Sermon on 30th March 2015

Day: Monday in Holy Week

Date: Monday 30 March 2015

Theme: ‘A Pause Before the Journey’

Film: ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ by Peter Jackson (2001)

Readings: Isa. 42:1-9; Heb. 9:11-15; Jn 12:1-11

‘Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead’ (Jn 12:1)

As you will have noticed, this series of Holy Week addresses is themed around films. The whole idea came to me after I heard someone comparing the Church with the cinema (to the detriment of the Church). “Why is there so little drama in Church?”, I was asked, when we know that people respond so deeply and intuitively to drama elsewhere. This remark got me thinking. Quite apart from the fact that modern Western theatre began in the Church, with processions and dramatised readings much like the Palm Sunday procession and Gospel reading that we heard here yesterday… And quite apart from the fact that our liturgy uses movement and body language in dramatic ways… the fact is that the story we are here to tell is an extremely powerful and dramatic one. The Eucharistic prayer that we are using this evening contains the words: ‘On the night before he died he had supper with his friends…’ A very dramatic moment in the passion story, yet only one of many symbolic set-pieces in Holy Week.

The story of Christ’s life and death (not to mention his resurrection from the dead) is moving in its simplicity, its elemental humanity, but also in its particularity: it happened in these ways, in this time and place…

And of all the gospels, John is perhaps the most cinematic. Preparing for this series of talks with cinema in mind, I was struck by how much of John’s gospel is about looking and seeing. We will see this especially on Friday afternoon, with Pilate’s famous words ‘Ecce homo’, behold the man…

John’s gospel makes sparse dialogue and simple scenes reveal huge amounts about the characters involved and their relations to one another. As you read through the second half of the gospel, you will notice an alternation in pace between the long, intense scenes in the Upper Room or when Jesus appears before Pilate, with shorter scenes that even cut back and forth or shift point of view. John is truly a cinematic gospel!

On the subject of character, there is something that emerges from John’s gospel and also in most of the films I have chosen to talk about this week. This is the willingness of the chief protagonist to sacrifice him- (or her-) self for the sake of others. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God’ (Heb. 9:14).

And because Jesus is so willing to hand himself over to be killed, we will cause to question the role of Judas in this story. It is worth noting at this point that after Jesus, Judas is the character who appears most often in the gospel readings set for Holy Week. There must be some significance to this, linked with what I take to be John’s programme of making his readers into disciples. We will return to this topic on Wednesday night.

Some things cannot be told; they must be shown. This is something that cinema is particularly good at. But even more than this: humans learn best by living. John’s narrative will enable us to live with Jesus and his disciples throughout this his final week. Hopefully the films I have chosen will offer additional insights by providing points of similarity as well as difference. But ultimately the narrative strategy of John’s gospel is such that we will be drawn into this story, and as we do so, we will actually BECOME disciples, EXPERIENCING Jesus in a whole variety of situations, until we too learn to tell his story as our story (cf. Jn 14:26, Jn 16:4, Jn 19:35, and Jn 20:30-31).

The gospel reading with which we begin this week helps to ‘set the scene’ for what is to come. In cinematic terms, we might say that John 12:1 is an ‘establishing shot’. It begins: ‘Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead’. The scene is related to ‘Passover’, a feast based on a sacrifice that is also a celebration of salvation. And it refers us back to John chapter 11 (in the manner of a ‘flash-back’), with its mention of the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the grave.

Those of you who were here last month for the funeral of Pat Heighway will remember that Lois read part of John chapter 11 on that occasion, while we looked at the final hanging of our Stations of the Resurrection (Station XIV, behind the South choir stalls). This hanging shows a tomb sealed with a heavy stone, a symbol of the finality of death. Yet it also implies and foreshadows the resurrection that will follow, much as in our mourning over the death of a loved one also contains a longing and a hope for the coming resurrection.

Almost all of the events of Holy Week are foreshadowed in Mary’s simple act of anointing Jesus’s feet.

With all of this foreshadowing, it is understandable that we often tend to ‘flash forward’ to the resurrection, which we know is coming on Sunday (and about which others will preach). But we mustn’t leap to the end of the story just yet! This is why I have very deliberately chosen two films that come at the beginning of their respective franchises: the first part of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ (today) and the first part of the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy (on Thursday). These films remind us that the story of the passion, like other epic stories, must be given time to unfold. It would be no good if, at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, the mighty eagles that occasionally come to the assistance of the companions were to drop Frodo and Sam direcly at the summit of Mount Doom, because then where would the story be? Similarly, if we did not experience the pain of desertion, rejection, and scapegoating that the crucifixion entails, we would experience the resurrection as something artificial: a plot device that would seem both contrived and emotionally dishonest. And again, this is where John’s narrative technique is so effective.

‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ contains elements that foreshadow the end of the story, such as the eye of Sauron that roams the land or the frightening Ring-Wraiths, but also the disturbing effects that the ring has on Bilbo, whom we hear about at the beginning and meet in Rivendell. Here, the plot refers back to a previous story, the separate but related story of The Hobbit.

The home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany corresponds to the House of Elrond in Rivendell, where Dwarves and Hobbits rest before continuing on their quest. It is a place of welcome, where wounds can be healed, food and company are enjoyed, and weary feet are rested. Rivendell and Bethany are also places where the nature of the mission ahead is spelled out and the risks involved are clarified. When this happens, some fundamental divisions are also exposed or foreshadowed. And finally, the House of Elrond and the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are places where love is expressed through courage and self-sacrifice.

A table set for dinner (Jn 12:2), feet washed (Jn 12:3), and Judas concerned about money (Jn 12:4-6), all of these things foreshadow events in the coming week and especially on Thursday night. Jesus feels at home here, and it is his last chance for a rest before Friday. The nature of his coming journey is foreshadowed in Mary’s preparations as if for his death. ‘She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial’, Jesus says (Jn 12:7). And the tension in Judas’s so very this-wordly attitude to possessions is brought out by contrasting it with Mary’s generosity (we are told that the perfume was very costly).

Notice that in this story, Judas is speculating publicly about the use of money that was never his to spend. This is not the habit of a truly generous man. It is very easy to spend other people’s money. But the way you spend your own money; that is the real test of your commitments and priorities. In sharp contrast to Judas, Jesus teaches that one’s charitable giving should be a private matter, taken seriously but not done for any personal glory. It is as if Judas is saying, ‘since you are going to pour your money down the drain anyway, you may as well get some credit for it by giving it to the poor’.

Similarly, we might ask whether Jesus is not being callous when he says ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’ (v. 8). He doesn’t say it like it’s a good thing that there will always be poor people. Rather, it is a sad reality that we need to be reminded of. The poverty of others should be the backdrop against which all of our moral choices are evaluated, the context for all of our action, including our worship and our generosity. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is very clear that the cost of discipleship might look like selling everything and giving it to the poor, or like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visitiing people in prison, in the knowledge that it is Jesus himelf who we are serving.

The attitude of Jesus is totally different to that of Judas because Jesus holds nothing back. Judas counts the cost and decides it is not worth it. Jesus (and in today’s story, also Mary)count the cost — they are fully aware of what is entailed — and they decide to give everything anyway. And joyfully.

Jesus has a quest, and it is very precisely to pour himself out on behalf of the poor: ‘He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth’ says the prophecy of Isaiah in words that were quickly applied to Jesus by the gospel writers. Isaiah continues that the Messiah would ‘open the eyes that are blind, […] bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, [and] from the prison those who sit in darkness’ (Is. 42:4, 6-7).

So dinner with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus is for Jesus a pause before pressing on with his mission of healing, enlightenment, and liberation: three metaphors for the atonement he would work on our behalf on the cross. The anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary’s act of generosity reminds us how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. And the perfume Mary uses reminds us of Christ’s coming death and burial. Her gift is a symbol of the self-giving love of Jesus, that holds nothing back but spends itself for others. And it is contrasted with the calculating and reluctant discipleship of Judas, who also serves in the story of holy week as a symbol of what all of us are like at our worst.

So we have set the scene and paused to consider John’s narrative technique. And in Mary, we have also witnessed a powerful model of discipleship. My prayer is that throughout this week, we will be challenged to imitate Mary’s imitation of Jesus in self-giving love. Amen