Rev. Kirsten Sermon
This week I was struck by St. Paul’s confession to the people of Philippi. He confesses that there is no one more confident in the flesh than he is. I think what he means is, “I have a pedigree of faith. I have always done what I’m supposed to do. But my good pedigree and my good work—living by the law is not sufficient. Paul tells the people of Philippi that he has righteousness from the law, but he seeks a righteousness that comes from faith in Christ Jesus.
Paul tells the people that he was a good and faithful Pharisee. He was living according to the rules, focused on his spiritual discipline. But that discipline was insufficient. He has come to realize that the righteousness that comes from living according to the law is not the same as the righteousness that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. . He tells the Philippians that he must strain forward: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is raising for us the distinction between discipline and discipleship. I found this a powerful question now, during Lent. Many of us committed ourselves to new Lenten practices. Maybe we committed to fasting (giving up meat, or sweets), maybe we committed to new prayer practices (adding the daily office, or praying for particular people), maybe we committed to new study (joining a Bible Study or formation class), maybe we committed to new ministry (giving to the poor or donating to another cause).
But Paul raises the question, are these disciplines true discipleship? When we discipline the flesh—following old or new rules, are we really engaged in discipleship that will lead us towards that “goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”?
I don’t think that Paul is suggesting that we should throw out these disciplines. But he is pointing us towards the more fundamental question, “are we truly following Jesus?” Do we really know Jesus? Are there some things we are doing that are bringing us closer to Jesus’ will? Are there other things that are keeping up our appearances of being faithful, without really building up our discipleship?
As I ask these questions this week, I look to our Gospel reading for answers. What does this story about Jesus approaching his final entrance into Jerusalem show us about being disciples, not just being disciplined.
Our Gospel story has so many wonderful characters. The setting of the story is Lazarus’ house. This is the same Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary who died and was raised from the tomb by Jesus just a few days earlier. The raising of Lazarus is one of the reasons why Jesus is in so much trouble with the authorities. He has fundamentally challenged the rulers, showing his power over death. The story now is pointed towards resurrection (both Lazarus’ resurrection and Jesus’). Jesus has shown himself to be the Christ, the Messiah and he is resting in Bethany with Lazarus as he prepares to take his final journey through Jerusalem to the Cross.
With that resurrection theme in mind, we see Lazarus reclining at the table with Jesus. When we ask, what is discipleship, we see Lazarus (who knows resurrection better than anyone) hosting Jesus in his home, and sharing a meal with him. Lazarus is not out preaching, not out doing ministry, not out showing himself as an example of Jesus’ power. Lazarus is simply being with Jesus, opening his home and showing up. Thinking about Lazarus, I wonder if there are more opportunities for me to simply “be with” Jesus. When I meet someone who is facing trouble, someone who is oppressed, or sick, or poor, am I willing to open my house, be truly hospitable and give them my full attention? Maybe this is an especially important model for discipleship when I cannot fix or even help the Jesus I meet. What about those situations when the person is suffering something that I have no power to address? Do I turn away because I am overwhelmed? Or do I open my heart, my home and simply share that difficult time with the person? Maybe there are moments when the promise of new life, of resurrection comes by presence, not by action.
Then we see Martha in the story. Martha is the sister who is always serving. Remember the version of this story from Luke: 10:38-42, Martha complains when she sees that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and she is left to do all the work. Jesus responds in the Lukan version saying that Mary has taken the better part. This doesn’t mean that Martha’s service is unappreciated. Martha’s service is needed, but Jesus is pointing to priorities. It is more important to listen and engage with Jesus. Service flows from the relationship with Jesus. In this version of the story, I think that the lessons are parallel. Martha is contrasted with Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet. It is not that serving the dinner isn’t important hospitality, but it must follow from that deep hospitality rooted in love of Christ. The difference between discipline and discipleship here is whether we are serving the poor as a matter of obligation, or whether we are serving as a result of the deep love that we receive from God and share with our brothers and sisters.
This brings us to Mary. She’s really the role model in this story. She “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.” What an extravagant gesture. Again the story points us towards death and resurrection. There can be no resurrection without a burial. Burial rituals involve anointing with perfumes. The image of anointing reminds us of the resurrection of Lazarus and points us towards the coming burial and resurrection of Jesus. Mary is symbolically putting Jesus in the tomb. Jesus affirms this when he says, “leave her alone, she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” But the anointing is such a powerful gesture of love. It is not just a discipline reserved for the dead. This gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet is an intimate gesture, a humbling gesture. In addition to pointing to the death and resurrection, this gesture points to the Last Supper gesture that Jesus will show to his disciples. On Maundy Thursday, at the last meal with his disciples before he is betrayed, Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17). This anointing by Mary prefigures this story. Mary’s gesture towards Jesus shows us how we must worship by humbling ourselves, giving the very best that we have to God in the people we meet. In these intimate gestures of caring—the cleaning of a child, the feeding of someone who cannot feed themselves, the bathing of a relative or a friend, the gift of time that we don’t have, the expression of love that is beyond what is necessary or expected. This is the servant-hood that is discipleship, not just discipline. When do we go beyond what social rules require and give the extravagant gift. How do we make sure that the gift we give to other people is not for show, but is really a gift out of love?
Jesus responds to Judas’ taunt. Judas suggests, shouldn’t that money be spent on the poor? And Jesus tells him that the poor will always be with them, but he will only be with them for a short while. Judas’ taunt is a challenge to Jesus. Judas may be trying to trap Jesus suggesting that he wants the perfume for himself, that Jesus is a hypocrite. But Jesus avoids the trap, and shows that he knows the truth about Judas. He knows that Judas will betray him and that he will die and be resurrected. This parry between Judas and Jesus points to true discipleship. While the rule is that we give to the poor, putting Jesus first means that we must discern what action is needed, where our money must go to honor God and focus on the new life that Jesus has promised us. There are people who give to the poor, but do so out of a sense of disgruntled obligation, not out of the love that God has given us.
So we conclude today with these complex answers to Paul’s challenge to the Philippians. Paul is encouraging the Philippians to look forward to new life. He points them towards the goal, “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” We are looking forward to Easter now. We are preparing for Palm Sunday and the Passion next week. We will begin our Holy Week walk with Jesus, dying with Christ on Good Friday and rising with him on Easter. We cannot take this walk as a matter of discipline. The law about what we should do will help us, but to experience resurrection with Christ, we must follow him throughout this walk. Like Lazarus, we must be present, offering our hospitality and our full attention to Jesus wherever we meet him. Like Martha we must serve, but serve not out of obligation but rather out of relationship—knowing ourselves to be loved by God and therefore blessed with love to share. And then like Mary, we must give extravagantly, knowing the humility of service. The anointing recognizes that some things must die to make room for what is new. Our old ways must pass away, so that we can “surely fix our hearts where true joys are to be found” on Jesus Christ.
Let us be disciples not just disciplined, let us know Christ in our midst and strain forward towards Easter.