Sermon All Saints Church All Cannings, 7th April 2019
Fifth Sunday of Lent: Philippians 3.4b-14 & John 12.1-8
Today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, marks the beginning of Passiontide as we are drawing closer to Holy Week and Easter. The reading from John’s Gospel this morning almost cannot be any fuller with themes that foreshadowing the events to come. To fully appreciate the richness of this text, it is important to remember is that John’s Gospel was the last of the Gospels to be written, probably towards the end of the first century.
John’s purpose is to articulate the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, who was born in human form, died and rose again. He is trying to understand and to help us understand what it means for the Scriptures to be fulfilled as the Word became flesh. In contrast to some other parts of Scripture, I would like to suggest therefore that the theological background of this particular passage is more important than its historical context, and so that is what I would like to focus on this morning, hoping that it will give us a better appreciation of what Jesus may have meant by that last – easily misinterpreted phrase – ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Firstly, we need to realise that this passage is set just after the raising of Lazarus, which is often said to be the Resurrection story in miniature, and only six days before the Passover; in other words, only a day before his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate next week, on Palm Sunday.
Jesus is visiting the home of Lazarus, his friend whom he had raised from the dead, and his sisters Martha and Mary. Just as in Luke’s Gospel, in which we hear the story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, while Martha is distracted by ‘her many tasks’, here also, Martha is serving, whereas Mary seems to do something even more unusual. She here not only sits at Jesus’ feet, but anoints them with pure oil and wipes them with her hair. In both stories, judged by our standards of common sense, Mary is getting it wrong. However, also in both stories, Jesus makes clear that Mary has understood better than anyone else what is necessary at the time; despite appearances, she is the only one who has really paid attention.
As the house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume, Judas Iscariot rebukes Mary by saying ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ It’s a lot of money, almost a year’s earnings, and could it not have been spent any better? The Gospel writer, knowing how the story is going to end, accuses Judas of false motives. However, that is not what Jesus seems to criticise, as he replies by saying ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’. So, what does he mean?
Again, it is worth emphasising that this passage needs to be understood theologically, not so much historically. Jesus here is not talking so much about the fact that he will not much longer be with his disciples, but the implications this will have. We cannot conclude from this passage that the poor are unimportant, but that what we can do for others is limited, and even more so if we think that we can do it on our own, without the help of others and ultimately a trust in God.
This is precisely what Paul is writing about in the passage we heard from his letter to the Philippians: whatever we achieve is worth nothing if it isn’t for our faith and trust in Christ. And that is a challenging message, especially in an increasingly secular society that is based on individual achievements. Many people nowadays would say that to attribute human success God, makes it less valuable and denies the opportunity to celebrate human achievement. However, this is not necessarily true: the basis of not just Christianity, but most religions is that the acknowledgement of God, someone or something beyond our human, material world actually enhances our self-understanding, rather than diminishing it.
I think this sense of an enhanced human self-understanding in the light of God, and in our case, in the light of Christ, is one of the key messages of our faith. We cannot know, let alone be, fully ourselves if we deny the existence of the God who created us, who lived with us and who died for us.
I spent this past week in Greece on a study tour (no, not a holiday!), visiting ancient sites in Athens, Delphi and Olympia. Although, of course, they were mostly places of pagan religion, what struck me about these sites is how much the secular was celebrated through the sacred. The ancient Olympic games were seen as a religious festival, in which human achievements were celebrated in a sacred place. Oaths would be sworn before the gods, and sacrifices would be made during accompanying the athletic events.
Don’t worry, I’m not advocating a return to pagan religion, but visiting these sites, there was a strong sense of these places, where people tried to reach out to what was beyond them, being sacred places. And it wasn’t through the grandeur of the buildings, as only ruins were left in most cases, but because of the human endeavour to honour something beyond themselves.
Before I will be taken down as a heretic, this, I think, brings us back to this morning’s readings, and to the events that lie ahead of us in these last two weeks before Easter. Christianity is based on the belief in the historic events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Yet, it is not only the belief that these events happens that matters, but the implications they have on our lives.
We may do great things, such as giving great sums of money to the poor, but if we do it believing only in our own greatness, these acts are worth nothing. That is not to say that I believe that only people who believe in God can be good people, but I do think that we cannot live life to the fullest if we only think about ourselves. Or maybe, acknowledging that I cannot speak for others, I think that I cannot live my life to the fullest without my faith.
It is a challenging position to hold, I know, in a time when fewer and fewer people feel they need God to live a fulfilled life. However, that may be precisely the problem that our society is facing today: we seek fulfilment where we cannot find it, we look for that which does not satisfy. Individually and collectively. Along that road, as we have forgotten God, too busy with ourselves, we also have started to forget to look after the poor. And maybe that is precisely the timeless warning that Jesus tried to give his disciples then and us now when he said: ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’.