Sermon - Sunday, 7 April 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 7 April 2019.

Scripture: Isaiah 43: 16-21 / John 12: 1-8

Text: Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume                      (John 12: 3)


Taken from the Latin passio meaning suffering, within the calendar of the Christian year today is known as Passion Sunday.

As through the Sundays of Lent the shadow of the cross looms ever larger, Passion Sunday is the day the church turns its attention to the passion, the suffering of Christ.

Flogged, beaten, a crown of thorns forced on his head as he was led out to be crucified, there can be no doubt Jesus suffered and suffered terribly at the hands of his Roman captors.

As well as his physical torment, in the Garden of Gethsemane as his disciples slept while he prayed, and then when Judas arrived with the soldiers and gave Jesus a kiss, Jesus also suffered the emotional torment of his closest friends deserting, denying and betraying him.

Worst of all perhaps was the spiritual anguish he suffered at Calvary when, with his life ebbing away, and feeling utterly abandoned, Jesus cried out in agony;

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[1]

Physical, emotional, spiritual: if Christ’s passion can be described in these terms then from the evidence of the New Testament, especially the letters of St Paul, the figure of the broken, suffering and crucified Christ was soon at the heart of Christian faith and theology.

Read any of Paul’s letters and you will find nothing about Jesus’ teaching, nothing about the miracles he performed, and nothing about his ministry.

Instead all you will find is Paul’s repeated reference to Jesus’ suffering and death – and his repeated insistence Jesus did not just die, he died for our sins.[2]

In other words, as the early church reflected on the events of the first Easter, the horror of Calvary and the surprise of the empty tomb, it came to realise, far from being in vain, Jesus suffered and died for a purpose, a purpose which accorded with the scriptures, a purpose rooted in the redeeming grace and love of God.

Over the years Christian theologians have sought to understand this purpose in a number of imaginative ways.

Augustine, one of the early church fathers, spoke of Jesus’ suffering and death in terms of God’s victory over the power of evil, evil found in the natural world as well as in fallen human nature.

As evidenced in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Reformed theological thinking was shaped by the idea of Jesus’ suffering and death as a ransom, a ransom he paid on behalf of fallen humanity, an insight quite beautifully expressed in the hymn, There is a green hill far away where we sing there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.

A victory over evil, a ransom paid on behalf of fallen humanity; the 19th century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell offered a different perspective when he described God’s relationship with the world and its people being akin to that of a loving and forgiving heavenly Father.

Of course Christ’s passion and death revealed God’s hatred of sin.

More importantly however, McLeod Campbell argued Christ’s passion expressed the breadth and depth of God’s concern, the concern of a heavenly Father whose love knew no limits in its longing for His errant children to be reconciled with each other and with Him.

Entitled The Nature of the Atonement McLeod Campbell’s book remains a classic – at the time it got him into a lot of trouble and he was thrown out of the Church of Scotland as a heretic – but its profound insight that the purpose of Christ’s passion was that we might be atoned – literally at-one with God - resonates to this day.

Do you suppose Mary knew any of this as she poured her perfume over Jesus’ feet and knelt to wipe his feet with her hair?

Sacrifice, ransom, atonement: was that what lay in Mary’s heart?

Or was it love, love for the person Jesus was, love for all he had done for her and for her family, love without limits, love that now literally poured itself out in a gesture of overwhelming gratitude?

And notwithstanding the insights of Biblical scholarship and Christian theology, when it comes down to it perhaps that is all we need know, an overwhelming sense of love and gratitude for the One who has done and continues to do so much for us.

John sets the scene beautifully.

It was six days before the Passover and Jesus and his disciples were at the home of Martha and Mary.

Having raised their brother Lazarus from the dead, the sisters had thrown a dinner party in Jesus’ honour.

Bread would be baking, a lamb would be roasting, and to that rich mixture of aromas is added the heady scent of Mary’s perfume.

Pure nard; it could well have come from India, it was top of the range, it was only ever used sparingly, you did not pour it out.

Yet that is exactly what Mary did, she poured out the perfume over Jesus’ feet such that the whole house was filled with the scent.

Little wonder Judas objected.

Judas appears to have been treasurer to the group and like all good treasurers he doubtless wanted to keep a tight control of the purse strings.

So what was Mary thinking about?

By all means put a couple of drops on Jesus feet but not pour it over him – what a waste – didn’t she know, didn’t Jesus know, this nard was worth a year’s wages.

Can’t you hear the frustration in Judas’ voice when he complains the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor?

If your first reaction is to have a degree of sympathy with Judas, let Paul Tillich encourage you to think again.

Tillich was one of the outstanding theologians of the 20th century, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who lived and taught in the United States.

Quite memorably Tillich described Mary’s gesture as an act of holy waste.

Contrasting Judas’ all too sensible response with Jesus defending Mary and telling Judas to leave her alone, Tillich drew a distinction between a calculating kind of love which wasn’t really love at all and a love that flowed from an abundance of heart.

The history of humankind, Tillich said, is the history of men and women who wasted themselves and were not afraid to do so.

They did not fear to waste themselves in the service of a new creation.

They wasted out of the fullness of their hearts.

A holy waste, a sacred waste, a waste flowing from the fullness of Mary’s heart - perhaps Tillich had in mind people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who did not make the safe, calculating and prudent choice to leave Nazi Germany but stayed to resist and in the end gave his life in the hope of a greater good.

Jane Haining would be a Scottish example.

Honoured at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, as Righteous among the Nations, Jane Haining was the Church of Scotland deaconess who returned to her school in Budapest and was eventually taken prisoner and executed at Auschwitz.

If the girls needed me in days of sunshine, she is reported to have said, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?

Bonhoeffer, Haining: in some eyes people would doubtless say they wasted their lives.

Yet with the eyes of faith theirs was surely a holy waste, a sacred waste, a waste that flowed from the fullness of their hearts, the waste that is the waste of love.

Passion Sunday and whatever else we need, from the terrorist atrocity in Christchurch to the trail of death and destruction left by a cyclone in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, to events and circumstances in our own lives, we need no lessons on the dreadful reality of evil, suffering and death.

What we need is the Bible’s reassurance such things do not have the final word.

And so this morning we hear about Jesus being anointed at Bethany.

Calvary’s cross might have been casting its dark shadow but it does not spoil Jesus’ enjoyment of the moment.

Instead Jesus takes obvious pleasure in the kindness shown him and delights in the intimacy of Mary wiping his feet with her hair.

What kind of life does the story of Jesus being anointed at Bethany commit us to living?

And what kind of church does the gift of Mary’s perfume commit us to being?

And if the story speaks to you of God’s kindness, God’s devotion and God’s abundant wasteful love, you will know there is nothing too precious for you to give in return.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Matthew 26: 46

[2] 1 Corinthians 15: 3