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.

Poetry for Palm Sunday: The Poet thinks about the donkey, by Mary Oliver

The Poet thinks about the donkey

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
   leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Mary Oliver from her book Thirst.

Poetry for Holy Saturday: Sepulchre by George Herbert

Sepulchre, by George Herbert

Oh blessed body! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door
They leave thee.

But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.
Whatever sin did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it
Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;
Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
Withhold thee.

Were you there? A Sermon for Good Friday, 2017

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The old, familiar spiritual that we will sing again in a few minutes has taken on new meaning for me in this season. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for one of the sessions in our Lenten Study on the meaning of the cross in the twenty-first century, I came across a movie of lynching postcards compiled and narrated by James Allen. By themselves, the images are haunting and horrific. They depict the gaunt, celebratory faces of white people surrounding black bodies hanging from trees. Continue reading

Good Friday in the Shadow of the Lynching Tree

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out. It was this faith that gave blacks the strength and courage to hope, “to keep on keeping on,” …. The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree…..

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans.

Thus the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering-to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of the cross we are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “to take the crucified down from the cross.”

Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor….

Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. God’s loving solidarity can transform ugliness–whether Jesus on the cross or a lynched black victim–into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.

—James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree