Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
April 7, 2019
Lessons: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people are called to a countercultural way of life in which walking with Jesus is the focus, even when it means suffering.
Key Scripture: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:14
It’s relatively easy to talk the talk of a 21st century Christian. We live in low-expectation religious culture: toss a few dollars in the plate, show up for worship, and perhaps serve when it’s convenient. Thankfully, this isn’t everyone’s approach to discipleship, but you won’t find many congregations preaching like Paul about counting everything as rubbish except for following Jesus.
So what gives? When did we lose our countercultural fire for the gospel that we hear today in Paul’s words and experience in John’s gospel story of Mary’s lavish gift? When did discipleship become an add-on, like a side of sweet potato fries with your burger?
It’s pretty easy to opine about Mary’s lavish act of love and wag a finger at Judas’ stingy and self-serving response. This is a story that makes for a safe Lenten sermon and a comfortable Sunday lesson. We can kid ourselves into thinking we’re as dedicated and generous as Mary, while comparing ourselves favorably to Judas. We didn’t sell Jesus out for a few pieces of silver, right? And the poor? And as church we do a lot of good work to feed, clothe, and address the immediate needs of our sisters and brothers living in poverty. Folks can’t dispute that, can they? And how, pray tell, can we be expected to right the enormous wrong of injustice, poverty, systemic racism, and all the other societal ills that fill the nightly news? Let’s host another feel-good meal packing event and send soy and vegetable product overseas where hungry people will actually eat it!
But then there’s Paul take the wind out of our comfortable Christian sails and calling us to lose it all to gain Christ. Let me be completely honest: I have dismissed Paul’s words to the church at Philippi for most of my life and refused to confront the log poking out of my own privileged eye. There will always be a tomorrow to firm up my commitment to discipleship and make a radical life change, or so I thought. A little more than six months ago I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer, a disease for which there is no “cure.” Suddenly, in a breath, everything changed.
Now I completely get what Paul is saying. You can think you have everything, you can define your worth by your vocation, your possessions, your family, your whatever, but all that is rubbish in the end. You can’t take any of it with you; however, the Christ can take you with him to the ultimate prize of real and lasting life. What truly matters is one’s faith in Jesus and a radical reorientation of one’s life to pour it out like Mary’s perfume.
What if, my friends, it didn’t take a terminal diagnosis, a major life crisis, trauma, or loss to make us realize what really matters? Is it possible to lay everything at the foot of the cross and live like we are dying? Because you know what—we are. This is not, however, the end of the story for we belong to Christ. That means every breath, every action, and every choice can be made in a way that allows us to pour ourselves out for the sake of the good news and the repairing of the breach caused by sin and brokenness. How about it? Let’s press on toward the one goal that matters: our call of God in Christ Jesus.
Consider moving from solemn to joyous in recognition that the end of Lent is in sight and Easter is coming. Consider linking the celebratory elements to Psalm 126, with its movement from sorrow to joy in verses 5-6: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” Remind worshipers that Sundays are little feasts within the season, and that as such we feast on Christ and look with joy toward Easter even as we still walk through the remaining days of Lent.
Spend some time with the gospel story this week. Invite the youth to ponder Mary’s extravagant gift and Judas’ miserly response. How do we hear and see these roles being played out today? How can youth give of themselves for the sake of the world and not for self-interest or show? Often youth feel marginalized in our worshiping communities, sensing that their gifts don’t count for much. How might you affirm their gifts and talents for the community and the world?
This week’s focus verse is Philippians 3:14 – I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Invite the children to think about training for a marathon (You may have to tell them that the race is 26.2 miles long—a far distance to go.). One doesn’t simply lace up a pair of tennis shoes and go out and run this race. One must focus on the goal and train hard. If you have marathon runners in the congregation, consider inviting them to take part in this children’s time, bringing along some of their medals, trophies, and other race paraphernalia to show. If not, print a photo of great marathon runners and talk about what it takes to train to win a race like this.
Paul, however, is not talking about a marathon but about the goal of his salvation in Christ Jesus. His training is the life of discipleship, and his prize is forever/eternal life. Tell the children that everyone in your faith community is training for this “marathon” and to receive this prize. This award is better than any trophy, medal, or certificate. This prize is one that can never be taken away from you, one that won’t rust or break, and one that’s always new and perfect. Tell the children that because of Jesus they have all that they need to press onward toward this goal. Finish with a short prayer of encouragement and blessing.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
The Apostle Paul had it all—Roman citizenship, Jewish status, education—but he counts this as nothing. The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus as Lord and living for Christ. How do you steward this precious gift of salvation? What matters most in your life?
Stewardship at Home
This week’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah reminds us that God is doing a new thing with God’s people, making a new way forward. This ongoing creative and redemptive work continues today as God makes new each day with possibility and hope. No matter what your situation or condition, each day offers a new beginning. Consider Mary’s costly gift to Jesus. What gifts do you have to offer this world that could be considered extravagant ones, gifts that can be given and poured out in the name of Jesus for the sake of the world? Could you, for example, make an extra gift to benefit a ministry that matters to you? Might you respond to a disaster appeal and give more than you might normally give? Could you set aside time off to serve in a local ministry or non-profit, perhaps visiting the elderly in your county nursing home or helping with a community clean up?
2016 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2016/03/costly-a-life-poured-out/
2013 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2013/03/lavish/
Photos: Mike, Jason Wohlford, and MarineCorps New York/Sgt. Randall A. Clinton, Creative Commons usage license. Thanks!