Philippians 3: 4b-14
Several weeks ago I had an opportunity to sit in on a monthly meeting of my sister’s book group. They were reading one of those novels spawned by the success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Discussion of the book led to a conversation about the present day deficiencies of the Church. One member, recently returned from a vacation in Mexico, pointed out how struck she had been by the disparity between the rich interior of the cathedral at Taxco with its towering golden reredos and the incredibly poor Indians gathered in the plaza outside. She asked, “Why can’t the Church strip itself of its riches and this wealth be given to the poor?” But in asking this question she had failed to recognize the grateful response to God’s generosity that architectural splendor represented.
Such was the generous gesture of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, to Jesus at the dinner at Bethany related in today’s gospel. This passage from John tells us that Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. When in Jerusalem he stopped there often and shared their hospitality. He loved them and when Lazarus was dying his sisters sent word to Jesus to come. But he arrived too late. Lazarus had been in the grave four days. According to Jewish tradition death was complete when the soul left the body on the third day. To assuage her grief and comfort her Jesus revealed to Martha his true identity, that he was resurrection and life and that whoever believed in him would never die. She responded by confessing him the Messiah, the son of God, the “one coming into the world.” From him she was expecting nothing more than comfort because her brother was dead. Then, even though Lazarus had been buried long enough to create a stench, Jesus had the grave opened and spoke his dead friend into life again. And Lazarus emerged, a living being still wrapped in the bands of death.
No wonder when next they encountered Jesus these friends at Bethany would celebrate. Custom had it that on such festive occasions the host would wash the feet of the guests. Mary broke all the rules in her generous response to Jesus that day, by anointing his feet with a costly, imported ointment made with nard or spikenard, an aromatic oil. similar to lavender and valerian, usually reserved for burial preparations. This was a spontaneous gift, the best she had, for the one who had given her brother back to them alive.
In an earlier passage in John’s gospel Jesus had referred to his power over death, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.” (John 5: 22) God’s generosity is boundless and, in turn, prompts in us a generosity that is boundless as well. This is a generosity that does not count the cost. This is the generosity that anoints the feet of Jesus. How different it is to the gift that serves to our own advantage. And be assured, we can and will know God’s generosity if we give ourselves to others without expectations or requirements. But often before we can act God intervenes in our live to resurrect and liberate us.
I have often puzzled over Jesus’ friend Lazarus, how he must have looked at life after having been brought back from death. Did he merely pick up, go forward with his life and live as he had before? Somehow I don’t think so. I can imagine him afterward with a heart bursting with gratefulness for the new life that had been given him. I can relate to such a sense of gratefulness, because until recently the eminence of death was always with me, but in the past year I, too, have been given new life, new strength, new stamina. Some of you have had similar experiences, literally resurrection experiences, though probably not as dramatic as the one Lazarus had–a recovery from serious illness or injury, release from alcoholism or another addiction, liberation from an abusive marriage or other relationship, a narrow escape from death in an accident, or simply finding peace after a lifetime of chaos and wilderness wandering, or new growth after years in the desert. Like the Psalmist’s lament in 116, the cords of death entangled us and the grip of the grave had taken hold of us. And then when faced with unremitting deadness, God intervenes and gives us new life. As I look out on the congregation I know there are many here who have experienced spiritual resurrection at some point in their personal lives. Some of you over the years have shared these experiences with me, how Jesus has plucked your life out of the pit and put you on the path of life. With some it has resulted from hearing his word speaking to you, speaking you into life again as he had done for his friend, Lazarus.
St. Paul recognized the possibility and power of resurrection in the lives of those who followed Jesus. In his letter to the Christian community at Philippi, he speaks of the gift of death and resurrection for the living, and declares that through the new life God gives us we can be like Christ. Take a moment to imagine the implications of what being like Christ might mean. How would claiming this spiritual power and authority alter your life? From what John tells us of Jesus’ compassionate act of power in the lives of his friends at Bethany, we know he spoke his dead friend into life. We can claim that power as well. Our words can bring new life. We have that power.
Again, from the Psalms, “How are we to repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for us?” After our resurrection what will be our response? What will we do to anoint the feet of Jesus? One of the gifts God gives us with new life is the urge to respond by giving and giving generously and repeatedly—as God gives. Of course, there is no way to repay for our new life. That is not what is asked. But our response can be to own the liberation offered us to live fully and give ourselves and what we have with bold generosity. Not as a gift that serves to our own advantage but with the love and prodigality of God’s gifts. Just as Mary did that day at Bethany, and just as Jesus did throughout his life and ministry. This, then, is the good news. And in this way we anoint the feet of Jesus.
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