Lent 5—Year C
March 14, 2016
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Our gospel today reminds us of the story in Luke 12 earlier in Jesus’ ministry, when Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with Mary the mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection) is sitting with the men listening to the rabbi teach, while her sister Martha is stewing over having to serve all these people by herself. In the story from John today it is the day before Jesus’ triumphal entry and a week before he is dead and buried. Now Mary of Bethany takes an expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet. This is odd because normally perfume is put on the head, but Jesus says that she is anointing him for his burial.
This scene also reminds us of the story in Luke 7 when a prostitute anoints his feet, not with perfume, but with tears!
These anointings are not the adulation given to a rock star, but the profound expression of love that overflows from hearts full of gratitude and devotion to this man whose love has raised them from spiritual death just as surely he raised Lazarus from physical death.
The love pouring from these women reminds me of a phrase Brennan Manning, often used when describing the early Christians as those who “had been seized by the power of a great affection.”
Listening to Paul this morning it is obvious that he too has been seized by the power of a great affection—seized and never let go. He says, “I regard everything as loss, including my religious identity, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It boggles my mine to imagine the timeline here: three years after he is crucified, Jesus invades Paul’s life on his way to lock up followers of this new sect. In Galatians what Paul writes is usually translated, “God was pleased to reveal his son to me”, but the Greek clearly says, God was pleased to reveal his son in me.” Now some twenty years after that encounter Paul is still overwhelmed when he writes to the Philippians,
“For Jesus sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as dung, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ….”
In Galatians Paul writes that “I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live but Christ lives in me and the life I now live in the body I live through the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
Three ordinary Jews—the prostitute anointing Jesus with her tears, Mary of Bethany anointing him with expensive perfume, and Paul forsaking all things for Christ—are so filled with Christ’s love that they cannot help but overflow with that love back onto Christ and the world Christ loves. It all starts with the love of God in Christ “that fills their hearts brimful and breaks them to”, as the old hymn says.
Unfortunately, we are so good at turning that process around! We think it all starts with us and our duty to love God and neighbor so that one day maybe God’s love will flow back to us.
Recently I was in a lovely old church with beautiful stained glass. The center portion of the window above the altar had the quote from Jesus giving the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” On either side of this, are quotes from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats with the phrases, “When did I see you hungry and not feed you? When were you sick and I did not visit you?, and so on.
Now I have no right or business judging the faith of those good souls who designed and installed that window over a hundred years ago. But what struck me, in 2016, is how easy it is to read those words, not as good news but good advice, as laws to be fulfilled, rather than as good news to be celebrated.
When we forget God loves us first those words can create the feeling of duty instead of devotion, guilt instead of grace, being overwhelmed by the law of God, while feeling distant from the Love of God for them, turning the good news into a hard slog of earning merit badges to get on God’s good side.
In his book 52 Lies Heard Every Sunday..and Why the Truth is so Much Better, by Steve McVey, Lie #39 is “You should Pray to Love Christ More”.
That we should pray to love Christ more sounds like a wonderful thing until you realize we’ve once again slipped into the realm of should and ought, law and duty, that turn a person back onto the effort of their own religious project.
Judas, the business guy in charge of the bottom line for this startup ministry, notices Jesus just isn’t a very good CEO.
Yet Judas’ rules may build the institution but they can’t build the Beloved Community.
As McVey says, “We will love [Jesus] more to the extent that we realize how much He loves us.” Ibid. page 173
Of course we are usually too busy to notice Triune God’s outpouring of love and therefore we are too busy to be grateful for this love. The beauty and grace of our lives all become a blur in our peripheral vision as we race to complete our agenda for the day.
That’s why we gather every Sunday, which is a mini-Easter, and why every year we remember during Holy Week those historical events in which we are bystanders to the drama of our salvation.
It is because of Holy Week that Paul can say, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
During this week Christ Jesus also has made us his own through Cross and Resurrection. That’s why I find it important when handing out communion to say, The Body of Christ, broken…for you.”
So instead of working hard to love God more, McVey encourages us to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us how much Jesus loves us.” Ibid. 174
I think God is answering this prayer throughout every day.
Whenever you feel love for a child or a friend, realize that the love you feel for them is a faint reflection of the love Christ feels for you.
In the 15th century Dame Julian of Norwich, in her twenties and near death has a vision of the crucified Christ. She spends the rest of her life seeking to understand this encounter.
She writes: …I desired often to know what our Lord’s meaning was. And fifteen years and more afterward I was answered in my spiritual understanding, thus: ‘Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love….“Thus I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw quite clearly in this and in all, that before God made us, he loved us, which love was never slaked nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his work, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had a beginning. But the love wherein he made us was in him with no beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end .”
Yes, she too had been seized by the power of a great affection.