Perfume and Persecution

John 12:1– 8
Imagine you were watched, as you came into church today. Imagine two shady characters sit in a large black car outside in the market square, with notebooks and dark glasses, earpieces, and cameras, recording you as you walk up the path. Imagine that as we speak, malevolent authorities are being notified that we are here. We’ll share a meal together soon, symbolically at least. And our host is a wanted man, with a price on his head. Thirty pieces of silver.
The disciples know how we feel. Lazarus and his sisters are hosting a meal for Jesus and his disciples, but their arrival at the house is furtive. They scan doorways and alleyways as they enter, mentally noting who is looking their way. Lazarus has been restored to life by Jesus, perhaps only a couple of weeks ago. A dangerous thing for Jesus to do, in the increasingly fraught climate of suspicion. ‘Let us go with him, that we also may die’, Thomas had said, when they set out to do what they could for Lazarus.
We don’t actually hear from Lazarus at all. He’s been through a lot, poor man. Dying can’t have been much fun, and being restored to life would come as a shock to anyone. And the authorities have their spies, and their informers; now they plan to murder Lazarus, living proof as he is of Jesus’ authority. Mary and Martha too are under suspicion and in jeopardy. So the three of them put themselves at huge risk, entertaining Jesus and his disciples here in Bethany. Their hospitality will not pass un-noticed.
What was that noise? What might await us, later, when we step outside? Will soldiers surround us, and roughly manhandle us away, perhaps never to be seen again? No wonder the atmosphere is strained in here! And the sense that events are moving inexorably towards their Easter climax; this adds poignancy to the drama of our fellowship. This might be the last time we are all together in one place. This might be the last supper we share together.
Mary is not given to eloquent speeches. We hear her speak but twelve words; words of reproach when Jesus arrives, as she thinks, too late to save Lazarus. But with her brother restored to her, and the extent of Jesus’ love revealed to her, she responds with emotion which could never be adequately expressed in words. Mary makes this amazing, extravagant, generous, prophetic, embarrassing gesture of love and gratitude. Anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume almost beyond price; perfume which fills the house with its fragrance. A fragrance that persists down the centuries.
Under this kind of tension, people reveal their true selves. Martha busies herself, as always. Mary anoints Jesus, for his burial, he explains. Jesus accepts Mary’s expression of love for what it is, and recognises Judas’ expression of concern for what it isn’t. Judas complains about waste. No-wonder Judas is tetchy, though. The money exchanged for that nard might theoretically have been given to the poor. But if necessary, it might also have bought us our freedom, should soldiers now be mustering outside.
The disciples would know how we feel, were my imagined scene at the beginning ever to come to pass. But we find it difficult to know how they feel, in jeopardy for their association with Jesus. No-one has tried to kill us for our Christian faith. No-one reports us to the authorities when we come to church. Yet across the centuries and around the world, countless Christians have clung to their faith through times of terrible persecution. We are not forced to sacrifice to the Roman Emperor on pain of death, as Christians are during Diocletion’s persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. We are not punitively taxed, the way Christians are in pre-Islamic Persia. We are not mutilated for our faith, the way Christians are under Tipu Sultan, in eighteenth century India; nor guillotined for believing, as clergy are during the Terror of the French Revolution. We are not arrested for speaking out against injustice. Our churches are not burned, demolished or converted to other uses, as they are under the State atheism of the Soviet Union and China; nor are we confined in concentration camps, as Christians are in Nazi Germany, and still are in communist North Korea, (the country which today persecutes more Christians than any other). So we don’t understand what it was like for the disciples, nor for so many of our Christian forbears. We don’t understand what it is like for so many Christians around the world today.
But perhaps we know something of their anxiety, when we meet people who question us about faith and church life as they see it. ‘What does the archbishop mean when he says he prays in tongues?,’ someone asks in the pub one night; and you gulp, and think, ‘yes, I wish he hadn’t said that in public.’ Because now you’ve been put on the spot, and you will have to attempt a very long and complex explanation. ‘Why doesn’t the church keep out of politics?’ demands another politician. So that you have to marshal your arguments to explain that faith is never just about pie in the sky when you die, it always has a now dimension, and it always has a moral concern for how people treat each other. ‘Why do all your different Christian denominations hate each other so?’ ‘How can you belong to a church when your priests do such terrible things to children, and then lie about it and cover it up? What about the cultural vandalism of Christian missionaries over the years? There are so many questions that put us under scrutiny and pressure. We find it hard to defend the church we are part of and the faith we believe. We are not persecuted, exactly; but we find ourselves struggling our way through some very awkward conversations.
And yet, there is a fragrance of that perfume from Bethany that has wafted down the centuries, as our brothers and sisters in the faith have done the right thing, and lived out lives of love and self-sacrifice. They have prayed for those who persecuted them, and forgiven their enemies. They have loved their neighbour as Jesus commands. They have fed the hungry, and relieved the sufferings of the ever-present poor, tended the sick, sheltered the homeless, given their lives for the sake of the Lord they love; and inspired future generations of Christians.
Their sustenance was in the Eucharistic meal we all share. Their hope was in the Lord who bids them dine. So is ours.
© Jon Russell 2019