3 April – Jesus is the life, and the death

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Lent 5

Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

In a sentence:
Jesus is given as our “whole” – our life and death, lived within God. And so we are free.

Today’s story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary is one of the most disorienting passages in the New Testament. The story confuses us because we easily identify with what Judas says, however sincere he may have been. And, in this, we stand against Jesus. Yet, we stand against Jesus because of the very things we’ve heard from him about love, self-sacrifice and “being there” for the needy. And so we find ourselves at a point of crisis: what do we owe to the poor, and what to Jesus?

One way of addressing the undecidable “Jesus or the poor?” question 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. Jesus delineates starkly between himself and the poor as beneficiaries: you always have them; you do not always have me. There is here an impossible “either/or”.

The fact that this feels like a moral conflict should signal a warning. Morality anxiety is about justification, and moral resolutions present us with the attractive possibility of self-justification. If we can resolve how Jesus can justify Mary’s extravagance, we have guidance for determining the limits of our own acts of devotion and mercy. Our questions here seek to understand whether we can or must do the same as Mary did. We are anxious for the secret of making the right decision and knowing it to be right.

But we will not find such a secret in Mary’s anointing of Jesus, for there is no anxiety here (or perhaps only Judas or, in another version of the story [Luke 10.38-42], Martha, is anxious). Indeed, 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. Yet, whatever is going on for her, it is only as Jesus himself interprets the anointing that what she does finds unexpected justification: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

With this comes a shift from our moral dilemma with its contrast of what the poor need and what Jesus needs, to a comparison of what the poor do not have and what the disciples will soon not have. And now we come to the scandal of the text itself, which is not the one that usually bothers us: “You do not always have me” – the disciples’ impending loss of Jesus – is more important than the other “not haves” in the world. Or, more specifically: the death of Jesus is more important than all other deaths.

This will bring us to something John’s gospel does not say but might have said. The Jesus of John’s gospel is full of “life”. The gospel begins with, “In him was life…” (1.4). Just prior to this morning’s episode, Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11.25). Before that, “I have come that they might have life, in all its fullness” (10.10). 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 brings.

And yet, in the anointing at Bethany we have something else assigned to Jesus: death itself. The gospel declares, “You imagine you know life”, but then invites, “Look at Jesus”. In the same way, today’s story says: “You imagine you know death, but look at Jesus”. The true scandal of this text is not the wilful extravagance that sees a year’s wages spent in a matter of moments, which we are not sure we could justify. The scandal is instead that the death (“burial”) of Jesus warrants such extravagance. What justifies Mary’s prodigal act is that it points to Jesus’ death. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it is that this testimony takes precedence over our actions and concerns for the world. Pointing to the death of Jesus matters more than pointing to all other deaths we experience and might respond to.

This is, undoubtedly, one of the most shocking things in the New Testament – perhaps the most shocking. Imagine, for example, how our expectations of a funeral might change if not the death of the deceased, but the death of Jesus, were the most important thing to consider there. Imagine, indeed, what our lives might then look like.

To say that Jesus’ death is the most important of all deaths is to say that his death is not representative of some “class” of death we experience. It is not the death of the innocent, or the death of the zealot or agitator. It is not death by accident or misunderstanding, or the death of the infirm or elderly. It is not the death of a scapegoat or a sacrifice. His is not a death like ours.

Jesus’ death is not “a” death but death itself.

A lot of people – including in the church – have a problem with the language of the resurrection, and this is understandable. To understand the first proclamation of the resurrection you really need to be a reforming first century Jewish apocalpyticist, which most of us are not. And so resurrection language quickly muddies the waters hereabouts.

But the gospel point can also be proclaimed with reference to Jesus’ death, which we think we can better understand. We can demote resurrection language somewhat by focussing on Jesus’ death as the defining death of us all. He defines death, not because his death was particularly ghastly, but because of what death on a cross represents. Crucifixion was an intentional casting-out of the victim by his executioners, and an invitation to God also to cast the crucified one out. Crucifixion has the social, religious and political intention of being the mother of all deaths.

And this is precisely what Jesus says his death is when he contrasts his death with the living deaths of others: those deaths are always with you, but I am not. My death is different.

To take up the resurrection from this perspective, we can now say that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe in his death. We don’t believe in his death by forcing ourselves to accept some sacrificial economy by which Jesus is “payment” securing our relationship to God. To believe in the death of Jesus is to identify with it – to see it as my own death. There, I am crucified, I who fret over what is mine versus what is yours, over what God wants versus what I want; I who fret over worship versus mission, over when I’ve done enough and when I am justified in stopping. Or, we might say, I who am lost in the struggle between life and death. The effect of this struggle is that of being lost, of having no firm foundation, no sure reference point.

Jesus’ death is not so much the cessation of his heart’s beating. It is more the death of the lost: the death which is rejection, separation, loneliness, desolation and invisibility – and all this finally, even before God. This is the death that springs from Judas-like arrogance and hubris, fear and loathing, self-delusion and ignorance. Jesus’ death, then, is what we all experience in ourselves and cause in others. Densely put, Jesus’ death comprehends us.

This means that what we do – our life and death – is now caught up in what God does – the life and death of Jesus. We are not one story but two: our own and, with that, the story of Jesus. Growing in grace is the process of the life and death and life of Christ coming to take shape in our lives and deaths.

To make this a little more tangible, we can say that growing in grace is learning to let go of our breath. In anxiety, we hold our breath – literally and metaphorically – waiting to see what will happen next. Judas gasps at what Mary does, her pouring out her life’s work for no apparent benefit. To grow in grace is to release our breath, to release our spirit. This is, literally, to ex‑spire to “out spirit” (Latin: ex‑spiritus, “out-spirit”). We can only breathe out, or ex‑pire, with confidence if we expect then to breathe in again – literally if we expect to to in‑spire, “in‑spirit” again (Latin: in-spiritus, “in-spirit”).

What else could resurrection be but this? Now, in our daily ex‑pirings and in‑spirings, and in the last day, when all creaturely ex‑piry is met with God’s in‑spiry? When we see no longer through a glass, darkly, but face to face: the life and death of Jesus made ours, con‑spiriters with him?

None of this solves our dilemma about “what to do”, when that question presents itself to us. But if what we have considered together this morning is true, then what we do matters less than we imagine.

Leave her alone, Jesus says to the torn, anxious, gasping Judas in us all, for she has seen my death and my life, and she can breathe out so because she sees that, whatever happens next, all will be well – all manner of things will be well.

A much-improved version of a sermon
preached at MtE, March 13, 2016!