AN UNLIKELY APOSTLE

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I Corinthians 15:3-8; John 20:11-18

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

About twenty years ago I was a guest professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasedena, California, where I taught a course on doing theology in context.  The term assignment I gave the students was to take an issue that concerned them, reflect theologically upon it, and decide on what action they should take in response.  One woman student was perplexed.  “I want to research the place of women in the ministry” she said, but in my denomination women are not ordained, they must remain silent in church.  She belonged, she told me, to “The Four Square Gospel Church,” one of the first Pentecostal Churches to be established in America.  So I suggested that she researched the origins of her church, how it started, and who were its leaders.  A week later she came to see me.  She was excited.  “I discovered,” she said “that my church was founded by a woman! Aimee Semple McPherson!”  She then went on to complain, “Why was I never told this?” 

The reason was obvious; it was because the voice of women had been silenced, not just in her denomination after its foundation, but from early on in the history of the church as a whole.  This is very strange, because women were prominent among Jesus’ disciples from the beginning to the end of his ministry.  Moreover, they stood by him at the cross when all the male disciples fled, and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection.  In fact, St. Paul made it very clear that in Christ and therefore in the church, there was no distinction between men and women, and there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that there were women preachers and prophets in the early church, some of whom took a leading role in nurturing house churches.  Indeed, so much was this the case, that some early critics of Christianity argued that by making men and women equal in the church the stability of society was undermined, and they also claimed that the story of the resurrection was false because it was based on the testimony of hysterical women, Eventually the church capitulated to the criticism of culture.  And then,during the second century  Pope Clement decreed that women and men should be segregated in church as they were in the synagogue, and that the priesthood was for men only on the pretext that Jesus was a man, as were all the apostles, or so it was assumed.    

But who were the apostles and were they all men?  Were they only the twelve we normally think of when we hear the word?  According to early Christina tradition, an apostle was someone who had witnessed the resurrection and been sent by Christ to proclaim the good news, the word apostle meaning “one who is sent.”.  If that is so then the first apostle was Mary Magdalene, the person to whom the risen Christ first appeared and whom he sent to tell the good news.  But Mary Magdalene was, we might say, an unlikely apostle.  We don’t know for certain, but some have said she was a prostitute.  She certainly came from Magdala, a port town of ill-repute, she does not seem to have had a husband or any family, but she did have some wealth which she used to support Jesus and the other disciples.  She travelled freely around Galilee with a bunch of men, and was clearly the leader of the group of women who followed and served Jesus throughout his ministry.  And she was as close to him as any of the other disciples.  Jesus had, in fact, radically turned her life around.  She was someone who loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven so much.   

So it is not surprising that, on the first Easter morning, she was the first disciples to run to the Tomb and the first to whom the risen Christ appeared.  He then told Mary to go and tell his “brothers”, as the gospels put it, that he is risen.  So Mary goes and tells him “I have seen the Lord!”  They did not believe her at first, but it is precisely her testimony of faith and her being sent by Jesus that marks out Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, “the apostle to the apostles.” This being so, we can say that the Christian Church was founded as much on the testimony of a woman as on the confession of Peter. A fact that was pushed under the carpet and virtually forgotten for most of the subsequent history of the Church, just as for centuries women were prevented from being ordained.   

I am reminding you of this sorry saga not just to exalt the status of Mary Magdalene or stress the point that the leadership of women in the church goes back to the origins of Christianity, but to remind us that Christianity stands or falls on the witness of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus the risen Christ.  Yes, there are good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but in the end faith in the risen Christ is based on the testimony of those who witnessed his resurrection, something St. Paul stresses in his first letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15).  Paul does not mention Mary Magdalene, or only the twelve we normally think of as “the apostles”, he also mentions the “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” to whom Christ appeared, and then, significantly he says that Christ also appeared to him “as one untimely born.”  Something that happened to him on the Damascus Road.  What is significant in all this, as it was in the case of Paul, is that seeing the risen Christ fundamentally changed the lives of people, and they in turn laid the foundation of the apostolic church. 

Our faith is founded on such testimony to the risen Christ.  Originally on the testimony of those who, like Mary, were first encountered by Christ.  But also by many others who have influenced our lives, people for whom Jesus is not a dead man in a Tomb but present to us as the risen Christ who, through the Spirit. gives us life, joy, hope, peace, and the strength to love and serve him in loving and serving others.  The story began that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene ran to the disciples and said “I have seen the Lord!”  continues anew every day through the testimony of people who, like us, have experienced the transforming presence of the risen Christ.  The witness of Scripture is obviously the basis for such testimony and such faith, but if it were not for people who, over the centuries, have experienced its truth in their lives, faith in the risen Christ would have lost its power long ago. 

Wherever there is new life in Christ; wherever there is evidence of the fruit of his Spirit — love, joy, peace and hope; wherever there are people who love and serve Christ in the world through acts of compassion and justice, there is the risen Christ.   That, too, is our testimony of faith, a testimony that began when Mary of Magdala ran and told the other disciples who, fearfully, were in hiding, “I have seen the Lord!”

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed 20 April 2017

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