A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2016. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, and John 12:1-8.
(Unfortunately, the recording failed, so there is no audio sermon this week.)
One of the many interesting things about working in a church office is the church supply catalogs that come in the mail. Sometimes they have vestments and clothing that seem better suited to movie sets than real churches. Other catalogs lead clergy like me to dream of lightweight, collapsible tables, and clear, durable sign-holders. But one of the funniest catalogs I’ve seen in a long time had an entire section of small figures that one could order as gifts.
The section was called, “Jesus is my coach.” Each of the little figures, or clusters of figures, pertains to a particular sport, so the baseball version of “Jesus is my coach” shows a child of ambiguous gender at bat, while another young person is next to the first as a catcher. But then just behind the batter, as though a coach or a parent helping with how to hold the bat, is Jesus—not in a baseball uniform, but complete with beard, long hair, and white robe. The football version has Jesus going in for a catch while another kid tries to tackle him. There is a martial arts Jesus and a skiing Jesus. And just so that no one begins to think Jesus is only interested in macho sports, there is also a ballet Jesus in which he is gently offering support to two ballerinas.
The “Jesus in my coach” figures are probably just the thing for a pious grandmother looking for a confirmation gift, or a desperate priest with no experience of children wondering what to give a young person. And while I don’t think I would ever order one of the figures, I do appreciate the point they are trying to make. At some level, they are proclaiming the Incarnation: the belief that God is more than an idea or a vague warm feeling, that God came into the world in the flesh; died, and rose again for us, and is still available to us as a friend, as a guide, and even (I dare say) as a “coach.”
The scriptures today move us toward the events of Holy Week, but they do so by reminding us of Jesus the human being; Jesus, the friend.
In today’s Gospel, we’re taken right to the edge of Jerusalem, to Bethany, thought to be where today’s West Bank is, about a mile and a half east of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s not far in proximity, and it’s not far from the events we will retrace in Holy Week.
There, in Bethany, Jesus is with his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. This is just after Lazarus has died. But Jesus has visited, said to death, “not so fast,” and Lazarus is again full of life. This is the great story represented in the stained glass window over our altar. I love that the primary image is of Jesus raising Lazarus from death to life again—not yet eternal life—(that’s to come later) but raised to life for another chapter, another week, another day. The raising of Lazarus hints at even greater things to come.
While each of the Gospels has a story about a woman anointing Jesus’ feet, each one puts a slightly different slant on the story. Some accounts are more ambiguous than others. For example, in Matthew, the woman is simply described as a “woman with an alabaster jar.” It’s from this brief description that led the author Margaret Starbird on a fanciful story of how this woman is actually Mary Magdalene. She imagined that this Mary was related to the legend of the Holy Grail, and this, then gets picked up by Dan Brown in his famous Da Vinci Code. It’s all great fun, but it’s of very little biblical or spiritual substance.
The version we hear today from the Gospel of John is a much fuller story and placed where it is for a reason. Here, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of her friend and teacher, probably as a gesture of warmth and hospitality. But Jesus understands it and names it as anointing for death. He does this because he knows what’s ahead.
This story of Mary anointing Jesus helps set the stage for next Sunday and Holy Week. Judas’ criticism signals the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mary’s anointing hints at the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus and discover the tomb is empty. The raising of Lazarus foreshadows the great movement from death to life. But this story also sets a pattern for friendship with Jesus the Christ, a pattern that is open and available to us.
In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes about how nothing in his life matters but his relationship with Christ. The fact that he’s a religious Jew doesn’t matter. That he’s educated doesn’t matter. That he’s a person of some standing, doesn’t matter. His friendships, his family, his experiences, his eloquence…. It all amounts to nothing, Paul says. The thing that matters is “that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Paul says he wants to know the full power of the resurrection from the dead, and while he doesn’t yet know it, “I press on,” Paul says, because “Because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
The physical body of Christ is not ours to anoint or hold or touch. And yet, Christ has told us where to find his body—not in a tomb, and not even in scripture. Jesus lives as our brother and sister, the expression of God’s Incarnation all around us. In trying to explain the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about the opportunity to meet him in those who are hurting and in those who are in need. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt. 25:35-36). Those listening ask him when that happened—when did he come in those ways and when would they have met him? And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Mt. 25:45).
Whenever we notice the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the lonely, we stand a good chance of seeing Christ. When we anoint them, we anoint him. In the famous story of St. Francis’s conversion, it’s this Risen Christ that St. Francis meets in the leper. It’s the same Risen Christ we meet from time to time on the street, in our family, at work, when we least expect him.
Christ is met in the stranger and the suffering, but we also encounter the Body of Christ at the altar. In Holy Communion, we become one with him and with one another. In the sharing of a meal, we become a family. In the eating and drinking, we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ. As I prepare the elements at every Eucharist, when I add a little water to the wine, I pray the traditional prayer, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” That’s what happens in Holy Communion. Christ’s divinity and our humanity co-mingle and become one, so that, with Paul, we “may gain Christ and be found in him.”
We gain Christ, we find him and are found in him in the Eucharist, but also, that unmistakably sensual-spiritual quality to Mary’s anointing of Jesus points to a kind of relationship we can have with Jesus Christ that is even beyond the physical and beyond the sacramental.
Christ also lives mystically and spiritually, as all the saints and mystics attest. But he doesn’t just show up, one day. He doesn’t barge his way in. This kind of relationship happens over time, through persistence, and patience, and penance, and prayer. It happens through silence and yearning, through our longing to reach God with the same kind of passion as Mary who reached out to touch and anoint her friend. Jesus wants to be our friend.
We not understand Jesus exactly as our soccer coach or the one who holds our briefcase for an important meeting, but a “personal Jesus” is a part of our faith. The 20th century English theologian Austin Farrer once said, “One of the silliest of all discussions is the question whether God is personal [or not.] … it would be more useful to inquire whether ice is frozen.” In other words, God is personal by definition, in God’s very being. Through the Incarnation, God comes to us in personal, present ways. And one of those ways is as a friend.
A friendship takes time to develop, it involves talking and listening. We can be ourselves with a friend—no pretenses, just comfort. A friend can challenge us and change us. A friend’s presence can give us all that we need sometimes to get through the day, sometimes to get through the hour. Jesus can be this kind of friend. I don’t mean the kind of self-serving Jesus-Friend who is a copilot in driving and steers us through green lights and finds the perfect parking space. That’s a silly piety that doesn’t stand up to much challenge. But Jesus our Friend is more like the one who stretches out his hand when we’re about to lose our footing. Jesus our Friend shows up when no one else is available. Jesus our Friend stands between us and danger, sin, and death itself.
In just a few days from now, on Good Friday, the Church will offer a prayer that is among our very most beautiful and powerful. It speaks to the strength and the passion of the friendship of Christ. In these final days of Lent, may we be led forward by all our senses to pray that … “Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, would set his passion, cross, and death between all judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. That God would give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to the Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.