Mary of Bethany & Judas

I’ve been doing a lot of preaching recently, with lots more to come.  I thought I would post a few of my sermons here for feedback and thoughts.  I’d be grateful if you felt able to read them and make some comments (constructive of course!).

This sermon was delivered on 3 April 2007, Tuesday of Holy Week, at Lanark, St Nicholas Church. The readings were: John 12: 1-11 & John 13: 18-30.

‘On Iona, in the early days of the Iona Community, it was decided to commission a well-known glassmaker to make six glass communion cups for use in the Abbey. The craftsman was asked to engrave a suitable biblical text onto each of the cups: ‘This is the blood of the new covenant’, ‘This do in remembrance of me’ and so on. Now this craftsman, as it happened, was not a churchman, although he was sympathetic to Christianity. When he received the commission he made one request: could he choose one of the texts to engrave on the cups? His request was granted.

When the cups were delivered, the folk on Iona were intrigued to discover that the text he had chosen was from the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemene, when Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. And the text that he had engraved on the cup was Jesus’ question to Judas: ‘Friend, wherefore art thou come?’.
(John Harvey in ‘Eggs & Ashes’ compiled by Burgess & Polhill)

In some ways our modern translations have lost some of that question. We mostly hear Jesus say something like ‘Friend, do what you came for?’ but, and I never thought I’d hear myself say this, the King James version seems to encapsulate something much more than that bald statement.

‘Friend, wherefore art thou come?’.

The two characters in our readings tonight, Judas and Mary, seem to have little in common. Judas is one of the 12, the chosen inner circle. He is trusted. He looks after the money. Mary of Bathany is a follower, a friend even. Before today’s story of anointing she makes her appearances as the sister of Lazarus and the sister of Martha. It is Mary that sits at Jesus’ feet and listens.

Mary and Judas may have little in common but their paths cross for a brief moment that foretells the events of this Holy Week.

It is Mary who anoints Jesus for burial. The book ‘Six New Gospels’ by Margaret Hebblethwaite tells the tale of Mary of Bethany. How she knew that she wanted to do something special for Jesus, how she was so grateful that her brother Lazarus had been given back to them, and so she spent a year’s earnings on a jar of nard and she took it and broke the jar and let the perfume cover Jesus’ head. Hebblethwaite gives us an insight into Mary’s thoughts:

‘I stood there stupidly and stared at what I had done, drenched in an overpowering fragrance that dulled my other senses. What I saw and heard and felt all came to me as though through a screen, while it was the smell – the smell – that was closer to me than my own breath. It cocooned me. It burned my lungs. I drowned in it.

I knelt down to put the broken jar on the floor, and Jesus caught me there by the shoulders. His face said thank you, thank you. Oh no, I wanted to reply, it is for me to thank you, and the thought overpowered me so that I wept. The tears flowed down my cheeks to wash away all my fear and all my shame, all my foolishness.’

Mary’s story is one of knowing and of understanding. She had listened to Jesus and she had heard Jesus. She had heard and understood. She understood the journey Jesus was on and where it would end and she knew that she wanted to do something to show her Lord gratitude before it was too late. The perfume was her love, poured out onto Jesus, poured out knowing she was anointing a king, a priest, a dead man.

The others didn’t understand. Three years of miracles and wonders. Three years of sermons and pep talks and still they didn’t understand.

There were tuts, shaking heads, disapproving looks and at last one of them spoke up. Judas. The one who looked after the money. ‘What did you do that for? What a waste! That money could have gone to the poor.’

Be quiet Judas. You just don’t get it do you. The poor will always be here. I won’t, and Mary knows that. I’ve been telling you all for long enough but you never listen!

And that is our contrast; Mary, hearing, knowing, understanding and Judas, impatient, quick to judge, quick to condemn.

I never know what to think about Judas. Without him there would be no Easter. He is crucial to the story and three of the Gospels treat Judas harshly but John tells us that the devil entered him when Judas ate the bread at the Last Supper. His part was necessary but all the same Judas’ failings were just as human as Mary’s outpouring of love.

Only a few days earlier Jesus had entered Jerusalem to wild enthusiasm. The crowds had greeted him like the Messiah Judas still thought him to be; the one who would bring about a new Kingdom, here, now. And yet here they were hiding in a locked room, scared to go out. We ate the bread, drank the wine, everybody having a good time, except you. You were talking about the end of the world. This wasn’t how it was meant to be.

And so Judas decides to facilitate the showdown they all know is coming. Maybe if Jesus is arrested he will use his power. Perhaps he is just waiting for a confrontation with the Pharisees. Perhaps he is the Messiah, but perhaps not… Perhaps I can make a fast buck along the way.

Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. There is a Mary and a Judas in us all.

We love to love Mary because Mary appeals to our highest ideals and yet we know in our hearts that we would be unlikely to give a year’s worth of earnings to anyone let alone blow the lot on one extravagant show of thanks.

And we love to hate Judas because we hope with all our hearts that it will not be us who betrays Jesus but we also know that it could very well be us. We know all too well that we are the ones who waved palm branches last Sunday and who will be shouting ‘Crucify Him!’ on Friday. We are not so very different from Judas.

And so I ask ‘Friend, wherefore art thou come?’. Why is it that you are here in this place on this night? What is it you are here for?

If you have come for words of comfort then perhaps tonight is not the night. The journey of Holy Week provides little shelter. It is a journey of pain, betrayal, denial and death. It is the journey we must all make because without it our faith is empty and shallow.

And yet there is hope.

The cup and the bread. The promise of forgiveness if we are truly sorry. There could be no better inscription on the cup of Christ than ‘Friend, wherefore art thou come?’. It is the question that strikes to our hearts. Our hearts that contain the potential to be both Mary and Judas; our hearts full of love and hate; our hearts full of humility and pride. Jesus gave the bread and the wine to Judas, knowing full well what he was about to do. If the man who sold out God’s only son is welcome at that table then surely there is a seat for us.

And yet there is hope. 

Mary brought her oil. The gift of one who owed so much was received with grace and understanding. ‘She will be remembered for all of time for what she did. She has anointed me for burial. She has anointed me as king.’

But what is it that we bring here tonight?

I don’t remember ever hearing about Grace as I grew up in the church. I don’t know if that was because I wasn’t listening but I think it might be more likely that it wasn’t something that was mentioned much. Grace is an odd thing. Grace is love that is undeserved and way out of proportion.

Grace is in the story of the workers who work all day and the others who turn up with an hour to go and still get paid the same. Grace is in the story of the boy who wishes his father dead and who takes his inheritance and blows the lot but is still welcomed home and loved and accepted and forgiven by the father he wished dead.

Grace doesn’t work for us. We like people to get what they deserve, what’s coming to them. We don’t like it when people succeed. We complain when we don’t get our fair share.

We are the crowd.

Blessed is he who comes in God’s name, just as long as he doesn’t upset things too much.

Blessed is he who comes in God’s name, just as long as he doesn’t ask too much.

Blessed is he who comes in God’s name, just as long as he doesn’t let those people in too.

Blessed is he who comes in God’s name, just as long as we get what we want and not what we need.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is grace. We are loved way beyond what we deserve. We are loved way beyond what we can return. We are loved no matter who we are or what we have done. Grace is what this Holy Week is all about. Grace overcomes the darkness of our betrayal, our denial and our crucifixion of God’s own son. And grace accepts our praise, our love and our gratitude, however unworthy we feel.

We are the crowd. We are both Mary and Judas. We are the ones who betrayed Jesus and sent him to the cross on which he died. And we put him there because grace was too dangerous, too difficult and so uncontrollable.

And we are Mary, and all those women, the ones who found him gone from the empty tomb on that Easter morning and dared to believe that his stories of resurrection were true.

What have we come to find? Find here? Find within us?

Friend, wherefore art thou come? Whatever the reason know this. You are welcome here.

Amen

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