St. Paul’s – Lent 5 – 4/3/2022
On this Fifth Sunday of the forty days of Lent, we are coming toward the climactic end of the Jesus story. At the beginning of his ministry—so Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell it—Jesus was tested by Satan after forty days in the wilderness, the story we read here on the First Sunday of Lent. Now, as Lent ends and we move step-by-step closer to Jerusalem, Jesus will be tested again. In Gethsemane the temptation to let the cup of death pass from his lips will be great. We have good reason to believe that whatever tests of faith lie ahead for Jesus, he will triumph, for we have seen him remain steadfast in all the trials that have been put before him.
But what about us and our faith? As the cross looms before us, all those who have been trying to follow Jesus are also being put to a test. There are bound to be questions: Is Jesus truly who the voice at his baptism says he is? Jesus has promised to bring in God’s realm, but will he succeed? Will we remain steadfast in our commitment to him even when the going gets rough?
Thus, just before we get to Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Gethsemane, the trial, and the cross, John bids us to pause for just a moment and join Jesus at an evening meal at Mary and Martha’s. There we witness three different reactions to Jesus as the clock ticks down on his final days of ministry.
There’s Mary who doesn’t say much of anything, or at least anything that John finds worthy of report. When Jesus is at table Mary lets down her hair and anoints his feet with sweet smelling, soothing balm. It’s an historic sign of honor—in ancient Israel kings were crowned by anointing their heads with oil. Mary is thus showing that she understands what so many have failed to see: Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited savior of Israel, the Mighty One sent by God to rule in the name of God.
Yet Jesus suggests an additional meaning of this anointing. In Israel, dead bodies were cleansed and anointed for burial. She’s anointing me in preparation for my death, Jesus says. A king who dies? We erect bronze statues of kings in order to show that royalty is eternal, permanently in power. This whom Mary anoints goes to his death.
Then there’s Martha. She doesn’t say much about her relationship with Jesus, how she understands his messiahship. Martha is too busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for Jesus. This could easily be Jesus’s “last supper,” his last meal before his execution since he goes to Jerusalem under the threat of death. If Martha knows that or fears that fate awaiting Jesus, she says nothing about it. Maybe Martha is one of those people who doesn’t spend much time thinking and speculating. She’s a doer, not a thinker. She’s busy serving Jesus food.
Mary shows what she believes about Jesus by wiping his feet with sweet ointment. Martha displays her faith in him by serving him a meal. Both, in their differing ways of relating to Jesus, are shown to be his faithful disciples who stand with him and minister to him in his hour of need.
And yes, there’s also Judas, a member of Jesus’s inner circle of disciples from the very first. He’s there too. Perhaps there’s part of us that wishes Judas wasn’t there. Judas’s presence spoils the touching scene of Mary and Martha showing their love and devotion to Jesus. As John says upfront, Judas was the one who would betray Jesus, collaborating with Jesus’s murderers.
And yet, to be honest, we ought to be grateful that Judas is there too in this poignant moment just before Jesus’s crucifixion, as we gather on this Fifth Sunday of Lent. If you are looking for the betrayers of Jesus, look first at who gathers with him at his table. If only Mary and Martha were there with Jesus that evening at table, then we could see this as a story of exemplary discipleship. Some of us gathered here this day are like Mary, singing our songs of adoration, gesturing with our praying, singing, tears and rejoicing, expressing our love for Jesus in ways that are too deep for words.
Others of us are like Martha. We’re glad to worship Jesus here in church, but when we really feel most faithful to Jesus is when we are busy serving Jesus in the world. Our discipleship is best characterized as action rather than reflection, service rather than contemplation.
And yet if we are honest (how truthful is scripture!) some of us are here as Judas. We don’t know what to think about Jesus. Maybe we were attracted to him because we believed that he had power to fix what’s wrong with us or the world. But Jesus proved not to be effective—as we judge effectiveness. In his suffering, dying, and willingness to be betrayed, he just didn’t match up to our expectations for how God ought to act if God were truly the God we expected.
Or perhaps Judas is there for us because, like Judas, we sign on with Jesus when times are good and when the believing is easy. But then the going gets rough, the world gets organized against Jesus and his way, and we realize there can be a high cost of discipleship, and…well, let’s just say that in one way or another we betray Jesus. We fail to live up to our commitments. We didn’t know that following Jesus would be so costly. We cut and run.
That’s why I say that if you are looking for the betrayers of Jesus, look first at who gathers with him at his table, then or now.
As Jesus goes to his crucifixion, there on a cross to dramatically rearrange our notions of God, power, love, and death, he gathers with his close friends. Some of them adoringly worship him, others roll up their sleeves and serve him, and some betray and forsake him. Mary. Martha. Judas. All with Jesus.
So here we are: the Fifth Sunday of Lent and on our way with Jesus to the cross. In just a few days we’ll stand at the foot of the cross look up at him in his final agony. It’s not the God we expected. It’s not how we presumed he would establish his reign. It’s hard to know what to think.
But maybe faith is not a matter of getting your ideas right about Jesus or thinking the right things about Jesus; it’s simply to be with Jesus. In the light of today’s Gospel—the story of Mary, Martha, Judas and Jesus, the most important actor is Jesus. Jesus has chosen to spend his last hours of earthly life with his friends, some of whom know how to love him and some of them don’t. Faith is being with Jesus as you are rather than as you are supposed to be, to go ahead and love him, sings songs to him, praise him, or to go forth from here and work with him and for him, serve him.
And maybe by depicting Judas there that evening John wants you to take heart. You meant to be a faithful, obedient follower of Jesus but you didn’t know it would cost so much. You intended to be strong and committed to his way, but you have strayed. Take heart. Go ahead and join Jesus at his table. Hold out your empty hands expecting to be given something you can’t give yourself. Forgiven. Loved by Jesus even when you don’t always know how to love Jesus.
Come, join Jesus at his table. Come as you are. Mary, Martha, Judas and you, loved by Jesus all. Just for this Sunday, as the cross of Christ looms before us, let’s define faith as the recognition that Jesus wants you—Mary, Martha, Judas and you—at his table. Got faith? When you are willing to come to Jesus’s table as you are, that’s having faith in Jesus.
during these forty days of Lent you have walked with us.
You have let us down paths that we did not want to go,
leading us toward honesty, truth-telling, and the adventure of following you
as you do your work in the world for our salvation.
Because of what we have heard of you, we believe.
In these forty days of Lent,
we have sensed your presence in our lives, working behind the scenes,
subtly, suggestively, and sometimes even obviously.
Because of our experience of you in our lives here and now, we believe.
Although we cannot always explain our faith in you,
and even though we don’t always live up to our intentions
to be faithful to you, we do believe in you.
We believe that you are somehow working out our salvation
and bringing us, even us, close to God.
We believe that you are accomplishing
your ultimate purposes for the world.
For the gift of faith working in us, sometimes in spite of us,
we give thanks as we journey with you toward your cross,
believing that what you do in the coming days, you do for us.