People often ask me which my favourite country is. Others phrase it a little differently. “Where’s your favourite destination?” There’s only one answer to this, and that’s ‘Home’. For one who is such a traveller, I always love putting the key into the lock of my own front door. If travel were ever to become an escape from the reality of home, then something would be very wrong.
I love the same sort of household that Jesus loved – the one where Martha, Lazarus and Mary lived. We read about it in John chapter 12, when Jesus was invited to dinner in celebration of the fact that He’d just raised Lazarus from the dead.
It was actually a very attractive environment – really good friends celebrating an amazing event together. A bit like the parties that beautiful people apparently go to, and which much of the world jealously watches on music videos and Martini adverts. A place to which, we are told, we would all like to be invited, accepted, gathered up, included.
Imagine Martha. Sleeves rolled up, she’s in the kitchen. OK, she can get a bit wound up at times, and she remembers with a coy smile the day that Jesus had a word with her about that. She’d listened well, and His word had been transforming. As a result, tonight she’s in her element. She’s been working away all day in order to prepare the very best food for the dinner party, and she’s loved every minute of it. She would really like to be mingling with the guests too, but tonight Martha knows she has a job to do and, despite the sacrifice, and refusing to feel left out, she joyfully accepts the responsibility. She brings out another plate of food and places it near to Lazarus, who is reclining at table with Jesus.
Lazarus gets up, takes the plate, and begins meandering around the room, networking, relating; oozing with radiant joy out of his massive gratitude for the miracle of life. At the same time he listens attentively to his guests, expressing genuine interest in the comparatively mundane anecdotes of their week. “More orange squash, anyone? Quiche? Cheesy dips?” (Well, it is a Christian party remember).
Imagine a latecomer, tumbling in straight from work, hastily removing his coat, rushing into a deep conversation with someone he knows, and absent-mindedly grabbing a fistful of food from the passing tray. “Oh cheers mate.” Then he looks up in mid-sentence, sees Lazarus and, utterly stunned, stops in his tracks. “Blimey, Lazarus, I thought you were dead.” Recovering a little, he adds, “Hey mate, I’m sorry I didn’t make the funeral. I was so busy. You know how it is. I’d just bought a field and had to go and view it. I’d just bought five yoke of oxen and had to take them for a test drive. Oh, and I’d just got married as well. Anyway, how did it go? Although I suppose you wouldn’t really know, would you? Err, feeling any better now?”
Precisely at this moment an incident takes place that radically transforms the evening. Mary, spontaneously, shockingly prepared to break with the cultural norm for the greater good, takes half a litre of pure nard [Himalayan plant: a perennial aromatic plant of the valerian family. Flowers: pinkish-purple. Native to: Himalayan range. Latin name Nardostachys jatamansi], costing the equivalent of a year’s wages, elegantly kneels down, and simply pours it over Jesus’ feet. The buzz of conversation plummets like a stone and, in the deafening silence, the whole building instantly fills with the amazing fragrance of the perfume. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Undeterred, unhurried, and with such grace, Mary then loosens her hair, stoops even further down, and wipes Jesus’ feet - with her hair! Guests involuntarily place their hands over their mouths and faces, totally shocked and embarrassed. They exchange panicked glances at one another, wondering just what on earth has got into the normally sweet and modest Mary. These were the flagrant and suggestive actions of a prostitute, and yet she seemed totally oblivious of the fuss she was causing. There was nowhere for the guests to hide. This was just so wrong, so un-cool, such a cultural faux pas. So embarrassing.
It was Judas who broke the silence. He was angry. “Why? Why wasn’t this perfume sold, and the money given to the poor?” And with deep frustrated rage, he clasped his hands together behind his neck and shouted into the sky, “It was worth a year’s wages!”
He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Every one of the disciples had had their suspicions about Judas, but at this moment of time that just didn’t matter. They weren’t thieves, but on this occasion they actually all completely agreed with Judas. There wasn’t an Englishman among them, but even these flamboyant Middle Eastern guys were just too cultured, too conventional, too ordered, too functional even to dream of accepting that such a thing could be happening right before their eyes.
Because she was in the kitchen, Martha didn’t actually witness the incident, but she clearly sensed the sudden change of atmosphere, and came through to see why the strong aroma. And Lazarus? Well, he was just happy to be alive. He thought his younger sister’s gift was just brilliant. His head buzzed with praise, joy, laughter, awe. But of their guests, no one could even begin to cope with this ridiculous, overwhelmingly lavish act of celebratory worship that Mary had innocently poured out onto the Son of God.
No one, that is, except Jesus. There had been no hint of embarrassment from Him. In fact at that moment He decided that in the following days He would wash His disciples’ feet, knowing full well that once more they would react all over the place. He could just imagine it. “You’ll never wash my feet!” But here, tonight, at the dinner given in His honour, He comfortably received exactly this same treatment. It just didn’t matter that this was usually an act of extreme sensuality, or that the guests, to a man, had just been blasted further outside their comfort zone than they’d ever been before. Jesus relaxed, Jesus received, Jesus accepted, Jesus enjoyed. And Jesus replied. “Leave her alone, Judas. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
I love the way this family functioned so holistically together. In this story – in this family - we see task, team and individual. We see service, relationship and intimacy. Martha served, Lazarus related, Mary worshipped. Martha worked, Lazarus networked, Mary celebrated. Martha worked like she didn’t need the money. Lazarus loved like he’d never been hurt. And Mary danced like no one was watching.
But that’s my final point; people were watching. This family, this home church, this missional community wasn’t a clique, a members-only club, a gated neighbourhood, a party purely for the beautiful people or the socially acceptable. This family was prepared to live in the spotlight, welcoming into their home not only Jesus and a few close friends to celebrate with them, but also cynics and thieves and critics and crowds, and even persecutors.
I’d like to have a holistic life like that. I’d like to be a part of an integrated family like that. I’d like to be a part of a local church like that. I’d like to be a part of a local community like that, and - this one takes a lot of faith – I’d like to be a part of a nation like that.
...started leading churches at the age of 18. With a team in the 1980's, planted eight churches in UK and Belgium. Has been teaching and training churches ever since.