March 21, 2010, The Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 21, 2010
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Isaiah 43:16-21, Ps 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
5th Sunday of Lent, Year C

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. These words of Paul are the expression of the purpose of his life. How many of us would frame our life’s purpose in this way? We want to follow Christ. We want to experience the presence of his love in our lives. We may say that we want to know Christ. But what does that mean, to know? For Paul it is clear, to share in his suffering and death so that we can know Jesus as the risen one, for without the former we cannot truly know that latter. To share in his suffering and death is not something most of us desire. We want to think on it, ponder it, claim its saving power for us, but to have it be what he does and did, not something that we too must do each in our own way. And to do this we must be clear on the nature of that suffering and death; it is love.

We hear this definition if we pay attention to the implications of the readings. Paul’s rejection of all that made his life meaningful in worldly terms is a way of saying love is at the center. The righteousness of which he speaks means forgiveness and mercy, both of which are impossible without love. We also see it clearly in the story from John’s gospel.

In John’s gospel, we hear the story of an early Christian community grounded in the act of loving service to one another. Today’s passage is a very clear example of that. As is often the case in John’s gospel and indeed the other gospels as well, it is women or an outsider, not one of the inner circle, who demonstrates the point first. When hearing this story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet we are meant to think of the foot washing that Jesus does for his own disciples just days later. Her gift is one based on love for him and for God. She understands without being told how to respond to Jesus, to the love and ministry and life he embodies and points us to. As Gail O’Day writes: “In the anointing, she shows what it means to be one of Jesus’ own. She gives boldly of herself in love at this hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour.”

The hour in question is, naturally, the hour, the time of his crucifixion and death. All that is happening in this portion of John is prefiguring his coming Passion. He is under a death sentence that makes incarnate our human fear of divine love and selfless surrender to serving others and God. Mary keeps her heart open to the place where true life lies, even if the path leads through death. Surely she knows that Jesus’ human life is coming to its end, but that only draws her further into love of him, not abandonment or trying to avoid the path of life in God that includes both joy and suffering, a particular kind of suffering.

The community that wrote John’s gospel understood itself to be partaking here and now in the resurrected life, not in its entirety, but in a true and real way. Heaven, service, salvation and love are all words that are pointing towards the same truth, in this Gospel and in the others. They are all part and parcel of the same understanding and same call to a way of life. Jesus was clear, as most of our later theologians were not, that heaven and salvation were not places distanced from us that we got to later; they were meant to be revealed and known within and among us. And, incidentally, so was what we signify by the word hell.

Last week in the adult confirmation class we were talking about these ideas of heaven and hell. And one person shared a wonderful Chinese story about them. I did say that the story would probably appear in a sermon someday. Little did I know it would be a week later! When we are paying attention God gives us so often exactly what we need. The story goes like this. We are given a glimpse of hell. It is a banquet hall, full of tables mounded with wonderful food, and the guests are seated along both sides of them. The place is full. All these delicious dishes, mouth-watering smells, and abundance are there for the taking. But no one is eating. Each guest has a pair of chopsticks that are four feet long. Try as they might, contort their arms as they will, not one of them can manage to scoop up any food and get it into their mouths. The room is full of frustration and anger. We are then given a glimpse of heaven. It is the exact same set up: banquet tables full of food, guests lining them table, and even the four-feet long chopsticks! But this room is full of feasting, laughter, and happiness. How is this possible? Because each guest is taking his or her own chopsticks, picking up the food before the guest opposite and feeding it to them.

This story is, I feel, a profoundly powerful image of service, love, salvation and heaven all woven together. It is simple on the surface, but that is deceptive. There is a lot we can learn by contemplating it. In its own way, it is playing on the same ideas as the passage in the Gospel of Matthew where the sheep and the goats are sorted based on who gave food, water, clothing, compassion and companionship in this life to others and who did not. In today’s reading Mary reveals heaven; Judas reveals hell.

As we continue on our journey towards the cross, as we too set our faces towards Jerusalem, I offer you this story to contemplate this week. Rather than give examples of how I see this story lived out in the world, rather than offer more ideas about what it means, I will instead leave you with some questions or ideas on how to enter into it and allow its meaning to unfold for you. For the heart of faith is not having answers given to us. It is to come to our own understandings that are grounded in the story and life of Jesus as we seek to make them our own story.

So here are a few of them to prime the pump. What is the relationship between love and service? What does true service to and of others look like? What does it require of us? What is different in the heavenly banquet image other than creative problem solving? What changes in disposition and understanding does feeding one another involve? What characterizes it? What changes does it require of our own self-understanding? And of the nature of life with each other? And lastly, what does such loving service mean when the path it takes us on can lead to suffering? For this is the path Jesus is on and yet he keeps moving forward, not seeking death, but neither turning from such service to appease those who are threatened by it.

It is also the path that we are on if we, as Paul, want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. It is not simply telling a story; it is discovering how we are to live it, constantly, knowing that Jesus is with us on the way, ready to go with us to the very ends of heaven and hell, ready always to love us.