This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The gospel reading was John 12:1-11. This was the introduction of two characters, my own interpretations of Jesus’ disciples “Nathanael and Philip.” I had fun with this one, and I’ve got a feeling these two might be appearing again someday.
Nathanael and Philip were two of Jesus’ apostles, and they were there the day that Mary did “the thing.” The thing that threw Judas over the deep end. The thing that was the beginning of the end. Or was it the end of the beginning?
When John wrote his gospel, he didn’t mention Philip and Nathanael in this story. They didn’t mind the omission. Because they were there. It was scary at the time, but when they remembered it much later, they found so much hope in it.
It all started in Bethany. It was about a week before Passover, and so Jesus and all the apostles were making their way to Jerusalem for the festival. Bethany was only a few miles outside Jerusalem, so it was a good place to stop on the way. Besides, Jesus had some good friends there. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, two sisters and a brother, had a house in Bethany, and they hosted a dinner party there for Jesus and his friends. It was a dinner like any other. Martha was an outstanding cook and the pinnacle of hospitality, so she was serving, as usual. All the men were reclining around the table. At the head of the table were Jesus and Lazarus, talking and laughing. Peter, James, and John were nearby as well, all leaning toward Jesus, laughing too whether they got the jokes or not. Farther down the table, Thomas was trying to strike up a conversation with Judas, but Judas seemed distracted. He just stared at his food, as Thomas got more and more frustrated. And of course, at the end of the table as always, were Philip and Nathanael, the peanut gallery, the class clowns, the ones voted “Most Likely Not to Write a Gospel.” They were having their own conversation, probably about whether fig trees could also grow grapes if the weather conditions were right.
And then suddenly the room got quiet. The kind of quiet that you can almost taste. Philip whispered to Nathanael, “What’s going on?” Nathanael just said, “Shh” and pointed to Jesus. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, had entered the room, and was kneeling beside Jesus, pouring something on his feet.
“What is she pouring?” Nathanael whispered to Philip. Philip just said, “Shh.” And then it hit them both, with the force of a powerful wind. The aroma of the perfume hit them both straight in the face, all the way on the other end of the room.
“Hey, I know that smell,” Philip said. Judas and Thomas both turned to Philip. Thomas gestured to Philip to keep it down, but Judas kept staring at him. Philip said more quietly to Nathanael, “I know that smell. I used to date a rich girl who wore that. That is the most expensive perfume in the whole country.”
Nathanael, said, “No.”
Philip said, “Yes. Scout’s honor.”
Nathanael turned back to look at Jesus and whisphered, “Sheesh. She’s pouring the whole bottle on him. How much did that cost?” Judas was now staring straight at Nathanael. Nathanael got quiet. He knew what Judas could be like when he was angry. He did not want to face the wrath of Judas. He looked back at Jesus and Mary. The bottle was now empty, and Mary let her hair down, and begin to dry his feet with her hair.
And then the wrath of Judas exploded. He stood up. “Master!” he shouted. Jesus turned to look at him. “Master, the Peanut Gallery down here was wondering how much that perfume must have cost. I can tell you. That bottle was worth about 300 denarii.” James and John gasped. That was a lot of money. “Yes,” Judas continued, “a whole year’s wages. Now I don’t know where Mary got such perfume. That’s none of my business. But Master, haven’t you taught us to take care of the poor? Haven’t you taught us that money is for sharing? Didn’t you tell us to sell our possessions and give to the poor, or did I mishear that? How much food could 300 denarii have bought for the poor, Jesus? And now that food is gone, wasted on your feet, and in her hair, and in our noses. Why?”
The silence was deafening. Jesus just looked at Judas. Nathanael and Philip couldn’t read his face from where they were. Was he angry? Embarrassed? Philip whispered to Nathanael, “You know, Judas has a point, actually.”
Nathanael said, “What?”
Philip said, “No seriously. That money could have been used for something else.”
Nathanael shook his head, and said, “Judas doesn’t care about the poor. He just wants more money in the bag so he can take more. You’ve seen him do it.”
Philip nodded, “That’s a good point too.”
Jesus still stared at Judas. Philip thought he could see a tear in Jesus’ eye. Judas just stood there, fists clenched, looking like smoke would pour out of his ears at any moment.
Nathanael whispered to Philip, “Think about Lazarus. He’s Mary’s brother. Think of what Jesus has given her, Philip. Lazarus was dead just a few weeks ago. He was dead, but now he’s here eating and laughing. What do you think is going through her head? She probably just wanted to thank him.”
“Thank Lazarus?” Philip asked.
Nathanael smacked him on the head. Thomas turned to glare at them again. Nathanael gave Thomas an “Oops, sorry” look, and then said to Philip, “Not Lazarus, Jesus. She wanted to thank Jesus for giving her brother back. Isn’t that why they invited us here in the first place? It’s all about thanking him.” Philip thought about that, and while he was thinking, Jesus finally spoke.
“Leave her alone,” he said to Judas. “This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she used it. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Judas sat down, but the look on his face said, “We won’t have you for much longer if I have anything to say about it.”
Many years later, Philip and Nathanael would remember this as the beginning of the end. Just a few days after Mary did “the thing,” Nathanael and Philip had another dinner with Jesus, and afterward Judas showed up with a crowd. Next thing you know, Jesus was arrested, brought before Pontius Pilate, sentenced to death, and killed. And then the next thing you know, he was alive again, with them again, giving them peace and the Holy Spirit.
But that night in Bethany changed everything for Philip and Nathanael. They always remembered what Jesus said, how “You’ll always have the poor with me, but you don’t always have me.” After Jesus left them for good, some weeks after the resurrection, they felt lost at first. What would they do without him? But slowly, as they spread the good news with the other apostles, they realized that they did still have Jesus with them. Jesus was there in the hearts of people they preached to. In the hearts of people who were lonely, or in prison, or suffering, or poor. There were always poor people, like Jesus had said, but now Nathanael and Philip were able to see Jesus in them. And that gave them hope, hope that they would never be alone. The same hope that Mary knew the night she did “the thing.” Because, just like Mary, they were so grateful for what Jesus had done for them. He changed their lives. He gave them new life. He gave them hope. And all they could do was offer him thanks. And so they spent the rest of their lives trying to live up to Mary’s example. While the other apostles spent their days writing gospels and leading the new church, Philip and Nathanael looked for Jesus wherever they could find him, and they poured their perfume all over them. Which is to say they gave everything they had to Jesus, wherever they found him. And sometimes that meant selling what they had and giving it to the poor. And they passed that hope along to so many people, to so many generations of disciples, until it one day reached us. And we live out that hope whenever we follow our congregation’s purpose statement: We will seek and serve Christ in all people. That’s where Nathanael and Philip found hope. That’s where we do as well.