Women of the Passion, Part 4: Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection.  This is the fourth installment of a four-part series about the women who surrounded Jesus during his passion. (See Part 1: The Woman at Bethany Anoints JesusPart 2: Mary’s Heart is Pierced AgainPart 3: The Women Wait.) Happy Easter!

"Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: 
'I have seen the Lord!'"
—John 20:18

The story of how Mary Magdalene became known as a prostitute is a complicated one.

One of at least six Marys that followed Jesus as a disciple, she was distinguished from the others through identification with her hometown of Magdala, a fishing village off the coast of the Sea of Galilee. According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary of seven demons, after which Mary became a devoted disciple, mentioned by Luke in the same context as the Twelve, who traveled with Jesus and helped finance his ministry. 

In 597 Pope Gregory the Great delivered a homily on Luke’s gospel in which he combined Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister), suggesting that this Mary was the same woman who wept at Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, and that one of the seven demons Jesus excised from her was sexual immorality. The idea caught on and was perpetuated in medieval art and literature, which often portrayed Mary as a weeping, penitent prostitute. In fact, the English word maudlin, meaning “weak and sentimental,” finds its derivation in this distorted image of Mary Magdalene. In 1969, the Vatican formally restated the Gospels’ distinction between Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman of Luke 7, although it seems Martin Scorsese, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Mel Gibson have yet to get the memo.

A cynic might suggest that this mistake and its subsequent popularity represent a deliberate attempt to typecast and discredit a woman whose role in the gospel story is so critical and so revolutionary that the Eastern Orthodox Church refers to Mary Magdalene as Equal to the Apostles. 

Although she appears to have been a critical part of Jesus’ early ministry, Mary Magdalene’s extraordinary faithfulness shines most brightly in the story of the Passion. 

Gospel accounts vary, but all four identify Mary Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, she and a group of women rose early that fateful morning, three days after Jesus had died, to anoint the body with spices and perfumes. When they arrived at the tomb, they were met by divine messengers guarding the entrance, who declared that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said he would. The women immediately left the tomb behind and, “with fear and great joy,” (Matthew 28:8) ran to tell the other disciples.

Luke notes that on their way, they remembered what Jesus had taught them about resurrection, confirmation of the fact that these women had been present for some of Christ’s most important and intimate revelations and that they took these teachings to heart. 

But when the breathless women arrived at the home where the disciples had gathered, the men did not believe them. Women were considered unreliable witnesses at the time (a fact that perhaps explains why the apostle Paul omitted the women from the resurrection account entirely in his letter to the Corinthian church), so their proclamation of the good news was dismissed by the men as an “idle tale,” the type of silly gossip typical of uneducated women. Perhaps the men invoked the widely held belief that, just like their sister Eve, women were easily duped. 

A few, however, were curious enough to take a look at the tomb, and so, according to John’s account, Mary returned with Peter and another disciple to the place she had encountered the messengers. The men saw for themselves an empty grave and a pile of linen wrappings folded neatly within it, and conceded to the women that the tomb was indeed empty. However, John 20:9 notes, “they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” 

The men returned to report what they had seen to the rest of the disciples, leaving Mary behind. Perhaps the disciples posited the theory that Jesus’ body had been stolen, for John wrote that Mary, once so full of breathless excitement and impassioned belief, now stood outside the tomb, crying. 

Angels appeared and asked her what was wrong. 

“They have taken my Lord away,” she told them, fully accepting the disciple’s dismissal of her “idle tale” of resurrection, “and I don’t know where they have put him”

The angels were then joined by a mysterious man, whom Mary assumed to be the gardener. He, too, asked why she was crying.

"Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him,” she pleaded. 

Only when he called her by her name did she recognize the man as Jesus. 

“Mary,” he said.

“Rabboni!” she cried. 

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus urged as she fell before his feet, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

And so again, Mary Magdalene ran to the house where the disciples were staying and told them she had seen the risen savior face-to-face.

“I have seen the Lord!” she declared.

But it was not until Jesus appeared to the men in person, allowing them to touch the wounds in his hands and side, that they finally believed.

Stephen J. Binz notes that "her announcement, 'I have seen the Lord,' is the same credential used by Paul to insist on his own authority as an apostle: 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lored?' (1 Cor. 9:1). The church's belief in the resurrection originated with the evangelical witness of this woman." 

Far from being easily deceived, women were the first to make the connection between Christ’s teachings from Scripture and his resurrection, and the first to believe these teachings when they mattered the most. For her valor in twice sharing the good news to the skeptical male disciples, the early church honored Mary Magdalene with the title of Apostle to the Apostles. 

That Christ ushered in this new era of life and liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered.

And yet too many Easter services begin with a man standing before a congregation of Christians and shouting, “He is risen!” to a chorused response of “He is risen indeed!”

Were we to honor the symbolic details of the text, that honor would always belong to a woman. 

***

(Today's post is an excerpt from A Year of Biblical Womanhood, to be released in October.) Have a blessed Easter! He is risen!

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The Mainline and Me

'Church steps and doors' photo (c) 2010, Kevin Dooley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 I never expected my posts “15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” to make such waves, but I’m still hearing from people who loved them, people who hated them, people who resonated with them, and people incredibly frustrated by them. 

One of the most common responses I’ve received has come from members of "mainline" Protestant churches.  (Progressive Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, etc.) “Oh you just need to find yourself a good mainline church,” they say. “Your problems are with evangelical Christianity. We’ve been politically diverse, accepting of science, and supportive of women in leadership for years now.” 

 Indeed many disenfranchised evangelicals have found happy homes in mainline churches.

Over at iMonk last week, Chaplain Mike wrote a lovely post about how, after a period of wandering through the denominational wilderness, he found a home in an ELCA Lutheran church “with a simple liturgy, wonderful music, a healthy and grounded pastor, a hospitable congregation, and an emphasis on Christ, grace, vocation, and other Lutheran essentials that answered questions I had been turning over in my mind for years in my evangelical settings.” 

“Though I recognize my debt to evangelicalism and am grateful for what God has taught me on the journey,” writes Mike, “coming back to a mainline church for me means coming home. I’ve found my oasis. I don’t hesitate to call myself a mainline Christian.”

Mike points to several of his friends who experienced a similar transition—including Robert Webber(author of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church),Diana Butler Bass (author of Christianity For the Rest of Us: How The Neighborhood Church is Transforming Faith), and Tod Bolsinger, (who wrote an open letter explaining why he plans to stay in the PCUSA church).  

He also points to Frank Schaeffer, who wrote this in an article for the Huffington Post:

I’ve been speaking at many small colleges that have historical ties to the oldest mainline denominations in the U.S. I have been noticing something interesting: a terrific hunger for a deeper spirituality on the part of many young people who come from evangelical backgrounds like mine and also like me are looking for something outside of the right wing conservatism they come from.

I’ve also noticed that while some people in the so-called emergent evangelical movement are reaching out to these young people the leaders of the mainline denominations both locally and nationally often seem blind to a huge new opportunity for growth and renewal staring them in the face. That new opportunity is the scores of younger former evangelicals diving headlong out of the right wing evangelical churches.

…I don’t get it. Where is everyone? Why is the “emergent” evangelical church reinventing a wheel that’s been around for centuries? And why aren’t the mainline churches letting us know they are there?

…If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I think both Mike and Frank are on to something. 

I’ve often been asked to speak to leaders of mainline churches on the topic of young people leaving the church. When I go through David Kinnaman’s research, which reflects just about every concern I express in my “15 Reasons” posts—(young people are leaving the church because they believe it is too exclusive, too combative with science, hyper-political, out-of-touch when it comes to sexuality, and an unsafe place in which to wrestle with doubt)—I am often met with blank stares. 

“But we’re avoiding all of those pitfalls,” these leaders finally say. “We’re inclusive. We avoid talking politics. We’re not judgmental. We care for the community. Why aren’t all these disenfranchised evangelicals flocking to us?” 

“Well when was the last time you talked about why you are inclusive, why you embrace science, why you care for the poor, and why you avoid aligning yourself with one political party?” I ask. “When was the last time you engaged in a serious, church-wide Bible study or launched a series on the spiritual disciplines? Evangelicals are used to being intensely engaged in their faith.  If they don’t sense that your church offers them a safe place to wrestle and grow, they won’t come at all. ” 

I speak from my own experience, because, while there is much I love and appreciate about mainline denominations, when I visit, I always leave feeling like something’s missing. 

I miss that evangelical fire-in-the-belly that makes people talk about their faith with passion and conviction. 

I miss the familiarity with scripture and the intensive Bible studies. 

I miss the emphasis on cultivating a personal spirituality. 

I miss sermons that step on a few toes. 

I am speaking in gross generalizations herebut in my experience, going from evangelicalism to the mainline can feel a bit like jumping from one extreme to the other:

While evangelicals often adopt a narrow, literalist view of Scripture that borders on bibliolatry, I’ve spoken with mainliners who admit that they are embarrassingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible. (One woman told me that the only parts of Scripture she recognizes are those found in her hymnal, that she didn’t know the difference between Psalms and Proverbs, and that she was shocked to learn that some of her favorite liturgy was taken directly from the Bible.)  

While evangelicals carry the unfortunate reputation of being married to the Republican party, mainliners are missing a great opportunity to talk about what it means to pledge one’s allegiance first and foremost to the Kingdom of God.

While some evangelicals avoid making justice a centerpiece of their mission for fear of looking too “liberal” (though I think this is improving), many mainliners fail to explain the religious motivation behind their acts of mercy. (One young woman from a mainline church put it this way: “I wasn’t learning anything about justice or creation care in church that I wasn’t learning in school. In fact, when talking about justice, my pastor was more likely to quote Gandhi than Jesus. So why would I bother going to church?”)

While evangelical pastors may care too little about who they offend, mainline pastors may care too much, to the point that they are afraid to say anything of substance. 

While young people may be afraid to share their doubts and questions in evangelical churches for fear of judgment and condemnation, they may be just as afraid to share their doubts and questions in mainline churches because no one seems to be talking about those issues! 

Again, my apologies for speaking in such general terms.

The mainline church family is obviously incredibly diverse, and there are many mainline churches doing an excellent job of reaching out to evangelicals, so we have to find a balance between observing trends and painting with a broad brush. 

One of my favorite churches in the country—Missiongathering in San Diego—is a Disciples of Christ church that has managed to attract throngs of young people by fostering a community that is diverse, inclusive, biblically literate, spiritually connected, appreciative of both liturgy and contemporary worship, and absolutely bursting at the seams with grace.  Mainline churches looking to retain and attract young people, particularly “homeless” evangelicals like myself, would do well to look to Missiongathering as a model, for, at least from my perspective, they have managed to combine all that is great about the mainline with all that is great about evangelicalism into one faith community. They aren’t perfect, of course. But when I’m in San Diego, that church feels a lot like home. 

So, what has your experience with mainline churches been like? Am I being unfair? This post is simply meant to start a conversation....so now it's your turn!

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When God Chooses Your Logo

Let me start off by saying that I’ve got absolutely no problem with Campus Crusade for Christ changing its name to Cru. Sure it’s a little vague, but I think most people would agree that the old name and logo had to go. “Crusade” sounds like a declaration of war. “Cru” sounds like the name of a clothing retailer at the mall. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather meet Jesus at the mall.

But I have to admit I sighed a few times as I watched the drama surrounding the organization’s rebranding unfold. Having worked for a Christian organization in the midst of a rebranding effort that was later reversed, I saw a familiar pattern emerge

1. Organization hires branding agency to help it change its name, motto, and/or logo. 
2. Organization announces the changes and claims that they were God’s idea. 
3. Supporters of the organization get all outraged because they think that “Christ” has been taken out of something. 
4. Organization backtracks for fear of losing donor support. (As far as I know, this hasn’t happened with Campus Crusade yet.) 
5. God looks like an idiot and Christ looks like a pawn. 

What bugs me about Campus Crusade’s rebranding is not the name change but the insistence that God came up with it. In the press release announcing the change, President Steve Douglas declared, “This decision has been saturated with prayer. We only want what God wants for us.” Vice President Steve Sellers said it even more bluntly: “We believe wholeheartedly that God has given us this new name.”

The Steves basically played the God card. By insisting that the rebranding was God’s idea, they insulated themselves from criticism and pit dissenters against God Himself. 

But the dissenters played the God card right back, insisting that for God to be present in the organization, he must be present in its name.

This whole fiasco illustrates why I sometimes find it difficult to work for and with Christian organizations. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself at a disadvantage because I am uncomfortable speaking definitively about what God wants when it comes to business decisions. 

I may have a first choice for the title of my book, but I just can’t bring myself to argue that it’s God’s first choice too. 

I may have an exciting new idea for a marketing campaign, but I just can’t bring myself to claim it was divinely inspired. 

In the Christian publishing industry, where ideals and the bottom line often collide and where rejection is a part of the game, it can be especially tempting for both authors and publishers to cite God’s will as a reason for either moving forward with a project or leaving it behind. (I’ve often heard authors claim that God is their agent. Mine is Rachelle Gardner, and she’s excellent.)

I suppose it boils down to the age-old debate surrounding God’s will. Is it super-specific (God wants you to go to such-and-such college), or is it more general (God wants you to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him)? I lean toward the second view, which is why I’m cautious about invoking God’s will, especially when it comes to business decisions. 

I also think there’s an element of insecurity at play.  Anyone who has spoken up in a board room knows it can be intimidating to put your ideas out there and expose them to criticism, especially when you’re really excited about them.  Defaulting to God’s will can bolster your position and make it harder for others to offer criticism. But even if it makes us uncomfortable, I think it’s important for Christians to be authentic— to acknowledge that there are actual people earning actual paychecks as they make these decisions. It’s less glamorous than citing God as your marketing director or editor perhaps, but it’s a lot more honest. And I think it better honors the people whose hard work makes ministries and books and music happen. 

God is in the business of restoration and grace. 

As long as the good people of Campus Crusade continue to commit themselves to that, I don’t think he cares what their logo looks like or what their name is.

***

I realize there can be quite a bit of gray space between ministry and business, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you ever been in a situation where God was cited as the source for a controversial decision? How did you respond? How can Christians do a better job of having healthy disagreements about these things without playing the God card?

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When I Became a Christian...

For the next few weeks I’ll be pulling quotes from Evolving in Monkey Town to discuss here on the blog. Today’s excerpts come from Chapter 1, entitled “The Best Christian Attitude Award.”

People sometimes ask me when I became a Christian, and that’s a hard question to answer because I’m pretty sure that by the time I asked Jesus into my heart, he’d already been living there for a while. I was just five years old at the time, a compact little person with pigtails sticking out of my head like corn tassels, and I remember thinking it strange that someone as important as Jesus would need an invitation. Strange now is the fact that before I lost my first tooth or learned to ride a bike or graduated from kindergarten, I committed my life to a man who asked his followers to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, and to face public execution if necessary. It is perhaps an unfair thing to ask of a child, but few who decide to follow Jesus know from the beginning what they’re getting themselves into.

So, when did you become a Christian? What was your conversion experience like? Did you know what you were getting into?

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