A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
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.
When we read the letters of St. Paul, he is usually in an argument with someone. I actually think that it is because lots of people like to steer the church in directions that give them an advantage over others and Paul had his hands full dealing with them. But whatever the case, it’s clear that here Paul was making his case against a group of people who insisted that every Christian had to be circumcised according to Jewish law. The church in Philippi was mostly gentile, not Jewish, and it is not really clear whether the Christians who were advocating this were Christians who were also practicing Jews, or whether they were Christian converts who just saw that circumcision was an important rule in scripture and were therefore teaching that everyone had to follow that rule.
This is why Paul trots out his pedigree as a lifelong observant Jew at the beginning of the lesson. Paul’s argument is not that he hasn’t followed the rules, or even that he doesn’t like them—he is saying that one doesn’t get to the resurrection by following these rules. He’s also saying that imposing them on others distracts from the true path.
We are here in Lent, following the way of Christ, preparing for Easter. The path that Jesus walks winds toward Jerusalem, and his confident life of loving and healing disturbed the powers of this world. He was outside of their control and the powers of this world crucified Jesus. Freedom in Christ, and healing in Christ is not without cost. He paid with his life.
Paul recognized the priceless value of Christ’s healing and Paul gave up all the privileges and all the things that he had valued before. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…” In his resurrection, Christ was free from all the power, not just of death, but of those forces that gain power by allying themselves with death. For Paul, the path to life is the righteousness from God that is based on faith. He was glad to to pay the price for that, which is following Jesus, even to the cross.
Now, we can get too melodramatic about that—it’s not about finding dramatic ways to die or high-profile ways to suffer. Honestly and courageously following Jesus is costly because it means giving up the defenses we use to trick others, or exploit others, to keep ourselves safe. It means that we won’t be saved by finding some big rules to follow, that will define us as better than others. There is no reason to expect that following Christ will suddenly make everyone else honest or kind.
We share in his sufferings by becoming like him. And in sharing with him is abundant life, the real life of the resurrection.
In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus was approaching Jerusalem. Bethany, where Martha and Mary lived, is basically a suburb of Jerusalem. And there is a dinner, just before the time that we commemorate as Holy Week is about to start. And Mary does something very unusual. She anoints Jesus’ feet. While anointing of the head, to perfume and moisten the face, was quite common, hardly anyone ever had their feet anointed. Except for a corpse at the time of burial. This is a particular expression of Mary’s relationship with Jesus and her recognition of what he was doing, what was about to happen. Judas focuses on the perfume that she used to anoint Jesus—it was costly—more than a person could really afford. So aren’t we supposed to all be about serving the poor? Shouldn’t the rule be that we turn everything into cash and use it to take care of the poor? Whether Judas wanted to steal the money or not, he misses the point. The generosity of Christ is in the giving of himself, binding us together in relationship to him and one another. Mary knew that Jesus was about to die, and in the act of anointing she was binding herself to him in her grief.
This relationship between Mary and Jesus means much more than the abstract idea of getting cash together to give to the poor, however good following that rule might be. Indeed, people of all sorts are lifted up by a generosity that includes connecting them together by real expression of respect. Mary understood Jesus, she knew that he had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, that he brought life, but she also knew that he was about to die. The sentence in the Gospel of John that immediately precedes the beginning of today’s Gospel is: “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” She anointed his feet, she was grieving and praying for life.
St. Paul said: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” In Christ we have the resurrection from the dead, but in living toward that resurrection we love, and lose, and grieve. Abundant life is not gained by wrapping ourselves up into a package of rules and putting ourselves on a storage shelf. That is more like abundant death. Mary anointed the feet of the living Jesus for burial. In this world of death we continue to live. In our grief we receive life.
The righteousness of God is his love for every one of his children. We are blessed in that love, and our life is an opportunity to be a blessing for others.
As our psalm for today ends:
Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.