Holy Week Monday: A meal at Bethany and a herd of Elephants in the room

The writer and Pastor Eugene Peterson talks about something he observed after a very successful Church building programme. He built a brand new Church. He describes how everything went really well and a huge number of people helped out and contributed their time and money so generously. Once it was completed, however he noticed that the numbers at worship gradually dropped off and many of the absentees were some of the leading lights in the project. So he popped in to see them and they were glad to see him and talk of the good times they had whilst building their new church. But it was evident that they`d found other things to do on a Sunday now…..

Now Peterson found all this quite difficult and he asked one of his denominational superiors for some help. He asked someone who knew a lot about what`s called Church growth. And the advice he got was: “Well Eugene; what you need to do is to begin another project”. This came quite hard on someone who thought he was there to teach people to pray and serve Christ in their community. It was challenging to realise that the people he served had a whole set of rather different motivations for associating themselves with the Church of Christ. Now he was (and still is) idealistic enough not to cave in to cynicism. And he didn`t follow the advice of the `smart Alec` in the suit who was basically telling him to become the Church Entertainments Officer who sugar coats the religion with other more engaging and interesting stuff. And no he`s not so naïve that he doesn`t appreciate that yes, our motives are all a bit mixed….. but his story is a prime example of the kind of territory into which we are taken by our Gospel reading this evening. (John 12.1-11)

Perhaps you`ve the expression: “the elephant in the room”? We use it to describe one of those conversations where everyone knows there`s a big issue that needs dealing with but no one quite has the courage to just spit it out and perhaps clear the air. Well tonight we were eves-dropping on what was going on at that meal table in Bethany and St. John tells us of a whole herd of elephants. He points out how each of the characters there has their own agenda; their own particular reason for responding to Christ as they do..

So, John tells us for instance of the presence of Judas but he can`t resist, in brackets- telling us that this was the man who would betray Jesus. And his protestations about giving money to the poor were also, he maintained from a warped heart since he was basically a petty thief. Then John tells us about the Chief Priests who were now planning to kill Lazarus. This is because they were losing numbers at the Synagogue and their position was under threat. He even tells us of how Jesus knew what was in Mary`s mind. Her motives were the purest there. Her simple devotion to Christ acted like a fragrant perfume filling the whole place.

Now this is but one small incident in the Passion story but it demonstrates something which we experience throughout the whole narrative; we see how in short the Passion story peels away the layers of pretence and elephants are recognised for what they are. We might recall the words of the old man Simeon. When the infant Christ was brought into the temple he said: ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.` (Luke 2.34).

In passages like this, John and the other Gospel writers point out that there is no hiding anymore. What`s really going on; what really drives and motivates people is there for all to see.So if we look at Judas, I can`t help identifying with the game he plays. He seems typical of those who love to talk about `issues`. In contrast to Mary`s intimate and focussed attention of Christ he makes some worthy but generalised remark about `the poor`. And when faith is about `issues`; it`s invariably something that is at arms-length, theoretical rather than personal.

It`s an easy refuge to take. It always seems so practical; so dynamic and concerned. The right cause can make waves, achieve things; motivate and develop team spirit. And we form lobby groups around these causes. Pardon me the lobby that drives me to distraction these days is the environmental one. Please don`t misunderstand me. It is completely worthy and vital for us to consider and act upon. But when Christians get invoved in this the tone and often the content of what is put before are both guilt-inducing and somewhat frantic in spirit. And it`s this tone that leads me to feel that somehow the environmentalism is prior to the faith; the real reason behind their association with the Church.

In the same way, take a look at the Chief Priests. John describes than as being in a rage about Lazarus. Everyone wants to see the man brought back from the dead and we`re told that their numbers and significantly their control and prestige is under threat. Why, I wonder, do we think that Jesus made such a point of comparing the way the `Gentiles`, as he put it `Lord it over` their people and then make it absolutely clear that this is unacceptable in his Church? Well it`s precisely because he knows the `religious` mind so well. He knows that we`re no different from others when we gather in groups. He knows how we`re inclined to find our little niche; mark out our territory, our ways of doing things and our little pecking order.

But Christ`s teaching needs to be constantly applied to our setting because when our `way of doing things around here` is backed up by religious terminology and when our hierarchy is reinforced by divine approval things can become particularly warped and even nasty. Newcomers especially can be perceived as a threat to well entrenched positions of influence. It`s these kind of things that are really going on when the average congregation has a falling out isn`t it? Too often the church becomes the place where our own need for a place where we can find some significance, control or influence can be played out. And too often, people who have given years of faithful service in the life of the Church just disappear once they step down from that all embracing task; that little niche with which they identified perhaps too fully. Too rarely is it asked: “What is this all about anyway?” Well that`s what`s before us tonight. I recall hearing a colleague say how he was once accosted after a Sermon by someone who said, “Father you must be a very wicked man…. You clearly know so much about sin!”

It would be easy to wallow around in our darker recesses this evening. But that`s not my intention. Firstly, our Gospel highlights the mixture of motives among those who surrounded Christ. It reveals how easy it is to focus on `engaging issues` rather than Christ. How much more satisfying it can be to focus on the politics and survival of the institution and our exalted place within it, than to bow in worship before it`s Lord.

But secondly, I say again, if we`re going to enter into the Passion we have to be prepared to face these tendencies within ourselves and to shed all these things- as did St. Paul – in favour of what he called `the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3.8).

And of course in this, it`s Mary who is our guide. It`s not that her costly gift; her tender expression of love for Christ didn`t have an `agenda`. Of course it did. Jesus says, “She bought it so she might keep it for the day of my burial” (12.7) The point is that she had understood what Christ was intending to do and what it would cost him and importantly, that act of anointing was her way of demonstrating how she was letting him go that way. Unlike Peter, she wasn`t trying to stop him, she was affirming his vocation.

In other words, Mary didn’t` try to twist Jesus into accepting her vision for him. She shows us how big a temptation this is for us; and a tendency which must be cleansed. This `purity of heart` is clearly a work of the Holy Spirit but it helps if we are prepared to at least question how Christ like and Christ focussed our motives really are.

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