I’ve been pretty bad about getting things up here lately. Posting a few things so I can catch up. First up my sermon from Lent 5.
Yesterday morning I was driving in Attleboro, Massachusetts with my mother and my wife. As we were driving along we came across a construction site for a new strip mall, and as is true with most construction sites, there were signs advertising the new building project. But there was something different about these signs. You see there used to be a Lutheran Church where this new strip mall is going, and the construction company decided to use the old church signposts to hold up their signs. So these tall white wooden signposts, that used to advertise service times and Vacation Bible School, now hold a big blue sign with bold yellow letters that read “Coming Soon.” And right above those words, right above “Coming Soon,” stands a large gold painted cross. To my eyes it seems that the construction company was not advertising their newest project, they were advertising Holy Week – Coming Soon to a Church near you!
Today we keep the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the final Sunday before Holy Week begins next week with Palm Sunday. Our Lenten journey is quickly coming to an end, and so we shift our attention to the Triduum Sacrum – The Three Holy Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. As we turn our attention to the realities of the liturgical calendar the Gospel also makes a shift and draws our attention towards Jerusalem. John uses the passage we have just heard to make this shift.
There are few passages in all of scripture that are packed with as much beauty and truth as this anointing scene in Bethany. In order to glimpse the truth and beauty of this intense and intimate scene, we must unpack these eight verses of Scripture. By breaking open this text we get a glimpse of the truth of Jesus, the reality of the road ahead, and we gain a deeper understanding of our role as disciples of Jesus.
“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany.”
These words set the scene of today’s reading and draw our attention to the Passover and to Bethany.
The celebration of Passover is a major theme in John’s Gospel. Throughout the entirety of John’s narrative the Gospel writer uses the Passover as a way of shaping the identity of Jesus. In John’s Gospel Jesus does not celebrate the Passover as much as he is the Passover.
Unlike the other Gospels there is not one Passover in John’s narrative, there are three celebrations of the Passover each revealing something about Jesus. In the first Passover found in chapter 2 we learn that Jesus’ body is the temple that will be destroyed as raised again in three days. In chapter 6 we hear of the second Passover where Eucharistic language is revealed to us as Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life.” The third celebration of the Passover begins with today’s Gospel reading. This Passover sets in motion the Last Supper – the Final Discourse of Jesus. It is in this celebration of the Passover that Jesus will die, that the temple will be destroyed, that all who have and will participate in the body of Christ will gain eternal life. This Passover celebration is the culmination of all other Passover celebrations.
The Passover is not the only thing we read about in this opening half sentence, we also learn that Jesus has come once again to Bethany. He is not just anywhere in Bethany, he is at the home of his dear and beloved friends: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. This residence is the closest thing that Jesus, the Messiah who has nowhere to lay his head, can call home. So when he arrives home they give a dinner for him.
This dinner is no ordinary dinner, it encapsulates, in a single meal, the life, death, and ministry of Jesus. This gathering represents an earlier meal; it represents a sign of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom; and it foreshadows Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. This is a meal served by Martha; Martha who a chapter earlier in John’s test offers a supreme confession of the faith. This meal is shared by many around the table including Lazarus; Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead and is trying to figure out how to live his resurrected life. And at this meal Mary shows that she understands fully what is about to happen.
We read in the text that “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” This is the primary action of today’s Gospel text. It is an extravagant act of devotion in which Mary does not say a single word. There is no great profession, there is no witty retort, there is only a simple, yet profound action that reveals more about Mary and her faith than words could ever express.
Mary’s actions, this incredibly intimate moment with Jesus, make clear that Mary comprehends and accepts what Peter and the other disciples could not: the death of their master, Messiah, and friend. As John’s Gospel continues it becomes evident just how much more Mary gets it as compared to the actions and behavior of Peter – the rock of the Church, the one to whom the keys of the kingdom of given, the one who really should understand. But he does not and Mary does. So she takes this moment to offer extravagant and costly compassion, generosity, praise, and thanksgiving to God.
It is this gift that Mary gives to Jesus that he will next give to his disciples when he kneels down and washes their feet. Here arguably more than any other place we see the holy act – the chief marker of the disciples’ life – of washing and being washed.
In washing and being washed in the waters of Baptism, in washing and being washed in the extravagant waters of compassion for and service with others, in being washed in the blood of Christ the nourishment of eternal life.
As this extravagant act of devotion takes place, Judas steps into the scene. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” It is important to note that, while this story also appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, John tells it very differently. In Matthew and Mark the objection does not come from Judas, it comes from the disciples’ and the woman washing and anointing Jesus’ feet goes unnamed. By naming Judas as the objector, along with his parenthetical commentary about Judas, John is depicting this troubled disciple as moving from the light to the darkness.
Now in all fairness to Judas, his question is a reasonable one. What Church serious about Discipleship has not, does not, struggle with the tension between money spent on beautiful acts of worship and money spent on behalf of the poor? Who has not figured out how many more sandwiches could be made instead of buying that new chasuble, or by replacing that old chalice. It is only by John’s added commentary about Judas, that he is a thief and betrayer, that leaves the reader to call into question why Judas would rebuke this abundant act of worship.
Just as quickly as Judas asks the question, Jesus rebukes him saying, “Let her alone.” Jesus not only comes to her defense in this response, but the defense of all voices and all gifts that have been shut out by the Church. He comes to the defense of all those who are not deemed unworthy by our standards and says “Leave them alone. Let them offer their gifts.”
The second half Jesus’ rebuke concludes today’s Gospel text: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” These are words the Church has used both to justify and to condemn complacence towards the needs of the poor.
Stanley Hauerwas, prolific theologian, helps frame and makes sense of this statement: “the poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is to the poor that all extravagance is to be given.” The true Church always has the poor in its midst, always treasures the life of the poor. So the same extravagance we offer in worship and praise to God should be offered in service to those left out and left behind. It is rather fitting that woman – one viewed as the other – gives us this great example of worship and service.
With this instruction, with this statement of the finality of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we return to where we began. When Jesus says, “But you do not always have me,” he is turning the disciples, he is turning those gathered for that meal in Bethany, to Jerusalem and the Cross.
So much more could and has been said about these eight verses from John’s Gospel. In them we learn the fullness of John’s image of Jesus; we are pointed to the final and most important days of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage; and we learn something of how we are supposed to be in the world.
In Seminary I have learned the good Anglican theology of the both/and. While I generally use this to justify having both cake and ice cream and parities, it is more appropriately used to define our realities as disciples of Jesus in light of Mary and Judas.
In the person of Mary of Bethany we are given an example of Christian discipleship that is an act of adoration of and gratitude to the one whom alone is holy: to the one who offers us the most extravagant of all gifts. In the person of Judas we are given an example of Christian discipleship in which God makes righteous those who have rejected and betrayed Jesus. This paradoxical reality of being both Mary and Judas point to the truth of God’s grace: this grace is for everyone the faithful and the unfaithful. When we hold these two images together we learn that while we strive to be like Mary, there is still hope for us when we are like Judas. Frankly as humans, we are generally more like Judas than we are like Mary.
Before us today, as we prepare to embark on the most important week in Christian life, there is an invitation. We stand in the midst of a broken, hurting, and dark world. A world where political discourse is marked by violence, a world where we get ahead at the expense of others, a world where there is no place for love and extravagant generosity because fear and scarcity rule the day. As we stand in the darkness we are invited to walk this holy pilgrimage with Jesus. We are invited to accept the extravagant gift of the other in our midst. We are invited to take hold of the truth that no matter how hard we fall, no matter how badly we fail nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are invited to step out of the shadow of death and embrace the life-changing, world altering, light that beams so brightly from the wood of the cross.
I wonder what would the world look like if we accepted this invitation?