Monday, March 22, 2010

On the Road to Jerusalem

John 12:1-8

Often when we are on the road to somewhere, a stopover is incidental to the journey. It is not necessarily relevant to the destination but is, instead, a brief interlude with no real meaning, no real purpose except that which is, as previously stated, incidental. And while Jesus’ stopover in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – the one whom He had raised from the dead - may seem incidental to us, the 7th century English historian and monk known as St. Bede saw Jesus’ stop-over as intentional within the context of Jesus marching to certain death while passing by and breaking bread with the one whose life was restored. From death to life, from life to death, we are shown more than a simple trek to Jerusalem as a fulfillment of prophecy. Much more.

According to St. Augustine, Mary’s hair is not so coincidental. And according to St. Theodore, Judas Iscariot is fooling only himself. On the road to Jerusalem, then, we see through the eyes of the early church fathers more than the passage of time and certainly more than a simple journey incidental to the destination. We have before us a recurrent theme that there is nothing – and I mean nothing – incidental to, for, or through our Lord.

The biggest stumbling block I see in this passage, however, is the seeming choice that is laid before us between paying homage to the Lord or serving the poor. And as I was reading this passage and working to overcome this apparent obstacle, I was thinking about the coming “Rethink Ministry” workshop, “Restoring Methodism”, and the many other discussions floating about within the United Methodist Church, all dealing with mission and ministry within the context of steadily declining membership as well as declining worship, Sunday School attendance, and professions of faith.

So with all these issues and sub-topics swirling through my feeble mind, it finally occurred to me that what we may be able to glean from this relatively small passage “on the road to Jerusalem” is the difference between “intentional discipleship” and “incidental presence”, the defining point of which seems to be centered on Mary and marking the difference between what John Wesley called a “nominal Christian” and a bona fide disciple totally devoted to the journey WITH Jesus. On the same road. With the same destination. And with the same sense of purpose.

The extravagance of Mary’s gift to Jesus is defined in terms relevant to the day. Judas claimed that the perfume with which Mary anointed Jesus was worth about 300 denarii. Considering that the average working wage was about 1 denarius per day, 300 is indeed extravagant. In our contemporary society, pouring a year’s worth of wages into the Church rather than to share with the poor who are hungry and who are doing without seems to figure into what the Church is struggling with today and even with what we have been taught about tithing, that act of worship by which we offer to the Lord only a portion of our wages rather than the whole enchilada because, after all, we have to eat, too.

It’s not about money, though, and it’s not about choosing between offering all we have to the Lord OR feeding the poor (worshipping vs. being in ministry). And most certainly, Jesus’ statement about the perpetuity of poverty does not diminish our call to help those who cannot help themselves. Rather, I think it is an understanding that there can be nothing set apart that the Lord does not have a legitimate claim to, that there is nothing we cannot use for His glory. Even the hair on one’s head! Think about what a head full of oily hair looks like and the vanity one deals with while preparing to go out in public, and decide for yourself whether you would be willing to mess up your hair for the Lord!

Now remember that Mary has already witnessed Jesus bringing her beloved brother Lazarus back to life. Her rather extravagant act of worship goes far beyond the moment and speaks volumes about our own struggle between either/or when it comes to the proper worship of the Lord by our tithes and offerings OR giving to the poor. The fragrance of this nard was apparently pretty potent and if Mary has dumped all this much on Jesus’ feet as an anointing, as an act of worship, she has made a proclamation – and a rather compelling one – that involves everyone around her. Even if they are not active participates, they are at the very least passively involved because they can SMELL the extravagance even if they could not clearly see! It is equally compelling that Mary’s anointing was done very publicly and while Jesus is still alive rather than in secret after He’s dead, don’t you think?

Discipleship is this journey we must choose to endure on the road to Jerusalem, beginning with the moment when those who might choose to follow Jesus are called to “count the cost” of what such a journey means and how much of ourselves we are willing to give to this journey and even how much needling we might be willing to endure, such as being called a fool. One scholar wrote: Mary’s gesture of love demonstrates that an act of service to one person can be an inexplicable extravagance to another. Especially another who does not comprehend the depth of love that is being demonstrated by Mary and by so many others who portray to an unbelieving world what it means to be a disciple of Christ – and by doing so, conveying what Christ’s compelling love means to an unbelieving world. After all, would you be willing to die for someone who would sooner spit in your eye than to simply say, “Thank you”?

This is discipleship. It is not a “moment” of realization; it is a journey. It is the epitome of what Jesus’ death on the cross conveys: a complete and extravagant emptying of oneself for the sake of another. The journey on the road to Jerusalem reveals this and prepares us for what is to come. Judas not only does not get it, but he seems to represent a world that does not want to get it. In fact, it can be said that Judas probably best represents that significant number of “nominal” CHRISITIANS who don’t get it. Judas is attempting to hide behind even a commonly held understanding of society’s responsibility to the poor in trying to detract from that act of worship and the totality of Mary’s devotion to the Lord. Judas wants the world to see her foolishness and, ultimately, protect himself and all he can gather not for the poor but for himself.

Rather than reveal her foolishness, however, Judas reveals his own. Not only does he fail to diminish Mary’s act of total and complete devotion to Christ, he actually highlights it especially when he receives a direct rebuke from Jesus Himself. The United Methodist Church could learn a lesson or two from this encounter by understanding and conveying to an unbelieving world that there is a time and a place for everything. Even Jesus went away to be alone and to pray. Yes, the poor deserve our attention and help but pure worship, pure devotion, pure submission to the Lord must come first. Discipleship is the result of that devotion, that total submission. Discipleship comes as a result, not as a cause. It is not an either/or proposition.

It is the very extravagance of our worship, the overwhelming “scent” of our total devotion to Him such as with the oil and even using our hair to wipe clean the feet of Christ that compels an unbelieving world to notice – even if they don’t understand it … or reject it outright. We don’t have to make Jesus out to be something He is not, and we do not have to rewrite Scripture to accommodate the unbelievers. We simply have to be devoted … entirely and completely. Or not at all.

It is discipleship at its finest … on the road to Jerusalem.


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