Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:10-17, 31b-35
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
I groan in prayer, but help seems far away.
2 My God, I cry out during the day, but you do not answer,
and during the night my prayers do not let up.
3 You are holy; you sit as king
receiving the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted in you and you rescued them.
5 To you they cried out, and they were saved;
in you they trusted and they were not disappointed.
6 But I am a worm, not a man;
people insult me and despise me.
7 All who see me taunt me;
they mock me and shake their heads.
8 They say, “Commit yourself to the Lord! Let the Lord rescue him!
Let the Lord deliver him, for he delights in him.”
9 Yes, you are the one who brought me out from the womb
and made me feel secure on my mother’s breasts.
10 I have been dependent on you since birth;
from the time I came out of my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not remain far away from me,
for trouble is near and I have no one to help me.
12 Many bulls surround me;
powerful bulls of Bashan hem me in.
13 They open their mouths to devour me
like a roaring lion that rips its prey.
14 My strength drains away like water;
all my bones are dislocated;
my heart is like wax;
it melts away inside me.
15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery;
my tongue sticks to my gums.
You set me in the dust of death.
16 Yes, wild dogs surround me—
a gang of evil men crowd around me;
like a lion they pin my hands and feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
my enemies are gloating over me in triumph.
18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves;
they are rolling dice for my garments.
19 But you, O Lord, do not remain far away!
You are my source of strength! Hurry and help me!
20 Deliver me from the sword!
Save my life from the claws of the wild dogs!
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lion,
and from the horns of the wild oxen!
(Psalm 22:1-21, NRSV)
When I was growing up, it happened like clockwork. Every year on Good Friday, we gathered in a dimly lit church that seemed to get darker by the minute, and at some point during the service we read these words. I’d been around enough to know why we read the first verse of Psalm 22 – that was Jesus talking from the cross, as Mark records in this evening’s gospel reading – but why the rest of this? To be honest, as much as I have always loved Holy Week Psalm 22 was by far my least favorite part of any service. My blood ran cold at the agony in those words, at the pain I knew was behind them, and, as I always heard them in my mind coming from the mouth of Jesus, they always made me sad. I think my parents knew – or maybe they felt it too. The silence that shrouded the end of that service always lasted until we got back home, until we could get out of our Sunday best – and, at least in my mind – strip away the guilt that came from imagining Jesus’ suffering.
It occurs to me now that we were missing a big part of the picture whenever we recited this Psalm, because we always stopped at verse 21. I didn’t realize that at the time, even when I’d read ahead a bit on my own until the jarring change of tone stopped me in my tracks and sent me scurrying back to the uncomfortable but familiar language of those first verses. As much as I disliked it, this was how Good Friday was supposed to be. Melancholy, sadness, and guilt were the order of the day.
There’s a place for those emotions to be sure, but I’ve come to realize that there’s room for a wider range of emotions than just these. Yes, there is sorrow on this night when we remember how Christ suffered for our sake and for the sake of our world. But there is also comfort in the knowledge that his suffering and death were not meaningless. The abandonment and pain experienced by Christ is a mirror for all the grief and loss that you and I and the rest of humanity have experienced, are experiencing now, and will continue to experience. Because Christ suffered, God knows what it means to suffer. Because Christ was lonely, God knows the pain of loneliness. Because Christ died, death is no longer foreign to God. Perhaps most importantly, the cross of Christ does not represent the end of God’s life with us, but the beginning of our life in God. That’s why Psalm 22 doesn’t end in verse 21, but continues:
You have answered me!
22 I will declare your name to my countrymen!
In the middle of the assembly I will praise you!
23 You loyal followers of the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
All you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him!
24 For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed;
he did not ignore him;
when he cried out to him, he responded.
25 You are the reason I offer praise in the great assembly;
I will fulfill my promises before the Lord’s loyal followers.
26 Let the oppressed eat and be filled!
Let those who seek his help praise the Lord!
May you live forever!
27 Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him!
Let all the nations worship you!
28 For the Lord is king and rules over the nations.
29 All of the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship;
all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him,
including those who cannot preserve their lives.
30 A whole generation will serve him;
they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord.
31 They will come and tell about his saving deeds;
they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.
(Psalm 22:22-31, NRSV)
This is the good news of Good Friday, brothers and sisters: that in Christ’s suffering our suffering is known to God, that because of Christ’s faithfulness the news of God’s faithfulness will be spread abroad, that through Christ’s dying and rising all things will be brought from death to life. And so, brothers and sisters, even as we call to mind the sorrow and suffering of our Lord, we can sing of the glorious battle that Christ has fought and won, and look with longing to the day of resurrection that is dawning on the horizon. May it be so among us. Amen.
*Note: We are currently experiencing problems with our audio recording equipment; as a result, we are unable to post sermon audio at this time. Please bear with us as we work to resolve these problems. Thank you for your patience.*
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This is a difficult night. It was certainly a difficult night for Jesus, who knew what was awaiting him as the sun set in the west and the forces of opposition gathered to carry out their schemes under cover of darkness, who prayed in the garden alongside his friends, and who found in time that he was completely and utterly alone as he faced one last temptation. It was a difficult night for Jesus’ disciples, who heard again the word of betrayal and the command to keep awake, and who utterly failed to understand what was happening to their teacher and Lord until it was too late. It is a difficult night for us, who read anew of Christ’s agony in the garden, who bemoan the weakness of the disciples in falling asleep, and who recognize that we, if placed in a similar situation, would likely not have fared any better. This is a difficult night, which sees peace shattered by a violent mob, betrayal sealed with a kiss, the Lord of life lead away to face trial and condemnation and mocking and scorn and, ultimately, a sentence of death.
This is also a beautiful night. It was certainly beautiful for Jesus, who gathered with his closest companions to break bread and share wine and give them a lasting memory of his life-giving love. It was beautiful for Jesus’ disciples, who received the gift of this meal and a mystery that they would continue to explore after the story of these three days was finally told. It is a beautiful night for us, because we call to mind the words of Jesus and ponder how they continue to echo into our own lives, how we are blessed each time we “do this in remembrance” of him.
Dear friends, we gather on this Maundy Thursday night, not simply to hear the story of something that happened long ago in an upper room and a moon-lit garden, but to be confronted once more with the realities of love and grace, loneliness and betrayal, anger and disillusionment, fear and flight and faithfulness. In the telling of the tale of this holy night, we find reflected our own deep hunger and thirst for relationship with God and with one another, and we find established a connection between Jesus, the church, and the world that remains unbroken in the face of brokenness and sin and the specter of death that looms at the edges of our consciousness.
Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.
This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
These oft-repeated and well-worn words stand at the center of this meal and this night. They confirm and demonstrate everything that Jesus has taught his disciples about what it means to walk “on the way”. These are words of service, words of humility, words of painful truth that are powerful precisely because they lay bare all the ways we play at discipleship and yet ultimately fail to fall in step behind Jesus. At the same time, these are words of grace and life that are powerful because they carry the promise that our failures cannot, in the end, separate us from the one who will give everything to save us from ourselves and from the power of sin that ensnares us and our world. Christ pours out his body and blood with these words – Take and eat, take and drink, do this – so that we might be nourished and strengthened to be like him, to pour ourselves out for the sake of our neighbors and the world. This meal means everything, because in this meal Christ reminds us of who he is, who we are, and what this world is becoming by God’s grace. It is a sign that we are on the way with him, a sign of hope in the kingdom that has drawn near and is coming, a sign that history is not defined by our faithlessness but by God’s faithfulness in Christ.
This is a difficult, beautiful, holy night. Let us receive this meal as a sign of our Lord’s steadfast love for us. Let us pray that we might be prepared to face the cross that stands on the horizon with confidence in God’s grace and strength. Finally, let us pray that we might hold those realities together in our minds, and so leave this service with repentant minds, grateful hearts, and renewed wills. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*Note: We are experiencing problems with our audio recording equipment; as a result, we are unable to post sermon audio at this time. Please bear with us as we attempt to resolve these problems. Thank you for your patience.*
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
At first glance, the two texts before us on this Palm Sunday [weekend] couldn’t be more different from one another. One recounts a jubilant, public scene, the so-called triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, an event that put in motion the plans which would lead to his betrayal, arrest, and conviction, and crucifixion by the Roman authorities. The other is an intimate, private scene that borders on the scandalous, an event that leads to an angry outburst from some of Jesus’ fellow guests. One is a scene of broad acclaim for Jesus, the other a scene of singular devotion to him. One is a scene whose meaning is difficult to miss, the other a scene that is tough to interpret. The stories told in these two texts take place days apart, and seem to occupy totally different worlds, and yet they both point to a reality that will be explored throughout Holy Week, which begins today and culminates in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection next Sunday. Let’s take them in turn and see what they have to teach about Jesus, whose journey toward the cross forms the center of this coming week’s reflection.
First, the so-called “Triumphal Entry”, which appears in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and is said to have occurred on the Sunday before Jesus’ death – though Mark doesn’t include that detail. Jesus’ entrance into the Holy City was clearly intended to mimic – or perhaps more accurately to parody – the kind of triumphant procession that would have been all too familiar to those who lived under military occupation. Victorious generals often rode into town on massive warhorses on their way back from important campaigns to bring news of their exploits to the people, and would often have been greeted by adoring throngs. In some cases, those gathered to welcome the general or other official back would have waved palm branches, a common symbol of victory in the Roman world. The similarities between those victory parades and the procession of Jesus and his followers are obvious and striking, and those who witnessed this scene would have clearly gotten the message, although they may also have been puzzled by the ways that Jesus subverts this image. The choice of a donkey as his mount signaled a humility unbecoming a conquering hero or king, and the masses attending him included people of low social status who may have reflected poorly on their champion. In short, the first scene in today’s service presents us with a picture of Jesus as king – a different kind of king, to be sure, but a king nonetheless.
Turning to the second text – the story of Jesus’ attendance at a dinner in the town of Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem – the mood has shifted significantly. As he sits at the table, presumably as part of a rather small and intimate gathering, Jesus is approached by a woman who breaks open a jar of costly perfumed oil and pours the entire jar on his head. This, too, is a royal scene, albeit a quieter one. Kings and priests in Israel were confirmed in their offices by a ritual that included anointing with scented oil, a practice that is well-attested in Scripture. This was not the only time anointing happened, of course. Anointing with oil was often a matter of basic hospitality, a service provided to guests with surprising regularity by those who could afford to do so. Yet for those who have been following the story of Jesus since its beginning, there is no doubt that this is an extraordinary scene, intended to reveal his royal identity once more.
There are other aspects of this story that are remarkable in their own right, of course. The costly devotion of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus is cause for both consternation and awe. Jesus’ presence at a dinner hosted by Simon “the leper” is perhaps further evidence of how his ministry broke down barriers to proclaim the good news of God’s Reign. But the most important thing for us to take away from this story is what it teaches us about Jesus’ identity, and how his identity is colored by the journey his life would take over its final days. That journey reveals that Jesus is a king who refuses to use his authority for his own advantage. He is a king who associates with the lowly because he desires that they share in his honor. He is a king who submits himself to the will of another for the sake of his subjects. He is a king who does not conform to our expectations of royalty, because he is more interested in transforming our view of how royal and common people alike are called to live in relationship with one another and with God.
As we approach this Holy Week, we do well to keep the reality of Jesus’ radical royalty before us, because it is critical to understanding the significance of his suffering, death, and vindication by God. Jesus is crucified by the will of sinful humanity, but he is no mere victim; he also goes to the cross because of the will of the Father. Jesus dies a shameful death, but he does not bear that reproach forever; his death also reveals the glory and honor that he is due because of his obedience. Jesus is tempted on two fronts, but he does not yield to either; he remains faithful in the face of that temptation so that he might show forth both his strength and God’s grace. These are the stories that we will explore over the course of this week. On Thursday, we will reflect on the pain, betrayal, and prayer of Jesus’ final night. On Friday, we will ponder the last hours of Jesus’ life and how his death shows us the depth of God’s love for a broken world. Finally, next Sunday we will celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death, and the effect that that victory has on us and the whole creation. On this Palm Sunday [weekend], may we be reminded of Jesus’ royal reign and how that reign is made manifest in our life together. May we be inspired by Jesus’ example of costly service and by his fellow dinner guests’ example of costly devotion. Most of all, may we be prepared to enter this Holy Week with our eyes fixed on Jesus, our humble king and loving Lord, that we might continue following him on the way through death into abundant life. Amen.
*Our audio recording equipment has experienced some problems in recent days; as a result, we are having difficulty posting the audio of sermons. Please bear with us while we work to resolve those problems. Thank you for your patience.*
We gather again this night to hear the story of our Lord’s final hours. We hear of his brutal torture by the whole cohort of Roman soldiers, possibly as many as six hundred strong. We hear of the mockery to which they subjected him when they clothed him in crude military dress, gave him a crown of thorns and a limp reed for a scepter, and knelt before him while parodying the greeting that rang in the emperor’s ears wherever he went: Hail! Hail! Hail, king of the Jews! We hear the derision from those who passed by, using his own words and his position of utter powerlessness to ridicule him. He saved others! He cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel? Come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him! We hear his last words from the cross before he gave up his spirit: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? We hear of the tremors that rent the earth, the temple curtain, and the disbelief of those who had nailed him to the tree. We hear of his burial in a brand new tomb, and of the women who kept watch over his grave until the guards arrived.
Whether you’re hearing this story for the first time or rehearing it for the hundredth time, it is a truly remarkable narrative. Matthew includes so many little details that give us pause and help us to find something new and powerful in the tale, like the fact that Simon Peter – the chief disciple who recognized Jesus as the Christ and vowed never to leave him – is nowhere to be found, and so the one who was called to pick up the cross and follow Jesus is replaced by a stranger with the same name. Or the fact that Jesus was crucified between two bandits who may have been Galilean revolutionaries from the same gang of rebels as Barabbas, the one who was released by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the religious authorities and the crowds who gathered for Jesus’ trial. If that’s the case, then Jesus, the Son of God the Father was likely crucified in the place of Jesus Barabbas, whose name also means “Son of the Father”. Or this strange scene, recorded only in Matthew, of the graves of the faithful dead being opened, so that God’s power over death might be shown forth by their sharing in Christ’s resurrection on the third day.
On its own, this is an incredibly moving story, both in its broad sweep and in those seemingly small details that open up new worlds of meaning. But as Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other important theologians in our tradition have stressed throughout the years, what makes this story even more compelling is the act of pondering what it means for you and me and for the world. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus lays out his mission, his purpose for being born among us, living among us, and dying at our hands: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28, NRSV). The goal of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was not to be glorified for his own sake, to be remembered as a powerful preacher and teacher and healer, but so that our relationship with God, broken by our human propensity to live for ourselves, to injure and demean others, and to ignore our Creator, might be renewed and restored. The events of this day happened for you and for me, a thought that surely inspires profound and heartfelt gratitude in each of us.
But what happened on the God-forsaken hill called Golgotha outside the city walls was even bigger than you and me. Paul later writes that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) The Lord who taught his disciples of God’s care for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air hung on the cross to restore the whole creation to God – everything that has ever been made, that exists now, and that will ever exist.
This is love, brothers and sisters; love so deep, so wide, so high, that it encompasses all things, seen and unseen. We gather this night to remember the cost of that love, and to give thanks for the amazing grace that has found us all in Jesus and kept us in communion with God the Father. We gather to pray for God’s grace to continue to come to us, to inspire us to acts of greater love and service to others, and to make the light of the Gospel known throughout the world. In closing this evening’s reflection, I’d like to leave you with these words, part of a fifth-century hymn about Christ’s life, death, and rising for us:
Because for our sake you tasted gall, may the Enemy’s bitterness be killed in us.
Because for our sake you drank sour wine, may what is weak in us be strengthened.
Because for our sake you were spat upon, may we be bathed in the dew of immortality.
Because for our sake you were struck with a rod, may we receive shelter in the last.
Because for our sake you accepted a crown of thorns, may we that love you be crowned with garlands that never can fade.
Because for our sake you were wrapped in a shroud, may we be clothed in your all-enfolding strength.
Because you were laid in the new grave and the tomb, may we receive renewal of body and soul.
Because you rose and returned to life, may we be brought to life again.
[Early Christian Prayers, ed. A. Hamman, trans. by W. Mitchell (Longmans, Green, and Co.: 1961)]
Complementary Text: Psalm 116:12-15
Preaching Text: Matthew 26:17-30
This Friday night, our Jewish brothers and sisters will begin the celebration of Passover, one of the most important festivals in the life of their community. In homes all over the world, people will gather to tell the story of Israel’s salvation and eat the traditional meal – including matzo, vegetables, bitter herbs, and cups of wine. One of the most poignant parts of the evening is during the section of the meal called the Maggid, or “story”, when the youngest person present asks the first in a series of questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” As the story is told, the answer to that question becomes clear: this night is different because it is a night to celebrate God’s power in bringing Israel out of slavery and into freedom.
As we gather on this Maundy Thursday, we might ask that same question ourselves: Why is this night different from all other nights? The answer might seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking. The reading before us tonight recounts the story of Jesus gathering with his disciples for the first meal of Passover. We don’t know how similar the Seder of today is to the meal that Jesus shared with his followers, but the basic shape of the meal likely hasn’t changed much. They would have remembered the same story and eaten the same unleavened bread in obedience to God’s command. They would have passed around cups of wine, blessing God for delivering their people with a mighty hand. But this meal would also be different from all the other Passover meals shared in Jerusalem that night and the next. This meal would become the model for a new kind of supper shared by those who would one day bear the name of Christ.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and give it to the disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then, taking a cup of wine and blessing it, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for all in order to effect the forgiveness of sins. I’m telling you, from this point forward I will never drink from this fruit of the grapevine until the day I drink new wine with you under my Father’s Reign.” (Matthew 26:26-29, my translation)
The apostle Paul referred to this meal as one of the most important aspects of the tradition that he received from those who had known Jesus, and in First Corinthians 11, he sets down that tradition for generations to follow:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed down to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was handed over, took bread and, after giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for your sake. Keep doing this in my memory.” In the same way he took the cup after the meal, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Keep doing this, as often as you drink it, in my memory.” For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (First Corinthians 11:23-26, my translation)
What makes this night different than all other nights? It is the night our Lord Jesus instituted his supper, a meal that continues to give life to the church every time we gather to receive it. It is a tangible sign of the love of God, expressed in gifts of bread and wine, broken and poured for us and for all people to grant us forgiveness and grace and new life in him. It is also, of course, the night of his betrayal and arrest, and we can’t separate this meal from the events that follow it, because they give meaning to one another. There is something incredible, for example, about the fact that in Matthew’s telling of this story, Judas – the one who was actively planning to betray him – was a full participant in that meal. He heard the words of promise as the bread and wine were passed around the table. He received the gift of fellowship with Jesus and his fellow disciples, even as the schemes he had set in motion continued to unfold outside that room. Though his own actions would later lead to his removal from the Twelve, that evening he was treated in the same manner as the other eleven. That fact should be a great comfort to each of us as we approach this meal tonight. The invitation of our Lord is not altered by our faults and failings, because this meal is given to us so that our faults might be healed.
In the end, this meal points us to the larger reality of Christ’s suffering and death, and that is perhaps the most important thing for us to remember this night. One writer, reflecting on the meaning of Holy Communion, put it this way:
To know Christ sacramentally only in the terms of bread and wine is to know him only partially, in the dining room as host and guest. It is a valid enough knowledge, but its ultimate weakness when isolated is that it is perhaps too civil… However elegant the knowledge of the dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, in the slaughterhouse; amid the quiet violence of the garden, strangled cries, and fat spitting in the pan. Table manners depend on something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge that ignores these dark and murderous human acts is losing its grip on the human condition. [Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Pueblo: 1978)]
Tonight, we receive the gift of a meal. That meal comes to us at a price, and so we approach it with awe and gratitude. By giving up his life for us once, Christ has given us his life forever. Take and eat, brothers. Take and drink, sisters. This is Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you. As often as you eat it, but especially on this night, do this in remembrance of him and all that he has done for us and for our broken world. Amen.