A House Filled with Fragrance

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

On this last Sunday in Lent, the gospel switches from Luke, which we have read the previous Lenten Sundays, to John. John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as much more weird than the pictures of him in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As we reflect upon this dinner party recounted by our text, I ask that you keep uppermost in your minds the fragrance of the perfume that filled the house. Perhaps you have not thought of perfume as a Lenten theme, but it is.

The dinner party at which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume took place in the house she shared with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, on the night before his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. They lived in Bethany, a Jerusalem suburb. As John tells the story, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead was what brought him to the attention of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council that reported to the Roman governor, who then was Pontius Pilate. Because many people were coming to believe in Jesus, at least as a miracle worker and possible messiah, the Sanhedrin feared that the Romans would take this to be rebellion and destroy the temple and city. Indeed a rebellion did take place about forty years later and the Romans did exactly what the Sanhedrin feared. The Sanhedrin resolved to kill Jesus in order to stay in the Romans’ good graces, according to John’s Gospel, and Jesus somehow knew about this. After raising Lazarus he had gone into hiding with his disciples in the town of Ephraim near the wilderness. But then as the Passover approached, he returned with his retinue to the Jerusalem area, knowing that the authorities were looking for him. The dinner party described in our text must have been a semi-public affair, and the next day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which was a royal gesture. Jesus did not need prophetic powers to predict his own death, and he was inviting the authorities to come and get him. John’s account of Jesus’ arrest the following Thursday evening depicts Jesus as boldly approaching the police who had come to arrest him and asking them who they were looking for. When they said, “Jesus,” he responded, “I am he.” And Jesus seemed to be in control of everything that happened after that, fulfilling the role he understood God to have for him.

Who was this Jesus, who seemed to direct the drama of his own death? John’s gospel differs from the others in answering this question. For one thing, according to John, Jesus at this point was a mature man, a little short of fifty years old, not a young man of thirty. For another, John’s Jesus was a theologian who spoke from a God’s-eye view, not a prophet who dispensed wisdom. But most important for John, Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos, that fundamental divine structure through which everything that is made is made, as the Gospel’s prologue says. Not many preachers try to say what this means. Nevertheless, precisely because Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God as Logos, it is important to think this through. Those of you, dearly beloved, who think sermons should be only uplifting stories have my permission to study your bulletin for a few minutes while I speak about the philosophical ideas involved in identifying this Jesus as the incarnation of God. The Gospel of John insists on this approach.

In the first century Jewish and Greek thinkers, and then Christian ones, often believed that the transcendent High God creates the world through a medium of transcendental structures, sometimes called Sophia, or Wisdom, sometimes Logos, which can be translated “Word” but also “Logic”. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” John said “And the Logos became flesh and lived among us,” and he identified this with Jesus. The Christian doctrine of incarnation is that the Logos became flesh in Jesus. Ancient philosophy had several theories about what this transcendental structure of reality is, none of which can be taken over simply as it was today. We need a theory of the Logos for our own time that coordinates with our science and philosophy, if we are to understand Jesus as the incarnation of God.

Permit me to offer the following philosophical reflections as an hypothesis about the Logos. We have to consider what it means to be a thing: that’s very abstract, the nature of a thing as such. To be a thing is to be a harmony of elements, some of which relate the thing to other things, others of which give the thing its uniqueness and own-being. As a harmony, each thing has a form or pattern; each harmony has components that are integrated in the form or pattern; each harmony has some existential location with its own place and dates relative to other things; and each harmony has whatever value is achieved by having its particular components integrated by its particular pattern in its particular spatio-temporal location. The Logos, I suggest, then consists of the elements of harmony that are universal to every thing, namely relational and unique features expressed in form, components formed, existential location, and value. Every thing is a harmony with these elements: form, components formed, existential location, and value. This Logos is in protons and quarks, mountains and seas, astro-physical entanglements, the clash of civilizations, and the subtle nuances of human life. It constitutes the connections of things as well as their differences.

Human beings are special cases. Protons, stones, and super-novas simply have the forms, components, existential locations and values that they do, all determined by law or chance. But we human beings have some control over what we do and become. For us, it is a problem to have the right form for our personal and social lives: we call that problem justice or righteousness. For us, it is a problem how to relate to the components of our lives that we integrate with our formal patterns; do we regard those components only according their instrumental roles in our humanly important patterns, or do we need also to regard them with deference or piety for their worth in themselves? Ecological concerns have shown us that things in the world are not to be regarded only in terms of how they fit the patterns of human life, but also in terms of their own careers and values. Natural piety toward the components of our patterns is a problem. For us, although we are thrown by chance, as it were, into our place and time, it is a problem whether to engage the issues of our existential location or to devise one or another form of escape or denial. This is the problem of faith. For us, the value we achieve is not automatic but results in part from what we choose in concert with others. So with regard to value, we live in hope. Because of our freedom, human form has the ideals of justice, components of our harmonies have the status of being objects of piety, existential location needs to be engaged in faith, and the achievement of value defines our religious hope. Although it is too complex to argue today, the integration of the elements in each harmony, in its human embodiment, is love: justice, piety, faith, and hope add up to love. Love that misses any of these elements is deficient.

Now the simple human story is that we have sinned, which means that we are deficient in one, some, or all of justice, piety, faith, hope, and love. We live, and seem to be bound to live, with the wrong form, with impious abuse of the components of our live
s, with denial of our existential responsibilities, and with despair at achieving a value to be recognized in ultimate perspective. Our love is deficient. This is to be lost.

The incarnation is that Jesus comes with the right form, the right piety, the right faith, the right hope, and the right love. Jesus shows us how to be just in a world of moral ambiguity, how to be pious when tempted to turn stones to bread, how to be faithful when the crucifiers gather, how to have hope when God seems absent, and how to love when it seems our only course is to be selfish. Jesus incarnates the Logos in human form, and is the Light for us. John’s Gospel is all about this. It begins with the prologue I quoted about incarnation, and continues with Jesus calling his disciples and training them to understand how to live justly, with deference, engaging their times, hoping when defeat seems certain, and most of all loving. The drama of his raising of Lazarus, receiving the death sentence, this party with his friends, the triumphal confrontation with his foes, the arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection are concrete and singular demonstrations of the justice, piety, faith, hope, and love that set us free. His last long conversation with the disciples, on the Thursday after our text’s party, began with his washing their feet and ended with speaking about love. Jesus gathered them for the crucifixion and resurrection, and finally bid farewell by re-establishing his friendship with Peter who had betrayed him, enjoining Peter to feed his sheep. Throughout John’s account, Jesus, the Logos incarnate in human flesh, is in charge and leads the disciples and us into a new reality with God, the reality of redeemed sinners in a community of love.

The house is filled with a fragrance that brings all this to mind, from the first party at the wedding in Cana to the wake that never occurs at which Jesus would be anointed for the last time with that pure nard. Smell is the sense of memory. The fragrance of the perfume is such a delight that stingy Judas thinks it could be sold for a great price that would help the poor. The fragrance also covers the stench of death, and Jesus says we are to remember his death. The poor are always with us, but if we remember Jesus we will have the water that quenches all thirst, the bread that is true life, the abundance that is God’s kingdom. The whole of the incarnation in our friend and mentor Jesus, with its profound mystery that goes far beyond anything I have said today, is called to mind in the fragrance that fills the house. Jesus blessed Mary’s extravagance and the loveliness of the perfume because this was the last time they would all be together, and from this party they would have to remember how to interpret the wild events that were about to transpire.

As we conclude Lent this year, I ask that you attend to the fragrance of holiness that brings the incarnate Lord into our midst. We live in our own houses, with our own problems, not in the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But if we inhale attentively, we can smell that perfume. Its fragrance will remind us that the Christ in our midst is the one who loves us and teaches us to love, with justice, piety, faith, and hope. This is not merely a clever person, but one in whom the Logos structures of creation dwell in their fullness. Because we can come into Jesus’ circle of love, we too can have his justice, piety, faith, and hope, indeed his love, that brings him to the Father. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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