It was my pleasure and privilege to preach at the commissioning of my good friend Julie Mackay as a Pastor in the Uniting Church in Australia last night. Julie is a chaplain at one of my old haunts, The Wesley Hospital.
Man of Sorrows; Man of Resurrection
Tonight’s Gospel Reading is simply quite amazing. Mary is at home in Bethany, at the feet of Jesus. In what could be fairly called an erotically-charged moment, she anoints his feet with fabulously expensive perfume and wipes his feet with her hair. (Judas complains; I think he was jealous.)
I was taught very early in my Christian walk (in fact, in the first Bible study I ever went to) that ‘text without context is pretext’. So let us avert our eyes from this scene, and take a look at its context.
In the story of Jesus that John tells, Jesus has only recently drawn Lazarus from the tomb, still bound in his grave clothes. You remember the story: Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, gets sick. Jesus waits three days before going to him, in which time Lazarus dies. Everyone’s really upset with him.
But, the story goes, Jesus brings Lazarus alive out of the tomb. In doing this, Jesus has revealed himself as ‘the Resurrection and the Life’. He has authority over death. Death has no power over him. It’s here that he says the beautiful words that we often hear at funerals:
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
So why does Mary anoint Jesus’ feet so soon after Lazarus is restored to them? I sure it’s partly because she is so very grateful for what Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead.
But I also think it’s because she bought this perfume to anoint Jesus’ body at his death. She must have been a woman of deep faith and deep love. She wanted to do the right thing by Jesus when his time came to die. But what could she do with the perfume now? This man is the Resurrection and the Life! Those who believe in him will never die! So how can he ever die?
I believe that Mary concludes that Jesus will never die. How can he? So rather than not use the perfume for Jesus at all, she pours it out right there and right then. She takes the place of a slave, and offers Jesus the greatest gift she has, cleansing his feet with the perfume.
But Mary’s wrong about one thing. Not about the gift; not about serving Jesus. No, she is wrong in thinking that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life cannot die.
Jesus will die. Jesus knows he will die; and Jesus transforms this amazing gift of love into a prophetic act. Whatever Mary thinks she’s doing, Jesus says that she is proclaiming his death and burial by anointing him with funeral spices. And as we leave this beautiful little scene, we leave Mary still kneeling at Jesus’ feet.
But soon, there will be a great and unexpected reversal: Jesus will kneel at his disciples’ feet, and wash them as a sign of what it means to serve one another. I wonder: did Mary give him the idea?
And then Jesus will be taken and crucified.
Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life; Jesus is the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Julie, as a chaplain in this hospital you will meet people who relate to Jesus in different ways. For some, he is resurrection and rescue. He will make them well, usually with the caveat that they have to believe. And hard. For others, he is the shepherd who takes them by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death.
When St Paul set out to be a disciple of his Master, he found that in order to follow Jesus on the downward path he had to set aside the natural advantages he had (‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews’). Paul said that he set them aside because
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.
Paul too links resurrection and suffering. He reminds us that to share in Christ’s life means to let go of privilege and share in his death. It can happen in little ways. When I first started visiting the wards over ten years ago in this hospital with my brand new ID badge proudly displayed and glinting in the sun, I came to a ward where I was comprehensively and deliberately ignored by a junior member of staff. My immediate reaction was to think, ‘How dare you? Don’t you know who I am? I’m Dr Walton!’
But of course, I wasn’t Dr Walton any more. I was simply a chaplain who had to learn a new way of relating to my fellow workers. It was a small and unnoticed death. It was a death that I had to enter if I were to embrace a new kind of life. Isaiah was right. God is doing a new thing, something that the wise of this world could never foresee. God is bringing life where there is death.
So Julie: for you, for each one of us, Jesus is both Resurrection and Man of Sorrows. Accept the discipline of holding both together. Stay close to him when you celebrate life and when you mourn death. And as you stay close to Jesus, as you wash the feet of his people in service, as you take the descending path of service in this hospital, God is doing a new thing. You bear within you a living hope that doesn’t flinch from death. It doesn’t need to—because Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Man of Sorrows. As the Christian faith proclaims,
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.