Isaiah 43: 16-21, Philippians 3: 4b – 14, John 12: 1-8
On this 5th Sunday in Lent we turn towards the passion of Jesus. Our gospel reading from John 12 is set in Bethany, outside Jerusalem, and speaks of Jesus’ impending death.
We are also presented with a story about Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and her pouring of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet, and the objection raised by Judas.
Judas in this account is dismissed by the narrator: He is only objecting to the extravagance because he is a thief. This morning I want to set aside that dismissal and suggest there is a real question here, that Judas’ objection is more fruitful for us if, like Jesus, we take it as being genuinely felt.
For there is something strange about Mary spending what amounted to a labourer’s wages for a whole year on a bottle of perfume, to then pour out the whole bottle all at once over Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. It is hugely extravagant.
There are many good Christian people I have known who would find such a gesture uncomfortable. Fine people who’s memory I cherish.
When we first came to Manchester, in our early 20’s, we got involved in Christ Church, Brunswick, led at the time by Martin Gooder and his wife Carol. They welcomed us both, and Martin became a mentor to me as I explored my vocation.
Martin and Carol poured out their life’s energies in service of that church and its local community. At that time the salary for a minister was much less than it is now, but there was never any question of Carol doing paid work – they were a team. They lived simply as they brought up two children. They didn’t have a car. They didn’t drink: the church served non-alcoholic communion wine, in solidarity with several recovering alcoholics who attended.
But they also lived generously: Every Sunday they would invite whoever was at a loose end, to join them in the lunch Carol had prepared. Homeless people at their door would always receive something to eat. A few years’ later when I became treasurer, I became aware that they also gave 10% of their income to the church.
They had to be careful, and it became part of them. When we knew them I can’t recall them ever going out for a meal – it would have seemed wrong somehow. Their life was unrelentingly frugal, disciplined, but also generous and warm.
I wondered later what Martin made of this young would-be ordinand, with his company car and foreign holidays, exploring non-stipendiary ministry: I can see the unspoken thought crossing his mind: what became of the simple calling he and Carol had answered, to leave all behind, and follow?
I also imagine Martin’s reaction had he been confronted with Mary’s gesture at Bethany, or some modern equivalent. He would have been uncomfortable – rightly concerned that the gesture could be misconstrued, the money better spent on supporting poor families locally, many of whom he knew.
You also will have known people such as this, faithful Christians who lived out their calling in consistent, modest service. Their dignity stands before us as an example but perhaps also a reproach to softer lives.
So the point that Judas makes is a powerful one, not easily brushed aside.
Jesus responds by saying that these are not normal times. Ordinarily, yes, the poor must come first. But not now, not when the day of his being prepared for burial approaches.
I wonder how the other disciples felt on hearing his response? Scared, I imagine, unmoored even? They are entering a time when normal rules do not apply, when, in the words of Isaiah we heard earlier, God will do something new.
As we approach the time of Jesus’ arrest, his trial, crucifixion, burial and then the miracle of Easter Day, we too approach a time when normal rules do not apply. God will do something new. Our settled understanding of the order of things, good though it is, will needs be set aside. We will encounter the presence in the world of a God who is other, who is not subject to explanation, a presence which is mystery, where words fall short, certainties melt away, the power of symbol dissolves all before it.
This then, in some way, is the experience of Christ which Paul describes in our second reading, where to know Christ is everything, and in search of that new knowledge we gladly count all before it as loss by comparison.
So within these readings I find a challenge to come to Christ with an open heart, with an understanding shaped by the gospels, by prayer, by life in community, but also not knowing the Christ who we seek, who does not live in normal times.
Richard Young (Rector)