The Touch of Compassion
by Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 14:1-11
I was at an event recently where I shared our vision here at Trinity of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” I’m very committed to our congregation’s vision and I’m particularly committed to Christianity as a relational faith. In response to my comments, someone present made their own comment: that the church’s mission is to “win souls for Christ.” I bristled at that comment…
maybe to some degree just because no one appreciates being critiqued in public. But I haven’t been able to get that phrase out of my head all this week… as I stood on the threshold of Holy Week. The first two words in that statement especially troubled me: “win souls” (as if evangelism is an Olympic sport and souls are medals to accumulate). Certainly as Christians we proclaim God’s victory over the grave at Easter. We sing that old hymn, “Up from the grave he arose with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.”
But much of holy week didn’t look like a victory and the very idea of a suffering, dying Messiah never sat very well with Jesus’ disciples. Midway through Mark’s gospel, Peter proclaims Jesus as Messiah. It’s a good answer; but when Jesus begins to interpret what that will look like (suffering, death, humiliation, crucifixion), Peter feels the need to set Jesus straight. Surely Jesus must be confused; Messiahs are winners, not losers; Messiahs destroy their enemies; they don’t lay down arms or their life. But Jesus is crystal clear. He rebukes Peter. He is a suffering messiah. “Suffering” and “Messiah” really do belong together. And so Mark’s story continues… as those twelve guys who have been hanging out with Jesus day in and day out really never get it. They continually resist Jesus’ teaching all the way to Jerusalem; all the way to holy week; all the way to the cross. But what those disciples fight against so stubbornly, someone does accept; although we’re never told her name.
It’s important for us to note that Mark situates this gospel story of Jesus’ anointing AFTER his introduction to Jesus’ passion. It would have been just as easy – in fact slightly more seamless from a narrative perspective – for Mark to move us from the introduction (noting the plot of the priests and scribes) directly to the story of Judas’ betrayal. The themes go hand in hand; they provide an uninterrupted story line. It could read just like this: “The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival or there may be a riot among the people.’ Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray Jesus to them.” See what I mean? Seamless.
Yet that’s not how Mark tells it. This story of Jesus’ anointing is critical to his passion. It is a story of a woman who demonstrates extravagant love by honoring Jesus’ physical body. It is a story in which compassion and suffering go hand in hand. Because of Jesus’ resurrection and the timing of his crucifixion, his followers were unable to anoint his body as it was laid in the tomb. And so Jesus interprets this anonymous woman’s anointing as advance burial care; a sort of advance care for his corpse.
But why would that have mattered? Why did such care – such honoring of his body – even matter to Jesus? Isn’t the church’s mission simply to “win souls for Christ?”
As (hopefully) most of you are aware by now, this year’s Lenten sermon series “A Passion for Life,” employs renderings of the Protestant stations of the cross which we will walk as part of our worship this Good Friday. These stations are the culmination of our gospels; their themes and ideas have already been reflected in the preceding chapters of the gospel narratives. This morning’s station is a story – well, really a mere verse – found in chapter 15 of Mark’s gospel. In chapters 14 and 15, Mark tells us that Jesus was beaten, flogged and slapped around multiple times throughout the night between his arrest and his crucifixion: external bleeding, internal hemorrhaging; damage to organs like his liver or kidneys, dehydration; and extreme physical pain were all quite likely. When the soldiers thrust the thick wooden crossbeam over Jesus’ shoulders, he was apparently too physically compromised to bear the weight. So the soldiers grab some guy who’s passing down the road, Simon from Cyrene. This morning’s artwork – stained glass crafted by Ruth Smith’s parents, Bill and Linda Cornell – reflects Simon carrying, dragging, the weight of Jesus’ cross. This happenstance encounter becomes the final act of kindness and compassion shown to Jesus before his death. It is a moment of suffering and compassion going hand in hand.
So is the Church’s mission simply to “win souls for Christ?”
As human creatures we tend toward extremes, don’t we; opposing camps? Especially these days, we seem drawn to separation and divisions: Republicans VS Democrats, liberals VS conservatives, citizens VS immigrants, working class VS elites. And so it seems that much of Christianity in our Midwestern American culture focuses on the soul in opposition to the body. But is that kind of division really necessary? After all, we don’t worship a disembodied God who drifted dispassionately out there in space through the whole of eternity. We worship a God who became one of us, who entered into a particular time and space, who took on human flesh and fully lived the human experience, living in the mix of suffering and compassion; a God who welcomed a ridiculously expensive amount of ointment being poured out on his head, no doubt dripping from his hair. Jesus welcomed this woman’s gesture simply because it was a good work she did for him. Others present at the dinner criticize this woman; they deem her actions wasteful, perhaps even sacrilege. Why not spend this money on the poor? But Jesus reminds them: life isn’t the either/or we sometimes think it is. The poor do matter and we should be looking for opportunities to show them kindness. But this woman’s act was also kindness; a demonstration of love and gratitude, an honoring of Jesus (who he is and what he will do); a sort of proclamation of a gospel that reminds us that suffering and compassion often go hand in hand.
I have known of churches that send significant sums of money to Christian charities in the U.S. and around the world. They are eager to do so and proud of the statistics in denominational reports that show how much they contributed. And yet, some are far more reluctant when a member of the congregation winds up in a difficult position and needs financial assistance. They want to know: “how did they fall into this hard time; what did they do to get themselves in such a fix?” What they give to strangers with joy and abandon, they begrudge the one sitting next to them on the pew.
Friends: Christianity is about more than “winning souls.” Christianity is not a zero sum game in which we drawn lines of division between souls and bodies; suffering and victory; saints and sinners; winners and losers. Real life in this world is messy and complicated. And we don’t have to choose between worship and prayer and serving the poor; we don’t have to choose between honoring bodies and saving souls. And we must recognize that our God claimed victory not by squashing his opponents like bugs, but by willingly laying down his life. Perhaps proclaiming the gospel is about showing extravagant kindness and compassion toward those around us and being willing to shoulder the crosses of others.
In our hymnal is a hymn credited to the 17th century Puritan Thomas Shepherd. But the lyrics of hymn #424 “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone” have been adapted from those originally written by Shepherd. Shepherd’s original lyrics are based on that story of Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross of Jesus. They went like this:
Must Simon bear the cross alone,
And other saints be free?
Each saint of thine shall find his own
And there is one for me.[i]
Friends: to be human is to suffer. To be human is to bear the weight of a cross. And Jesus, the Son of God, fully embraced our human suffering and in doing so brought us salvation. We proclaim the gospel – we proclaim the good news of salvation through Christ – when we respond with compassion to those around us; when we give without counting the cost; when we shoulder the weight of another’s cross. We are bodies as well as souls and life is not a game; it is a daily invitation to proclaim the gospel – God’s saving compassion right here in the midst of human suffering.
[i] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-must-jesus-bear-the-cross-alone United Methodist Discipleship Ministries website. Article: “History of Hymns: Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone” by C. Michael Hawn.
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