Sermon 3/21/10, John 12:1-8, Philippians 3:4b-14
I can hardly believe it, but today is the last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week begins. Next week we celebrate Palm/Passion Sunday, and then spend the week remembering the events in Jesus’ life that led him from being celebrated and praised by the crowds to be being jeered as he suffered and died. And then, just two weeks from today, we celebrate Easter. How can we be here already? At least from my perspective, this journey of Lent has gone quickly. We’ve been talking about extravagance. The over-the-top abundance of God that we’re trying to make room for, by getting rid of some of the empty extravagances we’ve filled up on instead. We talked about God’s extravagant grace, as we heard Jesus speak of Jerusalem like a mother hen to her baby chicks. We talked about the Extravagant Feast, as we heard Isaiah’s call to feast on that which satisfies. We pondered God’s extravagant love and forgiveness, as we heard about the Prodigal Son and the Cranky Older Brother. Today, before we step into Holy Week and the frantic pace of the last leg between here and Easter, it’s time to stop and consider one more aspect of our journey, and of God’s extravagance: cost. What is the cost of this journey that we’re on, and are we willing to bear the cost? Pay the price? What’s the cost of all God’s extravagance?
What things cost is actually at the center of our gospel lesson today, as we read of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. This story of Jesus being anointed appears in all four gospels in some form, though there are significant differences in all the tellings of it. In Mark and in Matthew, Jesus is said to be dining at the home of Simon the leper when an unidentified woman anoints his head. All the disciples in Matthew’s account, and just ‘some’ who were there in Mark’s telling complain about her extravagant actions. In Luke’s account, Jesus is eating with Pharisees, when a woman called ‘a sinner’ comes into the house and weeping, wipes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. There is no mention in Luke of the cost of the ointment the woman uses, and Jesus responds to criticism from the Pharisees with a parable about hospitality and forgiveness.
But here in John’s gospel, in the version of the story we study today, we find some different, interesting details. Here, we read that Jesus is visiting with Lazarus in Bethany just before the Passover, just before Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. In other words, this occurs on the brink of what we have come to call Holy Week, just where we are now. Lazarus has already been raised by Jesus from the dead – just raised, in fact, in the previous chapter of John’s gospel. John clearly shows Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha as people with whom Jesus is very close. They are dear friends. Martha is preparing dinner, and while Jesus and Lazarus talk, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and anoints Jesus’ feet. She wipes them with her hair, and we read that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. In John’s account, it is Judas who raises a fuss. We’re told that this is because he was the treasurer of the disciples, and was looking to steal money from their common purse. He criticizes Mary’s actions – “why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Jesus answers: “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
In Jesus’ day washing your feet and anointing them was a common practice, as common as hand-washing today. People traveled on hot and dusty roads, and washing and anointing sore and dirty feet was just part of daily custom. A host would provide hot water and sometimes ointment and oil for arriving guests. But the guests would wash their own feet. The only one who would wash someone else’s feet was a slave. So for a person to voluntarily wash and anoint another’s feet would communicate a message that they were devoted enough to the person to act as the person’s slave. That’s what Mary is communicating to Jesus – extreme, complete devotion and commitment to Jesus, putting her life in Jesus’ hands. (1) Otherwise, we can make no sense of her actions – for a woman to touch a man in this way in public, for a woman to let down her hair in public, for a woman to engage in what would have been considered inappropriately sensual – Mary must have had a strong motivation to act this way. And she did – her motivation was showing her complete commitment to serving Jesus.
And then we have Judas. Judas has always been the most intriguing disciple to me, stemming, I’ll admit to you, from my longtime love of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and the crush I had in junior high on the actor who played Judas in the Salt City Playhouse production. Ever since then, I’ve always wondered exactly what made Judas do what he did – what were his motivations? And I’ve always felt that we better pay attention to Judas, because we’re not always so far from taking actions to betray God ourselves. The gospel writer John, however, doesn’t share my sympathetic look at Judas. For John, Judas is just the betrayer, plain and simple. But even from John’s straightforward presentation, we can learn something about ourselves. In this text, John sets up Judas and Mary to clearly illustrate two paths. Mary and Judas are symbolic of two paths we can choose. Mary shows her complete devotion to following Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, shows self-interest in the guise of caring about the poor. His argument sounds good – Mary’s act of devotion is quite extravagant – she spends a year’s salary on perfume for a man’s feet. But John lets us know what he sees in Judas’ heart.
Through John’s eyes, from his perspective, we see that Judas is good at being a fake-follower of Jesus. Think about it. For years, Judas followed Jesus, heard him preaching, was sent out by Jesus to be in ministry himself with the other disciples, and no one suspected him to be any different than any of the other disciples. We can guess that Jesus saw into his true heart, but nowhere else do we find the other disciples questioning him or wondering what he is doing among the twelve. He blends right in. And yet we know what John tells us: Judas’ motivations are all wrong. He’s looking out for himself and his own interests. Mary is the true follower. (2) Mary and Judas here are symbolic of the two paths we can choose, as they both look at what following Jesus will cost them, and what they are or are not willing to pay.
What does it cost to follow Jesus? The gospel lesson ties right in with our text from Isaiah a couple weeks ago. You remember that Isaiah asked us, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” And we talked about the conundrum, the human predicament that has us longing for that which satisfies, that living water, that rich food, that which truly fills us, but constantly choosing things that leave us empty instead, because we’re not ready to make the turned-inside-out changes that actually following Jesus brings to our life. And now, we find ourselves facing another dilemma, as we take a close look at the cost of discipleship, and asking ourselves: just what are these turned-inside-out changes that Jesus is talking about? What is required to follow Jesus? On the one hand, we know that grace is free. God’s love is offered to us without price. That’s a promise God makes to us, and keeps. But on the other hand, discipleship is also costly. Jesus says, “take up the cross,” that instrument of my death, and follow me. That’s a costly path he’s calling us to take. So while grace is free, we’re also talking about costs today, and trying to figure out how it all fits together.
Mary sees that following Jesus will cost her everything, and she’s willing, ready, to pay that price because Jesus offers life, real, abundant life in return. She’s seen this gift of real life with her own eyes when her own brother Lazarus was raised by Jesus, and when Jesus told her sister Martha that he was the resurrection and the life – not for later, at some distant time, but for here and now. Judas, however, represents someone who sees how much discipleship costs and is not willing to carry his discipleship to its conclusion. Jesus and his ministry – they are leading down a road that Judas is not ready to go. He sees the cost of discipleship as being too high, and so he tries to pretend, to slide by, to masquerade as someone ready to go the distance, but who doesn’t actually, in the end, change his life after all. Are we like Mary, willing to pay whatever it costs to be a disciple, or are we like Judas, pretending, masquerading as disciples? This is the difference John wants to point out between Mary and Judas. They might both want the same things – to experience the life that Jesus talks about. But only one of them is willing to pay the price to get it.
As people of faith, we know that the gift of God’s love and grace is free, offered to us without price. At least I hope that by now we know that. It wouldn’t really be a gift if it wasn’t free to us, offered freely by God. But everything in our Christian faith is filled with paradox – the kinds of things Jesus talked about all the time – the first being last, the humble being exalted. The same paradox holds true in our journey of discipleship. You know the saying that the best things in life are free? That’s true of course – love is a free gift we share with one another. But at the same time, love is very costly. If we truly love someone, that love will cost us a lot – patience, courage, commitment, strength. So it is with grace – it is a free gift offered to us by God. But our response to this gift will cost us something – perhaps all that we have.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this strange paradox in his most famous work The Cost of Discipleship. “Cheap grace,” he writes, “is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of [one] will gladly go and sell all that he [or she] has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all [her] goods. It is the . . . call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows [Jesus].”
The apostle Paul uses this same kind of language – this language of paradox in our reading from Philippians today. “Whatever gains I had,” he writes, “I have come to regard as loss because of Christ . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the . . . call of God in Christ Jesus.” This season of Lent, we are pressing on toward the goal – the prize – that we find in the Easter resurrection. We are so close to reaching the end of our journey. Now is the time, now is your chance to stop and ask yourself: What will it cost you to be a disciple? Will you pay?
For each of us, that price, that cost, is both totally unique and totally the same. What changes have to take place in your life for you to actually, really, 100% follow Jesus? Each of us would answer differently. But how much Jesus wants of us? The cost of discipleship is our whole lives, our whole selves, offered to God, a response to the extravagant grace we’ve been given. The cost is high – extravagant. But it’s worth every penny. Are you willing to pay the price?
(1) Exegetical notes from Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john12x1.htm