LET JOHN HIT YOU OVER THE HEAD
Back before the days where people would say things like “if you go to
college and don’t major in business or engineering, you will never get a
decent paying job and be able to support yourself!!!” (People really do say
such outrageous things) I majored in Religion and Religious Studies at
Duke University. I had a wonderful time at it too. As such, this is not my
first time reading with you the Gospel of John, and I want you to know right
up front, John is not my favorite.
You see, John constantly hits you over the head with it, so to speak. My
New Testament professor at Duke stressed that John leaves nothing to the
imagination. Jesus is the one. He is the way, the truth and the light and so
John is going to tell you exactly why you must believe. With John, if there’s
any room for interpretation or imagination—then he is going to rob you of
that privilege. Jesus does not speak in mysterious or symbolic parables in
John. You will not think for yourself or read between the lines, or sit and
ponder anything. This is the reason the Church labels John, “the
Evangelist.” His message is direct. Right here in today’s Gospel, John is
telling us in excruciating detail, exactly why Judas is upset that Mary of
Bethany is wasting expensive perfume on Jesus, because, of course, you
are not smart enough to figure the context of things out for yourself.
Yes, like I said, John is going to hit you over the head with things.
Today we begin the Holy Week journey. This week, we are present with
Jesus for his descent to, then triumph over death, an experience we will
sing about at Resurrection Sunday. For this week, I decided to leave my
undergraduate frustrations behind, to unite myself with John and his
gospel, and to allow it teach me something. And this learning is what I
prayerfully share with you this evening.
Back to the story.
In the Gospel, John tells us a very compelling story of a woman, very
committed to Jesus. A woman who believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the
Savior. Mary of Bethany is perhaps the first Christian believer, or maybe
her sister Martha. They experience Jesus’ redemption in the most personal
way possible. Remembering that John leaves nothing in the passage by
mistake, everything being deliberate, I very much understand that John the
Evangelist is telling us that women like Mary of Bethany are the pillars of
the Christian Church and that women’s preaching is central, indeed
primary, to the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now how many of us have heard this kind of message told to us in Sunday
School, or since? Well, let John tell it to us.
Jesus is at the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from death, along
with Lazarus’ sister Mary. Mary immediately begins to bless and anoint
Jesus as the agent of God’s miracles and God’s redemption, applying what
we would consider to be $1000 a bottle perfume to his feet with her hands
and hair –another clear indication that she recognizes Jesus’ role as
servant leader as well. Another dinner guest, the famous Judas Iscariot,
yells at Mary for such a wasteful practice. Then Jesus predicts his death,
and we know that Mary understands this too by perfuming his body with
fragrances and tears prior to his journey to Calvary. But here I want to be
clear: Mary is giving Jesus an anointing, what I see as an undeniable act of
her priesthood, as Jesus begins the journey that we now call his Passion.
Now have we ever heard Mary of Bethany called a priest or pillar of the
church by this action, and why not?
The Church has spent millennia and so much of its Biblical scholarship on
Jesus’s passion story discussing the roles of the male disciples at Jesus’
trial and sentencing, their roles leading up to his crucifixion, and their roles
at his death at Golgotha, to the obvious exclusion of the first central action
of Jesus passion, an anointing and the preparation of his body for all that
he would experience in the coming days. Again, John is here hitting us
right over the head with it. And we should let him do it. Why haven’t we
listened to the Evangelist all this time?
And although it is not the subject of today’s Gospel, we can connect Mary
of Bethany’s action here to that of another Mary, Mary Magdalene, rushing
from Jesus’ tomb to announce that has is not there, and when risen Jesus
first appears to her, Mary becomes the first preacher of the Christian
Church—Telling us, “I have seen Rabboni. My Lord and my God!” Curious
isn’t it? How we spend so much time focused on the “great pillars” of the
Church, all the volumes that have been written on Peter, Paul, Andrew and
others, while brushing by the words of our first evangelist, our first witness
of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene. And those of Mary of Bethany. The
women, the first heralds and preachers of our salvation. When you leave
here, repeat Mary Magdalene’s words again “Rabboni. My Lord and my
God.” Each time I say them, a chill hits my spine and I feel the excitement
she must have felt as Jesus revealed his full divine nature to her. These
are the same words, “Rabboni. My Lord and My God,” that got me unstuck
while writing so many papers in graduate school.
Tonight and all this week, I pray that we are blessed by Mary of Bethany’s
revealing of our Messiah from John the Evangelist. Let us also be blessed
by the female energy and leadership that brings us the Word of the Lord
weekly here at St. Michael’s, and by their pastoral care that strives to keep
us on the side of Jesus and his Kingdom.
And as John the Evangelist would have it, tonight and every day on this
Earth, let us save our most expensive perfumes, our greatest work and our
greatest desires, for our Lord Jesus.