A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 7 April 2019 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Isaiah 43.16-21; John 12.1-8)
Those of you who come from fairly large families may find your lips puckering in a wry smile as you consider that brief account of three siblings at a meal. One (the son) blithely sits down to be waited on and eat; one diligently does all the real work; and one does something really attention-seeking. No surprises there, then.
But this writer is the one we call ‘John’, and his interest isn’t family dynamics, but ultimate meaning, and this little episode is, like most of this gospel, layered with symbolism. The eight verses we heard are tightly sandwiched between the decision of the chief priests to arrest Jesus, and the dramatic entry into the holy city of Jesus and his followers - which we will mark next week, on Palm Sunday. So we go into this scene anticipating the arrest of Jesus; one of those dining with him is the living evidence of the resurrection, the power over death shown by Jesus; and Jesus associates this extravagant act of Mary’s, anointing his feet, with his burial. Besides all this, since it was kings who were anointed in life, this means that as he enters this most momentous week, Jesus goes into the Jerusalem as king, and is buried already prepared for death. The concentration of the things of life and death in the one figure of Jesus could hardly be more emphasised.
There’s something else here too: the stark contrast between the unspeaking act of devotion by Mary, and the way the reaction of Judas is described. In a couple of sentences he is depicted as mean-spirited, self-serving, and dishonest. In the symbolism of this writer, he is the creature of darkness, seeing only as far as himself; the silent Mary, whose act reminds us of the grotesquely excessive generosity shown by Jesus at the wedding of Cana, sees Jesus for what he is, and pays him homage. In Ignatius of Loyola’s phrase, this is giving and not counting the cost.
We begin today a season which stretches till Easter Eve - the season called Passiontide. Our vestments have changed from plain linen to blood red, and our focus has moved beyond those of Lent to the events of the suffering of Christ which will be dramatised during Holy Week. On one level this is really odd: when the 40 days of Lent and the events of Holy Week work to such a tight chronology, why start a week early?
Today’s short account of a meal suggests why. Again and again in this most ethereal of gospels, we see Jesus eating meals - at Cana of Galilee, with the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, with the disciples before his arrest, with the disciples on the beach after his resurrection. Nothing is more earthy and basic than to eat. And, for all the elaborate ritual, this here now is that primitive, mundane thing, a meal. As we eat, we are taken into the transformative generosity of God in Christ.
The account of the meal with this family is told by a writer who seems more interested in the eternity of God than in the chronology of human living; whose book doesn’t come with proverbs, parables, advice for daily behaviour, but who simply wants us to see and believe that Jesus is God’s son, and will give us life if we do. So, by starting these two weeks with John, we begin with both an intimate episode, and a vision of life and death - the abundance of life seen in Mary, and the destructive negativity of death seen in Judas. That vision, which is not bounded by the human limitations of time, needs to be part of our journey with Jesus through Holy Week.
Now I am confident that the writer of the Fourth Gospel did not foresee the weird mess of British politics in 2019; but those responsible for getting us out of it, and we collectively who have got ourselves into it, might learn a few things from what he wrote. Without a big vision, nothing can be done; there is no real future in the appeal either to mere prosperity or to a negative perception of others. God help us to see past the mundane and the self-serving to a life which is as wasteful and self-giving as Mary’s.