Sermon for Holy Thursday

In Montrose, just south of us (although it feels like traveling North), they have a clergy association that pulls the churches together for Holy Week. They use the offerings collected to support assistant ministries.  Anyway, each church that hosts a service the day of Holy Week gets to have someone preach. Our priest asked me if I would. I gladly accepted. This is the sermon I gave this morning. My son offered that he really liked the first part. Where I mentioned Johnny Cash. 

There are many songs I like by Johnny Cash, but one in particular is one he covered — Hurt, and it is on my mind this morning. The song begins with these simple lines,

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real

In this song, or rather the video of the song, Cash is an old man and reflecting on his life. As the images roll by on the screen, he is showing us that it is a wasted life, labeling it an empire of dirt. He is sick, isolated, and desperate to feel once more. He does not know if he is even alive, so he hurts himself to feel human again.

It is about the choice to feel pain I hope to speak to you today.

In John 13, Jesus is sitting with his disciples. Here, after three years of preaching, miracles, laughs, and loss, the time for the life of Jesus was coming to an end. Here with his friends, 12 with whom He has shared so much and now with the institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, He is sharing himself. “This is my body…. This is my blood…love as I have loved you.” Here, Jesus was finalizing the mission he had had on earth, pointing to the Cross. And it is here we find Jesus experiencing his grief, his hurt, and one I might contend is worse than the physical torture of the Cross.

The pains we carry on the inside are often far worse than the pains we experience on the outside.

In John 13.21, the Evangelist writes, “Jesus distressed his spirit.” Let us sit for a moment and consider his words as John wrote them.

How is that the Son of God, who is true God from true God, light from light, the only Begotten — the one who is God in the Flesh — would trouble his own spirit for such a one as Judas?

This is not the only time the heart of God is said to be troubled or grieved. In Genesis 6, God looks down on the creation He had recently called “good,” and found that the thoughts of humans were marred by sin. Genesis 6 says because our thoughts were on evil, rather than God, the heart of God was grieved. Imagine the Almighty God we worship suddenly grieving over our thoughts. Our human ability to grieve the heart of God has not ceased, but I contend that it is God’s choice to be grieved.

In Jeremiah 8:18-9:3, God is said to deliver a bill of divorce to His people. Once more, we find the heart of God anguished. The Lord God, the Almighty, laments and mourns over Israel, saying, “There is no cure for my grief. I am sick at heart… they have left me for another… I am wounded because my people are suffering, I am overcome with horror… is there no balm in Gilead?”

Let us consider again this image in John and draw out all that is there. “Jesus troubled his own spirit.”

But I ask you this: Is God like one of us to be hurt by someone else? I would say no. Rather, God does not react, but God as philosophers, theologians, and Scripture says is the First Actor. God is not one to flinch in pain from something we have done to him as this would truly make Him less than he is. How then do we make sense of God’s grief?

Again I ask you to consider and meditate for a moment on the line in John 13.21. “Jesus tortures his spirit.” This is the second and last time John uses this in relation to Jesus.

In John 11.33, the family of Lazarus approaches Jesus with tears in their eyes and blame on their lips. We might read in John’s words that Jesus was exhausted and saddened at the loss of his friend. Or we may struggle to find other interpretations to fit the verse as we see it, as we might feel it. Surely this is how we would react — this is how we have reacted. We get tired, weak, and sometimes bothered by people. Shouldn’t we allow that Jesus, fully human, could act the same way? Maybe. And maybe this interpretation is correct. But, let me offer one more.

Let us step back for a moment and look at this scene through the eyes of Holy Week. Lazarus has died. His family began to blame Jesus. “If only you were here, you could have saved him.” In their cries, I hear the calls of those who taunted Jesus saying, “If He was truly the Messiah, He could save himself.” There is a loss of faith by Mary and Martha, just as we see the disciples abandoning Jesus. There is something here too that reminds us of Judas. For Judas, Jesus was not the Messiah he was looking for. He was not the great and powerful Davidic military ruler, the brigand, the one who would lead a rebellion against the might of Rome. For Mary, Jesus had not come in her time. For the crowd, Jesus was the one who had caused the blind to see and the lame to walk, and all of them strangers. Yet, this same Jesus did not show up to help out a sick friend. What dishonor they must have thought Jesus showed the family of Lazarus.

I have to wonder at what point do we ourselves abandon Jesus? Is it when we are offered something better, when a better argument is made, or when we have attempted to make Jesus our own personal savior and He did not act as we demanded?

We read more in John 11, where Jesus weeps. His spirit is troubled; it is distressed; it is grieved. And He — the one whom John had just told us was not only in the beginning with God, but was God — weeps by his own might. But why?

St. John is a biased biographer of Jesus. From the beginning, the Evangelist tells us that Judas would betray Jesus who is God in the flesh. He didn’t even offer us spoiler alerts. He simply tells us, and shapes the scenes around Judas as the one we know we are supposed to distrust, or maybe even hate. Yet, let us step back for a moment to the time John chronicles. Imagine the friendship between Jesus and Judas, much as with any other disciple. Judas was one of the Twelve. He was there with Jesus in many of the scenes depicted in the Gospels. He wasn’t always the betrayer. He was a disciple, a friend, and as we all know from those friends we hold most dear, he was indeed family.

In John 13, Jesus has His most beloved family around Him. After a scene many us will repeat tonight, Jesus troubles his spirit once more. Jesus knows what is about to happen. Yet, He is distressed; Jesus, the only begotten Son of God grieves His own spirit, feeling the emotional pain of having someone one so close betray Him. The betrayal Jesus feels here is not just about the death of Jesus, but something more, something deeply personal.

Imagine for a moment the pain Jesus feels here. This is the last time in John we find Jesus with a troubled spirit. We know that Jesus is going to go to the garden and his disciples fall asleep. We know that Jesus is going to go to the rack and be flogged, humiliated, and tortured. He will be stripped naked, mocked, and so mutilated that one cannot fully tell he is human. We know that Jesus will be taken to the cross and three nine inch nails driven through His body and into wood, only to have that beam, that stake, that cross hoisted into the air and brought harshly back to earth. We know that he has his side cut in twain, and we know one of his last sights is his mother, weeping along with John, with all others having abandoned him. At no point in John’s Passion story do we see Jesus distressed in spirit due to the agony of the crucifixion.

We think we know the pain he must endure because we can somewhat understand the physical pain of the Cross. It is recounted to us every Easter.

And yet here, and only twice in John’s Gospel, do we find that Jesus troubles himself in the spirit. Why is the one born to die a most gruesome death allowing himself to be troubled by a loss of faith, by betrayal, and the more so when He knows in both situations, that the perceived end of both Lazarus and Himself is not truly the end, that the end according to our eyes is not what God has decided for these two? If we believe our own Sacred Text, if we believe our Tradition, and our Reason and if we have truly experienced salvation, then we know that Jesus, the pre-existent Son of God knew exactly what was going to happen and yet He chose to do this anyway. Why then would he distress and torture his own spirit over a few mere mortals who were losing faith?

The song I spoke about in the beginning, Hurt, includes this refrain:

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Perhaps St. Augustine is right in this one thing, that the immovable rock is troubled here for our infirmities. Jesus was not reacting to the death of Lazarus. Jesus is not reacting to his impending death. If this were the case, the remainder of John’s Gospel would have told us of the deep pain, agony, and bodily torture Jesus felt and, as the Synoptics told us, of Jesus praying that the cup passes away from him. Yet, this is not where Jesus is troubled in the Fourth Gospel. It is when those who were so close to Jesus begin to slip away.

When those He reaches for walk away, Jesus troubles himself.

When we suppose we can direct God and then become upset when God does not act like we desire, Jesus troubles Himself.

When we reject the Son of God, when we deny the Resurrection and its promise, Jesus troubles Himself.

This season of Easter is about us and very much about God. Jesus came and died for those elected into His People. In some way, as St. Irenaeus says, the Incarnation allows the One without suffering to suffer. Yet, we read in John’s Gospel that the suffering for Jesus is not so much the Cross, and the horrible wretched pain that the Man Christ Jesus endured for our sakes. The suffering of Jesus begins when we who know Jesus, begin to slip away, when we know Jesus begin to abandon him, when we betray him, when we devalue what He has given us.

When we walk away.

As we continue to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, let us also finish Lent with a remembrance of the times we have begun treat our faith in Christ as something less than what it is. Let us remember the pain of the cross bestowed upon Him by others — an outward pain for the world to see — but also let us remember the pain Jesus chose to inflict upon himself where no man can see — a pain buried in his spirit — that pain He chose to have for you and me and our infirmities of faith.

With this deep and hidden pain in the heart of God as our balm, let us be renewed in our faith and make joyful the heart of God.

Let me close with a now with a hymn written by John and Charles Wesley:

THE AGONY

1          Vain man has measured land and sea,

Fathom’d the depths of states and kings,

O’er earth and heaven explored his way:

Yet there are two vast spacious things,

To measure which doth more behove,

Yet few that sound them!—Sin and Love.

2          Who would know Sin, let him repair

To Calvary: there shall he see

A Man so pain’d, that all His hair,

His skin, His garments bloody be!

Sin is that rack, which forces pain

To hunt its food through every vein.

3          Wouldst thou know Love? behold the God,

The Man, who for thy ransom died:

Go taste the sacred fount that flow’d

Fast-streaming from His wounded side!

Love is that liquor most divine,

God feels as blood, but I as wine.

 

John Wesley and Charles Wesley, The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, ed. G. Osborn, vol. 1 (London: Wesleyan-Methodist Conference Office, 1868), 27.

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