few foundation stones remain.  The gospel writer Luke tells us that on Jesus’ Galilean Mission,  Jesus and the 12 disciples were accompanied by several women, including Mary Magdalene, who had  been cured of seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; and Susanna and many others.  These women were helping to support them out of their means.

It is interesting to note that Jesus and the disciples did not support themselves by miracles.  Rather, they received support from grateful people, including Mary Magdalene.


Mary is mentioned is all 4 gospels.  She was present for some of the central occasions in Jesus’ life, particularly his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection appearance.  In the new hymnal of our ELCA, Mary is given the title, “Apostle to the Apostles.”  We borrowed that title from an early Christian leader, Bernard of Clairvaux.  This title helps us remember what honor was given her by Jesus at the time of his resurrection.  You heard the story in today’s gospel reading.

She went to the tomb early on Easter morning, expecting to anoint the dead body with oil.  She found an empty tomb.  She reported this to the disciples and they came running to see for themselves, not believing her tale.  Then she encountered someone she at first mistook for the gardener, but soon learned it was the risen Jesus.  Jesus then sent her to tell the disciples the good news, so that they would know and be able to tell others.  This is why she has the appropriate title, Apostle to the Apostles.  The title “apostle” means “one who is sent.”  She was sent by Jesus for a purpose and with a message.

Much of Mary’s life and ministry are a mystery to us today.  We don’t really know more for sure than what I have told you.  Unfortunately, Mary has been associated with the unnamed reformed prostitute in Luke, the one who crashed the dinner party to anoint Jesus’ feet.  It was Pope Gregory I (560-604) who got creative in a sermon and declared that Mary was the forgiven and reformed prostitute.  I was even taught that in Sunday School.  That’s unfortunate because it has no biblical basis.

Recently The Da Vinci Code (both Dan Brown’s book and Ron Howard’s movie) have introduced interesting speculation about who Mary might have been,  but that’s pure fiction, not based on any reliable sources.

One of the books that did not get into the official canon that is now our Bible is the second-century Gospel of Mary.  It was discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.  We have fragments only of this book, but the writing reveals a lost tradition about the leadership of Mary Magdalene and portrays Peter as her opponent in this leadership.

This book may not be “official,” but it is a good read.  I like one of the scenes that is described because of the light it sheds on the role of this one called the “apostle to the apostles.”  The scene took place on the Mount of the Ascension after Jesus had departed into heaven.  The disciples were disconsolate, depressed, and afraid until Mary stood up and addressed them all.  She exhorted them to stop grieving, assured them that the grace of the Savior would be with them, and urged them to prepare for the work of preaching to which they had been called.  Finally, the disciples took heart and began to discuss the teachings of the Savior.

I believe that could have happened, for in every congregation I have served, I have found that the gift of exhortation (encouragement) is present, and often times this gift has been given to one or more women.

What then do we remember this day about Mary Magdalene?  She is a primary witness for the fundamental fact of our Christian proclamation, she was with Jesus and the disciples on the Galilean Mission and so heard his preaching and teaching and witnessed his miracles, she saw his death, standing at the foot of the cross, she witnessed his burial, and she saw his first resurrection appearance.

Mary prompts us here today to be witnesses, to tell others how we have been encountered by Jesus.  May we never refrain from saying too, “I have seen the Lord!”