Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lent 5 sermon, "How Beautiful are the Feet"

John 12: 1-8

300 denaraii worth of perfume! That was an average person’s whole year’s salary. In John Wesley’s notes on this passage, he concludes that Lazarus and his sisters must have been of high economic standing. He remarks, “It seems Martha was a person of some figure, from the great respect which was paid to her and her sister, in visits and condolences on Lazarus's death, as well as from the costly ointment mentioned in the next verse. And probably it was at their house our Lord and his disciples lodged, when he returned from Jerusalem to Bethany, every evening of the last week of his life, upon which he was now entered."
We hear the familiar account this morning, and if you’re like me you think, “Oh, that was Mary, Martha’s sister? I didn’t know it was her who anointed the Lord’s feet and then wiped them with her hair!” John is the only gospel writer to make this connection, the story told in the other gospels simply describe “a woman,” and over the years the tradition arose that the other Gospel writers describe an instance of Mary Magdalene performing the same act.
But John places it here, in the last week of Jesus’ life, and we hear a lot of parenthetical narration in the text as well. John also singles out Judas as the critic of this act of devotion, whereas Matthew points to the disciples in general and Mark and Luke point to the Pharisees. Why Mary? Why Judas? Why now?
In John’s narrative, we see the devotion of Mary mimicked later in the week as Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and commands them to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” In John’s narrative, this takes place on the night he is captured in the garden of Gethsemene. John’s account places what we call the “Last Supper” earlier in the career of Jesus, and gives the only account of the foot-washing. John perhaps places this story here in his telling of the Gospel to foreshadow the act of servanthood that Jesus illustrates by getting on his knees and washing his disciple’s feet.
You see, this is where it becomes difficult to get an idea of the time frame because we are reading this story piecemeal. This week we hear the story of the Saturday before the Holy week of Jesus’ passion. In the scriptures, Palm Sunday is tomorrow—it is the day following this anointing at Mary and Martha’s in Bethany. And it is only days before the events of Maundy Thursday. Maunday, by the way, comes from the Latin “mandatum,” which means mandate, and is a reference to Jesus’ new commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Easter may still seem like a long way away, but in the narrative we are hearing, it is only a week away. I hope this puts this story in perspective. It also might explain why Jesus is seemingly flippant about Judas’s protestations that this expensive perfume could have been sold and benefit the poor. Mary’s gesture of devotion is not just the recounting of an event, John placing the story here in the story has symbolic effect. It is a literary device to prepare us for the last moment of tenderness and intimacy that Jesus will be able to share with his disciples and friends. It is preparing us for what John considers is Jesus’ most important teaching of all.
And so, let us hear the recounting of this story in the light of the foot-washing. We are going to be celebrating the Passover Seder as Jesus and his disciples would have on Maundy Thursday, so we won’t have an opportunity to hear this story too, from John 13:
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table,a took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In our scripture lesson, Mary has illustrated perfect discipleship. She is one of Jesus’ disciples, and here has the opportunity to wash her Lord’s feet: An act of servanthood and devotion that Jesus later verbally commands his disciples to show for one another. This issues a challenge to our typical mindset that when we hear the word “disciple,” we think of 12 middle aged men. No—as we see again and again in John, and repeatedly during holy week, the women disciples are often the ones who intuitively embody Jesus’ teachings. Women are the first preachers, the first to bring news of the Gospel after they discover an empty tomb, and here, in this story, it is again a woman disciple who carries out the new commandment before it has been given, and the reward for her faith is that she is the one who gets to wash the master’s feet.
In the foot washing, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them, as a way of drawing them into his life with God (13:8). He will also ask them to repeat this act of service for one another (13:14-15). What Jesus will do for his disciples and will ask them to do for one another, Mary has already done for him in 12:3. In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life.
In our Ephesians text, we heard about the “eyes of our heart being enlightened,” being able to perceive the “hope and riches of our inheritance.” Mary is a model disciple because she never hesitated to focus on Jesus with the eyes of her heart. What seemed lavish to the others was in her mind a small expression of devotion and glorification.
She spares no expense in her devotion to her Lord because she is filled with the hope of eternal riches that are her inheritance. These riches aren’t substantial wealth, but the joy and love of Christ ever present in a living fellowship. She uses up the burial ointment because of her faith that death cannot contain this man’s life.
What would you do if you were to witness something like this? You may say to yourself that since it was Jesus, you would probably join right in with Mary on her knees in your worship of our Lord. But how many of us have joined Judas there on the sideline and made a snide comment when we have witnessed someone lost in the worship of our Living God? How many of us have been critical of another person’s form of worship because it doesn’t look or sound like our own?
Perhaps those are the moments when we need to hear the commandment of our Lord again—“as I have done, do ye likewise.” Love one another as I have loved you! Jesus, knowing he wouldn’t always be here in his physical form, gave his disciples a way to mirror Mary’s devotion to him after he was gone—wash one another’s feet. Be devoted to one another, that’s how people will know you’re my disciple.
How will our neighbors know we are Christians? How do we express our love for one another? Perhaps you have been scared during this sermon that I was going to suggest that we have a foot washing? I had actually planned on adapting that custom to a hand washing, but since I’m sick I decided that wouldn’t be prudent, no not at this juncture. Instead, I want you to focus the eyes of your hearts on interactions you have had with others in which you have come away knowing that the other person was a disciple of Christ? Are you able to think about similar circumstances when people would be able to intuit that you were a disciple?

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