Week of Sunday 17 March – Lent 5
Gospel: John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(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.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The epistle for this week is from Philippians 3:4a-14. Meditating on John's reading, I begin to get some understanding of why Paul can say these words:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him....
John is no 99 cent eBook; a 'penny dreadful' to be read once and discarded. John means us to read in circular fashion, building up a seamless world, an eternity where time and sequence lose the power they have in our current lives.
To make sure we understand this he does things that are a penny dreadful sin. Into his own drama he inserts a spoiler; not a hint, but a blatant spoiler jumping up and down and waving at us.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. (John 11:1-2)
If we read or preach John 12 without looking at John 11, then we will be preaching without reading the text! Note too, that the Revised Common Lectionary cuts the story of John 12 off short; it leaves off verses 9-11, the plot to kill Lazarus again.
We cannot understand Martha's service, or Mary's devotion in 12:1-8, without John 11 and John 12:9-11. However, we must understand Martha's service and Mary's devotion without the story of Martha who is too busy, and Mary who "has chosen what is better." (Luke 10:38-42) This story is not in John; the Martha and Mary of John are different people.
It is also tempting to think of Lazarus as the Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31; Lazarus and the Rich Man. In both cases, Lazarus surely is someone for whom "God is my helper"— the meaning of the name— but the name is all they have in common; the stories are not related. Although... perhaps Judas was a rich man in his outlook!
Around the middle of Mark's gospel there is a key point, where Peter makes a statement of faith; the first full confession of the Messiah in that Gospel. "Who do you say that I am?" asks Jesus. Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:29)
In Mark we then hear the consequence of such a confession.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.... (Mark 8:31) He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)
We are in the same territory with John 11 and 12; believing in the Messiah, suffering, death, the saving of life. Into this recognising of the Messiah, and His consequences, John injects his own drama and colour.
An aside: how much have we followed the lead of John and Mark by entering into the same story, and yet imagining our own landscape? How much is our story and our believing our own, and how much is it a poor clone, even a failed movie remake, of someone else's story?
John's story is centred around the timeless Table of Jesus. Lazarus, raised from the dead in a prefiguring of resurrection, "was one of those at the table with him." (Luke 12:2) The Table is in the house of Mary and Martha; they are almost Jesus' own family. It sits forever at the last stop on the road before Jerusalem; always on the road, and never far from Jerusalem.
In this drama where time does not matter— we are in eternity— Martha says, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." (John 11:27) To believe is not to accept a proposition, but to surrender our lives to the truth of the proposition and live accordingly, with all it costs.
Therefore, Martha lives at the gateway into Jerusalem, the place of crucifixion. There she suffers loss; her brother dies. At that time, as so often for us, Jesus seems absent. Some of the people said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" (John 11:37) but Jesus did not come in time. It will seem, on this road, that we are often alone.
When Martha met him,
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (11:23-27)
The story has all the same elelments, but the order of Mark has been removed. In this timeless telling, believing in the Messiah, suffering, death, the saving of life are all enmeshed together— not out of order— but simply a part of eternity. At the Table they mingle with the suffering and death and resurrection of the Messiah.
At the Table, which John spends so much time exploring in the long meditations about bread; for example, we have Martha, the one who believes and serves.
We have Lazarus who has died and been raised, and who will, like Jesus, die again. They plot to kill him.
We have Mary who has been bereaved; who like Martha, believes. "Lord if you had been here..."
We have Jesus, the Son of God, whose death is being plotted, just like Lazarus. Despite this, he is still coming into the world. (John 11:27)
And at the table, where we celebrate the death, Mary, full of love, forgetting herself, anoints him for his burial. The house of the Table is filled with the fragrance; the fragrant smell of this death and burial, rather than the stink of Lazarus' death, gets into everything.
Judas sees none of it, even though he is at the table! There is surely a warning here. Self focussed, remembering himself, he is blind to it all. Blinded by the needs of the state, the Pharisees see Jesus and Lazurus, who with his family is a type of the church, only as threat. "It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed," will apply to all those who truly eat at the Table. But it is those who would destroy us who "know nothing at all." (John 11:49)
I want to explore the notion of eternal life (zwhn aiwnion). It is the life Jesus offers us; life where our joy is made full. (John 10:10) The story of Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus is a story of eternal life. It is a story of now. It is full of literary devices; Lazarus prefigures Jesus' death, Mary prefigures the devotion of a disciple, Martha prefigures belief/service, and so on. But all this loses its time. It simply becomes now centred around the Table.
I can try to explain with an experience of my own. In 2011 I took a month of Long Service Leave and rode across New South Wales. A typical day of the ride was from Emmdale to Cobar; American readers should think of a road in Texas and double the distances. Emmdale is a solitary road house 60 miles out from Wilcannia. After Emmdale there is no town for a hundred miles.
There is lots of preparation for such a ride, and much learning and experience to make it successful on a too-hot day in late summer. Things must be done in sequence or the whole venture will fail. Discipline is essential; this is not full desert, but it will kill you if you let it. It is the sequential world of time which we know, and from which John seeks to awake us to a greater awareness.
After even a short time on the Cobar road, all time ceases. Yes, the clock is moving, miles are passing, but time is not. In the heat, with the rhythm of pedalling, the unbroken stretch of the bitumen, the noise of the silence, and the enlivening depth of the landscape, a new reality can be entered. The rider simply is. Everything becomes now. Thoughts will flow; idle, grieving, remembering, longing, but the road goes on. There is only now .
And so it is for life lived in the house and around the Table at the last stop before Jerusalem. Grief, loss, fear, dying, uncertainty; they are all there, but there is another reality.
Even in our poor church, and in my frail discipleship, with my poor Table manners, I can sense it. A reordering of priorities, indeed, but something else. Life is different .
I suppose that this is what eternal means.
On the long roads in Australia, people occasionally get lost. I don't mean geographically. I mean we go some place else. Road house people will talk of occasional travellers coming in off the road on some kind of high. They talk of a surreal experience. The now is all around us.
Being seated around the Table gives us a language for this now. It takes us from a surreal experience to an epiphany. It means that we can be Mary, full of devotion and joy. We can be Martha, able to see and to serve, and we can be Lazarus, the opposite of Judas, raised and ready for death. At the Table we are in Christ.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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