9 Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 11 These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are My friends if you do what I command you.
To Life…and Death…and to Death that Gives Life
One of the great things about preaching at a wedding, and I’ve said this before so it’s no surprise, is that you will remember very little about what I say today.
So I’ll make this short.
But on a day when everyone will give you lots of advice, advice about how you shouldn’t let the sun go down on your anger toward one another (spoiler alert: you will go to bed mad at each other sometimes and then wage a fight over the sheets), or how you should always make the other person happy (spoiler alert: even if you try to do this, you will fail because we just can’t be satisfied), or even how you should buy one another a flower every morning and put it at the bedside so that they see it when they wake up…really, I heard someone say that they did this one time, and all I could think about was “Even when you had the flu?!”
Look, you’re going to get lots of advice, and I suggest you dismiss 90% of it. But if there is one piece of advice that I could give you it’s this: you gotta die.
Seriously…that’s what you have to do. Jesus asks that we lay down our lives for one another.
How do we lay down our lives for one another these days?
In the day when so few of us are in mortal danger at any given time, when the opportunities to stare the bad guy in the face and say, “Do not take her or him, take me…” how do we effectively lay down our lives for one another?
Maybe it means turning off hockey in deference for what Deb wants to watch?
Actually…Deb likes hockey, so I don’t think that’s it…
I mean, I’m really wondering about this because, if there’s one thing I do know about marriage, it’s that it is a constant death and resurrection story for those of us involved.
I mean, I’ve never been in a position of laying down my life for my wife, but there are certainly times when I’ve died in my relationship.
When my need to be right died.
When my idea of what we are going to do next died as we negotiated our way forward together.
When my desire to just abandon the whole thing died because I remembered the promises we made together.
There is no greater love than for you to lay down your life for your friend, Jesus says.
I’ve never known that to be so real than I do within marriage.
Because my friends and I can go separate ways, and it hurts, but I don’t often feel a real need to work out the particulars with them…
But in marriage.
Yes. It has to happen.
And really the only way that I’ve found the ability to lay down my life, my ego, my desire to be right, even sometimes my personal dreams about the future, is to abide in God. Abiding in God, not just remembering there is a God, but living and breathing and moving in this world in such a way that I make known in myself that I am not the center of the universe, doing that reminds me that my time is not my own, anyway.
And since my time is not my own, and I have to be a good steward of my time, well, in being good stewards of your time, you two are saying here that you think the God who is greater than you is pleased that you’ve chosen to spend your remaining days together.
And since we’re going to bless that in God’s name, well, there’s a certain need for you two to be together then. To lay down your lives for one another in ways that you never thought you’d have to, you never thought would be possible, that you never thought you could or would.
That’s marriage: doing the impossible together.
Because it is impossible to always have butterflies in your stomach about the other person. The butterflies of the tummy only last a season, anyway.
It is impossible for you not to get angry at one another. When you take a long trip with someone, you eventually end up fighting somewhere in the barren lands of Nebraska.
Today we’re not promising to be always in love forever. Today we’re promising to be together, even when we find it difficult to love one another.
Today we’re not promising to never argue. Today we’re promising that our arguments will, like butterflies, have a season.
Today we’re promising nothing other than to lay down our lives for one another. From this day forward. To abandon our personal agendas in deference for a shared agenda.
And the only way that works is when we first abide in the God who lives outside of seasons, whose love never fails, who is the master at raising up people whose lives have been laid down.
Deb and Mike, I am excited to be here today with you two and for you two. But mostly, I am excited to see what God is doing in you two. And it may sound strange, but I am excited for the ways that you two will die and rise together daily, as this is what love calls us to do.
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
If Jesus is the Answer, What is the Question?
God of all,
Be our root.
Be our life-source.
Be all that we need.
That we might be change for a world in need of renewal.
If you walk down the stairs at the Addison Brownline stop on the south side, and you head under the tracks to the support beam by the bus stop, you’ll see written on the metal pillar there the words, “Jesus is the answer.”
I always think it’s interesting to find graffiti with a Christian message, mostly because I think of those commandments about property and think it’s yours and that you can do anything you want with it, coveting it’s use, and wonder if that crossed their mind before they defaced a structure…even if the message is religious. It’s pollution, after all.
I’ve seen this message before. I’ve seen it on bumper stickers; I’ve seen it on billboards. And not just these words, but all sorts of variations of these words suggesting that, somehow, the Christian religion, or more specifically Jesus, is the answer.
But what’s the question?
One of you posted online, after I put up a picture of the Jesus graffiti, that the question is “Who is buying the next round?” I don’t think that’s it…
What’s the question?
Perhaps the implied question that we get from this chapter of John is, “What are you rooted in? How are you growing? Where does your life come from?” Jesus has a penchant for using agrarian examples for faith and life, and today’s example about roots and vines is one of the most familiar.
We, the branches, are in Jesus the vine, and then bear good fruit.
When most of us think of bearing fruit, I think we’re imagining producing something. Efficiency. Effectiveness. Standards and metrics and meeting bottom lines. The fruits of an effective corporation are good profits for investors and good products for consumers. The fruits of effective social agencies are lives turned around and differences made in neighborhoods and crumbling family structures. At least, that’s what we’re taught to think…
What is our fruit?
Is the fruit of the individual Christian the number of people they got to sign on the dotted conversion line? I remember someone asking me how many souls I had saved in my life and, not ever being a lifeguard or having pulled someone off of the edge of a cliff, I couldn’t think of one.
“Not like that,” they said, “How many conversions have you made?”
One. One is the answer to that question. And it’s me. And I don’t even think I did it. My conversion came straight from the vine…
“When were you saved?” they asked. “About 2000 years ago.” I answered. And then I followed it up with, “Also, every day.”
I don’t think the number of conversions are the metric for us. If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, the fruit that comes from us is us. We are the fruit. In our offices, at our desks, in our computer transactions, in our break rooms, on the field, on the trade floor, at the construction site, we are the fruit from the vine of Jesus.
We are the thing that is born. Our lives. Lives that we spend lots of money and time trying not to have thrown away into the fires of this world, as the text says. We change our eating, change our habits, change our beauty products trying to become something that will last.
But our fruit aren’t these types of changes; our fruit it is the change we are. God’s fruit in us is us.
And with our world in chaos, we need to pay attention to how we are.
On Creation Care Sunday you might expect me to talk only about the environment. But we need to remember that all things, everything, all carbon-based anything is a creation. It’s what binds us all together: the beautiful stardust that God blew into to cause humanity to be.
I am certainly afraid for our environment. When I flew into Mexico City a few years ago, I saw the city long before any buildings came into sight. The smog covering it is horrendous. Couple that with the elevation, and walking around town was difficult for moderately in-shape me.
Shanghai. L.A. New York. Chicago?
I’m sure we can say more about that and melting ice caps and droughts.
Is Jesus the answer to those types of questions?
I am certainly afraid for our environment. When I see these reports out of Baltimore, when I hear the cries of my friends who are pastors there, I wonder if anyone truly knows what is going on. So much sensationalism; so little reality. Are we watching out of fascination or compassion? One of the things I do know, though, is that people, humans, and the things humans create, are being destroyed. That systems of violence, seen and unseen, are toppling creation.
We think that just because we don’t see pollution it’s not there. We think that just because people aren’t rioting on our streets there is no unrest, no inequality, no injustice, no harm. False peace is not peace…and this is coming a pacifist.
How are we to help? Is Jesus the answer?
I don’t want another bumper sticker. I don’t think we need anymore graffiti.
We need you to be the fruit. At your desk. In your office. In your dealing with your environment. In your water usage. In the way you love your neighbor. In the way you listen to those whose voice is often silenced. In the way you speak for those who can’t speak. In the way you speak about Baltimore. In the way that you are silent and listening as someone who lives under those conditions tells you what they’re going through.
Your fruit isn’t who you convert to Christianity. You are the fruit; be converted.
Live into the vine. Be re-grafted by the love of a Christ who longs to have you rooted in something deeper than metrics and efficiency and competence. Those may root you for a while, but life will uproot you in time. It happens.
Be rooted in something that cannot be destroyed. Be rooted in the God shown through Christ, shown. Be rooted through this bread and wine-the gifts of the earth, through the water of that font. Be rooted through the songs of these carbon based lungs of yours, through these words of my carbon based lungs.
Be rooted in these Sacraments, these gifts of creation and then change the creation to arc toward justice, wholeness, beauty, the good.
Be re-rooted today.
I do not think Jesus is the answer to your domestic problems, your economic problems, your job search, political problems, or even environmental problems.
Jesus has us for that.
We do not root ourselves in Jesus so that Jesus can solve our problems or take the wheel, as the popular song with questionable theology goes.
We are rooted in Christ so that we might become the answer to the prayers of the world, just as Jesus answered prayers. We root ourselves in Christ to be converted, not to have the ability to convert. And we are promised that God in Christ will give us everything we need to do these things.
We just don’t take that seriously enough.
So tear off the bumper sticker. Pry off your Jesus fish from the back of your car. Wipe off the graffiti. The Earth is dying. Baltimore is burning. We don’t need empty slogans, posts, or signs. I tire of efficiency and metrics and outcome. We need change; we need to produce less and have God in Christ move us to become more if this world is going to be the Kingdom of God that Jesus envisions.
We need to be converted.
From Acts 10
Like that sheet flapping in the wind on the mast that night on the sea
when the waves crested over the boat, threatening to cover them in icy death
like a sheet.
And suddenly, on that sheet of water, a body.
Clear and clean of the tempest around it. Beckoning him to come out and walk
that body that would be laid in the tomb.
Peter knew this vision. He’d seen a sheet coming from heaven before.
It hung in the temple, torn in two now.
-at least, that’s what he was told.
On it, a picture of the heavens.
Another sheet from the heavens. From heaven to the floor.
And also that sheet at the foot of the slab where the body lay in the tomb
folded neatly by four corners.
On it had been what was to be made clean by the women bringing spices.
No need for all that mess, it turns out. All was clean.
And now this sheet another sheet four corners carried by invisible hands.
On it, all sorts of unclean things like that body laid in the tomb.
Unclean before, But now clean.
Clean without spices. Clean without ritual. Just clean
by that body laid in the tomb.
He should expect nothing but clean things.
Peter had seen this sheet a number of times.
And, eventually, as he lay on a sheet
as we all do…
What will Peter find then in that vision?
Only something clean now.
Clean by that body
as he’s laid in a tomb.
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Deliver to us, oh Christ
Be it on a sheet
On our lips
In our song
…however you see fit.
Let us know you more today.
This reading schedule that we’re now following, the Narrative Lectionary, allows us to hear all sorts of Old Testament stories from September to Advent, all sorts of Jesus stories from Christmas to Easter, and now we hear about what happens to those first disciples and missionaries after Jesus has risen and ascended. Last week you heard Jesus’ call to make disciples, and this week we get a peek at Peter trying to do just that.
He’s out on the mission field, talking about Jesus, a Jesus who is no longer physically present, and traveling around spreading the Gospel to the Judeans.
Only the Judeans.
Peter was of the mind that Christ’s message was meant specifically for those who worshiped YHWH, the God of the Jewish people, the children of Israel.
And so it’s a nice little surprise to have this scene in the book Acts of the Apostles open up on a Gentile, on Cornelius. We confidently assume that he’s a Gentile because he’s in the Roman army and while there were certainly probably conscripted Jewish persons in the Roman army (as Josephus, an early historian notes), it wasn’t the norm.
But the writer of Acts, who was also the writer of Luke, makes sure to mention that Cornelius was a “lover of God.” Devoted to God. Even as a Gentile.
What you don’t realize, of course, is that this a major plot twist of Game of Thrones proportions. In the ancient world, you knew who the God followers were by their creed, by what they did and did not do, and their family. Gentiles, because of they did and did not do, because of their heritage, were not God followers. They were not YHWH followers.
Rob Bell in his book Love Wins which we used a few years ago as a book study talks about how they were doing a display at his church one time with influential people who made a difference in the world; who worked for peace and love and justice. And there was a picture of Gandhi that someone had set up there. And someone at the church wrote underneath the picture, “Too bad he’s in hell…”
The rest of Bell’s book is a reaction to that statement.
Peter, the disciple who walked with Jesus, who knew Jesus quite literally, was sitting as a prophet in the town of Joppa. Those of you who are Bible scholars will recognize that city…it’s the place where that other wayward prophet, Jonah, tried to escape to in order to avoid doing God’s work. Here we find Peter in Joppa attempting to do God’s work.
He will soon find out that his workload is about to expand…
He’s hungry, and he goes up to pray. And, of course as he’s in the middle of his meditation, he starts to imagine food. Because he’s hungry. He obviously doesn’t know that the stomach will win over every other desire in the body, even holy ones. You never go grocery shopping when you are hungry or you will buy the store, including those little snack cakes that are so good and yet so bad. Likewise, never pray when you are hungry (unless you are fasting) or else you will imagine that God is telling you to go and eat as an answer to your prayer.
Except for Peter it’s the truth. Down from the heavens comes this huge sheet and on it is a banquet of delicacies: oysters, ham hocks, head cheese, bacon wrapped everything, muscles steamed with garlic and a side of aioli, roasted rattlesnake (which is quite good), stuffed guinea pig (a specialty in Peru), and all sorts of tasty treats. This vision is more exciting than most I have.
In the midst of his meditation, Peter hears God say, “You are hungry. Grab a fork. Dig in!” To which Peter, thinking it is a test, says, “No way, God. You have forbidden this.”
At which point God shakes God’s head, imagining Peter to just be “Minnesota nice,” politely refusing the first time, and encourages him again saying, “I’ve prepared all of this. None of it is unclean.”
It happens three times, and leaves Peter puzzled. What does this mean?
And then these Gentiles shows up at his door. These Gentiles representing one who was not in the fold, who, though he may have been doing good in the world, was not seen as “Godly.” A Gentile who, were his picture to be posted in the religious houses of worship as someone doing good and making peace in the ancient world, may have had some sort of writing under his name not unlike that scrawled by one of Rob Bell’s parishioners, “Too bad he’s not one of us…” Or is he?
I wonder if sometimes we think that God is testing us, when actually God is expanding our horizons by inviting us into a new way of looking at life, at our world, at all things.
I wonder if sometimes we imagine that we’re being faithful, when actually we’re not embracing a new vision that God has given to us.
I wonder if perhaps, at this moment, Peter finally got Jesus. He had walked with Jesus, heard Jesus’ say he loved him, experienced the crucifixion and the resurrection, but I wonder if this moment, years after all of that walking and wandering and face-to-face interaction, was when Peter actually understood the amazing love that God was showing through Jesus.
And if that’s the case, and I’m sitting here thinking I know Jesus, that I understand love, I wonder what is on top of the sheet that God is lowering in my own sight today.
And I wonder what is on your sheet, too. I wonder if I know Jesus.
I wonder if on my sheet it is that bully from grade school that I haven’t quite embraced. Or that person who I disagree with over politics. Or that person I can’t imagine spending eternity with, or that family member I can’t forgive. Or maybe there’d be a mirror on top of my sheet, and I’d stare myself in the eye and finally be forced to come to grips with that shadow side of myself that I imagine is ultimately unlovable. That’s what I fear the most.
What’s on your sheet?
And then I wonder what we might realize about that vision. I wonder what we might do with our new understanding of Christ’s love. I wonder if today is when we truly get to know Jesus.
I wonder what we will do with what is on our sheet.
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Bet You Think This Sermon’s About You
Every morning is Easter morning.
But today it feels especially real.
Help us to be resurrected today!
I have this wonderfully terrible habit of singing in sermons. On Easter morning we’ve sung Billy Joel, Tom Jones, and last year we even sang some Pharrell…you know, because we were happy…
I could choose a from a bunch of different ones today and I know you’d join me. Like:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…
Jesus Chris is Risen today!…
I’m just a little silhouette of a man…
Today’s little piece comes from Carly Simon-
You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain! I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?
I’m not one for listening in on other people’s conversations, but it does strike me as ironic that, whatever beef Simon arguably had with Warren Beatty…rumors and legend say this song is about him…well, whatever beef she had with him, the song was about him if those are true!
I don’t think that makes him vain. It just makes him astute! She’s mocking the fact that he probably thinks the song is about him…but it is about him!
Vanity is something we all secretly celebrate, but pretend not to. Wednesday of this week I tied my own bow tie and took a selfie of it. It only took me 40 minutes and four different Youtube videos to get it marginally right. I gave it a B+.
The night before, Tuesday night, I had to go shoe shopping because my only pair of black dress shoes had a hole worn right through the bottom of it. On Holy Week, there are fewer nightmares worse for a pastor.
So I’m at the shoe store late at night after working, eating with the kids, and doing pajama time, and I’m at the shoe store and there are just so many options for black shoes and my brain is fried. And so, not being able to get a hold of Rhonda to show her the various shoe selections I had to choose from, I texted the next best thing: our Youth Director, Brian.
He’s a fashion-minded guy, even if he often gets fashion wrong. And so I texted him pictures of six different pairs of shoes and asked which one I should buy.
His first text back was, “Can I just say that I’m loving that this is happening right now?” I wrote back and said, “Well, my black dress shoes have a hole in them from walking to work every day, so I have to get some.” He wrote back, “There’s a sermon in there somewhere…go with the first pair.”
And I did. And the last pair because he convinced me that at that price I should get two. And I think there is a sermon in here somewhere.
How many of you walked here today?
I think as city dwellers we walk more than the average bear. Walking is good for me; I map my routes by how I will walk or train to a destination more than I do how I will drive to a location.
And these disciples who had walked with Jesus around ancient Palestine for three years had, I’m sure, holes in their feet, and holes in their hearts, and had emptiness in their souls as the one they had followed around for three years, walked around with, met an end on a cross like a common criminal.
The one they called Rabbi was now the one that was mocked and tortured and, well, dead.
Why wear holes in your shoes if the story is just going to end like that, right?
Do you ever think about that, with all your walking?
Walking to work, putting in the time, hoping not to get fired or being underpaid, or being paid well but having no time for your family or enjoying any of it? Maybe that’s you; maybe it’s not. But I know we’ve all walked in relationships that wore on us. We wear holes in our shoes…but for what? For stress? For fatigue? For that deal we lost or that ceiling that finally came crashing down on us?
I mean, this is what I’m getting at: we wear a lot of holes in our shoes in this world, and I’m just asking if we’re wearing it on the right stuff? Are we wearing holes in our shoes on stuff that gives us life, or stuff that takes it?
These brave women come to the tomb to put a period on the end of the wandering days. They’re going to wash Jesus; a loving act done out of respect for who he was. And then I imagine that they thought they’d leave the tomb and go back to whatever it was they were wearing away at three years ago. A dead end to three years of wandering.
But little did they know that it wasn’t the end of the story; just another beginning. Little did they know they weren’t going to care for him out of respect for who he was, but for who he is.
And did you note that when Jesus appears to them as they’re running away from the empty tomb, what do they do? They grab his feet; they bless his feet. These feet that they had followed for three years. Getting off of their own feet that Jesus had washed just a few days ago to give thanks to God that the story hasn’t ended, that the holes in their shoes were worth more than they thought they were, that they hadn’t just wasted their time here.
Giving thanks to God that, at that very moment, they too were experiencing resurrection. On that Easter morning, Jesus wasn’t the only one raised. They were, too.
We secretly love vanity. And you’re all dressed up so nicely today. And, look, I’m wearing those awesome shoes and a sophomore effort at a bow tie.
So today we’re going to publicly embrace vanity because, guess what, this reading today from Matthew, this reading, this sermon, is about you. And I’m not being ironic; I’m being absolutely serious.
Because this reading is the permission that you’ve been waiting for, the good news that you’ve been longing to hear: Jesus’ resurrection is yours, too. And that’s good news for those of us who waste our shoe leather on things that give so little reward. We could use a resurrection from that life.
Resurrection is not just something that happens after you die, at least that’s not what I look forward to the most; resurrection is that thing that happens to you when you truly begin to trust that God in Christ is reconciling all things for the good of the world, that God loves you more than you can ever imagine, that God invites you to live in such a way that your shoe leather will be well spent on serving, healing, and helping and that it won’t go to waste.
And that when you get holes in your shoes, when you’re tired, when you’re worn, when you think it’s all been for naught, your story is not ending. Jesus has promised resurrection just for those moments.
Dear people, Jesus wasn’t raised for Jesus. Jesus was raised from the dead for us, so that we might be raised from those things that wear holes on our spirits and lives. Trust it! Today, you’re invited to trust it once again.
Because, Carly Simon was kind of right: this story is about you. And me. And all the imperfect things in this world that need some resurrection. You bet this sermon is about you.
Thanks be to Christ for that. Christ is risen, Alleluia!
Famous Last Words
“Pardon me, sir. I did not do it on purpose.” The famous last words of Marie Antoinette after she stepped on the executioner’s foot.
“I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” The famous last words of Humphrey Bougart.
“Dammit…don’t you dare ask God to help me!” The not-so-famous last words of Joan Crawford as her housekeeper started to pray for her at her bedside.
“Now now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.” Voltaire said this to the priest who, at his deathbed, asked him to renounce Satan.
We like clever or meaningful last words. Perhaps it doesn’t matter how a person lived, as long as they have a nice quip at the end to cement them into the fabric of humanity.
I think we see this love in the fact that there are some Good Friday services that only focus on Jesus’ last words…and in each of the four Gospels we get different last words.
But the striking thing about Jesus’ last words is that none of them, in any of the Gospels, are words of condemnation or hatred. They aren’t whimsical quips. They are all, to a one, words of love, forgiveness, prayers for reconciliation, and little snippets of Jewish prayers that he probably learned as a boy.
Even the famous, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” is a recitation of the 22nd Psalm, and “Into your hands I commend my spirit” is the bedtime prayer of Psalm 31.
Our practice of just saying whatever is on our minds at the moment is called into question when we look at the cross and realize that, in the throes of death, Christ’s mind was on those words he had learned as a little boy: words of comfort, peace, and even lament…but lament not in anger or vengeance, but in sincere sadness. It’s why I thank God that I have some of scripture and the liturgy memorized. I pray that in my final hours my mind can go there, too.
When we look on the cross, I think many people think they are seeing God’s “last word” to humanity; and that it a word of judgment.
But in reality, the cross is humanity’s final judgment on God. The cross is where we send things that we do not like to listen to for very long, and a message of self-giving love and peace that is so radical…like the kind Jesus spoke of, embodied, asked of humanity…well, we’d rather not listen.
We still would rather not, most days. We like messages of receiving love, of living peacefully ourselves and letting the others fend for themselves still today, maybe helping them as long as we’re still OK.
The cross is not God’s judgment. The cross is humanity’s judgment of God. It is humanity’s famous last words in response to a God who loves radically.
Which is why God turns the cross on its head. God, in Christ, makes the cross a final word of hope for humanity instead of a final judgmental word of humanity.
In the cross we find God’s promise to love no matter what ring out mostly clearly, like a meditation bell bringing us to our sense.
God is seriously in love, and won’t even let us get in the way; won’t even let death get in the way.
Today we sing that we see “the life-giving cross,” not the life-taking cross. Because today we understand that God is able to take our judgments, our pains, our failures, our very lives, and turn them into something else: resurrection through Christ.
And even if it takes a cross for us to see it, God will go there.
Behold, people of God, the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the whole world…God’s final word of hope. God’s final word of love.
23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
What is something passed down to you that you treasure?
I was given my grandfather’s pocket watch when I graduated from college. He had been dead for seven years by then, and my father had kept it waiting for the time to give it to me.
I used to wear it a lot, too. I loved it, a winding clock. At night you could hear it tick in our bedroom.
A few years ago our apartment was broken into, and while we didn’t have much to take, they were sure to grab it. You know you have to upgrade your electronics when every piece of electronic furniture in your home remained.
But they took my grandfather’s watch. My watch now, I guess. And it really was the one thing that would be missed by me. And they snatched it away.
The watch wasn’t just a reminder of my grandfather for me. It was a way to carry him with me. And my father with me. And a long line of Browns who came from Dublin years ago, landed in Georgia, and set up farming in Alabama and Florida because, well, that’s all they knew how to do.
Of course I have my memories; of course I remember. But that watch…it was a physical reminder of my ancestors, the “cloud of the faithful” as it is put in the letter to the Hebrews, that surrounds me even now.
And so one of the blessings of this night, people of faith, is that we get something passed down to us by Jesus. As Paul writes tonight: we are handed something sacred, special. It is more than a reminder, it is not a reenactment for sure; it is an event.
Tonight is an event. Communion, any time it is practiced, is an event. It is an in-gathering of the faithful who are living, and the faithful who have died, around the promise of Christ that in sharing these things together, Christ is numbered among us.
Christ comes among us.
It is one of the most blessed mysteries of our faith. It is like the mystery of my grandfather’s life being carried in my own pocket, but even more powerful, more sacred, because this mystery cannot be taken away.
You cannot steal Jesus. You cannot steal the bread and cup. If you steal the bread, I will bake a new loaf. If you steal my cup, I will forge or form a new one.
It is held by no one; it is offered for all. No thief in the night can snatch it away.
Not even Judas, who tonight will betray his own thoughts and convictions to try to take what is not his: Jesus’ life.
So tonight we eat and drink. Tonight we savor Christ’s meal of love. We acknowledge Christ’s presence amongst us as a gift that cannot be taken away.
And we’ll need that promise for tomorrow night.