Monthly Archives: March 2016

LitBit Commentary – James Torrance on Worship 4

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“Under the pressures of our culture, and of theological controversy, are we not in danger of losing that living centre – of forgetting that the real agent in the life of the Church is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ?  Then our worship becomes in practice Unitarian and Pelagian, simply what we, religious people, do.”

James Torrance, Worship, Community and the triune God of Grace, p.107


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LitBit Commentary – John Zizioulas on the Eucharist

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“In the Eucharist we can find all the dimensions of communion: God communicates himself to us, we enter into communion with him, the participants of the sacrament enter into communion with one another, and creation as a whole enters through man into communion with God. All this takes place in Christ and the Spirit, who brings the last days into history and offers to the world a foretaste of the Kingdom.”
John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church


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27 March – Smile

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Easter Day

1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Psalm 118
Luke 24:1-12

The past was once a living place, but it is now the place of the dead. The dead do linger for while in our present – in our hearts and memories – but our hearts and memories will themselves one day die. Our present will one day be the oblivion – the forgotten-ness – of the past.

With that happy introduction, we signal that a little realism about death is important, if talk about resurrection is going to be worth the effort, even – or especially – on Easter Day!

In our gospel reading this morning, it is to the past – the place of the dead – that the women go to find what remains of Jesus, having started on his own way into oblivion. But when they arrive at the tomb, they are greeted by a couple of angels. We can forget that they’re angels, and simply focus on what is said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen.” The women go into the past to meet Jesus where they thought they left him. But they find that he’s no longer there, but is already moving out ahead of them.

Of course, we are invited to take this assertion at face value. It may in fact be that Jesus is still there, in the past, but having managed to linger even to today – much longer than any of us ever will – but still on his way to fading into forgotten-ness. We can’t really know that is, or is not the case. What we can do is ask what is implied by the proclamation that he is, in fact, no longer dead.

This requires that we push our realism about death a little further. The dead, are dead, are dead. This is more easily said than thought. We continue to want to ascribe to the dead attributes of the living. And so we are tempted to imagine that they are in the next room, or standing quietly next to us, and still not much different from us, other than being on “another plane”.

But the dead are not subjects – doing or wanting as we do. They are objects (if anything), eventually to be submerged under time’s tide. And so, for example, the dead do not prefer to be alive. They don’t “prefer” anything; this is what dead means. Death – the last and most powerful of enemies, renders its victims wholly powerless to change their situation, or even to want to. Jesus, too.

Whatever resurrection is, it is “un-” this. But what does it mean for resurrection talk if the dead have no interest in being alive (or being dead, for that matter), and yet might then be raised? Perhaps surprisingly, it means that nothing is gained for anyone who is raised from the dead, at least as far as they are concerned. This is because the dead are not aware of lacking anything; they are dead and do not desire to live.

Perhaps this is why the risen Jesus never seems to smile. His resurrection is no reward, not even a release. He was dead, and so he didn’t want or need anything. He was dead, and then he wasn’t.  There might have been a lot of smiling going on in the resurrection scenes, but it is not necessary that Jesus himself smile, for the resurrection to do its work. Being not-dead is what now what Jesus now does, not how he feels.

And this is why when Christians, from St Paul onwards, have thought about resurrection, they have thought about creation out of nothing (cf. Romans 4.17). A thing created out of nothing does not say, “I so hated being nothing; being something is so much better!” Only God can tell the difference between its now being “there” and its not having been there. The resurrection, then, is a kind of shift in God’s own experience as significant as the shift which is the very creation of the world.

Yet, there is a difference between resurrection and being created out of nothing. You do not remember what was not but now is: it simply starts and makes its first impression upon us. But what was, and then was not, and now again is remembered as being the same thing. And so the kind of creation which is resurrection of Jesus was is a restoration: a being­‑restored to. The risen Jesus need not smile because he did not lose himself; the disciples lost him. It was the disciples” mouths filled with laughter, their tongues loosed by joy (Psalm 126 – sung last night).

This kind of resurrection, then, is always about, or oriented toward, someone other than the person who has died. This “someone other” is the one who remembers, who still holds in mind those lost to death, keeping oblivion – forgotten-ness – at bay. This is the one who mourns, who regrets, who longs. Any one of us can do this remembering work for a while, until we ourselves are the ones to be remembered, and those we remembered move a step closer to being wholly forgotten.

But it is God in whose memory nothing is lost. It is this that the resurrection signifies: that God wills not to forget, not to allow anything to fade into oblivion. God wills that what was not, and then was, will not then be fade into forgotten-ness; and what God wills, is.

If there is a resurrection like the one said to have happened to Jesus – such that Jesus is no longer among the dead, merely remembered – then we have now not merely remembering but the possibility of remembrance: the being present again of the reality of what was lost, a kind of re‑creation.

As we gather week after week, we participate in just such a remembrance – the very breaking of the bread and blessing of the cup, “doing this” as Jesus commanded for the “remembrance” of him.

This we do as a community of those present, with those who have gone before and those yet to come. Jesus is remembranced – risen – among us as we join around the table which binds us together, as we are made to remember each other.

To gather around this table is to be invited to look at who stands there with us, and to smile. We smile here, not because they might have smiled at us or because it’s a positive-attitude thing to do. We smile here because we have seen them again, or perhaps even for the first time: who was lost, is found; who was dead, is alive; who was forgotten is remembered. This is the smile of the disciples on Easter Day.

Then, finally comes Jesus’ own smile – not that he was dead and is now alive, but the smile which is itself a life restored: the smile which comes when I know that I have been missed, because I can see it on the beaming faces of the people who loved me.

On Easter Day God smiled, remembering Jesus, remembering us. Why do you seek the living among the dead?


25 March – Breaking Bad on Good Friday

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:6
Psalm 22
John 19:1-16

Walter White is a chemist, a very, very good chemist – a could-have-won-a-noble-prize chemist. Walter is the central character in the TV series “Breaking Bad”, which wound up a few years ago. “Breaking Bad” is a phrase from America’s south, having to do with raising hell, or bucking authority.

What makes Walter interesting for our purposes today is that he is diagnosed with a serious cancer. It’s America, and medical treatment is prohibitively expensive. And so Walter begins to make methamphetamines – the drug “ice” – to meet his medical costs. Being a very, very good chemist, Walter makes very, very good ice, which makes him both valuable and dangerous, and the five seasons of the series track the effect of that value and the extent and impact of the danger he comes to present.

Perhaps predictably, the whole story is an unfolding tragedy. Walter can’t tell anybody he is an ice cook – other than those he is producing it for. Lies, deception, misdirection and misinformation are his day to day routine. A lot of people die including, in the end, people Walter loves and cares for, and not a little of Walter himself dies along the way.

While there is no particular moral judgement of Walter expressed in the telling of the story, it is an implied moral tale; it could only end in tears, and it does. And so the series can be seen as a study in the almost necessary escalation of deceit and violence, once one begins down the slippery slope of a life of crime.

But my interest today is not in Walter’s story as a moral tale. You don’t need a preacher to tell you that it is a bad thing to profit from the misery which a drug like ice wreaks in the community. If that isn’t already obvious, we have politicians and police commissioners to make it clear enough.

In fact, for the most part, you don’t need a preacher to tell you very much at all about morals. What we like to imagine are “Christian values” are, in our society at least, generally the values held by the political party of one’s personal choice, the particular colour of which is the colour of the filter through which we read the Scriptures and church tradition and determine how we – but especially how others – should act.

So what can a preacher say helpfully about Walter and his tragedy, which might not be heard many other places?

The moral evaluation of Walter’s action is that he is “scum” – something which even people close to him come to say. He chose to do this and he ought not to have so chosen. This is what we might call an “external” judgement. It is relatively clear about what is good and what is not, and Walter’s choices were not. We generally “get” this. Such evaluations are straightforward and we are familiar enough with them, whether we’re judging others or, sometimes, even ourselves.

From Walter’s point of view, however, this is not how it looks. What is most interesting – morally – about Walter’s story is not what he does but how he accounts to himself for what he does. Although he does many bad things, one of the refrains which we continue to hear is, “It had to be done”. Yes, it is dreadful, but it had to be done. When Walter says this, you get the strong impression that he declares it as much to himself as he does to any associate for whom he feels he needs to justify what has happened. He himself needs to be assured that it “had to be done”.


Because the expression, “It had to be done,” absolves what, on the surface, looks like a moral failure. If something “has” to be done, there is no option. And when there is no option, we are freed from moral accountability. Whether an opposition drug baron, or a little boy who stumbles across their operation, or a partner who has been loved but now becomes a dangerous liability, the choice for death “had to” be made.

The “had to be done” in Walter’s particular story refers to the need for self-preservation. Walter’s first “cook” of the drugs takes place in order to be able to pay the enormous medical costs for the treatment of his cancer. And he has nothing to leave his family but his funeral costs. This first cook leads quickly to the first few murders – or, perhaps, only they are only “killings”, without the moral loading of “murder”, as they are also matters of self-preservation.

But the crucial thing is not what is done, or even the particular – perhaps good – outcome which is sought. The crucial thing is the appeal which links these two things. That link is necessity.

It is necessary that it happen in this way. Our hands are tied. I wish it could have been different. If I had not, then… And so there I had no option. I could not have done otherwise.

We have a law, and according to that law it is necessary that Jesus die. Our hands are tied. It is necessary, Pilate, that you do this, else you prove yourself to be an enemy of the Emperor. Your hands are tied.

We might lament the sheer tragedy of Good Friday. But in the passion narratives people are not just doing bad things, or even just being badly mistaken about what needs to be done, with Jesus, like every other unfortunate victim, being collateral damage along the way. Just like Walter’s choices, the call for crucifixion makes sense – a kind of sense. It is the same kind of sense we appeal to when it is necessary to do or say something other than what might normally be expected of us. People are not unfaithful to spouses because they simply want more sex or even just companionship; they make their wife or husband the reason they are unfaithful. If things were better at home, this wouldn’t have happened; I “need” to do this. Nations do not lock up refugees in faraway places because they are inherently mean-spirited or immoral. It is “necessary” to do this else the flood gates will open (or, in the more humanitarian but also more disingenuous version: there’ll be more deaths at sea). I do not betray myself by breaking a commitment to a diet or to study or to faith; I make a case as to why it is necessary to do so, and then I give up. I do not blow up fellow citizens because I am bad; they are wrong, and so deserve it: it is, in this sense, a rational thing to do.

And so it turns out that, as shocking as the effects of sin might be, sin itself is rather a mundane thing. Its ordinariness is in that it finds justification. It fits in, seeks precisely not to be the wrong thing – perhaps only to have been once hidden as an option, but now discovered, to our relief. Sin hides in necessity.

Necessity not only ties our hands; it predetermines things. It reduces our being in the world to a kind of moral science analogous to the if-then of physical science: under these conditions, this will happen. The precise science which makes possible Walter’s perfection of the production of ice is reflected in a moral science by which death is not only dealt out, but is justified as necessary. Just as aluminium needs to be added to mercury chloride to produce a mercury aluminium amalgam which makes possible a reductive amination (or something like that!) – just as you have to do that as a step towards producing a pure methamphetamine, so too anyone who threatens my family must be eliminated. “We have a law, and according to that law, he must die”.

What might a preacher say about Walter White and his decisions, which mere morality might not think to say?

Perhaps this: that moral, social, political necessity stands as a marker of potential sin on the scale of the crucifixion of Jesus. Some things, of course, might well be necessary, but perhaps not as many moral, or social, or political things as we might imagine.

And this ought to make us wary of any apparently moral judgement which is presented as necessary. From a confessional point of view – the kind of thing about which preacher ought to be able say something helpful – the issue is not so much the decision we make, but our justification of it: our desire to know, and for you to know and finally, of course, for God to know, that we have acted rightly, as it was necessary to act. Knowing this, we are safe; such knowledge is a moral and theological fortress. “We have a law…”

What does the opposite look like? It takes a life time to learn, and so to explain, that. But we might glean a clue from our poet this morning:

And God held in his hand
A small globe…
The son looked…
As through water, he saw…
…On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it…

… The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

“Let me go there.”

There is nothing necessary here. There is no necessity in Jesus coming as he did – at least, nothing necessary except the desire to love in the Son himself. It was not “necessary” that Jesus die, at least not so far as God was concerned; it was only necessary for those who had a law.

Non-necessity in human relations looks like the work of Jesus – coming, living, dying. It is freedom, gift, grace, and all of this in the midst of laws which bind, take, predetermine.

In this, non-necessity – the path to the cross – looks suspiciously like resurrection, for what can the dead demand? Death is the end of law; the dead have no “if” from which to lever a “then”. But perhaps more of that on Sunday.

Today, Good Friday, it is enough to declare that Bad is Broken – that particular bad which masquerades as good because we’ve found a “good” argument for it, the bad which is defence against the other, the “had to be done” which protects me but kills you.

This is God’s gift; this is why this bad Friday is Good.

20 March – Getting the joke

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Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-0a
Psalm 118
John 12:1-19

I would venture a guess from the “maturity” (age!) of most who make up our congregation here that it’s not a great proportion of you who are fans of the TV program “The Simpsons”!

On one level it’s simply a cartoon show, in which the characters do the silly types of things done in cartoons. But on another level, its humour is often a very sophisticated interaction with other elements of our culture. What might look on the surface like a joke or a funny situation in its own right will often be a reference to some other movie or historical event which has captured our imagination over the last few decades.

So, for example, in one episode there’s a scene in which the brat-child Bart incurs his father Homer’s wrath, and a chase ensues. Homer is rather a “big-boned” fellow, and so as he chases Bart down the stairs he’s portrayed as a great rolling boulder threatening to crush the fleeing boy. The chase continues on the lower level of the house, as the boy darts into the garage. The garage door onto the street – and to freedom – is open, but Homer actives the automatic garage door closer. Bart just manages to slide under the door before it shuts, but loses his hat in the process. At the very last moment his hand appears again under the door to snatch the hat back, leaving his father locked in the garage, and Bart to put the hat back on his head and complete his escape.

It’s funny enough to watch as it is, but in fact it’s a rip-off from one of the best-known opening scenes of a movie in the last 40 years, in which the adventurer Indiana Jones does just the same thing, fleeing a rolling boulder in a cave after setting off an ancient booby trap – closing trap doors and lost hat and all!

Now, the point is simply this: in order to understand fully the joke in a scene like the one from “the Simpsons”, you have to have seen the movie Raiders of the lost Ark. You’ll get something from the show even if you haven’t, but you’ll miss the whole joke.

This transfer of meaning is the kind of thing which is happening when we come to a text like the one we’ve heard from John’s gospel this morning. While, on the surface it’s obvious what is happening, there are other things happening in the background which we don’t see because we’re not 1st century Jews. In a sense, we haven’t seen the other “movies” which the gospel writer refers to when he tells us these particular stories. And so, even if we feel drawn to the stories, we’re not going to get the full point even if we find the “surface” reading entertaining or instructive.

We see Mary anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipe his feet off with her hair in a scene which is almost erotic. We hear the good economic sense of Judas about the “wastage” of the very expensive oil. We see Jesus on the donkey – perhaps interpreting that on the one hand as being a bit comic (as donkeys are!), perhaps interpreting it on the other hand in terms of peaceful intent (because it is not a war horse). We hear of the plot against Jesus, and perhaps interpret that in terms of political intrigue and jealousy. That is, we tend to impose on the story what we think it’s about, because it’s a story from a different place and time and we’ve only gotten half the joke.

So, for example, we will miss that in both the anointing of Jesus and the entry to Jerusalem on the donkey there is a claim being made that Jesus is the king of Israel. It’s not said explicitly, but key words and images would have reminded the original participants of ideas surrounding Israel’s kingship, just as Bart Simpson snatching his hat from under the closing garage door might remind us of Indiana Jones.

When a person was chosen as king in Israel, he was anointed with oil. And the word “anointed” in Hebrew and Greek is translated by the English words “Messiah” and “Christ”. The story would suggest that Jesus is the anointed one, the Christ, the king. An ancient prophecy speaks of a coming king of Israel entering the city on a donkey (cf. Zechariah 9.9). Jesus on a donkey makes a reference back to that tradition. These stories are telling us much more about what Jesus said and did; they are also inviting us to see a particular meaning for the events. The Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is neither erotic nor a basis for debating the economics of poverty but a kind of coronation. Jesus on a donkey is neither comic nor merely humble but the crowned Jesus entering his capital, the donkey being his crown.


Now, perhaps this is all very “interesting”, but just that brings us to one other problem in terms of our understanding what is happening in these events, and what difference they might make to us. It’s usually the case that if someone has to explain a joke to you, it ceases to be funny. You might admit, “Oh, I get it! Yes, yes, very clever” – or something like that. But an explained joke won’t really grip us. What makes Bart Simpson grabbing his hat really funny is that you’ve already enjoyed the Indianna Jones movies.

And this is the case also with readings like this mornings. I can tell you what it all means, what the references are – in a sense explain the joke – and your response will almost have to be – “Oh, OK. That ‘s interesting!” So for example, I can say to you that these readings are really about Jesus as king, as in fact is much of John’s gospel

But for us today the purpose of kings and queens is to give the editors of woman’s magazines plenty of faces to stick on the covers of their weekly editions. We might still be fascinated with the idea of royalty and the wealth and status which comes with it, but we scarcely imagine that we need kings or queens. Adding the title “king” to the name Jesus doesn’t do anything for us, for we know of no real need for kings. For the Jews of Jesus’ time the presence of a true king of Israel was tantamount to the very presence of God himself. But that makes no sense to us.

And this dynamic leads to a strange conclusion. To feel what the stories from our readings this morning might say to us today, we have to forget about anointings and donkeys and kings and ask: what would upset us in the same kind of way that Jesus upset those who plotted to destroy him?

If we understand him rightly, Jesus will bring this kind of challenge to us today. It won’t be in terms of kingship, because kings don’t mean anything much to us these days. Rather, Jesus will challenge us at the point where we think we are strongest, just as he challenged God’s people then on the things they were most secure about. Jesus anointed at Bethany, Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, is Jesus presented to us as an invitation: whatever in your life stands in the place where a king might once have stood, let that thing be subject to a deep scrutiny.

It’s impossible in the time we have to give a full account of precisely where that challenge might be, not least because it there is often something very personal about it. But it has communal dimensions as well, and we can make the point more concrete in relation to the meeting which is follow our service today, at which we’ll discuss the question of our mission and building resources.

It is easy, and very tempting, to pluck imperatives from a text like the one today, in order to make arguments about how to vest the mission of the church. On the one hand, there is profligate Jesus, for whom expending a year’s wages in a single act of devotion is justifiable. No few church spires have been justified on the basis of this text. On the other hand, there is humble Jesus who needs only a donkey to be seen to be king. Not a little righteousness has been claimed by those who have sought to live a “simple” Christianity.

But it is the same Jesus whose kingship is demonstrated in these two wildly different actions – the anointing and the donkey ride. This is to say, there is no help in these texts for our decision-making, if we are only reading into them a preference for the one over the other. If there is something here which will help us, it is deeper than the first things we see as we look to Jesus; there is another “joke” going on which is not the perfume or the donkey, not the buildings or the mission, but which can justify them both.

This deeper reality is given in the gospel itself, in the summation of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry in his prayer for the community which is soon to be left “without” him (John 17). Jesus leaves the disciples not with the requirement to do as he has done, but to be as he has been: at one with each other, at one with God, neither of which is possible without the other.

The future of the church – our congregation, the Uniting Church, the church catholic – is in nothing external to the life of the church itself as the Body of Christ. To refer to the demands of worship on the one hand, or service on the other, is to externalise what really matters by playing them off against each other, by playing ourselves off against each other as we prefer the one or the other. Our concern is not the sign which is devotion, nor the sign which is humility and service, but the thing signified: the meeting of God and humanity in Jesus himself.

This is the meaning of our existence, the thing to which all that we do as church is to testify. To sing, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is not to prescribe how he comes, but only to rejoice that he does, bringing the meeting of God and humanity. It is this coming and gift, and nothing else, which makes us what we are created to be.

This does not tell us what to decide, only what the decision will point to: God’s coming to us in Christ, that we might come to God. What we do must seek to be such a coming to God as we come to each other.

If we can do this, then whatever concrete form it takes will be worthy of a Hosanna, for – in that – God will have come to us.

13 March – The metaphor of death

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Lent 5

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

Last week I employed a preacher’s trick which involves tossing in a remark which seems unlikely to be true but probably is, and yet there hasn’t been enough time to make the case for it. In that particular instance, it was a throw-away comment on what the waiting father says about his prodigal but returned son. The father remarked of the son, “He was dead; now he is alive”. I remarked that this is a metaphorical use of death, but “most death is metaphorical.” A couple of people, it turns out, were actually listening, and asked what that could mean.

So, this morning: an attempt to justify the seemingly unjustifiable, the very work of God.

The story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary must be one of the most disorienting stories of the New Testament. The story confuses us because we easily identify with Judas, and so stand against Jesus. Yet we do this on account of the very things we’ve heard from Jesus about love, self-sacrifice and “being there” for the needy. And so we find ourselves at a point of crisis, a point of decision: what do we owe to the poor, and what to Jesus?

One way of addressing the apparently undecidable “Jesus or the poor” is to turn what we do for the poor into what we do for Jesus: “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (Matthew 25). This is an important part of Christian theology and ethics, but it doesn’t seem to be what is said to us through the story we’ve heard this morning. In fact, Jesus seems to delineate starkly between himself and the poor as beneficiaries here: you always have them; you do not always have me. There is an “either/or” to be dealt with here.

But more is at stake than the apparent moral dilemma – to give to the poor, or to give to God. The fact that it feels like a moral conflict should signal a warning. This is because morality is concerned with the question of justification, and moral resolutions present us with the attractive possibility1 of self-justification. If we can resolve how it is that Jesus can justify this particular extravagance we have guidance for determining the limits of our own acts of devotion and acts of mercy. Our questions about Mary’s action and Jesus’ response are an attempt to understand whether we can or must do the same. As such, we demonstrate that we are concerned with our own action, represented by Mary’s actions. This reading is enabled by our anxiety before God and those around us. We are pushed to seek the secret of making the right decision, of knowing it to be right.

But we will not find such a deeper secret, for the action of Mary is not like this. There is no anxiety here; or perhaps only Judas or, in another version for the story (Luke 10.38-42), Martha, is anxious. In fact, we know very little of Mary’s motivations although we imagine that she is the one with whom we are to identify in the story. Certainly she displays no moral anxiety. Yet, whatever is going on for her, it is only as Jesus himself interprets the anointing that what she does becomes unexpectedly justified: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

With this comes a shift from the moral dilemma which contrasts what the poor need and what Jesus needs, to a contrast between what the poor do not have, and what the disciples will soon not have. And with this we strike the scandal of the text itself, and not the one which usually bothers us: here Jesus declares that “You do not always have me” is more important than the other “not haves” in the world. Or, more concretely: the death of Jesus is more important than other deaths.

And this brings us to something which John’s gospel does not say, but which it might have said. Those familiar with his gospel know that John’s Jesus is full of “life”. The gospel begins with, “In him was life…” (1.4). Just prior to this morning’s episode, Jesus has declared, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11.25). Prior to that, “I have come that they might have life, in all its fullness” (10.10). A little later in the gospel we hear, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14.6). Life is presented in this gospel as being at the heart of what Jesus is or effects.

And yet in the anointing at Bethany we have something else which Jesus comprehends or envelopes: even death. If the gospel declares, “You imagine you know life”, but then invites, “Look at Jesus”, so also it says: “You imagine you know death, but look at Jesus”.

This is the true scandal of this text: not wilful extravagance that sees a year’s wages lost in a matter of moments and which we might or might not be able to justify, but that the death (“burial”) of Jesus warrants such extravagance. What justifies Mary’s prodigal act is that it points to the death of Jesus. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it is that this testimony takes precedence over our actions and concerns for the world.

And this brings us to death, “mostly a metaphor”.

It is perhaps too much for the gospel to declare “Jesus is the death” in the same way that it declares he is “the life” but it can still be affirmed. For us to make any sense of Jesus’ justification of Mary’s prodigal anointing, we have to affirm it. In speaking like this, as we also do when we speak of Jesus as “the life” or “the bread of heaven” or “the light of the world” or “the truth,” we move into the realm of metaphor. We “with-carry” (meta-phor) meaning from one place to another. Knowing a little about life, or bread, or light, we apply these things to Jesus in order to invest him with meaning.

But – and it is a crucial But – in order for the gospel to make sense, the investment of meaning really runs the other way. It is now not that Jesus shares in generic “life”, but that living things share in Jesus’ life. It is not that Jesus as “bread” is a menu item among others, but that all we consume participates in him. It is not that he also illuminates, but that all illumination draws its light from him. What we call light, life, bread, truth are carried-with, carried-over, metaphored to us from the meeting of human being and God in the person of Jesus.

And this is no less the case for what we call death. To see ourselves as hidden with Christ in God is to hold ourselves – in life and in death – to be comprehended.

Jesus’ death matters not because he is going to die; everyone dies. It matters because he – even the Son – is going to die in the particular way that he does. That “particular way” is not its terrible method – crucifixion – but all that crucifixion itself symbolises. For the cross is not only the rejection of Jesus by God’s people, but an invitation to God to reject him as well. All that he has said about light and life and truth is declared to be darkness, death and lies. All that he was, then, was declared to be deathly even as he lived, and so Jesus declares that Mary has kept her precious perfume for his burial, and yet and it is poured out while he yet lives.

Death as metaphor is all that rejects Jesus as the way, the truth, the life. It is not so much the death which is the cessation of our hearts’ beating as it is the death which is separation and desolation, arrogance and hubris, fear and loathing, self-delusion and ignorance.

Jesus’ life marks these things too, if in contrast nevertheless comprehensively. Jesus’ death gathers all these things up. We do not need to subscribe to a theory of sacrifice to value the cross; its purpose, known only in God’s Yes to Jesus in the resurrection, is to reveal what death is, and that in Christ even it is overcome.

Growing in grace is the process of the life and death and life of Christ being metaphored – carried over – into our lives and deaths. Our baptism and our being fed on the fruit of the crossed tree seal this to us.

Our praise and service testify to it. By the grace of God, whatever we choose to do with the little, or the abundance, which is given to us, may it finally be found to be faithful testimony to the gift God gives us in his Son. Amen.

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