The story of Jarena Lee, the first woman licensed to preach in the AME Church, is fascinating. Hired out as a servant at the age of seven and separated from her mother for fourteen years, Lee struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide for much of her youth. She is convinced that she will never find happiness here on earth. Then, at age 21, she sets out for Philadelphia, where she finds an AME Church and a caring pastor named Richard Allen. They quickly become the family she has never had. Within three weeks, she experiences conversion in the midst of a worship service. She leaps to her feet and declares that God has pardoned the sins of her soul and she tells of the wonders and the goodness of the God who has clothed her with salvation.
Seven years later, she hears the voice of God, calling her to go preach the gospel. At first, she thinks she has imagined it, or perhaps it is the voice of Satan, rather than God. Nevertheless, she musters the courage to go see Richard Allen, only to be told that women cannot be pastors. She goes home more depressed than ever.
Convinced that she will never get to preach, she marries a minister instead. But the call simply will not go away. Her husband dies just six years into her marriage and, as Anna Carter Florence writes in her book Preaching as Testimony, Jarena can no longer “avoid the thing that has been haunting her in dreams and visions for nearly eight years, until she has physically and spiritually sick. The cost of denial is too high for her to pay. She might be a widow; she might have a two-year old child and a six-month-old infant to support; but it is time to face her call to preach.”
So, she goes to see Richard Allen a second time and he allows her to conduct prayer meetings, but that’s about it. Then one Sunday right in the middle of a sermon, she jumps to her feet, interrupts the pastor and begins preaching a message that God has put on her heart. With that, she sits down, fully expecting to be expelled from the church. But to her astonishment, Pastor Allen tells the congregation that she has indeed been called by God to preach. From that day on, he supports her and for years she preaches, exalting the risen Christ, proclaiming a message of freedom and confronting the oppressive culture of her day. There is a message on her heart and this unlikely spokesperson cannot but speak of what she has seen and heard.
So it is with Mary Magdalene. We do not know much about her past, except that she has been liberated from the shackles of demon possession. From that point on, everything we read about her in the gospels reveals intense devotion. She has accompanied Jesus and the Twelve as they delivered good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God. She and the other women generously provided financial resources for their ministry. She watched from a distance as he breathed his final breath. And she watched as they sealed the tomb.
Three days later, early in the morning, we find her at the burial site, where she has come to anoint Jesus. The stone has been moved and the tomb is empty. The burial clothes are there, all neat and tidy. John believes, but then Peter and John depart, unsure of what to make of all of this. But Mary remains. Her devotion to Jesus has continued, even in death. Tears stream down her face and we aren’t told exactly why. Perhaps she is remembering her life before she met him. Or the compassionate touch of his hand, the healing, the freedom of release, the miracle of being restored and the joy of taking her place in the community once again. She might well be remembering the conversations they had and grieving the ones they were never able to have. And now, the body is missing, its whereabouts unknown, and this most loyal and faithful follower stands distraught before the tomb.
But suddenly her grief is interrupted by angels and, in a few moments, it is turned to joy as she hears Jesus speak her name. Resurrection has defeated the powers of death. Death cannot keep its prey, for Jesus tore the bars away. The world is about to be forever changed. And this most faithful follower is about to become resurrection’s first courageous witness. Like the Gerasene demoniac, Legion, she desires to stay, but cannot, for she has a powerful story to tell. And so she goes, entrusted with the message that Paul says is “of first importance,” good news that Christ has “become our salvation,” a universal message that is extended to people “from every nation who fear God and do what is right.” Beginning with the courageous witness of a remarkable woman, the resurrection message spread, resurrection communities multiplied, and the world was never the same.
Christ needs courageous witnesses today, for our world needs the hope that is found in the resurrection story. Christ needs courageous witnesses because people need to experience the resurrection community. A community that will be the arms and legs and hands and feet of the resurrected Christ. A community that overflows with love and grace, a place where everyone belongs, and no one will be turned away. Christ needs courageous witnesses who will push back against the oppressive forces of this world. In a world of violence, hatred and prejudice, people need to know about an alternative kingdom that is breaking in—a kingdom rooted in the resurrection and characterized by peace, love, compassion, justice and mercy. Christ needs courageous witnesses today—people who are filled with a message of resurrection hope and cannot keep silent. Like Mary. Like Jarena. Like you. And like me.
Image Credit, Resurrection Chapel, National Cathedral, Washington D.C.