Ballast from Bethany-AscensionB

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The feast of the Ascension brings to a close the forty day season of Easter, which itself is a climax to the forty day preparatory period of Lent. The purpose of the Ascension is to mark the transition of Jesus from Incarnate God back to the original Cosmic Omnipresnt Being. At least that is the theological perspective.

But there is something missing in all of this, for in my lifetime I have seen a steady decline, not merely in the observance of the Ascension feast, but also in the significance of this event in moderna day experience of our salvation history.
In part I suppose this due to the fact that “ascension” works better in a flat earth cosmology where there is only one direction one can ascend in. Knowing we live on a sphere, and then discovering the vast insignificance of that sphere in the Universe makes the ascension almost impossible for twenty-first century minds to process on any cognitive level.

Besides this, asking “Where did he go?” is at once a locational as well as a dimensional conundrum and to go from here to geo-physical explanation becomes a flight of fanciful sophistry.

Simply from these few sentences you can see that it is easy to ascend into such etheric speculation as to begin to feel just a tad trippy. That is why I come to the Ascension looking for an anchor and some ballast. If I, as a global, galactic human am to understand this feast at all I will have to angle into its significance in a way that is relevant to my context.

Let’s see…
The ascension is at its heart the conclusion of the Incarnation. How does one grasp that then without feeling utterly bereft of all the gift and consolation that Emmanuel brought us at the Christ Mass? As I scoured the passage for some sign I noticed that Luke is very specific in telling his readers,”he led them out as far as Bethany”.

Why did he lead them out as far as Bethany?
Bethany is the place of consolation, community and care for Jesus. The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, was his refuge and at the same time the prototypical church community.

If Jerusalem is the city that “stones the prophets” and which refuses to be “gathered like chicks under the wings” of Jesus; then Bethany is the place where prophets recover and where clucking, caring community is to be found. Jesus, in taking the disciples as far as Bethany, points to where his incarnation will continue after the ascension. Yes, he does tell them to go and wait in Jerusalem for the gift from on high, but they are to go as the Bethany house community, caring for and supporting each other.

Pentecost may mark the birth of the empowered church, but the Ascension marks the gathering of that grieving, wounded and wondering group preparing, through pain, for inspiration.

Here in Bethany,where Lazarus walked out of a tomb that had been sealed for four days, these women and men are experiencing the very human realities of separation, loneliness and agst that we know from our own experience are the portals through which Spirit can blow.

It’s never too soon to give up hope!

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I don’t know many people who like to wait.  I don’t.  When I was in the Army, I hated my last name “Woods”, because it left “Zulch” and me at the back of every alphabetical line.  It was worst on pay days.  Abrahams, and Brown would already be in their bungalow sipping their Cokes from the canteen when I hadn’t even been paid!

I like waiting even less when I have called someone to come and help me.  Telephone repair people seem the worst.  The DSL line is down, I cannot get my Facebook fix, and no one arrives to sort out the problem!

I understand how Mary and Martha felt.

They had called for Jesus.  He was down near the Jordan where John had been baptizing.  Close enough to get to Bethany.  Really close if your dear friend is dying!

But Jesus, doesn’t seem too concerned. He sees a far bigger perspective than everyone else who is in a panic that Jesus hasn’t arrived.  Then suddenly, all too suddenly it is too late.

Lazarus is dead.

All human hope is now superfluous.  It is too late.

Have you ever been there? I have.  Too late to fix, too late to call out, too late even to hope.  It’s too late.

Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead.  He tells his disciples this brutal truth.  Only then does he decide to go to nearby Bethany. He arrives on the fourth day.  The day that is beyond all hope.  All through Scripture the third day is the day that God acts.  Jesus arrives on the hopeless day, the fourth.

He bears the ire of Martha, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”  Am I the only one who reads a silent sub-text from Martha, “Where the hell were you?

Jesus himself weeps at his dead friends tomb…

And then he calls forth life and liberation from the hopeless hole, on the hopeless day, amidst a hopeless crowd.  He calls forth life in the midst of certain confirmed, putrefied and stinking death.

I don’t quite know what to make of this narrative.  Year after year I look at it and the deep mystery of this event continues to cloud round me like soupy fog.

All I know is that I have been hopeless before.

At the back of the line, waiting and waiting.  Praying and praying. Willing and willing.  And then somewhere just after the third day I have given up.  I have resigned.  I have resented. It is finished. It’s too late!

In the dark of failed relationships, failed programs for happiness, failed dreams of beauty and happy endings.  In the entombed hopeless reality of life’s darkness, I have heard an untimely voice.  A voice that called my name.

Just like Lazarus, for me life and liberation came, through the tears of Jesus and the torment of my hopelessness.

I was able to stand up, against all the odds and I understood the meaning of Lazarus’ name.  It means, “God has helped

No one else could have helped, but God has helped. On the fourth hopeless day, God has helped.

Now untie me and let me go!

There’s no soul in safety, only shadows

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

I was encouraged to always play it safe. Raised by post-war parents, a job was held onto for life, money was saved for a rainy day, and prodigal pursuits like gambling and extravagant shows were taboo. Of course my Calvinistic mother, from a very strict vein of the three dominant Dutch Reformed Churches that monopolised white religion and government, was even better at this than my slightly more profligate Methodist father. They used to love telling how their first marital argument was about Dad frying eggs in butter when lard had been good enough for the twenty one years of my mother’s life till then! Today, my cardiologist will not allow me do either.

This cautious Calvinism was simply a subset of puritan Protestantism and was how most of us lived through the fifties sixties and seventies. You must remember that South Africa was cocooned in Apartheid Nationalism, with no television, strictly controlled media, and prudish censorship laws that enhanced our fear of otherness and made us all (all hues and shades) quite governable and compliant.

In the world in which I grew up Judas would be speaking for all of us when he criticised Mary’s reckless extravagance. So coming to the passage as I do today, requires of me some reorienting of my formational values if I am going to understand why Jesus praises Mary and not Judas in the events John is recording for us.

I am of course grateful for the deep shifts that my training and reading in the disciplines of ministry have brought about. These changes of view help me be ready to explore the passage. Allow me to name two:

  • It was at a preaching school as a probationer minister almost twenty five years ago, that our leader Rev Vivian Harris, played a cassette tape of a lecture by a Lutheran minister, whose name has been lost in my memory. The speaker was exegeting the Parable of the Sower and was commenting on how this was NOT a parable about the soils as we had come to understand and preach it, rather it was a parable about the extravagance of the sower who didn’t seem to care where he was casting his costly and carefully prepared seed. My mind was expanded.
  • The second discovery comes from a book whose title I do remember. It was, Journeying Within Transcendence: A Jungian Perspective on the Gospel of John. by Diarmuid McGann. It was in this book that I discovered how important it is to read the passages of the Gospels carefully and prayerfully. The discipline of Lectio Divina is unequalled here as helping me to do that. McGann brought home to me the fact that the Gospel writers and John in particular seldom say anything without it having significance.

So to the passage.

John makes a point of locating the event “six days” before the Passover. Why? There seems to be a hint at the beginning of creation. God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. If the Passover/Last Supper is the culmination of the New Creation of Jesus, then what is happening in Bethany could be the proto event of this new creative “week”.

In the Genesis creation story the first creative act is the dichotomous duality of light from dark. Is this the same in the little home of the two sisters whose names MARtha and MARy originate etymologically in bitterness? [Martha’s name means “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking” Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child“] At the Passover meal the eating of bitter herbs is a reminder of the bondage of Egypt, yet the bitter sisters are the ones who bless not out of bitterness but out of abundance. Martha serving the meal, and Mary bringing the evening to a climax by the extravagant anointing of her Lord. At an immediate level of course this could be because of the gratitude at the raising of Lazarus, but one feels there is a more transcendent reality hovering, as the Spirit always hovers over the chaos of human suffering. Those whose names signify bitterness, are not the ones who display bitterness. No, the bitter named women are the feast givers and fragrance spillers. It is the man, the treasurer from Kerioth, the only Judean [read superior Judean], who displays bitterness in his criticism of Mary’s extravagance. , “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Now dear John, cannot seem to help himself from editorializing. His unfortunate comments about “the Jews” later in the gospel became the excuse for Anti-Semitism from the middle ages onwards! Here his editorial wants to guess at Judas’ motives. (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.). “Hey c’mon John, you know better than to guess at another’s motives! It is the cause of so much conflict in the world. We don’t know why Judas said what he did. But Jesus rebuked him for it, that is clear!

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The Passover is beginning. The duality is emerging. Light is separating from darkness. Six days from now at the Passover meal Judas will leave and it will be night. (As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30) The darkness will be complete. For now, though, there are only shadows on this act of pure love.

I want to circle back to “Why the extravagance?” l do that because there is another family member whose name is significant. Lazarus means, “God is my help

Is it not true that only when we have been helped by God, that we begin to understand how to live extravagantly in honouring Christ wherever we may find him? The bitter sisters discovered that nothing was too much to offer in praise of God, after Jesus had restored their lives to them (literally because Lazarus death would have left them as women, destitute in that society). When Jesus has become the reason for our very existence, we have a different sense of values and what worth really means.

A dear friend and recovering alcoholic describes his journey into following Christ, not as some intellectual, or social pursuit. “Oh no”, he says “I had to find something that would give me a reason not to commit suicide at the end of every day” That is to know you have been helped by God.

The bitter named sisters and the God helped brother are transformed into generous and faithful followers of the one who gave them a reason to keep on living every day. The Passover lamb who kept the Angel of Death away from their little home is the Jesus whom they praise with food and ointment without counting the cost. What is a year’s wages when you have been given life in all its fullness? There is no bitterness here. The bitterness has all shifted to Judas.

Judas the cautious, Judas the pragmatic, Judas the frugal; was always playing it safe and secure. Convincing the committee with pragmatism and good fiduciary governance.

Too bad he was staring at the balance sheet so intently, he never noticed the shadows that were beginning to swallow him.

Oh, I forgot to mention what the name of Judas means.

It comes from the Hebrew root, “God be praised