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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

    Apr 07, 2019

    Passage: John 12:1-8

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

    Category: Lent


    Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (2019)
    April 7th, 2019
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel at CCU) 

    Isaiah 43:16-21 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8


    This is one of those Sundays when I wish we had pew Bibles in front of us - or better yet, a side-by side version of the four gospels - because I want to start off by drawing attention to some of the parallels between the different Gospel accounts of this foot-anointing-and-washing-with-hair episode. So… if you happened to bring your side by side version of the Gospels with you, then good news: it’s finally going to come in handy! 


    By the way - If you’re taking notes and want to look this all up, the parallel accounts can be found in Matt. 26: 6-13, Mark 14: 3-9, and Luke 7: 36-50. 


    First, it’s worth pointing out that all four Gospels have at least some version of this story. And whenever all four Gospels agree, that’s a major clue about how important it is. The emphasis is slightly different between the Gospels - and we’ll get to that soon - but the fact that some version of this story appears in all four accounts tells us that it’s a story that pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples thought was worth preserving for one reason or another. And so it’s worth paying special attention to. 


    Next, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is unnamed. Only in John’s Gospel are we told that it’s Mary - presumably Mary of Bethany who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus. In none of the Gospels do we get an indication that the woman is Mary Magdalene; that point is important for anyone interested in past assumptions or musings about what kind of person Mary Magdalene was before she met Jesus, but we’re not going to unpack that issue this morning. The point for today is that in John’s Gospel, the woman anointing Jesus feet is identified, by name, as Mary, a significant character who also appears in other parts of John’s Gospel. So John is letting us know that the woman anointing Jesus’ feet should not remain an anonymous heroine.  


    Next, in Luke’s Gospel, the story is told solely to make a point about forgiveness and gratitude; [[[the woman in Luke’s Gospel is only identified as “a sinner,” and when she shows up to anoint Jesus feet, Jesus explains to his offended host that she is showing love because her many sins are forgiven]]]. In Mark and Matthew, the episode is there essentially as a prefigurement of Jesus’ impending death. In John’s Gospel, we are told that the anointing is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death, but there’s also some other foreshadowing going on. 


    Because in the very next chapter, we get the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. So Mary’s act of love in anointing Jesus’ feet foreshadows the act of love that Jesus himself will later demonstrate to his disciples - and then command his disciples to do for one another. And there’s an interesting thing going on in here that’s easy to miss. The interesting thing is that Mary gets the lesson before Jesus even teaches it, demonstrating the kind of love that Jesus commands us to have even before he commanded it. In other words, she is the ideal disciple. 


    I’m not going to try arguing that Jesus was a proto-feminist, but I do find it interesting that the ideal disciple in John’s Gospel is the character of Mary. And in the first century Mediterranean world, crediting a woman with being the ideal disciple who is worthy of emulation would have struck many as more than a little surprising. 


    In much the same way, there are plenty of people in the 21st century who think that certain other people should not - or cannot - qualify as legitimate disciples of Jesus simply because of the way they were born. And so it comes as a surprise when there’s evidence that, no, actually, those “others” can be disciples, too, capable of showing the kind of extravagant love for Jesus and for all people that all Christians should be striving for. And just as in the Gospel, there are those who would say that certain people should not be allowed to show their love for Jesus; that they should take their love elsewhere. I happen to think it would behoove all of us to be careful of criticizing anyone who is trying their best to show love for Jesus. Because the person who does that in John’s Gospel is not someone I think we want to be in cahoots with. But that’s beside the point.  


    The striking thing about what’s going on between the lines in John’s Gospel is what St. Paul refers to when he talks about regarding his confidence in the flesh as rubbish. Because in John’s Gospel, what we’re seeing is the breaking down of a norm that very much had to do with confidence in the flesh. Even in the first century, Christians were beginning to understand what we’re still wrestling with: that being a disciple of Jesus has nothing to do with being a man or a woman; or being Jewish or Greek; or black or white; or straight or gay; or Anglican or Presbyterian. Being a disciple of Jesus has nothing to do with any of that - and everything to do with showing love. That’s a valuable lesson to learn.    


    But there’s another lesson that we can draw from John’s account of the anointing and washing of Jesus’ feet. And it has to do with how the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death goes hand in hand with an example of perfect discipleship. It’s almost as if the two were meant to be related…and I believe they are. Because if we are doing what we are supposed to be doing as followers of Jesus, then the cross is never going to be that far away. Quite far from faithfulness guaranteeing an easy life, it means that following Jesus involves coming face to face with contradiction, rejection, and death. Regularly. You might even say that the better a disciple you are, the more you can expect to follow in the footsteps of the master - and the master wound up on a cross. 

    But note that John’s Gospel does not shy away from this connection. He acknowledges it; embraces it. And so should we. Being disciples of Jesus does mean doing hard things that we’d probably otherwise not want to do. It involves giving of ourselves in ways that others would think are laughably extravagant. It sometimes involves making fools of ourselves in displays of love and service. And it involves knowing that for all our efforts and devotion, we still might lose what we love. But then go on loving anyway. 

    This lesson is the hardest lesson of all in being a Christian. Because when faced with the cross, most of us want either to turn away or to fight. Few would want to respond to the cross by bathing another’s feet. But that is where the Lenten season has brought us. For all of our striving and discipline, we learn again that the very heart of Christian discipleship is humble service, even in the face of loss. Because, as the Gospel shows us, it is only through such humble service that we will be prepared for the joy that awaits us on the other side of the grave.     

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