Journey thru John, Chapter 12: Maturing from Following into Service

Do you know what nard is? 

I did not, so I looked it up.  It is a plant that is native to the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, China, and India.  Its use as a perfume, a medicinal plant, and for religious ceremonies goes back well before the time of Jesus.  It was a valuable import into ancient Egypt (a jar containing spikenard was found in the tomb of King Tut) and it is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament.  Its exotic origins help to explain why it was so valuable.  It would have found its way to the Middle East from the Himalayas in a trade caravan that would have taken months to make the journey.  The three hundred denarii mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is more than a year’s wages for a typical worker in the time of Jesus. 

If you think of perfume as liquid, that would be different than how the Jews of Jesus’ time would have experienced nard.  In its typical form, spikenard would have traveled as an oily solid in a stone box or jar of some kind.  It was distilled from the root of a plant and mixed with rendered animal fat, which when cooled would create the solid form in which it was sold.  Solid coconut oil would be the proper comparison in our time.  The oil then turns viscous as it is heated.  Rubbing it in your hands would be enough to allow to spread.  For Mary to have poured it, it was likely heated first.  Thus, the aroma of nard fills the entire house.

The smell is not floral in nature.  The words used to describe it are a complex combination of musky, earthy, spicy, and organic. 

Why tell you this?  Does it have anything to do with following the Franciscan charism?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps we might even see Judas Iscariot’s objection as having merit.  Why not sell the oil and give the poor the proceeds, even if that suggestion was a deception on his part?

The reason to give the detail is because it provides a wonderful opportunity to investigate the scene in different fashion.  We have typically been using the eye of our imagination as our vehicle for venturing into these scenes, but here is a chance to try something fresh.  Can you place yourself in the scene in such a way that you experience the fragrance in the house?  What does a complex combination of musk, earth, spice, and organics smell like?  Can you conjure something from your past that will recall the smell of nard, helping you perceive the scene more intensely?

Does smell help you envision Mary using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet and subsequently resting there as her actions are questioned? 

Can you occupy her place, experiencing the intensity of the aroma as Jesus affirms her and then continues teaching the disciples gathered in the house?

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John Chapter 12, Verses 25-26:

“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”

In the last chapter, we focused on the idea of “living in Jesus.”  Here we can explore a couple of closely related words.  We are invited to pray over the ideas of following Jesus and being His servant.

As I spent time immersed in these gospel verses, I found myself thinking about what it means to make choices in my life.  Over and over, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, I am continually making choices.   How often, as I face those choices, even if they are seemingly mundane, do I have the parameters of Jesus at hand as I make up my mind?

Jesus talks here about loving life, losing life, hating life, and keeping life in the context of the opposing ideas of “life in this world” and “eternal life.”  Immediately after that, He talks about following Him and serving Him.  This close association indicates that these concepts are connected.  What are the correlations that inform the choices I make?

I placed the connections in these terms in an effort to better understand them:

If I am to follow Jesus, then I must lose my life to Him.  I must be willing to set aside my perspective, my need, and my very own will to conform myself to His perspective, His need, and His very own Will.  If I could accomplish that, I would then, in fact, know what it means to correctly love eternal life as opposed to worldly life.  In following my Creator, my life moves toward fulfillment, and that movement is critical to learning to properly love the potential for eternal life I have been graced with.

If I am to serve Jesus, then I must hate my worldly life enough that I am willing to sacrifice all the desire and temptation born of this world in order to conform myself completely to His desire and Will.  If I could accomplish that, I would then, in fact, know how to keep and preserve the eternal life that Jesus calls me to.  When I serve my Creator, my life becomes fully mature, and that maturity propels me toward keeping and preserving my most precious possession, my hope for eternal life.

If I am being mindful as I make my choices, these principals and these connections should guide me.  Every decision I make should be grounded not in worries about money, or prestige, or any other worldly factor, but only in the Will of Jesus for my life.

The last chapter emphasized continual movement from death to life (continual resurrection) via continual conversion as the practical method by which the goal of “living in Jesus” is accomplished.

That continual conversion is essentially an unending string of choices.  Will I, with the help and encouragement and grace and strength of Jesus, be transformed in such a way that the choices I make this time are different than the choices I made last time, when I erred and sinned? 

It is entirely up to me.  I can spend hour after hour reading and meditating on the gospels.  I can read the legends and writing of St. Francis and St. Clare from cover to cover.  I can profess to live my life according to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order. 

But in the end, it is all about the choices I make.

Will I follow and ultimately serve Him, or will I continue to put my worldly sinful self first?

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Francis knew and embraced this idea of individual responsibility. 

Near the end of his life, he wrote this short note to one if his original followers, Brother Leo:

Brother Leo, health and peace from Brother Francis!

I am speaking, my son, in this way — as a mother would — because I am putting everything we said on the road in this brief message and advice.  If, afterwards, you need to come to me for counsel, I advise you thus:  In whatever way it seems better to you to please the Lord God and to follow His footprint and poverty, do it with the blessing of the Lord God and my obedience.  And if you need and want to come to me for the sake of your soul or for some consolation, Leo, come.

Francis gives Leo leave to “follow” Jesus in “whatever way seems best.”  Despite the propagation of a Rule for his followers, Francis knew that they had to have a measure of freedom as they lived out their calling.  Francis does not see his role as dictating to Leo the proper way to follow or serve.  He leaves Leo free to discern the Will of Jesus for his individual life and then to follow through on that discernment.  Francis recognizes that even though Leo is his follower, Jesus will give Leo individual instructions (rooted in his individual graces) that differ from the instructions that Francis received himself. 

Despite being a brother of Francis, Leo is given the autonomy to follow the One we are all ultimately meant to serve, Jesus.  Francis, in his minority and wisdom, does not seek to usurp the position of Jesus in relation to Leo.  He feels so strongly about the need for Leo to follow his own path that he even promises obedience to the decisions that Leo makes.  Francis’ role is not to command Leo, but to support him in whatever way Leo requires.  Francis will be available to Leo if he needs counsel or guidance or consolation in his discernment, but the decisions are left to Leo.

There is only one caveat.  Leo is instructed to “follow His footprint,” but he is also instructed to follow poverty.  This then is the essence of the Franciscan charism shining through.  We each have an individual calling when it comes to discerning the Will of Jesus in our lives, but that discernment will inexorably fall under the umbrella of the Franciscan concept of Spiritual Poverty.  This requirement is non-negotiable if our discernment is to be successful.

This, however, is not Francis enforcing a rule that Francis came up with.  This is Francis enforcing the verses of the gospel that we are considering.  By telling Leo that his discernment must be done under the auspices of poverty, Francis is echoing the words of Jesus in verse 25. 

Francis telling Leo to use poverty as a guiding principal is the same as Jesus instructing us that we must lose our life to love it, or “hate our worldly life to keep our eternal one.”

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Of course, something so fundamental as the need to follow and serve Jesus will be expressed in the SFO Rule.  Article 10 of Chapter Two, the Way of Life, instructs us thus:

Let them also follow the poor and crucified Christ, witness to him even in difficulties and persecutions.

Take a moment to compare these words to the words from Francis to Leo in the letter.  Note the word follow appears in both places, as well as the reference to poor/poverty.

The rule in this instance is very much an echo of what Francis was telling Leo.  Just as Francis left Leo free to discern his individual calling within the constraint of poverty, our Rule leaves us free to do the same.  We understand and embrace the notion that we have a responsibility to go beyond the Rule, while staying within the Rule, to discern the personal call that Jesus has for each of us.

How is Jesus calling you to serve at this very moment?  What does He Will for your life?  He wants you to live the Rule, but what else, what more?  What are the specifics?  What ministry are you to serve in?  Are you called to work at Our Lady of the Road?  Or perhaps at Bridge of Hope?  Or in some other fashion, perhaps in your parish structure?  Might you be called to a leadership role in the fraternity?  Is there a ministry that Jesus has placed in your heart that you need to bring to the fraternity for action?  What individual task is He calling you to?

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Also look at article 14 of the Rule, which concludes with these words:

Mindful that anyone “who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself,” let them exercise their responsibilities competently in the Christian spirit of service.

When I discussed serving Jesus above, I used the word maturity.  I think it is safe to say that there is a certain progression that takes place as our relationship with Jesus develops.  We begin as followers, but in the end, following is not enough. 

Put yourself again in this gospel.  Imagine yourself as a spectator in the room.  Breathe deeply the smell of the nard.  You have been following Jesus across the countryside, but you have had no real encounter with Him yet.  So far, he has not really acknowledged your presence with more than a glance to see if you are still there.  Then he looks over at you and speaks to you.  He asks you to do something for Him.  I cannot say what it is that He asks, because His request is based on your individual gifts. 

How do you react?  Perhaps you are a little fearful?  But likely you are also extremely excited?  This request is a step forward in your relationship.  Jesus has asked you to do Him a service, and that deepens your connection to Him.  Do it well, and He will ask again.  If you could serve Him well every time He asks, how deep would your relationship with Him go?

This is how our relationship with Jesus matures.  He calls us again and again until we respond.  Our first decision is to follow Him.  He then ups the ante by revealing His Will for our individual lives to us.  Now we must decide again.  Following has not asked much of us, but service likely requires us to begin sacrificing.  Will we embrace His Will and become His servant? 

Read the quote from article 14 of the Rule again.  Note how it develops.  We follow and we become “more of a man or woman.”  That progression is an act of maturing.  The more mature we become, the more able we are to “exercise our responsibilities competently in a spirit of Christian service.”

We go from followers to servants as our relationship with Him deepens.

Again, it is all about the choices I make.

Will I choose to follow Him?  Will my following mature into serving Him? 

Or will I continue to put my worldly sinful self first?

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The fully mature servant of God is described by Francis in these texts from Admonitions XII and XVII.

A servant of God can be known to have the Spirit of the Lord in this way; if, when the Lord performs some good through him, his flesh does not therefore exalt itself, because it is always opposed to every good.  Instead, he regards himself the more worthless and esteems himself less than all others.

Blessed is that servant who no more exalts himself over the good the Lord does through him than over what He says or does through another.  A person sins who wishes to receive more from his neighbor than what he wishes to give of himself to the Lord God.

Does this describe you?  I know I do not meet this definition.  Even if on the outside I succeed in hiding my pride at having served Jesus well in some task, I still fight on the inside to quell the need to congratulate myself.

It is not that I am not pleased to have achieved that success.  It is that when I look at myself honestly, I know I have so much farther to go.  Despite any successes I might achieve, the truth is I remain a sinner in need of mercy and conversion.  I will always be so.  If I were to exalt myself, then I would be denying that truth, and the success would become self-defeating.

This is also a representation of Francis’ instruction to Leo to “follow poverty.”  As Franciscans, our embrace of poverty on every front means we always place ourselves in a position of humility.  To quote the rule from last month again, we always strive to embrace our human frailty.  Our evolution is never complete.  We are always in that state of continual conversion and resurrection.  If we do not remain humble, then the ability to lose our lives to save them and “to hate our lives to keep them” will be forfeit.  And, as these verses instructs us, that forfeiture will also compromise our ability to live in Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to serve Jesus.     

Again, how will I choose?  Are poverty, minority and humility at the core of my relationship to Jesus? 

Am I properly positioned to be His servant?

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Look back for a moment and consider the second half of the quote from Article 10 above.

…..witness to Him even in difficulties and persecutions.

Take time to acknowledge and accept that these decisions to “live in Christ,” to follow Christ, and to serve Christ are not regularly seen by the world as desirable or acceptable.  The world and the enemy do not like to be rejected in favor of service to Christ.  They will fight back.  Indeed, the desire to exalt ourselves when we succeed is one of the tools used to derail us.

Just as Christ was persecuted for who He was, we can also expect to encounter persecution as we work through the conversion process that leads toward a wholehearted embrace of our need to follow and serve Him.  Jesus warned us it would be so in the Beatitudes.

We can, however, take solace in the fact that Francis experienced much of the same thing, and not just from random citizens of Assisi, but from his own father.

Early in his conversion process, Francis’ father sought to deflect him from the path he had chosen.  Francis had taken some cloth to Foligno, sold it, and was pondering what to do with the proceeds.  He decided to turn the resources completely to the work of God, and he tried to give the money to a poor priest at San Damiano.  The priest did not accept the money, so Francis left it in a windowsill.  He did, however, convince the priest to allow him to stay at the Church.

Chapter 5 of The First Book of the Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano begins like this:

While the servant of the most high God was staying there, his father went around everywhere like a diligent spy, wanting to know what happened to his son.

Note the title that Thomas of Celano has given Francis at this stage.  He calls him “the servant of the most high God.”  In earlier chapters, Celano refers to Francis as “the man of God” one time.  Other than that, he is simply Francis.  But in this chapter, Francis is referred to as “servant of God” three times.  That same reference will not appear again until Chapter 20.

Francis’ father hears word of his location and “races to the place where the servant of God is staying.”  Francis anticipated that this time would come and prepared a pit as a hiding place for himself so that his father could not find him.  He dwells in the pit for a month, praying that the Lord will free him from his persecutors.  He experiences “indescribable happiness” in this prayer, prompting him to leave the pit and set out for the City.  

The citizens of Assisi experience him as completely changed.  They shout that he is insane and persecute him, throwing mud and rocks at him. 

But since the patient person is better than the proud, God’s servant showed himself deaf to all of them, and neither broken nor changed by any wrong to himself he gives thanks to God for all of them.

For in vain do the wicked persecute those striving for virtue, for the more they are stricken, the more fully will they triumph.  As some say, “Disgrace makes a noble mind stronger.”

Francis’ prayer in the pit did not free him from his persecutors.  The source of his happiness came from learning the Will of Jesus for his life and then living into that Will despite the persecution.  He leaves his hiding place and goes to the City to preach the gospel to the people because that is what Jesus tells him to do.  As a true servant of God, he does not condemn those who are oppressing him.  Instead, he thanks God for them, even praying for them in his own way.  They have done him a service.  Their persecutions have helped him to increase his resolve and to solidify the certainty that he has chosen the right path.  

Francis is showing the maturity of the servant.  No longer just a follower, but now a true servant of God, he is not distracted from the Will of Jesus by the harassment he encounters.  Instead, his desire to serve multiplies unimpeded.  He has chosen to serve Jesus over anything the world has to offer despite the attendant hardship.  He has thus, as Jesus promised in these verses, kept his hope for eternal life inviolate by embracing the invitation to service. 

Shortly after this, his father “pounces on him like a wolf on a lamb,” imprisons him in his home and even beats him to get Francis to return to his former life.  His mother frees him, and his father then meets him before the Bishop to at least retrieve the money from the sale of the cloth.  Francis not only returns the money, but strips himself bare, giving his father back even the clothes off his back, renouncing him forever in favor of his Father in heaven.  “Life in this world” is emphatically left behind.

Is it coincidence that Celano calls Francis servant for the first time in the middle of these events?  Or does Celano deliberately associate the title “servant” with the suffering of this persecution?  I do not know for sure, but it seems to me appropriate either way.  When following matures into serving, then the servant becomes more dangerous to the world and the enemy.  The maturity of the servant as demonstrated by Francis is what we as Franciscans are asked to strive for. 

If we achieve persecution, perhaps this confirms for us that progress has been made.

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As we close, read the verses again.  Jesus is calling us to follow Him as His servants and to be where He will be.

The verses of this chapter happen on the eve of the Passion of Jesus.  As we move next to Chapter 13 of John, we will begin to follow Jesus through his own persecution and ultimately to the Cross.  If our faith is mature, then we will welcome the chance to serve at His side in the time of His hardship, and we will, according to His example, learn to experience and embrace our own crosses along the way. 

His path is our path.  We will be where He will be.  Our place as His servants is at His side, no matter what hardships may come. 

If we can succeed, if we are mature enough to truly be His servants not only during the good times, but also during the difficult ones, what will our reward be for our faithful service?

Would you believe me if I told you “perfect joy?”  If you have time, look back to the discussion of joy from Chapter 3 of John, where you will find this at the end of Francis’ teaching on the subject of joy:

And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, `What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?’ But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, `I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.”

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At the end of our verses for this reflection, Jesus says this in relation to “anyone who serves Him”:

               My father will honor him (or her).

If the Father honors you, is that not the ultimate experience of joy you can hope for?

That would be “perfect,” wouldn’t it? 

What is the weight of earthly persecution in comparison to the “perfect joy” that Francis defines for us, and Jesus promises us, if we consent to accept the role of “servant of the most high God?”

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