We find ourselves in the twelfth chapter of John. It is six days before Passover and Jesus is in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Bethany was the hometown of Lazarus, the one Jesus resurrected. (You can find that story in the previous chapter.) As a way of thanking Jesus, a dinner is held in his honor. Everyone was there, but only three are mentioned. There was Martha, who is serving the crowd. She is as busy as a bee. There was Lazarus. Everyone must have asked him, what do you remember about being dead? There was Mary. Jesus has her complete attention. She is the one who does the unexpected.
According to verse 3, without warning, Mary pours a pint of expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, wiping it with her hair. The entire house was filled with the sweet smell. Everyone must have reacted in their own way. According to the text, Judas Iscariot, the one who would soon reject Jesus, saw that act as a financial waste. Disguising his selfish motive, Judas Iscariot said the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. It was a good point. Some must have agreed with him. However, Jesus didn’t. The Master saw Mary’s act as a sign of love and devotion. Defending her, Jesus says, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me”. It pains me to say it, but to date Jesus has been right. The poor are still with us, but his earthly ministry is over.
Our world is the home of many poor people. The numbers don’t lie. I came across these numbers this week. They may be dated because they came from 2017. I doubt things are getting better. They came from an organization called FINCA, The World Bank for the Poor. These numbers reminded me, I have a good life. According to them:
There are approximate 7.88 billion people in our world. Half of the world’s population lives on less than $6.85 per day. Ten percent of the world’s population in our world live on less than $2.50 a day.
In developing countries, 60% to 80% of all income is spent on food. In the United States, it is 10%.
Over 800 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat. Three million children die annually of malnutrition.
Approximately 1.2 billion in our world live without electricity.
40 million children worldwide live without adequate shelter.
700 million in our world lack clean water.
Approximately one billion people entered the twenty-first century unable to read or write.
Jesus wasn’t wrong, Jesus was right! There are many poor people in our world. America is not excluded from poverty. Did you know, according to the United States Census, 11.6%, or 37.6 million Americans, live in poverty? Do you know of anyone who lives in poverty? Have you ever experienced poverty firsthand?However, after saying all of this about poverty, the text is not about poverty. The text is about the supremacy of Jesus. Look at the text with me one more time.
Jesus is in Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus, the man Jesus resurrected. A dinner is being held in Jesus’s honor. Mary expresses her extravagant love for Jesus by anointing him with expensive presume. Jesus does not reprimand her for her waste. He applauds her for her priorities. Jesus understood his role in God’s plan of salvation for the world. He knew his mission superseded any human need. Jesus didn’t say helping the poor was bad. However, he did know it wasn’t enough. It is not just true in Jesus’s time; it is true in our time. In the life of the church, doing good things isn’t good enough. Like Mary, our top priority must be Jesus! Nothing else in the life of the church really matters.
As I have said in the past, I am not a United Methodist by birth. I am a United Methodist by choice. I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I never really thought much about my Disciples roots, but that changed in an instant. A person from a local Disciple congregation joined my church, and I discovered something about myself. My Disciples roots have had great influence on my personal theology. There is a simple line from that denomination that holds great value. It goes like this: No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible. As an ordained Elder within the United Methodist Church, I hate to admit it, but that is how I feel. That is what I taught through the years. Good works aren’t good enough. We are saved by grace. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In the life of the church, nothing really matters but Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, if we are not passionate about Jesus, then we have nothing at all. We are not a social action agency; we are the church of Jesus Christ. The organizational church must never loose their passion for him.
Annually, as a United Methodist, I observed Charge Conference. It is the highest administrative body within a United Methodist congregation. It is our annual business meeting. Charge Conference is not exciting, but several things do happen. The pastor’s salary is set for next year. Officers are elected. Goals are set and reports are given. Annually, I wrote a Pastor’s Report. Six years ago, I called my Pastor’s Report, The Secret to Our Success. That had been a good year in the life of my church. I would have matched our numbers with any United Methodist congregation in our area. While most United Methodist congregations are struggling, we had seen some growth. The secret to our success has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with congregation. It has nothing to do with what we have done or own. The secret to our success is Jesus. I have understood it for a long time. In the life of the church, nothing really matters but Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, if we are not passionate about Jesus, then we have nothing at all. This is one paragraph from my report:
I am always amazed how easily distracted we are in the life of the church. We are supposed to be developing disciples for Jesus Christ, but we are lost in a sea of good works. It is one of the things that makes any appointment challenging. It is not a lack of passion or energy. People are passionate about many things. People are passionate about the next fundraiser. People are passionate about the building. People are passionate about the cleanliness of our church. People are passionate about the happiness of their friends. People are passionate about their opinions and their voice being heard. At the general church level, they are passionate about issues and heritage. Many have become passionate about sexuality. Those things really don’t matter if we are not passionate about Jesus. I refuse to be trapped by the good works and understand my role to simply promote Jesus. In the life of the church nothing matters but Jesus.
How passionate are you about Jesus? Every Christian, and congregation, must be passionate about Jesus! Nothing else matters. Let me end with this story.
Years ago, I was involved in a pulpit exchange. You know the pulpit exchange. It is held on the third Sunday of January. All the ministers go to another church for one Sunday. Everyone likes it. The churches like it because they get to meet a new minister. The ministers like it because they can preach something old. I do not remember who came to my church, but I do remember I went to a church in the community. That church only had one service.
The word must have gotten out. It was pulpit exchange Sunday, and I was coming. The attendance was a little low. I didn’t count heads, but there were maybe forty people. The lay leader worked his way through the order of worship and pointed to me when it was time to preach. I do not want to sound critical, but the crowd didn’t seem impressed by my presence. After a word of welcome, I read the scripture and said a prayer. Two minutes into my sermon a man suddenly appeared in the back. He sat next to another man. The newcomer said something to the other man, and he sprang to life. Together, they ran out. A minute later they grabbed another man, and he ran out. Next, one of them came back and told his wife something. She grabbed a friend and they left. Three nosy people, who no one talked to, got up to see what was happening. In about ten minutes, I lost about half the crowd. I will be honest with you. As I preached, I began to wonder what was happening. Maybe someone had a heart attack. That would explain their sudden exit. Those who were left behind must had wondered too because they keep looking around. I couldn’t take it anymore. I shortened my sermon, only sang one verse of the final hymn, and sped through the benediction. I wanted to see the emergency. I wanted to help. When I walked to the back of the sanctuary, I looked for the escapees. I walked toward them to see what was happening. When I found the source of the commotion, I was relieved to find the emergency wasn’t a person. It was a thing. The toilet was clogged, and everyone was looking for the guilty party. On that day, in that unidentified church, they were more interested in a clogged toilet than in Jesus Christ. In the life of the church the only thing that really matters is Jesus. When you go to church is Jesus your top priority?
Have you ever gone to church and missed Jesus? Have you ever gone to church, and something became more important than Jesus? Let me say it again. In the life of the church there is nothing more important than Jesus. If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing at all. The great American evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) once said, “Make sure of your commitment to Jesus Christ, and seek to follow Him every day. Don’t be swayed by the values and goals of this world but put Christ and His will in everything you do.”