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5th Sunday of Lent - Passiontide begins

11 March 2016

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Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

 

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

WHOM would you have chosen to sit next to during the dinner given for Jesus by his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 12.1-8)? There is probably a part of all of us that would have wanted to have the opportunity to talk to Lazarus about his four days in the tomb, to question him about what it was like to be dead, and what he had seen and learned.

The crowds who arrived when they heard that Jesus was in Bethany certainly found the presence of Lazarus, with his mysterious knowledge, an additional attraction (John 12.9). And yet, of all the characters so vividly portrayed in this episode, he alone neither acts nor speaks. He is simply there, the one “whom [Jesus] had raised from the dead” (John 12.1).

That is the clue. The people who watched him die, mourned at his tomb, and saw him walk out alive had been offered something far more profound than any exciting tales from the other side: there, in front of them, was the evidence that Jesus had power over death. It is within that framework that the rest of the action proceeds.

Mary, as Bishop Tom Wright emphasises, had understood completely and responded accordingly (John for Everyone: Part 2, SPCK, 2002). Her action is problematic, nevertheless, and it is for that reason perhaps that the Evangelist gives an advance warning, in what looks at first like a narrative slip, a chapter earlier (John 11.2). Letting down her hair in a mixed gathering was in itself an offence against propriety. Using it to wipe Jesus’s feet after anointing them with expensive perfume compounded the flouting of convention.

In this light, it is surprising that Judas’s indignation should be about money rather than about moral decency. Then again, it is not surprising, if we follow Professor Wright, in reading him as someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Judas has missed the symbolic meaning of Mary’s excessive generosity, and calculated the cash equivalent of the nard and its buying power.

Those are finite things. John did not need to accuse Judas of theft to make this story’s point, or even to create further symmetry with the meal he describes shortly afterwards (John 13.1-30, see 13.29). Petty personal matters have no place in an economy of free gift and wholehearted gratitude.

What Mary does points to the imminent inauguration of a radically new system of values, in which all material certainties are inverted. The first announcement of this is Jesus’s startling relegation of the needs of the poor to a place below the risk of expressing prodigal love in public. But that by no means encompasses the “new thing” (Isaiah 43.19) that Jesus is doing in preparing to bring life such as it has never been known before — not even by Lazarus — out of shame and death.

The letters of Paul to those who heard and accepted the promise of this life grapple with the meaning and implications of the “new thing”. They make clear that being part of it entails risk and personal cost, but, despite hardship, physical abuse, and loss of status (2 Corinthians 11.16-33), it is still a more compelling vision of the world than any hope available even to a righteous Jew, “under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3.6).

The assurances of national and religious identity (Philippians 3.4b-6) emphasise self, and the confidence of being able to say who one is. What Paul has discovered is that he has no self or identity except in Christ, and that, in coming to know him through the Christ-like experience of suffering, he is being newly created. That work, Paul believes, will continue beyond death to the full revelation of “the power of Christ’s resurrection” (Philippians 3.10).

His conviction is worlds away from the vulgar curiosity of those who were keen to interview Lazarus, and much more a part of the kind of belief that John’s Jesus praises later, in his encounter with Thomas after the resurrection: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20.29). As Passiontide begins, and the well-known stories are told again, we realise more deeply the eucharistic acclamation: “Great is the mystery of faith.”

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