Believing Together – March 13, 2016
Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr. Carolyn J. Sharp,
Professor of Hebrew Scriptures, Yale Divinity School
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2016
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The incense here at St. Paul’s is such a beautiful dimension of your worship! As clouds of incense smoke envelope the altar, fragrance fills the sanctuary. We may think of the sacrifices of the ancient Israelites, who honored their Creator by burning offerings of frankincense, aromatic wood resins, and spices on a dedicated incense altar in the Temple.[i] The aroma of incense may move us to awe as we contemplate God enthroned in the heavenly Temple. Most especially, incense evokes the community of saints and the holiness of prayer. We murmur with the psalmist, “O Lord … let my prayer be set forth as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”[ii] Our spirits soar when we envision golden bowls of incense before the throne of the Lamb; the book of Revelation calls them “the prayers of the saints.”[iii] Incense reminds us that we are a people at prayer, a people perpetually offering our sacrifices of thanksgiving at the foot of Christ’s throne.
The fragrance of the incense sanctifies the yearnings of our hearts when we seek Christ in this sanctuary—
when we sing the opening hymn,
when we listen to the words of Scripture,
when we pray for forgiveness,
when we rise from our places and move forward to meet Christ at the Communion Table.
As we continue our journey toward Holy Week, we go deeper into the mystery of what it means to be followers of Jesus. We gather, we sing, we listen, we pray, we move toward this Table; and then the next week we do it again—
move toward the Table …
and we see more and more clearly what it means to believe together,
to know God in Christ working in and through us.
Now, we don’t always pay attention to what God is doing in our lives. We can be so distracted by the joys and challenges of daily living that we miss what God is creating in our midst. We may miss how patiently God has worked to bring us out of a dark place of struggle. We might not notice how God has been artfully healing a community through the hands and hearts of social workers and teachers, how God has been catalyzing reformation through our prophetic protests of injustice and through this congregation’s witness in the city of Norwalk.
We are being formed continually in Christ, by God’s grace.[iv] But we lose sight of that so easily! We forget who we are. Even when we are in prayer daily, seeking to meet our Lord; even when we are literally sitting in church, we can fail to see who we are as God’s people. Blessedly, this morning’s story from the Gospel of John can help—it is a marvelous mini-lesson in Christian community.
Our story from John 12 is a gorgeous icon, a richly layered symbolic representation [v] of who we are in Christ. Now, Father Nicholas can tell you all about actual icons and their importance as visual theology in the Orthodox tradition. I know very little about it, but from what I do know, I am fascinated by one dimension in particular: the layering of materials. As I understand it, [vi] the icon writer works with a piece of wood on which go layers of hot glue, a piece of linen, more glue mixed with powdered marble—how cool is that? powdered marble!—then coats of gesso; then after some sanding, the artist sketches, adds gilding [very thin gold leaf] “floated” by means of water onto the icon. Then come coats of darker base colors, more lines, lighter colors, glazes, and varnish.
Layer upon layer upon layer of diverse kinds of material: so interesting, and—this is now me the literary critic talking—so much like narrative art in Scripture, like storytelling. Our story in John 12 is a work of art—stunning iconography that teaches us about the mystery of our life together as believers.
So: Jesus has come to dinner at the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. The Evangelist tells us, “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” Mary then does something astonishing: she anoints Jesus’ feet with an extravagant amount of costly perfumed ointment and wipes his feet with her hair.
She is anointing him in advance of his burial; the Evangelist tells us that right out. But underneath that powerful truth, adding depth and radiance and texture, are several other layers of meaning. The mystery of what Christian community is—who we are—is told through this dinner and the believers there, Martha, Lazarus, and Mary.
Now, if we were reading this story as an icon, as a holy painting with deep spiritual significance, Martha would be present but small—far from a central figure. She is, if not erased, well, “written over.” Valuable as her service may be, it’s not what John wants us to ponder.[vii] “Martha served,” John says. Just two words—Martha clearly is not the point of this story. But by mentioning her, the Evangelist evokes two other stories about Mary and Martha: richly colored layers of background in this literary icon.
In the first background layer, Jesus had been teaching at their house. While Martha was serving, getting frustrated and “distracted by her many tasks”—you remember, she was all, “Lord, tell my sister to help me!”—Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”[viii] Mary as wise disciple listening intently at Jesus’s feet: a powerful image [ix] that our story invokes by having Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet again, anointing them to prepare for his burial.
The second layer underneath John 12 is the story of the raising of Lazarus, which comes up in the Gospel of John right before our reading this morning. Lazarus had died. Jesus weeps at the tomb, then calls Lazarus to come out—and “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Jesus says to them—to the community—”Unbind him and let him go.'” [x] The raising of Lazarus is one of seven signs in the Gospel of John that show the community that Jesus the Messiah has power over death itself. This Lazarus, brought from death to life, is now sitting at the dinner table in our story in John 12!
The third layer of rich color underneath John 12 is the story of an unnamed woman, said to be a notorious sinner, who came to Jesus while he was at table with the Pharisees. Weeping continually, she bathed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed his feet with ointment. This was a sign of her “great love” for Jesus—she was overcome with gratitude because she had received forgiveness of her sins.[xi] This allusion is the deepest and richest layer of color underneath our story this morning. Mary of Bethany shows us the outline of the unnamed woman who has been forgiven for her sins and weeps, anointing Jesus with extravagant costly ointment to show that she loves him with all that she has—with more than she could possibly afford, showing him the most tender love possible as she prepared him for what lay ahead.
Our story in John 12, this richly layered icon, instructs us about Christian community.
First, we are to seek Christ eagerly, as Mary did, ignoring the countless tasks that would distract us from sitting at Christ’s feet and listening to his teaching—that is to say, studying the Scriptures.
Second, we are to know for a certainty that in Christ, we have been raised from the dead, as Lazarus was; so we are freed to live in love, not in fear. [xii]
Third, in the transforming knowledge that we have been forgiven, we are to love Christ with everything we have, anointing him with the most extravagant fragrant offerings of our lives and labors that we can possibly muster.
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” An odd note for John to have added. [xiii] The house filled with fragrance helps us see the gathered Christian community as a sacrifice to God. It shows the holiness of believers gathered as disciples
eagerly listening for Jesus’ teaching,
knowing that we have been raised from death to new life,
and loving Jesus for all we’re worth.
And so we gather …
we sing …
we listen …
we pray …
and we move forward toward the One Who continually shows us God’s love:
Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord, to Whom be all honor, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.
[i] See Exodus 30. Depending on the biblical or rabbinic source consulted, we hear that there may have been as few as four ingredients in ancient Israelite incense or as many (per Josephus) as thirteen.
[ii] Ps 141:2.
[iii] See 2 Chron 2:3 for Solomon’s mention of incense in his plans to build the Temple. The NJPS translation puts it well: “I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God; I will dedicate it to Him for making incense offerings of sweet spices in His honor.” See also Rev 5:8 and 8:1-5.
[iv] On being formed in Christ, see Gal 2:19-20, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”; Phil 2:5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”; Rom 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”; and Rom 12:1-2, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
[v] Sandra M. Schneiders remarks in her Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (revised and expanded edition; New York: Crossroad, 2003) that the story in John 12:1-8 “is so strange if taken literally that we are virtually forced to attach primary importance to its symbolism” (108).
[vii] I take seriously the rebuke that Jesus gives Martha in Luke 10. Countless devout Christians have spent time in the relative “comfort zone” of busily doing tasks to support ministry instead of poring over the Scriptures or seeking Christ in prayer. We can distract ourselves from the life of faith even when serving the Church! Service as emblematized in the foot washing is important in John: care for the Other in loving humility as a sign of right relations in the household of God. But frantic busyness is dismissed, explicitly in Luke 10 and perhaps obliquely in the brevity of the mention of Martha here in John 12.
[viii] Luke 10:38-42.
[ix] Schneiders notes, “When we remember that discipleship is the primary relationship with Jesus according to the Fourth Gospel and that, as R. Alan Culpepper has shown, the community of the Beloved Disciple had the characteristics of an ancient ‘school’ in which the members devoted themselves to the study of the scriptures and the teaching of Jesus, it becomes especially significant that John presents a woman in this role” (Written That You May Believe, 109).
[x] See John 11.
[xi] See Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and Luke 7:36-50. Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel According to John 1-12 [Anchor Bible 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966], 449, 451): “No one really doubts that John and Mark are describing the same scene; yet, many of the details in John are like those of Luke’s scene…. If Luke’s anointing of the feet is anomalous, the woman’s action becomes even more extraordinary in John when she proceeds to wipe off the perfume she has just applied! Luke’s description of the wiping away of tears makes sense; but since the Johannine account does not mention tears, the action of wiping has now been transferred to the perfume.” Brown continues, “Mary’s action constituted an anointing of Jesus’ body for burial, and thus unconsciously she performed a prophetic action” (454). That in Luke 10 she was depicted as learning at Jesus’ feet—unusual for a woman in an ancient rabbinic context—seems to me to point toward Mary’s wisdom and actual understanding of Jesus’ references to his impending death, not an “unconscious” prophetic sign-act.
[xii] The call to live in love rather than fear is vitally important for the Johannine traditions. See 1 John 4:16-18: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. For love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
[xiii] Gail R. O’Day offers, “Mary has anointed Jesus so lavishly that all present can participate in it” (“John,” pp. 381-93 in Women’s Bible Commentary [expanded edition; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998], at 387). O’Day suggests that the connection to the raising of Lazarus is strengthened by the olfactory reference: “This is the second time a scent has been connected with this family. In 11:39 Martha worried about the odor of Lazarus’s rotting corpse. Here, however, the odor is the marvelous fragrance of nard. The odor of death has been replaced by the odor emanating from Mary’s extravagant love.”