Of Anointing and Suffering

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Philippians 3:4b-14; St. John 12:1-8


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One. Amen.

What does it mean to share in Jesus’ suffering?

How do we share in his death?

The Church has spent the past two thousand years asking this question. As soon as the ink was dry on Paul’s letter, someone asked,

Now what? What am I supposed to do?

Over the centuries, we’ve come up with some pretty weird answers.

Early monks were known to give up earthly pleasures – you know, decadent things like the company of others and eating. They retreated to the deserts and into caves, spending decades living alone. Others would fast for weeks, months, and sometimes even years.

One monk, Saint Simeon, decided to climb up a pillar and live for decades fifty feet above the ground on a platform measuring only a few square feet. Somehow, remarkably even that idea caught on and spread to other regions.

Then there are the hair shirts, flagellation, and all manner of self-harm practiced by medieval Christians in the name of sharing in Christ’s suffering.

Martin Luther, having already given himself over to the strictly disciplined life of a monk, was known to nearly starve himself that he might find salvation through his suffering. As St. Paul wrote,

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.

so too did Luther write,

If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.

As Luther later realized, the irony is that such acts are exactly what St. Paul is writing against – mortification of the flesh at our own hands that might give us reason to boast.

And then there are the more nefarious uses of this text – the ways it has been used by slave owners, abusive husbands, and others to compel the oppressed to stay down and suffer because it is the “Christian” thing to do.

But all of these practices and interpretations get Paul fundamentally wrong. To understand what the Apostle meant by sharing in Christ’s suffering, we must strive to understand Christ’s work in this world.

Christ came to pour himself out, emptying his divinity into a frail human form, forsaking immortality to enter a world plagued by pain, violence, famine, disease, and death.

It’s not that we suffer because enduring pain makes us like Christ but rather because serving Christ means that we risk suffering. It means we will be reviled and despised, that we give sacrificially of ourselves, showing love to those who hate us. The natural consequence of being like Christ is that we will share in his agony.

We need not seek out pain, suffering, death, and martyrdom for their own sake. They will find us in due time as the world rebels against our Lord’s coming Kingdom. Following Christ will bring suffering at the hands of our sinful world.

anointing at bethan

For surely if Judas Iscariot scolded Mary for anointing Jesus’ body, how much more shall we be attacked for honoring the Body of Christ when we see it suffering today?

The great saints of the Church weren’t holy because they harmed themselves but because they honored Christ and endured in the midst of our violent and sinful world.

Luther himself learned this harsh truth after years of self-imposed suffering in the monastery. He need not spend days depriving himself in order to be like Christ; instead, he began proclaiming the Gospel in a way that challenged the power structures of the medieval world. Suffering found him on its own as he was put on trial, excommunicated, and hunted like a wild boar.

St. Paul, too, lived into the mission of God in this world, not seeking out pain but persevering in spite of it. He was regularly threatened, driven from towns, assaulted, and imprisoned. Many of his letters, including the Epistle to the Philippians, were written from inside a jail, and his earthly sojourn ended in execution outside the walls of Rome. The more fervently he poured himself into the work God had called him to do, the more he faced the dangers and sufferings of this world, even unto death.

And the noble Tradition of the Church teaches that Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus with perfumed oil, followed her Lord to the Cross along with her sister Martha and Mary Magdalene, where they would again anoint the Lord with oil for his burial. Following Jesus means we will pass by the foot of the cross, to see and endure suffering at the hands of the powers and principalities.

We share in Christ’s pain not by seeking out suffering for its own sake but rather by pouring ourselves out, by allowing the grace of God to flow through us into the world, by being transfigured by God. We are called to act not in pursuit of our own self-interest but in love for God, neighbor, and even our enemies, knowing that it might be costly, knowing that we might suffer for it, but at the same time, resting in the assurance that better things are to come.

In Jesus’ own day, in Paul’s time, and even in the Christian Europe of Luther’s life, and in parts of the world today, living like Christ meant, and means, risking life and limb.

But even in less extreme situations, even in this country, there are those who suffer for their faith.

In certain well-off neighborhoods, churches suffer the scorn of their neighbors for daring to feed the poor and housing the homeless, to serve those deemed “undesirable” in our culture. Towns have passed ordinances banning the distribution of food to the homeless, and Christians face steep fines for serving their brothers and sisters. And I’m willing to bet that some of our neighbors look suspiciously at the guests we welcome on Monday morning and loathe our hospitality.

Church-based refugee services face ever-growing resistance for welcoming in foreigners fleeing from violence in the Middle East and Central America. Even now Christians risk becoming outcasts for loving their enemies and welcoming refugees, and Christian leaders working on the US-Mexico border have, in this year of our Lord two thousand nineteen, been detained and questioned by our government.

After all, these have never been popular positions.  Anointing the Body of Christ will invite anger, even from others who claim the name of Jesus. There are those who scoff and say, “The poor you will have with you always,” following it with a silent and cynical, “Therefore why even bother?”

But Jesus’ words are not an excuse for inaction – rather they are a reminder that there will always be people for us to serve, poor sisters for us to love, brothers in need for us to feed, strangers for us to welcome, and suffering kindred for us to anoint with a healing balm.

Despite the world’s resistance, we don’t condemn the oppressed to say in oppressive situations, but rather we suffer alongside them, using what power we may have to protect the powerless.

We are called to do these things – not that we may boast of our own good deeds but that the righteousness of God and faith of Christ might work within us. As the baptismal liturgy says, we “let our light shine before others that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.”

All of this is not to deny the painful cost we will pay, nor can I deny the pain we will bear. Make no mistake: It will hurt.

If you’re very, very lucky, it will only cost you your pride.

In a world marred by sin and hatred, living a life guided by God’s love means we will suffer, and suffering – even for a just cause – is still agonizing.

Mary, Paul, and Martin knew suffering and oppression for their faith, but these blessed saints followed Christ all the same.

In our pain, we look to our Baptism, when we join most fully in Christ’s suffering, where we put to death our old selves and renounce the ways of this world. The waters of Baptism are terrifying. That small font is a drowning pool. But by God’s grace, through water and the Word, we are united into Christ’s Resurrection.And because we are united into Christ’s Resurrection, called forward as a people of God, we are sent into the world to demonstrate the fullness of God’s love. We are sent to the margins, to love those who are despised and cursed. We, who have been set free, are sent to proclaim that freedom to the captives wherever they may be.

It will cost us.

But in our baptismal identity, we are set free from grave for the Kingdom of God. We proclaim the Coming Kingdom in thought, word, and deed, knowing that whatever suffering it brings about will only last a brief time, but that the joy of the Resurrected Life will endure forever.

In our new life with Christ, we are given the strength to endure suffering and pain, scorn and loathing, and we endure being drowned in baptismal waters, because the cost is nothing compared to the gain.

We are being transformed by God into the Kingdom of God, erupting forward into this world, a visible sign of Christ’s graceful, redeeming love, a manifestation of his Body triumphing over the powers of sin and death.

We know that pain and death are not the end because Christ’s suffering and death were not the end.

As we wander through this Lenten wilderness to Jerusalem and that dark Friday, we know that there is something better on the other side.

As we face the scorn and pain of this world, as death presses in upon us, we press on toward the goal of God’s heavenly call.

Because of this assurance, we can sing songs of joy through our tears and agony.

We can look Death in the eye and taunt it, asking “Where is thy sting?”

And we can rest confidently knowing that while suffering, pain, and the grave rule the day, they do not have the last word.

Amen.

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