In John 12 Mary of Bethany interrupts the dinner party given in Jesus’ honor at Simon’s house to anoint his head and feet with pure nard. This perfumed resin cost a year’s wage. Mary broke the neck of the bottle containing the nard so that it could not be saved (Mark 14.3). The entire house was filled with the fragrance of it. In order to work the perfumed oil into Jesus feet, and to remove the excess, Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. This act was so outrageous, so intimate that it upset the others at the dinner party. Judas openly complained about the waste of money. Jesus defends Mary, explaining that she has anointed Him ahead of time for his burial. He does more than defend her, he celebrates her. He demands that wherever the Gospel is preached Mary, and her kind gesture is to be remembered (Mark 14.7-9).
This gesture is so intimate that we had a hard time staging it for Vacation Bible School last summer. We made sure we got a husband and wife to play Jesus and Mary because we would not ask a woman to wipe a random man’s feet with her hair. We made sure we asked a newly wedded couple because we doubted most married women would agree to wipe their husband’s feet with their hair. Luckily we had a couple who were just married to play the roles of Jesus and Mary. They carried off the scene perfectly. It was startling to behold. Seeing it in person – how shocking this gesture is, and understanding that those first century Jews were closer culturally to fundamentalist Muslims than to us jaded Westerners – emphasized dramatically the radical nature of the moment.
It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to Jesus. Earlier, at the home of a Pharisee (also named Simon) a prostitute interrupted dinner to weep at Jesus’ feet (Luke 7.36-50). She bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. Simon, an important Pharisee was insulted at this intrusion, and thought that if Jesus were truly a prophet he would know what kind of woman was taking such liberties. Jesus defended the woman, explaining that she is only showing gratitude for the forgiveness she has been given. He exposed the way Simon has mistreated him, refusing him basic hospitality, and compared that treatment with the radical devotion of this unnamed prostitute.
In both instances we see women bravely breaking society’s rules to express their gratitude and devotion to Jesus. Jesus receives and appreciates these gestures. Jesus is also careful to fully explain the significance of both gestures, and make clear His appreciation of them. He wants to make sure we understand that both women are sincere. Their gestures are as natural as a sunrise. We need to take notice, to learn, to follow.
There is something else. Jesus is wholly unconcerned about our uneasiness. It is almost like He is saying, “This makes you uncomfortable? Well grow up!” If we cannot appreciate the purity and beauty of these women who, for different reasons wiped Jesus’ feet with their hair – even after Jesus carefully explains everything – we are beyond Jesus’ patience. Jesus is not going to accommodate our narrowness. He is not going to hide these gestures, nor ask these ladies to tone their acts of devotion down.
No. Both women are in the Gospel record. God made sure of it. In Mary’s case Jesus says her act of kindness should be part of the preaching of the Gospel wherever the Gospel is preached. We cannot avoid them. Every Gospel has one of these stories. Gratitude and devotion will naturally produce radical, unashamed acts of kindness. When this happens Jesus notices, understands, and is glad.
Do we have a problem with that?
A few years ago the actor and activist Michael J. Fox wrote a memoir of his life after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. His courage in the face of this debilitating disorder has been an inspiration. The title of his memoir, Lucky Man, calls to mind another celebrity associated with another terrible disorder. Lou Gehrig, whose name so represents Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) that almost everyone knows it as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” famously ended his farewell to the fans at Yankee Stadium in 1939 by declaring, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Gehrig meant what he said. The gratitude in his voice was unmistakable. Both men use the word “lucky” to mean blessed.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is not associated with any particular disorder or disease (although he did die of Lung cancer). He lived a seemingly charmed life, despite facing entrenched racism every day. In 1955 Duke Ellington told Edward R. Murrow that his success and longevity was due to “85% luck.” Duke, at the time, was at the height of his powers, his reputation had never been greater, and his life seemed to be an unfurling ribbon of prosperity and achievement. He attributed this to luck – the randomness of good fortune.
Sportscasters often remind us it is “more important to be lucky than good.” The Bible says something surprisingly similar. Ecclesiastes 9.11 states: The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to men of wisdom, but time and chance happen to all.
I am a lucky man, myself. Last year, in this very space I wrote a piece demonstrating that the odds of winning the lottery are better than the odds of enjoying all the blessings I have been given (health, American citizenship, Christian upbringing, stable home, advanced degree, et cetera). These blessings are from God, as is every good and perfect gift (James 1.17). This makes me deeply grateful and profoundly afraid. I am grateful because none of it is deserved. I am afraid because I feel things will eventually even out - as my old dominoes buddy, Maggie Burcham used to say, “There is a board waiting for every behind.” I wonder if receiving such an abundance of blessings is a product of chance, or of intention. Have I been lucky or have I been blessed?
Either alternative is problematic. It is hard to think that something like pure luck even exists in a world where the fall of a single sparrow is noted by God (Matthew 10.29). In fact the word translated “chance” in Ecclesiastes 9.11 describes unforeseen factors, not randomness. It describes the limits of human perception, not the chaos of the universe. However, if I am blessed, not just lucky, what does that say about God’s fairness? I am not a particularly good person. Why have I been given so much? Why do others suffer so?
Jesus, interestingly, uses the weather to explain God’s blessings, and His love of his enemies (Matthew 5.45). God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust equally. Does this mean that God orders each rainfall, or that He set in motion a meteorological system that doesn’t morally discriminate?
Whatever Jesus means, He gives us a handle on the question of luck by using the weather to explain blessings. Weather is so complex that it has yet to yield itself to our mathematics. We are better at predicting it than we used to be – but the 7 Day Forecast on your evening news is no more accurate than the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Think of all the possible paths we are shown every time a hurricane forms in the Atlantic. Hour to hour we are guessing. We cannot manage the weather, nor alter it – or even predict it with much accuracy. Maybe what we call “luck” isn’t random at all. Maybe the rubric of life and blessing is so complex that it looks like chaos to a finite human mind.
Despite that complexity, simple truths emerge we cannot ignore. God knows. God reigns. God blesses. We know He is the source of every good thing. We know to be thankful, and to say so. What else do we need to know?
The 1860 presidential race between Lincoln, Douglass, and Breckenridge was one of the most bitter in U.S. history. The tall, lanky Lincoln, and the short, doughty Douglas had been rivals since they both sat in the parlor of Mary Todd, vying for her hand - round 1 to Lincoln. Then they fought bitterly over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which Douglas sponsored. It set aside the Missouri Compromise, and made it possible for slavery to spread west. Lincoln’s best early speech is his address given in opposition to this act. It is uncharacteristically seasoned with anger and sarcasm. The act became law – round 2 to Douglas. The men famously opposed each other for the seat of junior senator from Illinois in 1856. Douglas won the election, when the majority democrats voted early and often, but because of their highly publicized debates Lincoln became a national figure – round three was a draw.
During the presidential race of 1860 Lincoln didn’t campaign in the Deep South. He wasn’t even on the ballot there. The democrats were split between Douglass and Breckenridge. Douglas was the biggest racist of the two, and the more virulent advocate of slavery – but he was pro-union. Brackenridge was a garden-variety racist, but he was pro-secession. When Douglas campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina he was so reviled that he often could not leave his train. He was cursed, spat upon, and pelted with rotten vegetables wherever he went. Breckenridge split the ticket, Lincoln won the election, and South Carolina seceded before the inauguration – round 4 goes to war.
As Lincoln rose to give his first inaugural address (a masterpiece), he removed his iconic stove-pipe hat, holding it with one hand while fumbling his notes with his other. Stephen Douglas, who was sitting just an arm’s length away, offered to hold his hat. Lincoln gratefully handed it to him, and began his plea that we listen to our “better angels.”
In my mind, I have kept Stephen Douglas in that subset of history’s villains which includes Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and the Jenner/Kardashian clan. But this unexpected gesture of kindness makes me reconsider. Why was he so quick to show this kindness? I don’t know. Maybe he had a new perspective on the whole issue of slavery and union after his campaign experience. Maybe one can be polite and a racist at the same time. Maybe the gesture was a reflex, and has no meaning at all – but it gives me pause.
Random acts of kindness do that. They make us notice, re-compute, reconsider, appreciate. Why else would Jesus remind us of the value of a single cup of water given in His name? This comment about the cup of water, found in Matthew 10.40-42 provides the two key moments from Lew Wallace’s grand novel, Ben Hur. Wallace, incidentally, was a Union General in the Civil War. The key moment early in his book is the offering of a cup of water to Judah Ben Hur by Jesus. In the climax of the book, he returns the kindness as Jesus struggles towards Golgotha. The scenes are powerful, in the book, the 1925 silent film, and the 1959 Oscar-winning blockbuster. The scenes are powerful because the truth is powerful. A single cup of water can make things better.
Jesus reminds us that in the end we will be judged based upon our record of kindness (Matthew 25.31-46). Tending to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the distressed, the sick will be the difference which separates sheep from goats. Most of us will never be president of anything. Few of us will achieve anything historic. All of us can be kind – moment to moment, one person at a time – and Jesus says this makes all the difference.
Three times God visibly demonstrates that He cares how we worship Him. At the beginning of each age He meted out extreme punishment to those who would worship him as they please and not as He instructs. Sam Bates, in a powerful sermon yesterday morning, covered the last two of those times. Jack Powers preached another great sermon last night on the first of those times.
The writer of the book of Hebrews begins his treatise by dividing human history into three periods based upon the way God has communicated with us (Hebrews 1.1-2). God spoke to the “fathers,” “through the prophets,” and “through His Son.” Each method of communication is appropriate to its time. Early on, when humans were without written language, before the Phonecians had invented the alphabet, God spoke to the “fathers” – the heads of households. Adam, Abraham, Noah and the others knew what God wanted because He spoke to them directly. Later God gave his people written texts. The 10 Commandments were written on stone by God Himself. The Law, the Writings, and the Prophets were recorded on scrolls. His people didn’t have to wait for a voice from heaven to know what to do. They could consult the text. In the fullness of time God sent His Son. Now we know God by knowing Jesus. We are disciples – we are a family of followers, not of rules-keepers. We are saved by Grace, not by Law. The text is still primary because the text reveals Jesus.
In each age the worship God seeks is appropriate to the time as well. In the age of the “fathers” there seems to be no structured system – people of faith sacrificed their best to express their devotion. Jack Powers pointed out in his sermon that when Cain and Abel came to sacrifice Abel brought his best, while Cain just brought something (Genesis 4.1-16). God does not accept Cain’s offering, and explains clearly what Cain needs to do. Cain sulks, kills his brother, and is cursed by God. On Mount Sinai God gave the Israelites a rigidly structured system of sacrifices and observances. At the beginning of the Mosaic age Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered strange incense to God and He consumed them with fire (Leviticus 10.1-3). After Pentecost this rigid and elaborate system of sacrifices and observances was obsolete. After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 it became extinct. Christian worship is simple and sincere. In the earliest days of Christianity God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead after they lied about their offering (Acts 5.1-11). Sam compared Leviticus 10 with Acts 5 and concluded that God demands to be worshipped the way He wants, not in ways that suit us.
Of course God’s way of worshipping does suit us – all of us together. We sing, we pray, we preach, we share a common meal, we give. These items of worship are suitable to the entire human population. They transcend century, culture, and continent. The Romans, almost overnight, made it impossible to worship as an Old Testament Jew. No one can keep us from worshipping as New Testament Christians. Every culture prays, sings, shares meals, shares abundance, shares words. We do not need temples, orchestras, altars, or a genetically pure priesthood. God has jettisoned all but the universal. The Gospel is for all – so also is Christian worship.
When we add things: temples, orchestras, altars, a separate priesthood et cetera - we exclude people who do not have these things. Paul in Romans 14 is clear - in our private devotions we have been given wide latitude. As long as our devotion is sincere, God accepts our personal acts of worship in the spirit we offer them. But when we come together we should not expect our corporate worship to be customized to our personal tastes. Christian worship is designed to include everyone. Its purpose is to bring God glory – not to please or entertain an audience. God has specified in His Word how we do this. We should take this all very seriously, as our two preachers reminded us yesterday.
God has clearly demonstrated that He takes it seriously.
And He himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; prepare for us there. Mark 14.15 (See also Luke 22.12)
It is a fact established by the dual witnesses of Mark and Luke that Jesus observed the Passover in an upstairs room. He instituted the Communion supper we share every Lord’s Day in that upstairs room. Paul makes it clear in I Corinthians 11.14-34 that Jesus established the pattern we follow when we observe weekly Communion service. Paul and later Luke record that Jesus intends we follow this pattern (I Corinthian 11.25, Luke 22.20). We observe the Communion service every Lord’s Day because we know that was the practice of the early Church (Acts 20.7-12). That Communion service described in Acts 20 took place upstairs as well – on the third floor (v.9).
We are careful to reenact every aspect of the Lord’s Supper as described in scripture. We share unleavened bread and the juice of the grape. We remember the words Jesus spoke. We observe it every Lord’s Day. We emphasize that the Lord’s Supper is “separate and apart” from the offering. We insist (as we should – what moment of our week is more sacred?) that we get everything right. Why then have we shown no concern for observing communion upstairs? Jesus instituted the Supper upstairs. The one Communion service we have described in the book of Acts takes place upstairs. Shouldn’t we do the same?
If so, I have some questions:
Would a main floor above a basement suffice?
Do we need to do this on a third floor? (see Acts 20.9)
What about those who worship on a main floor not above a basement? Are they worshipping in error?
What about my grandmother Bryson? She attended a church without a second floor or a basement. Will she be saved? What about all the thousands of saints in the same situation – are they lost?
You may protest that the Bible never (NEVER!) makes an issue of upstairs or downstairs concerning the Communion service - that to do so is to go farther than responsible study allows. If that is your answer, my response is a resounding “Amen!” I could not agree more.
Let us listen to our collective wisdom on this point and continue to apply it to ourselves. Let us see how easy it is to take a verse or two and erect an edifice of orthodoxy neither built nor sanctioned by God, but that comes from our own faulty reasoning, preferences, and personal prejudices.
Let us rigorously apply the standard of the word (II Timothy 3.16-17). Let us speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent, and give issues exactly the amount of attention and emphasis the Bible gives them – no more and no less.
If this is not our standard, any number of oppressive and unbiblical rules will be accepted as normative – as the very fulcrum of the faith. Such a faith will not be Biblical faith, but a faith we have concocted ourselves from bits and oddities we have chosen as we (to borrow a phrase from Jesus “neglect the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23.23).