Disciple or Apostle?

This is my sermon text for Easter Sunday, April 16. The lesson is John 20,1-18, John's telling of the Empty Tomb and First Resurrection appearance. My message focuses on the Apostle to the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, (right) depicted in an icon that might have been the inspiration for one of my recent tattoos.

May God’s grace & mercy be with you forever. Amen.

There is a difference between the two terms that we use to describe those who travelled with, and followed Jesus. We refer to them as disciples and as apostles. The two terms are often used interchangeably. But they shouldn’t be. They have different meanings; they describe different roles. A disciple is a student, a follower. In the Jewish culture of the time, a disciple would study and learn under the supervision of a rabbi. An apostle is someone who has been sent out to perform a duty or set of responsibilities. An apostle may have begun as a disciple and learned, but then has progressed and moved on, and has been given the responsibility of doing what they have learned about. In short, a disciple learns, while an apostle uses what they have learned.

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the garden where the tomb of her rabbi, Jesus, has been laid. She arrives in the garden and sees that the stone set in front of the tomb has been moved. Her immediate response is to be afraid, and to not want to be alone. So she runs to retrieve two disciples, Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. She assumes someone has stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb.

The two men race to the grave. The beloved disciple gets their first, looks into the empty tomb and sees only the linens that Jesus was wrapped in. Simon Peter arrives and dashes straight into the tomb. He is joined by the Beloved Disciple. They see the set of linens in one place, and cloth that covered Jesus face in another. They didn’t understand what had happened, but the Beloved Disciple believed. Then they went back to their homes.

It is only after the disciples leave that Mary Magdalene looks into the tomb. She sees not just the linens, but two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had laid. They ask her why she is crying. She tells them that someone has taken her Lord, and she doesn’t know where he is.

She turns around to see Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. He repeats the angels’ question, “Woman, why are you crying?” Assuming he is the gardener, she asks where he has taken Jesus’ body.

We hear very little about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. Most of what we think we know is wrong. She was one of the women who followed Jesus from the Galilee area, helping to financially support his ministry. She had seven demons cast out of her, and she was with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross.
She was not a prostitute, and was not the woman thrown in front of Jesus that caused him to say, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.” She was not the one who anointed Jesus with oil. Instead, she was a disciple.

This group of women who travelled with, and supported, Jesus and those travelling with him are virtually ignored in the Gospels, other than a mention here and there. But when they are mentioned, we find that they have been travelling with Jesus since his time in Galilee. They’ve been along for almost the entire time. They have seen, and heard, and learned from Jesus just as have his male disciples.

Then the man who Mary thinks is the gardener calls her by name, “Mary.” She realizes it isn’t the gardener. It is the Risen Christ. It is her Lord, her rabbi. So she calls him by his title, “Rabbouni!

What does the Resurrection mean? What does that fact that He is risen (He is risen indeed!) mean? Why is the celebration of the remembrance of that day so important as to cause Christians to change the calendar? The Sabbath had always been the seventh day of the week, Saturday. The week-end was the last two days of the week, Friday and Saturday. But because they wanted to celebrate the resurrection as a special day, they moved the Sabbath to Sunday, the first day of the week, and adjusted the concept of the week-end to wrap around to the last day and first day of the week.

The early Christians wanted to mark this day on a weekly basis and reconfigured the way we mark time in order to do so. So what does it mean that the tomb was empty and that He is risen (He is risen indeed!) mean?

If this promise is true, if He really was raised, then the other promises are easier to accept. If you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, as he told his disciples he would be, then you believe that God has the power to defeat death. If God raised the Son from the dead, and has promised to raise us from the dead as well, aren’t you more likely to believe the whole promise if the first part happened?

And if death has been defeated, then why do we doubt that God will forgive our sins? Why do we doubt that God loves us? Why do we doubt that God wants us to love others with the love given to us?

That is why Easter is so important, the most important day each year in our tradition. Because if you believe He is risen (He is risen indeed!) then everything else is easier to believe.

And if you’re sitting there, not believing, or not sure you believe, that’s ok. God believes in you, and loves you. God wants you to see the love God has for you, to feel the forgiveness provided for you, to know the grace given for you. God wants you to encounter God’s loving-kindness in your life, either on you own, or through others.

Jesus tells Mary to tell his brothers, his disciples, that he will be ascending to God. She goes to the disciples “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.” Having heard and learned, she was sent out and given a mission. That is why Mary Magdalene is known as the Apostle’s Apostle. She was sent out to proclaim the Good News to those whom Jesus had sent out.

If you believe that He is risen (He is risen indeed!) and know what the Lord can do, you have to make a decision. Do you go home, like the Peter and the Beloved Disciple, either not understanding or believing, or do you go and tell? Having heard the Good News that Jesus Christ has been raised (He is risen indeed!) do you sit on that information and keep it to yourself, or do you tell others of God’s love and share the Good News?

Will you stay a student and follower, or will you answer God’s call to go and proclaim the Good News to all the nations, to feed the hungry, take care of the sick and the poor? Will you be a disciple or an apostle?
On this holy day, I give thanks to God for the Apostle’s Apostle, Mary Magdalene and her proclamation that “I have seen the Lord!” I give thanks to God for modern day apostles who continue that proclamation, those who go and do what Christ has called us to do through our baptisms.



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