Sermon on John 12:1-8 for Lent 5C, March 13, 2016
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
First things first: all of the four gospels have this story (or one so much like it that it’s hard to believe it is not another version of this story) and there are differences between them. Today, we are reading John’s version. So, if you have in your head a version of this story in which the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume is a bad woman, even a prostitute, let that one go.
This is John’s story, and the woman is a good person, in fact a model person. This is Mary, the sister of Martha, who sat at Jesus’ feet, learning from him (instead of helping to serve in the kitchen, which made Martha angry).
This is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who had enough faith to say to Jesus, when he arrived after Lazarus had died,
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
So Mary is a model. She is what a follower of Jesus should be. One who trusts that where Jesus is, there God is at work in powerful ways.
But we all must admit that what she did that day could be called promiscuous, on several grounds. Imagine the scene: even today, if we were to witness a man, say reclining on a lounge chair, and a woman who was not his wife, with long hair, coming up to him and undoing her hair and wiping his feet – we would feel like we were witnessing intimacy.
How much more so in a culture that kept men women apart, especially unmarried ones, and in which women kept their hair covered? No wonder that in other versions of the story she has a bad reputation.
But this is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, so this act of intimacy must be saying something that could be said no better by a less promiscuous act. One NT scholar called it “deliberately sensuous.”
She is also promiscuous in another way: by the lavishly expensive perfume she anointed Jesus’ feet with. The anti-hero Judas pops into the story at this point, with his objection to the extravagance. His estimate is that she just poured out 300 denarii, that is, for a worker, a whole year’s income, on a pair of feet.
John lets us know that his concern is hypocritical – he had his hand in the till. Nevertheless, a year’s wages is a lot of money! Especially on feet that will simply be dirty and dusty again soon.
So, here we have a scene of almost embarrassing intimacy plus lavish extravagance. It seems surreal. What are we to make of it?
In this story, Jesus reads her actions as preparation for his burial. That explanation only complicates instead of explaining. Think about it: Mary, believing that Jesus was about to be killed, which she well might have suspected, explains nothing. You do not anoint a body for burial before it dies. And you never wipe corpse feet with hair. Calling it a pre-death anointing only makes it that much more mysterious; more surreal.
One more detail from the story will help us put these pieces together. John tells us that this scene took place Six days before the Passover. The Passover festival is one of the three annual Jewish pilgrimage festivals. It celebrates the story of the original Passover, the night the Israelites, who had been slaves of the Egyptian empire, ate a lamb as a final meal before being liberated. Passover, in other words, celebrated Independence. It was the Israelite’s Fourth of July celebration.
So, Jesus was going to Jerusalem for this pilgrimage festival of Passover. John has already told us that it was dangerous for him to do so. There were people who wanted him eliminated; specifically the members of the aristocracy that were running the temple. But in spite of the danger, Jesus was going to attend. Passover was less than a week away.
Jesus is aware that he will die soon, and clearly Mary believes the same. The way John’s gospel tells the story, Jesus, whom he names, the Lamb of God, will die on the day of preparation for Passover; the day of the slaughtering of the Passover lamb.
Putting the Pieces Together
Here is how I believe we can put these odd story elements together. First let us remember that John wrote his gospel six or more decades after Jesus’ earthly life. But although Jesus had been gone, physically, that community continued to experience the very real, living presence of Jesus. He was not a figure of the past, but of the present for them. They knew that the Spirit of Christ was alive. It is in John’s gospel that we hear Jesus say,
“God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” (4:24)
John’s gospel is by far the most mystical of the four gospels. Jesus, in John, speaks of his complete unity with God, the Father, just as mystics speak of union with the Divine. This is not an exclusive union at all. Jesus prays that all of his followers would experience the same divine mystical union. Jesus will soon pray:
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, … The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (17:21-23)
What does it mean to be one with God? One with the Divine? To worship God “in Spirit”?
For starters, it means that our sense of separation is itself an illusion. It means that our truest identity is that we are children of God. It means that our truest selves are who we are in God. This means that not even death separates us from God. In fact the opposite. Death is the door to a greater union.
Oneness vs. Personality
This brings us to a fundamental problem. Mystics throughout the world, including the long tradition of Christian mystics, experience this oneness with God as a oneness with everything. They experience the depth dimension of life and find there a connection between all beings. In fact, the feeling of oneness, at-one-ment, is so powerful, the sense of the self, as separate from all other selves, seems to fall away.
But how do you talk abut the Divine who is the ground of all being? How do you name this depth, this mystery of God who is Spirit?
It seems that John Calvin struggled with this. After all his rigorous attempts to understand intellectually, in a famous passage in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” he says,
“I tremble at the depth. You can reason; but I will marvel. You can dispute; but I will believe. I see the depth; I do not reach the bottom.” (Book 3, chapter 23)
God as Personal
The Christian answer is that God is not just a nameless, faceless mystical Spirit. God is personal. God is not merely a person, as we are persons. But God is not less than personal. In fact in another place in scripture in which God’s essence is defined, we read that ,
“God is love”
Love is entirely relational, entirely personal.
Telling the Right Story
So how do you tell a story about how a person who really gets it, who really believes it down deep, who models the relationship with God that Jesus reveals?
You tell the story of a woman in intimate contact, loosening her hair. You tell of extravagant, lavish outpouring that is beyond financial reckoning. You tell of the aroma of perfume, like a spiritual presence, filling the room invisibly, but powerfully. You tell of her wiping the feet of the one she loves with her unashamed intimate totality. There is no ego barrier to her love; no honor to protect, no reputation to maintain, no superiority to keep her from the feet that only a servant would touch.
This is beyond nameless mysticism. This is personal. This is what it means to be saved: to be a child of God, to know that this Spirit whom we worship as the source of goodness, truth and beauty is also personal, is love.
This is the God that Jesus reveals to us. The God that can be trusted to ground our lives, each day of our lives, up to and including the hour of our death. We can walk unafraid even in that final journey, just as Jesus did, knowing that we are walking into our final union with God. Death has lost its power to frighten us.
The Challenges to Trust
Admittedly, this is hard to believe, and hard to keep believing. We hear messages all the time that undercut our identity as beloved children of God. We hear that we need material things to make us beautiful and acceptable, from clothing to cars, from fancy homes to fancy places to travel to, to get away from home.
We hear messages that entirely deny our unity with God and everyone, and all of creation. We hear messages that tell us that we are on our own, that we are at risk, that we should live in fear. We are told we are surrounded by others who are different; different races, different religions, different languages, and we need to stay separate from them all.
These are the messages of ego. The false self that is still stuck in the issues of the first half of life. The self that is all about exclusion and superiority, all about acquisition and boundary maintenance. We could call this self the Judas-self because of this text we read today. The self that would rather have a hand in the till, to buy the things it thinks it needs, the things that money can buy, but has no idea what it means to be swallowed up in love, as Mary was, the love that no money could purchase.
The Practices of a Christian
Because of the onslaught of these messages we need regular practices of attending to our spirits. We need daily disciplines that allow us to hear voices affirming the truth of union and love, to be a bulwark against the voices of separateness and anger.
This is why, in this season of Lent, we have suggested that our Lenten practice be to give up our most precious possession; our time. To set aside regular time for spiritual practices. To develop habits of silence and meditation. To develop practices of intentional gratitude; deep appreciation for all of the goodness that surrounds us, for all of the beauty we see and hear and taste and smell.
Gratitude for all of the love we have given and received that has brought us to this moment. Gratitude for the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God, who made us all, for whom there is no separation between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, for we are all one in the ubiquitous Spirit of Christ, whose fullness fills all in all, without limit, without exception.
Could we be Mary? Could we allow ourselves to believe that we are loved by God, personally? Could we see ourselves responding extravagantly to that love with love in return?
This text invites us to live in the yin and yang of our faith: the Oneness with the divine the makes us one with all of being, and at the same time, the blessing of being loved personally by a personal God.