Sermon: God’s glorious love story (Maundy Thursday 2018)

Maundy Thursday Sermon
March 29, 2018
John 19:23-30

INTRODUCTION: God’s love STORY

             In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, John’s Gospel is one long love story. We’ve been working our way through John’s Gospel since Christmas Eve, and through the Passion story since Lent began, and each reading has revealed to us in more depth and color what God’s love looks like, even as people’s encounter with that love compels them to tell others about it. First, back on Christmas, we heard about God coming to earth in the first place, in the story of the Incarnation:

…In the story of the Incarnation:

  • The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. The Word became flesh and lived among us.

Then, in John the Baptist’s testimony we heard:

  • “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

At Jesus’ first sign, we experienced God’s extravagant abundance:

  • “The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

To Nicodemus, who came to Jesus in the dead of night, Jesus offered the very heart of the gospel:

  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

After a shocking encounter at high noon with a Samaritan woman at the well, the woman was transformed:

  • Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Sometimes, Jesus’ show of love was upsetting to people, like that Sabbath day when he healed the man born blind:

  • The man said to the Jewish leaders, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?

Through it all, Jesus kept assuring people that his work was not only for love, but in order that people would find abundant life:

  • I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

And in assuring us of that life, Jesus also assured us freedom – freedom from all that would bind us and hold us in our tombs, hold us back from the fullness of life.

  • Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

As he turned his eyes toward his final act of life-giving love on the cross, Jesus engaged in one more act of humble, selfless love and devotion: he knelt down, on the night he was to be betrayed, and washed the feet of his disciples:

  • Jesus said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

That last story, the foot-washing, is the story we normally hear on Maundy Thursday. It is following this foot-washing encounter that Jesus gives to his disciples the new commandment, to love one another. Seems like Jesus shouldn’t have to command something so simple, and yet, as we know, it is not always simple to love one another. And so he does command it. The foot-washing was certainly an act of love, in which Jesus humbled himself and the teacher became the servant… and his command to us to do the same is a tall order. Of course, Jesus would go on to show truly what it means to humble himself for the sake of the other. And that is the story we have been hearing throughout Lent, and of which we are about to hear the climax: the moment in which Jesus gives himself completely for us, in the ultimate act of self-giving love. Let us rise to hear this part of God’s love story.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Back when I was planning what Lent would look like, I thought it would be nice to have a healing service for Maundy Thursday. On a day on which we focus on Jesus’ command to love one another, it seemed like a healing service would work nicely on this day, as a way to wrap up our healing and wholeness series. Oh, I had all kinds of plans for what that would look like – in my mind there were lots of candles, prayer around the cross, anointing, the whole shebang – but as I sat down to plan it I realized: so much of what is already in place for Maundy Thursday is all about healing: the confession and personal forgiveness of sins, holy communion, and even the stripping of the altar. And so I decided to just preserve the liturgy, pretty much exactly as it has been done for generations, and let it do its inherent healing work.

Of course none of those things would bring healing if it weren’t for what we heard in our Gospel reading. Tonight we hear the end of the story of Jesus’ passion, as he utters his last words, and gives up his spirit. The way that John tells about this moment is different from all the other Gospels, and each of Jesus’ final words can tell us something important about our God of love.

All three words warrant their own sermon, really, but I really want to address each one tonight. So I’m going to try, focusing on how each word can bring healing to us.

First, the word he offers to his mother and the beloved disciple. As his mother stands at the foot of the cross, and Jesus beckons his “beloved disciple” to care for his mother, he says, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here your mother.” Jesus isn’t just watching out for his mama, though that would be very sweet on its own. What Jesus does here is to establish the first Christian community. He entrusts these people, so dear to him, to each other’s care and love, and he instructs them to rely upon each other.

But that alone is not what makes their new little household a Christian one. Lots of people care for each other and rely upon each other without having any interest in Christ. What makes this remarkable is that this community finds its identity at the foot of the cross. Here is the core of Christian community: not only selfless giving and love of one another, but the abiding knowledge that we are all broken and in need, that we are sinners in need of grace – and, that the only way we will find healing is to bare our hearts to this bruised and wounded, yet still glorious, God of grace and love.

Being a Christian community also means that they will continually remind each other to return here, to the foot of the cross, to admit that, as Martin Luther said in his last words, “We are beggars, this is true.” That’s why we started worship with confession, to acknowledge before God and one another our need for grace – and to hear that God relentlessly gives us the grace we need. Our trust in that promise is healing indeed.

Jesus’ next word is, “I thirst,” and in response, he is given sour wine. This exchange brings to mind two important events – first, the wedding at Cana, at which there was plenty of the very best wine for everyone. You remember? It is a story about abundance, about how God can take even our emptiness, our longing, and turn it into grace and plenty. What a word to hear when we are in need of healing! When we need healing, we are experiencing a lack – we thirst – and here Jesus says, “I thirst with you,” and we are moved to recall that God fills our thirst with the best of the best, even when all we have to offer in return is sour wine.

The second story this exchange recalls is Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, to whom Jesus said, “I am the living water. Whoever drinks this water will never be thirsty!” Again, we were, with the woman at the well, the thirsty ones, craving to be filled, and Jesus provided. Now the one who is the living water thirsts, having given everything for us. He indeed gave us his very life. This is worth remembering later this evening, as we drink of the life-giving blood of Christ – how he gave everything for the healing of the thirsty nations.

Then his last word, “It is finished.” This may be heard as a sort of giving up or giving in, but really it is more of a 1st century, divine mic drop: Jesus is saying, “Everything that I came to do here has been done. It has come to its completion, its goal. Everything is accomplished. It is finished.” Bam. In John’s Gospel, the resurrection is certainly important, but it is here, on the cross, where God is truly glorified. It is because of this word, “It is finished,” that tomorrow is called, “Good Friday”: because here in this moment, in these final words, we see the goodness of God, that God gave his only son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Jesus told Nicodemus that was true, in the dead of night, at the beginning of his ministry. And now we see the extent to which that is true. Jesus loves us to the end.

At the end of our service tonight, we will witness the stripping of the altar. Even as a child, I loved this part of Holy Week, because it felt so mysterious, even as it felt so raw and real. Here was a visual representation of Jesus giving up everything for us. There is a vulnerability to it – for Jesus, but also for us: letting the hidden be seen, letting down the guard of all that we put up to look like we have it all together, to look like we are not broken and in pain. The sanctuary is left bare, and so also are our hearts: bared, vulnerable, and ready to invite in the Great Healer of our Every Ill. Tonight, after you have received the life-giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, let the stark visual of the altar being stripped help to prepare your heart to recognize all that God has done for you, given for you, and accomplished for you, all for the sake of showing the depth of divine love.

“It is finished,” Jesus said.
The spirit left, he hung his head.
In this moment, glorified
Was our God, the crucified.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.