Sermon for April 3rd, 2022
The gallery of European Paintings from 1250 to 1800, and the Medieval Art gallery, are my two favorite galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love to wander through them, and I go back to them again and again, I think in part, because the subject matter of most of the artwork in those two galleries is the life of Christ. One moment in the life of Christ after another. One snapshot after another, and one artist’s impression of Jesus’s story after another. All hanging there on the wall in a series of images that we walk past and take in. Yes, there are the occasional nature scenes and portraits of fancy Lords and Ladies, but the majority of the paintings in those galleries depict various scenes from the life of Jesus or other famous stories from the Bible.
Say what you will about life in the pre-modern world, many people may not have been able to read the words of the Bible, but Biblical literacy in terms of knowing the stories of the Bible, well that was probably better than it is now. The stories of the Bible surrounded people in the visual arts. There, in those galleries, is the proof.
So as I walk through those galleries, what I see are moments in the life of Jesus as each artist has depicted them. Impressions really. They are telling me a story through the use of images. The paintings point to and direct me to a fuller story of the life of Jesus Christ, but they each only tell a portion of the story. There are things that the artist wants me to see that are painted directly on the canvas, but then there are always many, many more details that the artist doesn’t paint. There is always more going on that just what is shown. The artist often assumes that I know some of the background to the story. Sometimes there are images or symbols painted within the scene that are there to direct me to another part of the story. And sometimes the artist relies upon me to fill in some details myself. Artists are crafty like that.
The way I feel walking through a gallery of religious art at the Met, is very similar to how I feel when reading through the gospels: you get lots of snippets, scenes and vignettes, but you also realize that there is usually a lot more to the story than the artist has set before you. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they give us images or depictions of moments and stories in Jesus’s life. And like at the Met, I can go back to these images or depictions again and again, and very often I will discover something new. A detail that I hadn’t noticed before.
Look at the image that John has painted in the gospel passage you heard this morning: Jesus is the guest of honor at a dinner. Martha is there in the background, serving up dinner as usual, but her sister Mary is doing something rather strange. She is at Jesus’s feet with a bottle of perfume. She has poured the perfume all over his feet and she is wiping them with her hair. Such an odd thing to do, that is almost uncomfortably intimate. And we are told that there is this smell that just wafts up from the perfume and fills the air. And as we are thinking about this sweet smell of perfume we notice that the person sitting next to Jesus is Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother.
Suddenly our minds are transported back to the last scene, because the last time we saw Lazarus in the last chapter, HE needed that perfume. He was four days dead and people could smell him outside the tomb. That is why that perfume of Mary’s was so strong, it was meant to cover up the smell of death. That is what that anointing oil was for. But Mary isn’t using the perfume on Lazarus, he is sitting at the table next to Jesus. Hopefully he’s had a bath since they took the burial cloths off him, but there he is alive and well. No, Mary is using the perfume on Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense, because if you remember from the last scene, the last picture John painted, Jesus proved that he had power over death. He raised Lazarus back to life, and there Lazarus sits reminding us that Jesus has power over death…and yet, Mary is on her knees anointing Jesus’s body like it is about to be buried. It just doesn’t make any sense.
And standing next to Jesus, leaning in to his ear is Judas. There he is pointing down to Mary disapprovingly, and pointing to Jesus too and saying, “don’t let her do this.” Stop this Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense. This is wasteful. Maybe Judas’s motives weren’t pure, but he did have a point: why should we waste burial perfume on a man that has proven he has power over death? Judas seems reasonable to me. But Jesus insists.
It seems a bit strange. What other pictures does John paint in his gospel? Well let’s walk on to the next one. We are in chapter 12 now, but as we enter chapter 13 we find ourselves in another dining room, only this time Jesus is the one on the floor on his knees and he is washing his disciples’ feet. And as Jesus comes up to Peter, Peter pushes back and says “No! Stop this Jesus. You will never wash my feet. You are our Lord and Master, what are you doing groveling on the floor like a servant? This doesn’t make any sense. And you know, Peter seems very reasonable to me. I wouldn’t want Jesus to see the ugly and dirty parts of me either. But Jesus insists.
Strange. You know it occurs to me as I look at these two episodes or scenes in John’s gospel side by side, that very often throughout this gospel, John is careful to include somewhere in each scene he paints, someone that is opposing Jesus. In just about every scene, there is someone saying: “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen!” Stop Jesus! You can’t talk to me, I’m a Samaritan woman. Stop Jesus! You can’t heal on the sabbath. Stop Jesus! We don’t have enough food or money to feed these people. Stop Jesus! Stop saying you came down from heaven. Stop talking about your flesh as if it were bread. Stop Jesus! Don’t go to Bethany. Lazarus is dead. There’s nothing you can do there. It’s too dangerous. Jesus, stop this woman from washing your feet. Jesus, stop trying to wash my feet. Stop Jesus! Don’t go away. Don’t leave us. Don’t go to the cross. Stop Jesus! Don’t die! You don’t have to die do you?
In all of these scenes there is someone that is trying to stop Jesus. There seems to be this theme of resistance to Jesus. One of the things about John’s gospel that can be a problem is that in many scenes John simply labels Jesus’s opposition or resistance as “the Jews.” It’s a problem because we are quick to forget that Jesus was a Jew, all of the disciples were Jews. Facts like that don’t matter when you are looking for a scapegoat. Throughout history, Christians have used John’s use of the generic term “the Jews” as an excuse for horrid persecutions. We have used it to paint Jewish people as enemies of Christ, because we always want someone else to be opposing Jesus. For two thousand years we have been looking for someone to blame for his death. But what I see, as I pass by all these images that John has painted of Jesus’s story, is that it’s not that simple. You know, just about everyone in this gospel, at some point or another, has a conflict with Jesus. Just about everyone at some point or another, says “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen. This doesn’t make sense.” And you know, sometimes they seem pretty reasonable. Even his best friends. Peter, Judas, Martha, Jesus’s brothers, Thomas, all of the disciples resist Jesus. It would be so easy to just look at today’s scene from the gospel, and think, “ah, there’s Judas, he’s the bad guy.” But what I notice as I pass from one scene in John’s gospel to another, looking at the pictures he has painted, is that the people who are opposing Jesus, whether John calls them “the Jews,” or the Pharisees, or the disciples, or Peter, or Judas…I notice that in the right light, they look an awful lot like me.