What does the beloved community look like to you? That term – the beloved community – is today in some ways a better one than ‘church’ for what we aspire to be, and ultimately are, as Christians together. Martin Luther King Jnr used it often to express his vision of faith, saying:
the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of human beings.
What an inspiring, and challenging, vision that is! Martin Luther King was not saying what we typically hear from.many others in our world. . The survival and growth of the beloved community does not depend on resisting or winning against others. Our life together is about being open, generous and seeking reconciliation with others, in love.
So what does the beloved community look like to you? The Gospel and Epistles attributed to John are full of the language of beloved community and this is vital to bear in mind as we reflect on today’s Gospel. For what I want to suggest to you is that what we find in those we meet in this story. based in Bethany, is a model of beloved community, and a very queer one at that. It ia a new creation (to use Isaiah’s great theme), a new family if you will, a model which breaks open fresh dimensions of what it is to belong together in God: God as open, generous and affirming. Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and, maybe – bear with me – even Judas too, show us relationships and images of God which may resonate in new ways with us today.
much more to Martha
Let us reflect a little on each of the five characters in our story. How do you relate to them? Let’s start with Martha. According to much tradition, she’s been the very drab one, hasn’t she? - even a model of a complaining drudge. What a travesty! Two typically omitted elements are crucial to note. Firstly, in Luke 10.38, we are told that ‘Martha opened her home’ to Jesus. This is not then a dependent woman but a house-holding woman with means and agency. Moreover, she is here displaying a key element of divinity, namely generous hospitality. Secondly, Martha’s service is not about female submission but about showing how all disciples must respond. As Jesus said, ‘I came to serve’. In her presiding at table, and in the beloved community, she is thus an icon of female leadership in ministry. Above all, Martha, is the first to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.
What does the beloved community look like to you? Once we start to see Martha in fresh light, perhaps we begin to ask other questions too. For example, what exactly is Martha’s relationship to Mary? The text says they are ‘sisters’, but what exactly does that mean? Yes, they could indeed be blood relations, but is it too much to wonder whether they might also be viewed as same gender partners? They would hardly have been the first lesbians, and certainly not the last, to have described themselves as ‘sisters’, to affirm their intimate bonds whilst trying to avoid stigma and worse. What Martha and Mary certainly do is offer us powerful expressions of a couple in ministry. For myself, and my wife, and for many of us today, they are thus a beautiful inspiration for our own shared life together in beloved community. What say they to you, and what might they say to others you know?
Mary and Judas
What do we see in Mary? Mary clearly shows us other dimensions of the sacramental ministry she exercises with Martha. In Luke’s Gospel, she is indeed shown as fully engaged in the learning, teaching and contemplative ministry of Jesus. Today, in John’s Gospel, she anoints Jesus, and in a dramatic manner. In my church tradition, we will share again, on this coming Tuesday of Holy Week, in what is called the Chrism Mass. In this, three types of oil are blessed by the archbishop and distributed for use: oil for healing the sick and the dying, for the catechumens – new disciples in baptism, and for chrism, anointing priests and others in their callings. Mary, we might say, is a progenitor of this and other uses of oil in the Christian tradition. Yet she demonstrates this in a most extravagant and intensely personal manner. How do we feel about that? Are we capable of expressing our love of God in such powerful, and moving ways?
What about Judas? Mary’s ministry is certainly too much for Judas, isn’t it?! Commentators have rightly emphasised Judas’ concern for money and also his need to see the call to justice as not excluding the invitation to exhibit tremendous joy. However I wonder whether if there is not something else here too. In his over-obsessive stewardship of money, does Judas feel upstaged by the creative ministry of others, who may not only be female, but possibly queer to boot? There is a desperate sadness – that of denial of his own fuller life – that I think we see in Judas. If we view Mary’s actions as an hugely evocative expression of embodied love, her kiss is the obverse of that of Judas’ betrayal. How far do we similarly fail to express the promptings of the love within ourselves? – that is Judas’ real tragedy.
Lazarus the beloved
What does the beloved community look like to you? In contrast to Judas, we not only have the sisters but Lazarus. I could speak at length about Lazarus, but it is perhaps enough this morning to note how he too has also been seen with queer eyes. After all, it is Lazarus whom Jesus raises, with the haunting words ‘come out!’ Unlike Judas, who hid further in his own closet, Lazarus is thus able to emerge and come to freedom. Some commentators would also take this further however, seeing Lazarus, rather than the apostle John, as ‘the beloved disciple’ mentioned by John’s Gospel. After all, it is the news of Lazarus’ death which brings forth those staggering words ‘Jesus wept’. Whether or not that makes sense however, what is notable about this whole scene is that the picture it provides of beloved community is an alternative one. As Nancy Wilson of the MCC put it many years ago, Jesus’ new family is here formed, in the wider world’s eyes, by two barren women and a probable eunuch. They are but one example, albeit a striking one, of the diverse, affirming and profoundly generous beloved community all followers of Christ are invited to be. How then are we going in developing that?
being anointed with Jesus
This brings us to Jesus. I’ve left Jesus to last, as we need to look at the others too. For Jesus wants us all to own, and share, the special gifts we have, not simply to recite their name. This is what is involved in becoming the beloved community, not individualistic worshippers. The heart of this story brings us back to Jesus however, and to their anointing, and to my original question: how do we feel about anointing? Like the washing of feet in another story, are we, like Jesus, able to receive it? What Mary and Martha offer Jesus are the blessings which are symbolised in forms of anointing down the millennia: the healing, hospitality and commissioning of divine love. Are we, like Judas, scared of receiving them, in their fullness? Or, like Lazarus, in God’s strength, are we able to come out and flourish, in beloved community? Mary anoints Jesus, for as Martha says, he is Messiah, the Christ, which, literally, means the Anointed One. In a real sense though, in Christ, we too are anointed, if we would but show it, with the exuberance of God.
So may we be bound ever closer in Christ’s beloved community, may we be anointed, and anoint others, with extravagant love, and may we never, ever, know ourselves as separated from God. In the name of Jesus who knew themselves, and all of us, as truly Beloved, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Lent 5 Year C, Sunday 7 April 2019