Sermon for the Feast of Mary Magdalene - 22 July 2018

Have you ever acquired a reputation for something that wasn’t quite fair?

At school I acquired the nickname – “hands” because while playing rugby I had a habit of dropping the ball because I was so anxious to catch it!

St. Thomas – I’ve always felt sorry for him – one moment of indecision and he is forever “doubting Thomas”. 

On the other side of the coin- those who do good things sometimes find that hard to live up to. Those who get awarded medals for gallantry often find that very hard to bear – to live up to. It is very hard to spend your life living up to something that happened once – when you were very young.

And now we come to Mary Magdalene.

We heard in the Gospel that she was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection. She was a close friend of Jesus.

But church history has not treated her kindly. 

She has traditionally been identified with the “sinful women” who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil.

When I say “sinful” I mean that she acquired the reputation of a lady who was a member of the “oldest profession”. 

This is a quote from the Independent newspaper earlier this year:

“If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene.

The major character in the life of Jesus was long maligned in the West and portrayed as a reformed former prostitute. But scholars have adopted a different approach more recently, viewing her as a strong, independent woman who supported Jesus financially and spiritually.

Pope Francis took the biggest step yet to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene’s image by declaring a major feast day in her honour on 22 June. His 2016 decree put the woman who first proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection on par with the liturgical celebrations of the male apostles.

“By doing this, he established the absolute equality of Mary Magdalene to the apostles, something that has never been done before and is also a point of no return” for women in the church, said Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of the Vatican-published Women Church World monthly magazine.”

That’s quite some rehabilitation!

From a reputation as a lady of doubtful morality to a role model for women today.

In reality MM was probably a wealthy lady who followed Jesus around and supported him. We know that there were a few women who did just that. It’s sad that it has taken so many years for MM to take her proper place among the followers of Jesus but the fact that we do celebrate her today gives us pause for thought.

Her unfair reputation has not, in the end, harmed her. She was the first to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. And now she is regarded as a very important person in the life of Jesus.

But reputation matters doesn’t it. A friend of mine, Simon, came and lead a session in a Lent course here a while back – he said something I still remember to this day. “In the end you get the reputation you deserve.” Probably true – eventually!

But we all know that reputations can be unfairly earned in the short term – we just need to ask Cliff Richard about that. Fortunately he has been exonerated and the BBC has been shown up as having acted very callously in this case.

Some of us, maybe all of us, will have suffered at the hands of those who gossip and who maybe even spread lies about us. Sadly that is part of life. Maybe at school or at work, or even at home we have acquired an unfair reputation? Maybe on the other hand the reputation was earned but we have now changed?

However hurtful a bad reputation can be, the important thing is that it shouldn’t define us. It shouldn’t limit us, or hold us back. We shouldn’t be in thrall to what other people think of us. The Christian faith speaks of a God who yearns for us to grow and change and develop. He is not a God who expects us to remain as we were.

Think of our patrons Peter and Paul. They were very different people before they encountered Christ. Simon the fisherman became Peter when he became responsible for the church. Saul, the persecutor of the church, became Paul when he stopped harrassing the church and started leading it.

Neither of them we held back by their reputations. They grew and developed – against all expectations.

Today often people change their names as they enter religious life – if they become a monk or a nun, it as symbol of our identity and loyalty slightly shifting. The past should not hold us back.

So it is with us – whatever we have done, whatever people think about us fairly or unfairly, this should never define us. Like Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene; God has great things in store for us – we just need forgiveness to let go of the past and confidence in God who leads us into his future.

Father Matthew BUCHAN