Drawing all people to himself: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2018

It is finished. We have heard again the familiar, haunting story of Jesus’ passion as recorded by the gospel of John. We have heard of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his trial, and his execution. We have watched as Joseph and Nicodemus took his body down from the cross and buried it in a tomb. We have listened as the world fell silent, our hearts broken.

It is finished. Those are the last words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. Last night, at our Maundy Thursday service, our gospel reading began with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The words translated here as “finished” and there as “end” derive from the same Greek word “telos.” So we could just as easily, just as accurately translate Jesus’ words from the cross, “It is complete.”

It is finished. With these words we see not only the end of Jesus’ life, the finality of his suffering and death, we may also begin to meditate on its meaning and purpose. That which he had come to us, to earth, to do, is brought to fruition.

But this story of suffering and death, as familiar as it is, confronts us with questions. Even as human suffering, the evil people do to each other every day, the horrific suffering our world has seen, and continues to see—all this confronts us, challenges our faith, even our very humanity. We want it to make sense. We want the suffering of the world to make sense, to have meaning. We want the suffering of Christ to make sense, to have meaning. And too often, the answers we give, or the answers that are given us, ring hollow, empty, leaving us in despair.

This year, as I have sat with scripture in Lent and Holy Week, while the lectionary has focused our attention on Mark, I have also been deeply moved by the Gospel of John. Reading both of those gospels, as familiar as they are, has brought me deeper into the mystery that we ponder today. I have, as I said last night, and to use one of those words so beloved in John, I have been abiding in John’s gospel, abiding with Jesus and with John.

And words, verses, have been in my mind and on my heart throughout Lent and now Holy Week, verses like one we heard last night from chapter 13, “and having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And from chapter 3, as Jesus (or the gospel writer) reflects on his encounter with Nicodemus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But the verse that has burrowed into my heart and soul this year is one we heard on the 5th Sunday in Lent, and again on Tuesday in Holy Week, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

In the cross, in his crucifixion, in that symbol of Roman empire, its power, ruthlessness, and oppression, in the cross, that stumbling to Jews and folly to Gentiles, in the cross, Jesus is drawing all people to himself.

In the cross, we see the love of God, drawing us, grabbing us and not letting go. In the cross, we see God’s love offered for us, offered to us, offered to God. In the cross, on the cross, we said God, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. Yet even then, we see God’s love, drawing us to Godself. On the cross we see the vulnerable, invincible, irresistible power of God’s love.

Today, our hearts are broken. They are broken by the anguish we feel as we hear again the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death. Our hearts are broken by all the ways we have acted like those around Jesus, betraying and denying him, abandoning him. Our hearts are broken by all the ways Jesus continues to suffer among us, with those who are caught up in the criminal justice system, the homeless and the hungry, immigrants who fear for their lives and livelihoods, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community who are marginalized and prevented from leading lives that flourish and reach their full potential.

Our hearts are broken as we hear about families torn apart, children separated from their mothers by ICE, the scourge of gun violence that includes mass shootings, senseless suicides, and accidental deaths. Our hearts break as we hear about the opioid epidemic that rages in communities beset by hopelessness and despair.

In all that suffering, we should also see the suffering of Christ.

In the cross, we see the full power of the Roman Empire brought to bear on a rabbi on the edge of empire who dared to teach an alternative the domination, oppression, and violence of Rome, who preached peace, and cast a vision of a new reality coming into being where the first would be last and the last first, where tax collectors, sinners, and the outcast would have a place, would be welcomed and embraced. For his challenge to the religious establishment and Roman power, Jesus was crushed by Roman power.

If that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t be here. If that were the end of the story, Jesus’ death would have no more meaning, make no more sense than any other death, –the death of someone from capital punishment, or teen-aged victims of mass shootings, or an African-American man killed by law enforcement officers in Sacramento, or Ferguson, or Madison, or any other of millions of deaths, victims of wars or violence, or deaths of homeless people, or victims of disease or natural disaster.

But the cross is not meaningless. When Jesus said, “It is finished” he was saying that the work he had come to earth for, the life he had lived had been accomplished. We know that the resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and death, that the resurrection gives meaning to Jesus’ death, but in the cross we something else, Christ’s love outpoured for us, to us. And more, in Jesus, we see the love of God come to us, come for us. So that it all becomes one current, one flow—God’s gift to us of love in Christ, Christ’s gift to God and to us, himself and his love.

We can’t understand that love, we can’t comprehend it. We can’t explain it. But it is love we can know, love that is ours to become and to be, ours to share. We experience that love of Christ, as we are embraced by his arms outstretched on the hard wood of the cross; as we are drawn by him, drawn to him. As he is lifted up, he draws us to him, lifts us up to him, he bears our sorrows and our sins. In his love, in his gift, we see the possibility of new life and a world remade in, by, and for, love.

May our knowledge of this love, our experience of his love, remake us in his image and help us become and be that love in the world.

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He loved them to the end: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2018

Today we enter what are called the Triduum, Great Three Days, as we remember, re-enact, and participate in the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. Today is Maundy Thursday when we remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. At our services end tonight, we will strip the altar and chancel area of all its decorations in a sort of symbolic gesture to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Tomorrow of course is Good Friday when we will remember the crucifixion. The Great three days, the Triduum ends on Saturday night with the Great Vigil, the lighting of new fire, and the Easter proclamation.

Tonight, though our focus is on the Last Supper, and our lessons offer three perspectives on it. The reading from Exodus is the story of the first Passover, including instructions on what the Hebrews were to eat and how they were to prepare for their flight from Egypt. It’s likely that the last supper Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal—that’s what the chronology in Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer, although it wasn’t a Seder as is now practiced among our Jewish friends and neighbors—that ritual became fixed only in later centuries as the rabbinic tradition was codified.

In the reading from First Corinthians, we have the earliest New Testament account of what happened at the Last Supper, as Paul reminds his readers of what had been passed on to him and them—the words of institution, the bread and wine—words that are uttered at every celebration of the Eucharist.

And in the gospel reading, we heard John’s very different version of what happened at the Last Supper, the story of Jesus getting up from the table taking up a towel and basin, and washing the feet of his disciples. All of these readings offer ways of approaching the Eucharist and this last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, but by no means do these readings, or our liturgy, exhaust or define the significance of the Last Supper or our retelling of those events in our Eucharistic meal.

As you know, the Gospel of John is fascinating and complex. At times, it is puzzling and its language and imagery can be problematic, strange, even offensive. Its anti-Judaism, especially dominant in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution has left a terrible legacy over the millennia. But at the same time, abiding in John’s gospel, to use one of those common words in the gospel, can illuminate our hearts and lives and lead us deeper into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Few passages have worked more powerfully on me than the verses we just read—not just the footwashing itself, which is a parable, a miracle of Christ’s love and service, a call to imitation, hospitality, service, and love. Equally profound to me are the first verses of this chapter:

“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” 

There is so much in these three verses for us to ponder, so much on which to meditate. First of all, that second sentence—it’s one of my favorites in the whole gospel, perhaps in all of the Bible, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. First, there’s that little detail that Jesus loved his disciples; it’s the first time it’s mentioned in the gospel, but of course, we assume it from the very start. More than that, it’s worth pointing out that Jesus loved all of them—even Judas who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him. Then there’s that last clause—“he loved them to the end.” What might that mean? To this point? To the end of the gospel? Or taking note of the greek word that’s translated here as end, “telos” which can also mean goal or purpose, that adds another range of possible meanings. And we might connect it to Jesus’ final words from the cross, when Jesus uses a verbal form of that same word telos to say, “It is finished.”

I’m also struck by the repetition of the verb “to know.” In the first verse, Jesus knew that his hour had come. Later, it says, knowing that Father had given all things to him and that he had come from God and was going to God. Jesus knew all this.

And how did he act on this knowledge?

He got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. Knowing all that he knew, that his hour had come, that the Father had given all things into his hand, knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus performed an act of humble service to his friends. It was a parable enacted, a symbol of love, a giving of himself to his friends and an offering of an example of himself to them and to us.

We don’t know what he was thinking as he performed this simple, humble act. We don’t know what he was thinking as he washed the feet of those who had walked with him those many months, those who he had brought here, to this place, to this city, to this moment. We don’t know what he thought as he washed the feet of the one who would betray him, the one who would deny him.

We know what they were thinking, or at least what Peter was thinking—how inappropriate it was for the master to wash the feet of his disciples, for the host at the meal to lower himself in this way. We can be sure they puzzled over it, wondered what it all meant, especially in the context of this meal.

For us, now there is another set of questions as we reflect on both the meal and the footwashing. “This is my body and my blood,” he said, as he shared the bread and wine with his friends. In John’s gospel the presence of the footwashing hints at how we should think about the Eucharist itself.

Our liturgy encourages us to interpret the Eucharist in light of the cross and resurrection. It uses language of sacrifice, of body broken for us, blood shed for us but when we bring into the equation the humble, tender, loving gestures of footwashing, we are invited to focus on Christ’s love and service, and our response to that love and service by loving and serving Christ and others.

The love of Christ, exemplified, symbolized, enacted in the cross is also exemplified, symbolized, and enacted in footwashing. We have experienced Christ’s love as he embraces us from the cross. Like the disciples, we experience Christ’s love as he kneels down and washes our feet. And so to, like the disciples, we are called to be examples of that love, to embody the love of Christ in our service to others. May this Eucharist, may this Holy Week be a time when through our renewed experience of Christ’s love, we can embody that love to our world.

 

 

Staying with Jesus: Some reflections on the arc of Holy Week

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior was betrayed, denied, and abandoned by his friends: Give us grace to accompany him on his journey to the cross and to share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week)

Last night, as I concluded the last of the five Eucharists I celebrated since Palm Sunday, I reflected on how important these weekdays are as I prepare for the Great Triduum. Palm Sunday is a rich and complicated day but it ends with us looking ahead to Good Friday and the cross.

The Eucharistic lectionary for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week retrace our steps. Following the chronology of John’s gospel, on Monday, we read the story of the Anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-11). On Tuesday, we hear the story of the Greeks who came in search of Jesus at the Passover festival (John 12:20-36). It’s almost the identical reading that we heard on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, so in a sense our retracing of steps is taking us back further. Then, yesterday, the gospel is the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, or perhaps more accurately, Jesus’ identification of Judas as the one who would betray him.

The collect for Wednesday in Holy Week asks God to give us grace to accompany Jesus on his journey to the cross and to share in his resurrection. I found that petition particularly appropriate as I struggled to balance my own experience of Holy Week between my personal spiritual needs and devotional practice with the responsibilities of preparing for and presiding at liturgies for all those others who are walking part or all of this journey with me. We want to condemn Judas, to accept the gospels’ judgment that “Satan entered into him.” Of course that’s appropriate but I also think it’s important to see Judas on the continuum of the disciples’ actions in Holy Week, responses that included Peter’s denial; abandonment, and falling asleep in Gethsemane. In so many ways, the disciples’ actions in Holy Week mirror our own responses to Jesus.

Those daily Eucharists are essential for my Holy Week devotion. I’ve been participating or presiding at them ever since I began my priestly formation and the opportunity to engage scripture each day, to encounter Christ in the sacrament, to be touched by the faith and devotion of those who join with me on these days help to prepare me spiritually and emotionally for the greater observances of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Yesterday, as I pondered Judas’ story, I was taken with the fact that when Jesus told his friends that one of them would betray him, none of them guessed it was Judas; that even when he left to accomplish his betrayal, they interpreted his departure innocently.

The cross challenges us, judges us (to use imagery from John’s gospel) in so many ways. It reveals our lack of faith, our inconstancy, our confusion, and our sin. But at the same time, to use the words of another collect, we see Jesus who “stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”

We bring all of our doubt, inconstancy, confusion, and sin to the cross and are embraced by Jesus. I pray that these days may be an opportunity to encounter and experience the saving embrace of Christ’s love.

Poetry for Wednesday in Holy Week: Judas, Peter, by Luci Shaw

“Judas, Peter”

because we are all
betrayers, taking
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
clearly enough
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask us each again
do you love me?

Poetry for Tuesday in Holy Week: My song is love unkown

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend,
My Friend indeed,
Who at my need
His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
And for His death
they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries!
Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
and ’gainst Him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He
to suffering goes,
That He His foes
from thence might free.

In life no house, no home,
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb,
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heav’n was his home;
But mine the tomb
Wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
in Whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.

words by Samuel Crossman, 1664

The Anointing at Bethany, by Malcolm Guite: Poetry for Holy Week

The gospel reading for Monday in Holy Week is John 12:1-11. 

Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus

So close the candles stir with their soft breath

And kindle heart and soul to flame within us

Lit by these mysteries of life and death.

For beauty now begins the final movement

In quietness and intimate encounter

The alabaster jar of precious ointment

Is broken open for the world’s true lover,
The whole room richly fills to feast the senses

With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,

The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,

Here at the very centre of all things,

Here at the meeting place of love and loss

We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

Malcolm Guite blogs at https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/

Monday in Holy Week

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.