Preacher The Revd Alan Sykes
If you’re a fan of utterly preposterous adventure films that don’t take themselves too seriously, you may remember a particular scene from that classic of the genre Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones and his companions have to choose the true grail from a host of other grails set before them – most of them gaudy and generally ostentatious. Just to remind you – the grail is the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.
They are faced with lots of fancy golden cups and jewel-encrusted cups but the genuine grail (which of course Indiana Jones chooses correctly – ‘cause he’s that kind of guy), the genuine grail is the simple cup of a modest carpenter.
The message of the scene seems to be that the gaudiness of wealth is not to be confused with that which is truly spiritual.
When I think of that scene, it always strikes me as slightly odd that a Hollywood film costing millions of dollars and encrusted in its production with people earning huge fees should seem to be lauding the virtues of poverty and simplicity but that, I suppose, is just one of the hypocrisies to which Hollywood is prone.
You sometimes, often even, hear it said that there’s something not right about the church being wealthy while there is poverty in the world around it. We use silver chalices in this church for instance – as well as other expensive bits and pieces.
I know that some in our church have questioned whether it’s right that we should be spending so much money at the moment on refurbishing this building. I bet that scaffolding at the back cost a fortune. Shouldn’t we be spending money on people rather than on bricks and mortar? I’m not taking a position on the matter but there is always a debate to be had. There’s always going to be tension in the church on such matters.
In our gospel reading, on the face of it, Jesus seems to be supporting the view that giving money to the poor isn’t the only legitimate use to which money can be put.
Now, let me say straight off that he’s not implying that giving money to the poor is a bad thing.
When Judas suggests that the money spent on the perfume could and should have been given to the poor, John the gospel writer is forced to claim that Judas was a thief. Maybe Judas was a thief or maybe he wasn’t, but it’s interesting that John has to say it here in order to deflect from Jesus what might have been seen as a legitimate criticism.
We’re still in Lent and in a way the scene reminds me of the temptations we heard about a few weeks ago – and one in particular, the temptation to turn a stone into a loaf of bread, to which Jesus responds that human beings do not live by bread alone. Our spiritual needs must be nourished just as much as our bodies.
None of which means that we should ignore destitution or not strive to alleviate it. But, to provide people with material resources and not to provide them with spiritual resources is not, to say the least of it, a recipe for helping them to reach the deepest levels of peace or joy.
You sometimes hear it said that Jesus wasn’t a very original teacher. And it’s true that you can find most of his teaching pre-echoed in the Old Testament. But there’s one aspect of his teaching that, as far as I’m aware, is entirely original and it cuts to the heart of what the spiritual life is all about.
In the costly perfume with which Mary anoints Jesus in advance, as it were, for his burial we have a hint, an image of how valuable this insight is.
As God through the prophet Isaiah tells us in our first reading:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The new thing that Jesus shows us is his offering of himself on the cross, prefigured in this anointing by Mary. Jesus’ self-giving love for others – even to the extent of dying on a cross – is the new thing that he is embodying. It’s that which makes a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Left to our own devices we human beings are a varying mixture of self-gratification and fear, love for some, loathing for others and indifference towards most – unless and until, that is, we are touched in some way by the divine.
Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus tells us, commands us, to love our enemies. What I think he means by that is that, if we can love our enemies, we can love all people and even the whole of creation. Being the most difficult of things, loving our enemies becomes a token of being able, truly, to love.
And love shows itself for what it is by expending itself on behalf of others.
Jesus expends himself for others by dying for them on a cross. I don’t imagine for a moment that we as followers of Jesus are necessarily called upon to die but we are called to expend ourselves in love for others, to take up our cross.
It’s a cross because it is not the path that we would naturally follow. Only the grace of God can lead us to take this path.
The paradox is of course that by expending and therefore losing ourselves we find ourselves. As Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it.
Our true life does not reside where once we thought it did – in the gratification of our natural selfishness. It resides definitively elsewhere.
Few of us are spiritual giants. Learning to love is the work of a lifetime and probably longer. And to be honest I feel a bit of a fraud standing up here and telling you all this. Do I embody this ideal that Jesus has set before us? Do I expend myself, really expend myself for the sake of others?
Well, no, I don’t. Well, maybe sometimes but not always. There’s something holding me back – my old self, the same old self, the same old unloving self that I guess we’re all familiar with within ourselves. But over the years I think I’ve at least glimpsed what Jesus means by exhorting us to carry our own cross and I trust that one day I will know, I trust that we will all know, what it is truly to live a life of unalloyed love and service.
Our deepest need is to love each other, to love God and to love all creation and to so conduct ourselves in accordance with that love, that there is no contradiction between what we long to be, who we are and how we act.
Love is the way of the cross and the way of the cross, as Jesus knew and experienced, is the way to life.