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The Tale of Two Disciples

John Leedy

March 17, 2013
John 12:1-8

03-17-2013 Sermon Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

Well friends, the day finally arrived last weekend.  After much persuading from our friends and family, Krystal and I broke down, gave into peer pressure… and started watching Downton Abbey.  For those among us this morning who are not hopelessly addicted to this PBS television series, Downton Abbey takes place in turn of the century England and is centered around the lives of the World War One era aristocracy and those who serve them.

Despite the twisting and turning plot lines, what captivates me most about this show are the elaborate dinners.  The long dining table is set with fine white linen, stunning china and silver place-settings, and every wine glass that one could imagine.  The butlers and footmen are all in black tie and tails, and the wealthy family and their guests sit around in their finest eveningwear.  Yet despite the pretense, grandeur, and pageantry of these dinners, nevertheless – some form of drama always seems to erupt.  Scandalous revelations, shouting matches, poisonings, and tearful confessions all make their way into the intrigue of the dinner table.  I think that Jesus would have liked this show. After all, rarely does Jesus gather around a table without some sort of drama happening.

Our text this morning is no exception.  Jesus is gathered with his friends and family around a table in Bethany.  Bowls of cheese, olives, roasted meat, and hot bread lay upon the table’s rough hewn surface as the disciples gather round to eat. Lazarus is there too – the man that Jesus had raised from the dead.  I always imagine that to be a bit of an awkward situation – what polite conversation does one make with a formally dead person?  So, Lazarus… how’s life… again?

Mary and her sister Martha are there as well – and we are not surprised that once again, the dutiful Martha is doing the serving.  Things are humming along well enough, until Mary comes into the room carrying a jar.  The conversation stills as all eyes turn to Mary.  Approaching Jesus, she kneels at his feet and takes the stopper out of an ornate bottle of perfume.  Immediately, the rich and overpowering smell of the costly oil fills the small room.  I am not sure how many of you have ever ridden in a church van full of high school youth coming back from camp at Mo Ranch, but between the smell of body spray, cologne, fritos corn chips, and a weeks worth of sweaty clothes – I completely understand how overwhelming it is to be in a small space with an eye watering smell.  *

Mary tips the bottle of perfume onto Jesus’ feet.  A little oil pours out, then some more. Mary continues to tip the bottle until the feet and floor are drenched in the balm.  Mouths drop. Eyes open wide.  A stunned silence grips the room.  But these disciples haven’t seen anything yet.  Mary bends low, takes her long hair in her hands and with it, smoothes the oil into Jesus’ feet.  Mary looks up into the eyes of Jesus, her anointing complete, her sacrifice made.  Her eyes communicate that she knows.  She knows what is coming. For she did not use an oil meant to perfume a bride or anoint a king. Rather, Mary used an oil meant to embalm a body.

In the gospels, Mary of Bethany is portrayed as the ideal disciple.  The apostle to the apostles.  She follows Jesus in his travels, sits at his feet and listens to his teaching, and seems to be the only one who really understands what Jesus has been alluding to – that he must die.  Mary’s ears, eyes, and heart are open to Jesus and through her radical acts of discipleship, sets a example for all of us who seek to follow Jesus.  The richness, wildness, and passion with which she expresses her love for Jesus is perhaps best expressed in her anointing of his feet.

Throwing aside proper behavior and disregarding the shock of those around her, she performs an act so intimate that even we find ourselves growing uncomfortable.

In a few weeks, we will take part in the ancient tradition of washing one another’s feet at the Maundy Thursday service.  Jesus at the last supper took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, and commanded them to do the same.  Many of us surely pale at the thought of another person touching our feet – let alone someone wiping oil on them with their hair.  But if you really think about it, there is no other act of service, no other act of humility or vulnerability that can compete with the washing of someone’s feet.  It is as if Mary anticipates this teaching of Jesus – understanding that to truly love one another, we must be willing to get uncomfortably close to them, to stand with them in good times and bad, to love them as Jesus loves them.  To be willing to give and receive such an act of service signals something new that God is doing in this world.  God doesn’t not want us to hold one another at a distance, but to embrace one another, to be in relationship with one another, and to welcome all into the family of God.

We look to Mary as an example of what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. We take comfort in the fact that we have learned from her example.  We pray, study the scriptures, listen to God in our lives, and extend radical offerings of hospitality through our beautiful worship and community outreach programs like Uplift and Micah 6.  We try to live our lives as Mary did, because we know that we indeed will always have the poor with us, and because we know that God is with us, even now in this place.  But we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that this was an easy calling, as Mary did in her own time.

“What on earth are you doing?!” Exclaims Judas.  “Why was that perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Everyone jumps at the sudden outburst.  Reality sets back in.  This little moment of true discipleship shattered by the disciple we love to hate.

Judas.  Traitor.  Rejecter of Christ.  Bringer of disaster.  Fallen one.  We despise Judas.  In the history of Christian iconography, Judas can usually be identified as the one disciple without a halo.  He always seems to have shifty eyes, a plotting look on his face.

Even the narrator of our text includes that Judas wasn’t really concerned with the needs of the poor, but rather wanted to steal some of the money for himself.  Judas is yet another tragic example of a disciple who has missed the point.  Yet there is more to this Judas Iscariot than meets the eye, or perhaps we should say, Judas the Iscariot.

Many historians believe that Judas was a member, or at least a fore-runner, of a first century sect called sicarii, where the term Iscariot comes from.  The Sicarii were militant rebels that were intent on overthrowing the Roman occupation by violent means.  In many examples of Christian art, Judas can also be identified as the disciple carrying a knife.  Although biblical history is unclear whether or not Judas was actually a member of this group of assassins, we do know that Judas was willing to go to any length to see the Roman government kicked out – even to the point of treachery.  It begs the question, why did Judas betray Jesus?  Jesus was never cruel to Judas. In fact, Jesus was much harsher with the other disciples than he ever was with Judas.  Perhaps Judas grew tired of the pointless meanderings through the Judean countryside.  Perhaps Judas was growing impatient with Jesus’ frustratingly obtuse teachings on love and the kingdom of God.

Judas was a man of action, Judas wanted change now.  Perhaps Judas thought that if he could back Jesus into a corner, get him arrested by the Romans, Jesus would have to choose to finally take action against the Romans, or face death.

Poor Judas.  How greatly he misread what Jesus’ message was.  I wonder if he ever could have imagined that Jesus would choose to die rather than to violently overthrow the Roman regime?  Perhaps that is why he took his own life. His plan had failed, his savior, the great hope of Israel, had chosen death.  As one preacher puts it, the great tragedy of Judas is that he didn’t live long enough to receive his forgiveness.  Receive his forgiveness? How could someone as violent, as deceitful, as cowardly as Judas be forgiven after his rejection of Christ?  But if we remember, Judas isn’t the only disciple to reject and betray Jesus.

Luke 22 tells us that the night Jesus was arrested, Peter sat in a courtyard with a group of people around a fire.  Those with Peter recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples and tried to get him to confess that he knew Jesus.  With each of the accusations, Peter exclaimed that he did not know Jesus.

Later we read that after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Peter, the disciple who had rejected Jesus not once, but three times, was forgiven and received a second chance.  So if the love of Jesus was big enough to forgive the betrayals of Peter, is Jesus’ love big enough to forgive Judas?  Is God’s grace deep enough to wash away the sins of Judas the traitor?

This is a tough question.  After all, don’t we know what happens to Judas?  According to Dante, Judas ends up in the deepest circle in Hell, frozen in solid ice at the feet of Satan.  A seemingly fitting punishment for his crimes.  But do we really know what happened to Judas? Why does this question nag at us? Can we dare say that Jesus would have forgiven this man if given the chance? Could God’s amazing grace really save a wretch like him? Or, is the question we are really asking, could God’s amazing grace save a wretch like me?

This story in the Gospel of John is a tale of two disciples, one faithful, one weak. One who gets it, and one who doesn’t. One who gives all she has to her Lord, and one who seeks to take all he can from him.  Yet this tale of two disciples is, in reality, our story.

Within each of us, both disciples exist in tension with one another.  We are all Marys, who seek to serve Jesus Christ with our whole lives and to be formed into his self-giving image.  And we are all Judas’, who struggle with doubt, who reject the love of Christ towards one another, the world, and even ourselves.  We are a people who both miss the point and are given the grace to understand it.  We have all sinned and have all fallen short of the call of Christ.  Yet we work for the needs of the poor, pray for our brothers and sisters, and worship our God in word and deed.  The tale of these two disciples is our tale, our story, it is the reality that we deal with day in and day out.

So as we continue on our Lenten journey toward the cross, we are faced with the question, is God’s love big enough, deep enough, wide enough not only to embrace the Mary within us, but also to forgive the Judas within us as well?  If the answer is no, then we have reason to despair.  For no matter how extravagant our offerings are or how profound our acts of service may be, there is nothing we can do to make up for the depth of our sin, the depth to which we have fallen.  But if the answer is yes, then we have hope in the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.

If the answer is yes, then we can take a deep breath and be at peace.  If the answer is yes, then we can know with firm and certain knowledge that all of us, the good and not so good, have been made new by the astounding love of God.  In the name of God, the Father Son and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.