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March 17, 2016, 8:23 AM

Discipleship


John 12:1-8, CEB
Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound,[a] of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages![b] Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”

“Discipleship”

Does anyone know the mission statement of the United Methodist Church? (give chance to answer) To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Let’s hear that again. To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Hmmm. So what does that mean? I know some in our congregation have trouble with the concept of making someone do something. But my concern today surrounds the word, ‘disciple.’ In listening intently at various larger denominational gatherings over the last several years as this mission statement has been lifted up, I have grown concerned that many in the UMC see this statement as ‘making Christians’ instead of ‘making disciples.’ In our current culture ‘Christian’ and ‘disciple’ have come to be two very different things.
We see example of this all around us; famous people on television, people moving in and out of our lives, calling themselves ‘Christian’ and then exhibiting behaviors that have nothing at all to do with Jesus.
 
In a conversational posting on Facebook this week, Nancy Hale—pastor at Broad Street UMC in Norwich—reminded me that the dictionary definition of Christian is “to believe in Jesus Christ.” Our culture has divorced belief from behavior/action, so basically someone can simply say “I believe in Jesus” and go back to living the world’s way and be called a Christian. Discipleship is something different entirely. And as United Methodists, we need to reclaim an understanding of discipleship and insert that back into our mission statement to truly get a picture of what we are called to do.
 
The gospels spend quite a bit of time, in their telling of Jesus’ story, in showing what following Jesus looks like. John’s gospel like to set up comparisons and contrasts as a way to highlight disciple behavior from non-disciple behavior. The writer John loves contrast—light and dark, flesh and spirit, disciple and non-disciple. And he does so in our gospel story before us today.
 
As we noted last week, many times in following the lectionary we journey into a story or conversation already in progress, and if we aren’t intentional, we miss a large section of what is being said and lifted up. That is very true of today’s text from chapter 12 in John. This is part of a much, much larger and significant story that began back at the start of chapter 11, a story we call the “raising of Lazarus.” This story begins by telling us that Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, are beloved of Jesus, a rare statement in the gospels.  These three are either intimate friends or they are family, and Jesus loves them intensely. So it is surprising to Jesus’ followers when news come that Lazarus is gravely ill and Jesus does not drop everything and run immediately to Bethany and Lazarus’ side. In fact, Jesus delays in going and when they finally arrive, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
 
We know how this familiar and beautiful story goes.  Martha runs out to meet Jesus on the road when she hears he is coming. “If you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.” she cries. Jesus makes one of his “I am” statements—“I am the resurrection and I am life.” Martha exits to make way for Mary, who runs to Jesus, falls to his feet, and sobs, “If you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  Jesus is moved to tears, and then comes that powerful moment outside of Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus commands they roll away the stone, even amidst protestations that there will be a stench. He calls out Lazarus, commands they unbind him and set him free. And that is where we end our reading of the story. But it is not the end of the story in John’s gospel. Raising someone from the dead is pretty big news and word spreads like wildfire. Some are excited by this news and start following Jesus to see what this is all about. But others, the chief priest, the elders, scribes and temple lawyers are alarmed and frightened. Jesus has gone too far. He will draw attention from Rome, called down repercussions on the people. “Better that one man die,” the chief priest proclaims, “then for all the people to suffer.” Plans for Jesus’ death are put into motion, an arrest warrant is issued for Jesus.
 
This is where our story comes in to the larger story. The chief priest’s plans are nearing fruition. Passover is six days away, and thousands of Jews are traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate this important festival, Jesus and his followers included. It makes sense, with Bethany only 2 miles form Jerusalem, that Jesus and his followers choose to stay with their beloved friends. In just a few sentences, John paints a picture of an intimate evening meal. Jesus, at least a few of the disciples, and his beloved friends are gathered around the table in normal 1st century Palestinian style. The table is set in the middle of the room. The guest are gathered around the table, reclining, the top half of their bodies toward the table, their legs and feet extending behind them into the room. Martha is serving—which might cause us to think of Luke’s gospel and the story of Martha serving while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and draws her sister’s anger. The table is relaxed, everyone enjoying one another’s company, everyone joyous that Lazarus is there at table with them, talking and eating.
 
And in comes Mary. She is carrying this large jar of perfume, almost a pound’s worth. Expensive perfume, in today’s economy, about $30,000 worth of perfume. She walks straight to Jesus’ feet and dumps the whole lot over his feet onto the floor. Can you imagine the reaction? Can you put yourself in that situati0n for a moment? I mean, what would the others at the table be thinking? Some outraged at the waste and expense. Some overwhelmed by the overpowering odor of the perfume. Some shocked at the extreme behavior. But she isn’t done. No, Mary then drops to her knees, lets down her hair—a extremely inappropriate thing to do in mixed company, let alone during dinner—and proceeds to wipe his feet with her hair. Most around the table would have been in absolute disbelief and shock. What in the world is going on?!
 
And that gives our author, John, a moment to lift up one of his contrasts for in to this chaos of emotions and reactions, Judas speaks. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor!?” And just before Judas speaks, John makes sure we know and remember that Judas is a disciple of Jesus. And then John takes great care in making sure that though he carries the label ‘disciple’ his motives are not that of Jesus. All this sets up that contrast. On one had we have Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet (where disciples typically sit during teaching) and wiping away the extravagant perfume with her hair. On the other hand we have a proclaimed disciple whose loyalty is questionable and whose honesty is lacking. John asks us, ‘who is the disciple here?’ It is the one who says he believes but whose actions are less than stellar, or is it this woman who say nothing but whose actions overwhelm the room?
 
Another rhetorical tool that John likes to employ in his writing is to assume his readers know the whole story and to make references to different parts of the overall story, even before their actually happening in the gospel. He does this as a means to show how it is all connected. For example, at the beginning of chapter 11 when Lazarus, Martha and Mary are introduced, John points out that Mary is the one who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, a chapter before it actually happens in the sequence of the gospel. The same is  true here in the midst of Mary’s uncomfortable foot washing. As she kneels at the feet of another, washing their feet, in the midst of protests, we should see echoes of what is coming in the next chapter, chapter 13, where Jesus will don a towel, kneel at the disciples’ feet to wash them, in the midst of protest. At the close of Jesus’ foot washing, he used the disciples’ outrage and discomfort to drive home an important point. “As I have done for you, you should do for others. I have set for you a pattern. To do as I have done.” Jesus means more than just the foot washing here, he is pointing back over all his ministry, all his life in their company. Here is the pattern. Here is what it is to be a disciple. And having just read Mary’s foot washing of Jesus, she is lifted before us as a shining example of this radical life of discipleship, this life in the pattern of Jesus.
 
This is what it means to be a disciple, to adjust your life to the pattern given to us in Jesus; to do as Jesus did. We are called to go out into the world, especially to those places and situations that Jesus went to; to eat with sinners and tax collectors, to ministry with those ill and suffering, to reach out and touch all those who cry out in need. Mary-like we serve with reckless abandon, filled with the love of Jesus, not counting the cost. We do this surrounded by the gift of beloved community—this community we call church—fellow disciples on the journey of faith. We lean on one another, support one another, hold each other accountable.
 
Mary is a shining example of this word ‘disciple’ that we use so much in the church. A powerless, reckless young woman pouring out her love extravagantly for Jesus… and the aroma of it filled the room. So maybe we need to really embrace this mission statement of the United Methodist Church—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The United Methodist Church and the world need us to embrace this call. We need to reclaim that word, ‘disciple,’ and live out its mean for our denomination and all the world to see—Mary-like and beautiful. We need to show that to be a disciple is so much more than saying, “I believe in Jesus.” To be a disciple is to proclaim with every moment of our lives, I am following Jesus, I am patterning my life after his. And in doing so we transform the world, for the life of discipleship is a fragrance that will fill the world around us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

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