Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Good morning. We had a lot of people in worship last Sunday—upwards of a hundred, I think. It was really nice, considering it wasn’t Christmas or Easter. Over the course of the week, several of you commented on this, particularly because there were a lot of young people here. It was like a herd of unicorns wandered into the church.
Some of those guests were from Bridgewater. The young people, along with some of the grownups, will be joining us on the youth mission trip in July. We’ve been partnering with them for a couple years now, and it seems to be a really fruitful partnership. Young people and grownups from Bridgewater and Freehold have begun to build relationships with one another, as they work together to share God’s love in the world. That’s pretty amazing!
We had a big meeting after worship last Sunday, so that we could bring everyone together to plan our final fundraising efforts and discuss finances for the trip. I have to tell you, there was a lot of excitement in the room, and a lot of love. As you heard in the announcements this morning, we still need to raise a lot of money to meet our goal, but we have a plan. When you have a plan, you can channel the love and energy into something productive, and you don’t get overwhelmed by scary things, like asking people for money. More on that later.
There’s a lot of love on display in our reading from the Gospel of John. In this story, the love is expressed toward Jesus, as Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with some very expensive perfume. We’re used to seeing Jesus express God’s love toward humanity. Jesus embodies and enacts that love throughout the gospel, as he heals and feeds people wherever he goes. But in this story, Jesus is the one who receives the love.
The Gospel of John is different from the other three gospels, and we have to be mindful of those differences. Where the other gospels describe the events of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of John describes what it means to be in relationship with God, through the presence of the human Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. As John tells us at the beginning of this Gospel, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace (1:14, 16).” Through Jesus, God’s grace is not just an act of extraordinary generosity. Through Jesus, God’s grace becomes a category of relationship. God’s love and mercy and grace are known and seen and touched and smelled and tasted through the presence of the human Christ.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins in the village of Cana, at a wedding, where the couple have just run out of wine. When Jesus’ mother, Mary—not to be confused with Mary of Bethany, from this morning’s story—asks Jesus to do something about this, Jesus tries to put it off by telling her, “My hour has not yet come (2:4).” That is, he’s not quite ready to begin the work that he was born to do. But Mary is his mother. She’s loved him from the moment she knew she was pregnant. So, Jesus responds and turns water into wine. It’s a sign of God’s abundant mercy and grace—and it tastes like the best wine! And in part, it was Mary’s love that equipped Jesus to begin his ministry in the world. The world that God so loved that he sent his only begotten Son.
That’s all operating in the background in today’s reading. Jesus has spent the last three years, according to John’s Gospel, traveling around the Judean countryside, teaching and healing and performing signs of God’s love for humanity. The last of those signs was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. That was the end of Jesus’ public ministry. And now, Jesus and the disciples are gathered at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, at Bethany.
Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem, where Jesus will face his final trial and his eventual death. After pouring out his energy and God’s love for humanity, Jesus is recharging his batteries. He’s eating and drinking with people who love him, people who don’t require anything of him.
At that meal, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with oil that was fit for a king. This was not an act of repayment; Mary isn’t doing this to thank Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. That would be a transaction, a payment for services rendered. Instead, Mary offers the perfume and her service as an act of love and devotion, mercy and grace. The scent of that grace is overwhelming—it fills the whole house! It’s inescapable! This act of grace equips Jesus to face his final trial in Jerusalem:
Jesus needs that same encouragement, that same love, to do what he must do. Mary’s extravagant love for Jesus makes it possible for Jesus to show extravagant love in what follows—washing the feet of his disciples, handing himself over to be arrested in the garden, carrying his own cr