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Fifth Sunday in Lent March 28, 2004.

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

First Reading

Several times during the season of Lent we have heard the exodus story as a reminder of what God has done for God's people by delivering the Israelites out of bondage. This history becomes our story as we move closer to the cross and the tomb, assured that God will deliver us as well from the bondage of our sins. Isaiah describes the way God made in the sea, allowing the Israelites to cross safely but extinguishing the lives of the Egyptians who tried to cross. Now God is promising to make a way in the wilderness for the Israelites to leave Babylon, an exodus that will be even more glorious than the first. "Do not remember the former things," God says, "I am about to do a new thing." What God did before was wonderful, but what God is about to do now will cause even the animals to praise God. As God provided water in the wilderness during the first exodus, water will stream in abundance for the chosen people as they come home to Palestine. The people will respond to this liberation with the praise that God desires, the only thing that God requires of the people whom God formed for God's self.

Paul describes himself as a Hebrew born of Hebrews, one who excelled in all things Jewish. He was circumcised, as required by the law, and he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, which remained faithful to the house of David. He had been a Pharisee, part of a sect that strictly upheld the law, and Paul's zeal for the law played out in his persecution of the church. As a Jew, Paul had everything to boast about, for he followed the law to the letter. He could take confidence in his moral superiority, and his strict obedience to the law was considered an asset. But such an asset was soon chalked up as a loss, regarded as rubbish--or, to be more precise, as dung. When Paul came to know Jesus Christ and to trust in him, Paul realized the immense gains he had received. Through Jesus Christ Paul's sins were forgiven; Paul would experience the power of the resurrection because he was made right with God. Such righteousness occurred not through Paul's obedience to the law but through faith in Christ. Everything else that Paul had put his faith and trust in, namely his blamelessness under the law, is now regarded as garbage. Paul can now push toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call, which he has gained through faith in Jesus Christ.

In John 12:1-8 Jesus is moving ever closer to the cross: six days before the Passover, and Mary anoints his feet as if Jesus were already dead. It is noteworthy, too, that Jesus dines with Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. His being raised from the dead foreshadows Jesus' own resurrection, but it also is the ironic impetus of Christ's suffering. Because of Lazarus' resurrection more people believed in Jesus and deserted the authorities.

At the table Mary anoints Jesus' feet with a perfume that cost nearly a year's wages. Judas declares this wasteful, saying that the money used for the perfume could have been given to the poor. His concern for the poor is insincere, however, as we are parenthetically told that Judas was stealing from the disciples' shared funds. Jesus scolds him, stating directly that the perfume was intended for Jesus' own burial and declaring that he would not be with them much longer. Mary's act was full of love for her honored guest and, because the poor will always be with them, this is a time to cherish Jesus' presence before Jesus makes his way to his death.

Pastoral Reflection

The Asamkirche is the most treasured Baroque church in Munich, Germany. Lining the walls of this exquisitely decorated yet surprisingly small church are large paintings depicting scenes from Jesus' life. One painting near the front of the church illustrates the story of Mary wiping Jesus' feet with her hair. Another painting, halfway down the other wall, depicts Jesus wiping the disciples' feet after the foot washing. Two paintings of Jesus, one with his feet being washed and the other with him washing his disciples' feet--surely these paintings, portraying examples of humble service toward loved ones, should have been displayed side by side.

Mary pours out her love for Jesus by pouring on his feet a costly perfume, an extravagant and scandalous act. By letting down her hair to wipe Jesus' feet, she violates Jewish custom that forbids women from letting down their hair in mixed company. Yet she is undaunted in her expression of love and faithfulness that brings her to the feet of Jesus. When Jesus pours out his love for the disciples in the washing of their feet, one of his disciples cries out in protest. Jesus should not be washing his feet! Simon Peter exclaims. Simon Peter should be washing Jesus' feet, for Jesus is his Lord! Like Mary, however, Jesus does not waver in his expression of love that brings him to the feet of the disciples.

If the two paintings in the Asamkirche were to be displayed side by side, the painting of Mary would come first. Although Jesus tells his disciples after he washes their feet that they are to wash one another's feet, Mary does this very thing to Jesus in the previous chapter in John. Before Jesus has even told his disciples how to be exemplary followers, Mary has already done it, setting an example for all to follow in this faithful act of love and service. It is as if she has anticipated Jesus' act of foot washing in anointing his feet. It is as if she has anticipated Jesus' command that the disciples wash each other's feet as an expression of their devotion to Jesus.

As we stand before these paintings we see our reflection in the glass, putting ourselves into the paintings as well. We have seen the humble service of Mary and Jesus kneeling at the feet of loved ones. We have seen the extravagant and radical love that defies custom and expectations. We have seen what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the face of death and how this discipleship is expressed in concrete acts of love. We have examples set before us, and we are ready to follow Jesus' commands to do likewise.

Imagine, then, a third painting hanging in the Asamkirche, depicting a twenty-first-century foot washing or anointing. What do you imagine might be in that painting that would illustrate the extravagant and scandalous love of the first two paintings? Perhaps a man kneeling at the bedside of a woman with AIDS whose family has shunned her because of her illness. Perhaps a young girl kneeling next to a homeless man in order to drop in his cup a part of her weekly allowance. Perhaps a medical student kneeling by the desks of refugees as she teaches them English on the weekends. All of these paintings would depict faithful responses to Jesus' command to wash each other's feet. They would depict followers of Mary's example of kneeling at the feet of those we are called to love. These extravagant and scandalous acts would be examples of faithful discipleship in Christ, in joyful response to God's love.
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Previous Article:Fourth Sunday in Lent March 21, 2004.
Next Article:Passion Sunday April 4, 2004.

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