Lovestruck Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday in Lent + March 13, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8


 

Today’s gospel is full of things to talk and think about. The thing I’m zeroing in on this morning is an argument about what makes for good discipleship.

Mary poured an abundance of valuable perfume on Jesus’s feet; Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” The narrator tells us that Judas actually just wanted all that money for himself, but the way Judas phrased it was an accusation against Mary: That is not good stewardship. She is not being a good disciple.

This reminds me of another story: a story from the life of Dorothy Day. During the Great Depression, Dorothy helped to begin the Catholic Worker Movement, which sought to give a voice to those who were suffering from poverty, poor working conditions, and discrimination, and to minister to their needs. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality sprouted up all over the U.S., providing food and shelter to those in need. The story I’m thinking of took place in one of those hospitality houses; I’ll share it in the words of an eyewitness. One of her fellow Catholic Workers remembered:

One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”[1]

Dorothy and Mary both gave extravagantly, but not in what we’d say was the wisest or most reasonable way. Maybe that’s because they weren’t driven by being wise or reasonable so much as they were driven by love.

A discipleship driven by love is the kind of discipleship we see modeled and lifted up in today’s scripture readings.

To help us understand that kind of discipleship, I want you to think about a time when you fell in love. Like, really fell in love. The kind of love that makes you a little crazy, the kind of love that changes the way you want to spend your time, that reorders the things you care about, that makes you rethink the plan you’ve had for your life.

Maybe you’re thinking about a romantic love. Most of us have probably been there: those times in life when you’re totally distracted because you can’t stop thinking of that special someone, when you’d drop everything just to spend time with them. That’s the kind of love that leads us to commit to marriage, to building a life with another person.

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you felt at the birth of a child. Recently a friend told me about how having her first child totally changed her life, not just in terms of her responsibilities and how she spent her time, but also in terms of her desires, what she wanted to do with her life. Until then she had been all about her career, doing this job she loved; but then her daughter was born, and, she said, “I didn’t really care about work anymore. All I wanted to do was stay home and take care of this little person. I’d never thought that would happen.”

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you feel in a deep friendship. I always thought that when I finally had a paying job and vacation time, I’d want to go see all these cool places; now I’m realizing that what I actually want to do with that valuable vacation time is go visit my roommates from divinity school or my friends from college. And when my dear friend Shelly is in town, I will drive in Nashville rush hour traffic and stay up till three in the morning just to get every minute of time with her that I can.

There is a kind of love that has even greater impact on the way we see the world and the way we move in the world than reason does — and that’s the kind of lovestruck discipleship I’m talking about.

We see that kind of love in the Apostle Paul in this reading from Philippians. Paul described what his life had been like: he cared about his status as part of God’s chosen people; he cared about keeping the Jewish laws; he cared about protecting his faith and his culture from this upstart group of Jesus-followers. But then he encountered Jesus Christ, and everything changed. He said that all those things that used to be most important to him…not only were they less important in light of Jesus, they were nothing. They were less than nothing. Paul said he came to regard them as loss, as rubbish, as something to be thrown away in his pursuit of Christ. That is a life changed by love.[2]

And he wrote about Jesus in the language of a lover. His words are dripping with longing: longing to know Christ and to be with Christ. He was willing to suffer for Christ. All of this sounds like it could also come from the lips of Romeo (if only it were written the right poetic meter). In fact we have copies of four “romance novels” from around the time of Paul, and one of them contains a phrase that sounds like it would be right at home in Philippians; one lover says to another: “I have forfeited all things that I might gain you.”[3] And throughout his letters Paul uses marriage as a metaphor to talk about the church’s relationship to Christ and Christians’ relationship to one another as people bound together in Christ. Paul is a disciple in love with Jesus, and he encourages the Philippians to imitate him (Phil. 3:17).

We also see that lovestruck discipleship in Mary. She pours out her costly perfume on Jesus’s feet, then lets down her hair — which might have been scandalous in a culture that said women ought to cover their hair for the sake of propriety — and she uses her hair to wipe his feet. Jesus doesn’t rebuke her for her love-crazy show of devotion. He lifts her up for showing him such love even as he is about to die, for loving him “until death do us part,” for loving him even beyond death, in his burial.

Apparently loving Jesus with reckless abandon was what this Mary was known for in the early church. Earlier in John’s gospel he told another story of Mary and her sister Martha, and how Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. To clarify exactly which Mary he was talking about (we all know there are a lot of Marys in the gospels), John wrote, y’know, the Mary “who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (Jn. 11:2). This is before he’d even told the perfume story.[4] And you probably remember Mary from another story, from the Gospel of Luke, where Martha was running around playing hostess while Mary sat devotedly at Jesus’s feet. (Jesus says that she is the better disciple in this story, too.)

In so many places in the Bible this lovestruck discipleship is held up as the model to follow as we grow in our discipleship. Maybe that is because loving Christ like that comes close to loving God like God loves us. Throughout the Bible we hear that God loves us like a parent, like a lover, like a friend. God loves us with the kind of love that breaks God’s heart when we are unfaithful; God loves us with the kind of love that drives God to forgive us.

In Jesus Christ we see just how recklessly and foolishly God loves us: that God would become human, that God would become like a slave out of love for us, that God would go to the executioner’s block for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Like lovestruck Mary lavishly poured out her perfume, lovestruck Jesus lavishly poured out his life.

That reckless, lavish love is the foundation Jesus gave us for the Christian life. It is the model for our discipleship, for how we ought to love God, and for how we ought to love one another. It is the untamable basis for our ethics, our decision-making. It’s not necessarily wise or reasonable — at least not by the world’s standards (1 Cor. 1:18-31). But it is the way of the cross, the way of amazing grace, the way of God.


 

[1] Jim Forest in an interview with the U.S. Catholic, November 2010 (Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 18-21). Found online at http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2011/09/work-hard-pray-hard-dorthy-day-and-thomas-merton Accessed March 12, 2016.

[2] Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14,” Working Preacher, March 13, 2016. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2776

[3] Quoted by David Fredrickson in his course Philippians and Corinthians, Luther Seminary, Fall 2013; lecture on September 10, 2013. Much of this sermon is inspired by Fredrickson’s lectures and his book, Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[4] Pointed out by Susan Hylen in “Commentary on John 12:1-8”, Working Preacher, March 17, 2013. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1582

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