Scripture - John 12:1-8
If you’re like me, you love a good party. And nobody knows parties like college students! Some of you are making – or have already made – the tours of possible colleges for your current high school student to attend. And while the list of student activities, class sizes, & library hours are important, every parent sooner or later asks the same question: “Is this a party school?”
And every tour guide begins a careful tap dance. “Oh no! Your child will be too busy to party.” We parents don’t buy that for a minute. And we know our children well enough to know better.
While we live in a time of rapid communication, it still seems incredible how word gets around town among high school students when someone’s parents will be out of town for the weekend. Can any of us explain how 74 teenagers can sneak into a family hot tub designed to hold 8, or how 300 young people can cram into a vacant lot at midnight on a Saturday night? This time of year many churches focus on the 7 last words of Christ. Many a parent’s plaintive cry have been these 7 words: “We only left town for one night!”
Jesus of Nazareth apparently loved parties too. He performed his first miracle at a wedding reception in Cana. He was accused by his enemies of being a glutton & a drunkard because he socialized with many different types of people. He spoke of the kingdom of God as a banquet hall & of God as one who would kill a fatted calf & throw a big party when prodigal sinners came to their senses & returned home. (Remember last Sunday?)
Scripture records that there were actually 2 last supper gatherings in Jesus’ final week on earth. One was his last supper with his friends that the writers of the gospels of John, Matthew & Mark say took place in Bethany. The other was his last supper with his disciples, his professional colleagues, in Jerusalem. A final party with friends is much different from a final party with your co-workers. The former is a real joy. The latter can be a real chore, for both host & guests.
When Sheryl & I moved to NC in 1994 from CA, 2 last week parties were held for us, one with friends & neighbors & the other with work colleagues. The neighborhood party was very informal & relaxed. Folks brought their favorite beverages & we shared our common experiences while we all lived on the same street. The laughter & stories flew throughout the evening, which actually ended sometime the next morning. Quite a few of the jokes & stories could never be repeated in church.
The next week, my workplace held a going away gathering in the breakroom. There was punch & cupcakes, and people said very nice things about working with me. But it was still a little awkward & uncomfortable for me. Half the people there probably couldn’t wait to get me out the door so they could recommend one of their friends for my old job. The other half were probably jealous that they weren’t the one leaving.
Last suppers with friends are radically different from last suppers with professional associates. I think it’s important to note that 3 gospel writers decided to include both suppers held for Jesus. Apparently there is as much about the kingdom of God in the party for Jesus in Bethany as there is in the supper for Jesus in Jerusalem. The party in Bethany was held in the house of Mary, Martha & Lazarus. Their home was Jesus’ favorite place to spend the night. His friends held an appreciation dinner just 6 days before the Passover, the day of the “official” religious dinner.
Mary & Martha were always making a fuss over Jesus. My guess is that at some point, the sisters had asked Jesus how they could ever repay him for what he had done for their brother Lazarus. Jesus might have said, “What about having one of those fabulous dinner parties you girls are famous for hosting?”
“No problem.” And the party was on. Lazarus himself came to the dinner & was right there at the table with Jesus. Even Mary let her hair down. As Jesus was reclining at the table, she knelt & poured almost a pound of perfume on his bare feet. Then she did what no respectable woman in that day would ever do in public. She let her hair down & wiped Jesus’ feet with it. Jesus’ supper with his friends evoked an impulsive, emotional reaction from Mary. The perfume was worth an average year’s salary in Palestine in those days. Can you imagine someone today taking a $40,000 bottle of perfume & pouring it over the bare feet of a friend at a going-away party?
But remember, this is a last supper among friends. It was quite different from the last supper with the disciples, where a fight almost broke out over who was going to be most favored in the kingdom of God. So different was this party that even the Gospels reshaped the party to make it fit their purpose.
Both parties are necessary. Both have grace in them, & both parties point toward the kingdom of God. We know that the last supper Jesus held with his disciples created words of instruction for the church. That kind of professional & institutional grace is important. The party in Jerusalem was done for the sake of the church. It is important for public institutions to remember Christ & formally proclaim his death & resurrection. Institutions preserve & protect. The meal we are about to share in helps us do that. But what about the Lord’s other last supper? What does the one in Bethany have to say to us?
I believe that supper is one we also need to focus on. It speaks of the personal grace of God that is given to people who interact with one another & form a community of friends. Friends create community when they enjoy one another despite their differences. Friends can be lavish with their assets on one another. Friends can, figuratively speaking, raise one another from the dead in ways that institutions cannot. In fact, Mary, Martha, & Lazarus were not in attendance at the Last Supper in Jerusalem.
And that is an important message. Our world is headed away from friendships that span communities. We are moving into special interest groups. Special interest groups do not create community. Special interest groups emphasize differences.
Think about what has happened in our society through the architecture of our homes. Before the 1950s, homes in America were built with huge front porches. It was expected that people would sit on those porches & have a conversation with the people walking by.
After WW II, suburbs became dominate places to live. The family was moved from the front porch to the patio in the backyard. The “community” was scaled down to the family & invited guests in a private location.
Then TV took over our lives. The family moved inside to the family room. The TV tray symbolized our meals. The family sat around the television, shutting out the rest of the world.
Now we have the computer & cell phones. The computer is a solitary experience. Studies show the use of computers increases isolation. We sit at a screen & talk to people with similar interests around the world. A local community isn’t needed. In fact, we are doing more & more shopping & chatting over the internet. One day, I fear, a party will be a room with people standing by themselves in nooks & corners watching their iPhones & texting the same few people they have been texting since high school.
Turning strangers into neighbors & neighbors into friends seems to be a pretty consistent theme in Jesus’ life. To sit close in our seating arrangements & to be greeted by name with a hug is to feel close & joyous. Perhaps we need the institutionalization of Shiloh Church, to keep the gospel of Jesus Christ alive in these days of PR campaigns. But we need places of closeness as well.
In other words, we need more than Jerusalem. Jesus speaks to us in other ways. We also need Bethany, a place where strangers become friends & the trappings of the mighty give way to the joys of the simple. We need the enactment of Proverbs 15:17: Better a meal of greens with love than a plump calf with hate.
We need to drink the sweet, living water of Christ. That is available here at this table. May it also be available at our individual tables as well.