Today is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day in the United States was first celebrated on May 10, 1908, by a church service at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. It was a day established to honor all mothers, living and deceased. It was a day established to honor the women who nourished us even before we were born and began nurturing us after we drew our first breath.
Today, in honor of Mother’s Day, I would like us to explore and honor the mothers of our faith. Our faith mothers had some common names for their times. There was Joanna, Salome, and three women named Myriam or Mary.
Who were these faith mothers of ours and why are they important? These women are important to Christians not because of books or letters they wrote as the Apostle Paul did. These women are important to Christians not because they gave great sermons that led to thousands accepting Jesus in the same moment as the Apostle Peter did. These women are important for two reasons. First, these women were steadfast in their faith when they stood on the ground near Jesus’ cross as silent witnesses against the injustice of evil men who inflicted death to Jesus. Second, these women were steadfast in their faith when they stood their ground and refused to be silenced as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Joanna, Salome, and the three women named Mary nourish us in our faith walk by their witness with and for Christ and thus represent our faith mothers who should be honored today.
These mothers of faith were central figures in the story of Jesus. And yet, they were a first unknown to the early Christian church. One of the earliest letters we have from came twenty years after the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. “3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Curiously, whatever Paul had received about the resurrection appearances of Jesus did not include anything about Joanna, Salome, or the three women named Mary. What Paul received and wrote about centered primarily on the men, beginning with Peter.
It would not be for another 15 years before the gospels were written and introduced us to these mothers of faith. Whatever attempts, accidental or purposeful, to denigrate the role of these women and women in general, into the story of faith would not stand. For Holy Spirit, inspired the men who wrote the gospels to acknowledge the role of women, and in particular, these mothers of faith. The Holy Spirit of Jesus made noble the work and the contribution of women to the body of Christ, his church.
And so we begin our exploration of these women with the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, which set the stage for the climatic events surrounding Jesus’ hours before his death. Mark wrote, “46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” 50 Then everyone deserted him and fled. 51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mark 14:46-52). Desperate men who hated Jesus seized Jesus and arrested him. Desperate men who loved Jesus fled from Jesus, at least one steaking away naked.
After Jesus’ arrest, the trials of Jesus began. The trials of Jesus involved shouting of more and more desperate men. At the trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Pilate concluded that Jesus was innocent of all charges. The Gospel of Matthew says that Pilate came to understand that the accusations against Jesus were born out of the jealousies of men. Pilate’s belief of Jesus’ innocence was then affirmed to him, curiously enough by a woman, whose name is lost to history. Matthew wrote, “19 While he [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his [Pilate’s] wife sent word to him [Pilate], ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him’” (Matthew 27:19). With Pilate holding court among these desperate, angry, jealous men accusing Jesus, it would have been impossible for Pilate’s wife to appear in person to Pilate with her plea. Nevertheless, Pilate’s wife born witness of what had been revealed to her. Jesus was innocent.
Yet despite the belief in Jesus’ innocence, Pilate succumbed to the pressures of the mob and sentenced Jesus to death. This is injustice. From this injustice, Jesus was led away to be publicly executed by crucifixion, a horrible and humiliating death reserved by the Romans for the enemies of the state. Jesus hung on the cross. Mark wrote, “40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (Mark 15:40-41). The women stood as silent witnesses of the injustice of angry men toward the innocent Son of God.
I think we can understand this scene in context through the words found in the Gospel of John. “19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:19-21). These women, our faith mothers, understood Jesus was the light of hope, peace, and innocence and that they, as Jesus’ followers, must stand in the light of the truth. Even though they could not stop the execution of Jesus, they could by faith stand in the light of Jesus and could by their presence convict the evil of these men who tried to stay in the dark and desperately wanted to put out the light.
But these women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, Salome, and many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem would not allow the light to be extinguished. These women were faithful not to the end but faithful to the understanding that Jesus brought a kingdom of based upon love that would not end. These women are the ones who stood silent in the truth when every hope in Jesus seemed to be dying before them. This part of their story should encourage us to persevere against all of life’s challenges, difficulties, and injustices that could cause our faith to waver.
Matthew reported to us that Jesus died on the cross. “57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (Matthew 27:57-61). Did you notice? Jesus’ death did not cause the women to abandon Jesus. The women, at least Mary Magdalene and another Mary, remained at the cross and then followed those who now entombed Jesus. These two Mary’s lacked the power and resources to bury Jesus, but they did not lack in love to care for him however they might. The conduct of these two women named Mary is a powerful testimony of loving and faithful mothers.
But we know that the burial of Jesus was not the end of the story. On the third day following Jesus’ death and burial, we learn that women went to the tomb of Jesus. All four Gospels speak to the women going to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. All four Gospels name Mary Magdalene as being present that morning at the tomb. The Mary Magdalene who stood silent watch at the cross and at the tomb where Jesus was buried was now at the tomb again early in the morning to care for Jesus’ body. Other women present as named in the gospels were Joanna, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and perhaps one more Mary.
None of the men who followed Jesus came with the women to do the work of caring for Jesus’ body. However, the women wanted to continue to show that they were the source of care and comfort, the most exemplary maternal behaviors. Women caring for Jesus’ body, even in life, had never been well received by the men around Jesus. We read in the Gospel of Mark, “3 While he [Jesus] was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly. 6 ‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me’” (Mark 14:3-6). The men of the society denigrated the work done by this woman, but Jesus made it noble.
The women, absent the men, were now at the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body. Jesus was about to make their faithfulness rewarded again. Through the four gospels, we come to find that Mary Magdalene, the woman at the cross, the woman at the burial, and the woman at the tomb was the first person to see and experience the resurrected Jesus. Mary Magdalene is thus the continuous witness to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It seems likely that the other women, Joanna, Salome, and the other women named Mary were also continuous witnesses to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection but the gospels are only united on this point with Mary Magdalene.
The task for Mary Magdalene and the other women who had seen the risen Christ was simple. The women were to go to the men who had followed Jesus and proclaim Jesus had risen from the dead! These women were no longer to be silent. These women were to speak and shout, “He has risen from the dead! He is risen indeed!” These women were to become the mothers of the Christian faith, a faith made real in and through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus commissioned these women to become the first evangelists, the sharers of good news. Luke wrote, “9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:9-11).
Wait. What? The men did not believe the women because the women’s words seemed to the men like nonsense. How could that be?
When we read something such as that men did not believe what the women said, our confidence in the accuracy of the Bible increases because the story told in the Bible compares very favorably with our own experiences in that often time men are taught not to believe women. In our own church culture, some churches refuse to allow women to preach or to teach men. Fortunately, this is not one of those churches. In some cultures, the testimony of a woman is still not accepted unless supported by the testimony of a man, even if she is reporting a serious crime against herself.
And so we read that the men followers of Jesus did not believe the women followers of Jesus about the women’s experience at the tomb of Jesus. Here though is an important thing for us to keep in mind. The women did not need the men to believe them. The women, the faithful and continuous witnesses to Jesus’ death and burial were the witnesses to his resurrection. The peace, joy, and confidence of these women was not dependent upon anyone believing them. This is instruction in the faith these women give to us. We do not need others to believe us for us to believe in Jesus Christ as our risen Lord and Savior. When we give testimony, it is not important to our identity if our testimony is accepted or rejected. What is important, as demonstrated by these women, is that we give our testimony as to the truth.
So this day, let’s honor the women of faith, the mothers of our faith, who have spiritually encouraged us, fed us, cared for us, and shared with us the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead. To these women we say, “Happy Mother’s Day.” Amen and Amen.