This post includes four sermons that were preached in four days. Maundy Thursday which focuses on Jesus washing his disciples' feet. Good Friday is about Jesus' sacrifice of love on the cross. Holy Saturday delves into "the Pit" that comes up a number of times in the Psalms. And lastly Easter Sunday which talks about the new coming out of the old.
“He who wraps the heavens in clouds wrapped round himself a towel. He who pours the water into the rivers and pools tipped…water into a basin. And he before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.”
That was preached in a sermon by a Syrian bishop named Severian early in the 5th century. I love the vivid imagery he uses to paint the stark contrast of the powerful Creator of heaven and earth who in our Gospel lesson is also doing the work of the lowliest of servants.
The poetic way that Severian preaches about the two natures of Jesus makes me think that he was a big fan of John the Evangelist. John also loved playing off Jesus’ kingly divinity and his lowly humanity time and again in his Gospel.
For John, the contrast is even more stark: there is a cosmic battle that is waged between light and darkness, good and evil, and the presence of God Incarnate walking the earth is the very reason for this epic battle.
John the Evangelist uses these contrasting images to make two important points. The first is that God is the primary action, the energy and force, behind everything. He is the Creator of us all and is the source of life.
The second is that the motivation and energy behind any, and all, of God’s actions comes from his abundant love. This point builds on top of the first: God created everything, and the act of creation, and all other actions done by God, comes from his love. It’s that second point that I want to focus on tonight.
God created the heavens and earth out of his Triune, transformational love. John says in his first chapter that the Word was with God and was God, and that in him “was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Not even the darkness could overcome it. It was out of this love that he brought light out of the darkness.
Two chapters later Jesus tells Nicodemus under the cover of darkness that God loved the world so much that “he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Love was the source of creation and it was the source of the incarnation.
We must never forget while reading the Gospel of John, or any of the Gospels period, that the source of all Jesus’ actions is his love.
This love is overwhelming and overflowing. It is extreme and filled with surprises. Like we said on Sunday, the crowd cheering Jesus on as he went down the Mount of Olives witnessed with their own eyes God on a donkey.
It was his love for us that made him enter the Holy City for the last time though he knew the crowds would quickly turn on him. And it is love that we see on full display in our reading tonight when he washes his disciples’ feet.
We must not forget the realities of foot washing in the first century.
This was typically done by a servant or slave right as a guest walked into the house. They were not just washing off “dust and mud, but also human excrement (which was tipped out of houses into the streets) and animal waste (which was left on country roads and town streets)” (Bruner 762). This was a job that no one wanted to do.
But Jesus waits until the meal is already happening before he grabs a bowl, a pitcher of water, and takes off his outer robe to start washing his disciples’ feet. It is an intentional act that was meant to disrupt the usual flow and banter that happened during the meal. And as the writer tells us, he did it because he “loved his own…and loved them to the very end.”
In no other place in ancient literature is it recorded that a person of superior status voluntarily washed the feet of someone of inferior status (Bruner 762).
As we see this scene play out before our eyes, I believe our writer wants us to hear the echos of John 3:16. Jesus’ act of love and servanthood in this moment is a mini-fulfillment of that verse, which will be ultimately fulfilled tomorrow on Good Friday. For God so loved the world that he took on the role of a slave and washed the feet of his creation.
Though his disciples did nothing to earn such an honor, in this moment God is the servant of humanity. They are recipients of unmerited grace, and Jesus humbled himself this way because of his love.
This theme continues to the very end of our reading which strikes a pivotal note that has created reverberations that can be felt even to our own day and time.
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He then says that the world will know we are his followers by our love.
But let’s be clear, the new command was not to love our neighbor. That had already been established long ago. No, instead Jesus’ new command is to love as he has loved us. Clearly the love he has shown us requires more than the original command to love our neighbor.
Another helpful translation says, “I am giving you a fresh command: Have a heart for one another out of the resource of my heart for you” (Bruner 795).
So, to love as Jesus has loved us, we must share in his heart. That sacred heart that boundlessly pours out the love that is eternally shared by the Trinity.
We cannot love in that way on our own. We must have a heart for one another out of the resource of Jesus’ own heart. We must tap into his overflowing heart if we are ever to love like him.
And if we do that, there is no doubt that we too will have to share in the distinctive nature of this kind of love, which is rooted in servanthood, submission, and even humiliation. As we journey through Holy Week we will see all of these characteristic on full display.
But as for tonight, “He before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.” And he did it, and would do it again, because of his great love for us. My prayer is that we will share in that same heart and love of the Suffering Servant.
There’s a lady from California named Heidi Baker who after getting her Ph.D. at Oxford a number of years ago, felt called to become a missionary in Mozambique. Her routine was fairly simple when she went into a new village.
She would pray for different people, especially those who were sick, and amazingly many of them were healed. News of the miraculous healings would spread quickly through the village, and anyone still sitting in their home would be pulled out to see what this lady from California was doing.
But the healings were not the reason she was there. Naturally, after healing a few of their sick, these villages wanted to hear more about Jesus, so her team would set up a projector and play a short movie that portrayed the life of Jesus.
Almost every time when the movie came to where Jesus was about to be sentenced to death most of the villagers on any given night would scream out at the injustice, and weep when Jesus is finally hung on the cross.
Sadly, for those of us who have been in the church for years, we’ve become so familiar with this gut-wrenching story that we sometimes forget the utterly horrible fact that it was God nailed to that cross.
Looking at the crucifixion with fresh eyes we may even come up with the same question the villagers have, “Why? What was it all for?”
The further we get into John’s Gospel account from today, the more I shake my head. The firm foundation of law and order crumbles before our eyes as Pilate, a government official, gave into an angry crowd’s demand for blood.
It’s hard not to stop reading and just ask, “Why?” The situation changes so quickly, and there doesn’t seem to be a person with any sense who will stop the madness.
But after the initial reaction to cry out “Why?” the next question that likely comes to mind is: “Why this particular way? Why death?” Surely, there must have been another way. Imprisonment, torture, or exile were not even options in their mind. It was death or nothing.
Seriousness of Sin
The hard work of a missionary, or any kind of preacher for that matter, is to take all of the raw emotion that wells up in us when we hear this story, and shift it into perspective so that people can see the problem that Jesus was addressing.
God doesn’t just happen to find himself on a Roman cross. Jesus’ actions are purposeful because the story of humanity went terribly wrong and it needed to be rectified and made right. What he was doing on the cross was meant to be the solution to our human dilemma.
Ever since the Fall, humanity has been under the dominion of Sin and Death. Sin is the great power that keeps us away from our holy and perfect Creator.
But why could God not simply forgive? Why did he have to bother with the incarnation and the crucifixion?
This is a question that I’ve wrestled with myself and with others over the years. For Heidi Baker, I’m assuming this is one of the first questions she must address when she preaches in a village.
But this is not a new question, it’s actually one that the earliest Christians had to wrestle with. In the 11th century Anselm of Canterbury raised this issue in his book Cur Deus Homo, which means "Why God Became a Man."
In the book he banters with a character named Boso who helps move Anselm’s argument along. Boso wrestles with this exact question. Why is some form of redemption required? If God is all powerful, couldn’t he simply with a wave of his hand forgive sins and be done with it?
Anselm has a response for the ages. He tells him, “You have not considered the weight of sin.”
You see Boso, like so many of us, understood sin to be simply a bad action: telling a lie, cussing, or looking lustfully at someone. Boso is only looking at the effects of sin.
Anselm, on the other hand, sees Sin is not just as actions of wrongdoing, but on a much larger scale, it’s a power over us that we need to be delivered from. It is a power that is actively trying to separate us from God, and therefore it is the enemy of God.
Boso only sees sin as individual misdoings, but the problem is on a cosmic scale that affects us collectively as humanity and not simply as individuals. For us humans under the power of Sin and Death, “There is no other way to live in the world” (Rutledge198). We cannot escape its reign over us, and so we need to be saved from this destructive power.
Thus, understanding Sin as a cosmic problem that enslaves all of us, we can then see how compassion alone cannot right this wrong. God could not sweep this under the rug. The offense is too serious to simply be forgotten. Doing that would prove that Sin was not that big of a deal.
But God takes Sin seriously, because he understands it as the great Enemy that actively draws his beloved away from him.
And so, humanity, in their sinful imperfections, could not rectify our situation. A sinful person could not free us from Sin and Death. It had to be a sinless person who could restore what we had before the Fall, and so it had to be God in the flesh.
That is why God was on the cross. Like we said last night, every action of Jesus is rooted in his love for us. “God’s justice [even in a horrific moment like this] is always in the service of his mercy” (Rutledge 154). Dying on the cross is the ultimate example of God’s will to draw the whole world to himself.
But there is one final point I’d like to make, and it’s one that I believe is rarely talked about on Good Friday. This saving-humanity-mission was not taken on by Jesus alone. The three persons of the Trinity are mutually giving of themselves in this sacrifice. Each are participants in this great act of redemption.
The writer Fleming Rutledge says, “The Son and the Father are doing this in concert, by the power of the Holy Spirit…‘It is indeed God’s threefold giving of himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is our salvation’ ” (T.F. Torrance, Rutledge 100, 101). It is in joyful cooperation that they rectify our human disaster.
And so, we can look upon the cross in great horror at the injustice that was done. We, like those who hear the story for the first time, should be shocked at what we see…
BUT we can (and should) also look at the cross as the means of our salvation. That it was on rough Roman cross, over two thousand years ago that God the Son, in concert with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, addressed the great problem of Sin and Death once and for all “that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.”
Throughout the Psalms the idea of “The Pit” shows up a number of times. Some of them go like this:
“To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.” Psalm 28:1
“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” Psalm 30:3
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Psalm 30:9
Though the psalmist doesn’t give a detailed explanation as to their specific beliefs about this Pit, I don’t think they have to. If you have walked this earth you have likely experienced the Pit.
I think we’ve all experienced emptiness, darkness, or even hopelessness at one time or another in our life. Whether this experience lasts for just a moment or for months on end, it can feel as if all is lost, everything is dull, and the meaning of life is void.
This is the Pit and we are well acquainted with its realities. For the disciples who abandoned their Lord, they were undoubtably deep in the Pit full of regret and despair.
For us, Holy Saturday is more a time of waiting and reflecting on the reality of Jesus’ death—his lifeless body lying in the tomb. But unlike the sorrowful disciples who were in fearful hiding, our waiting on a day like today is marked with a glimmer of hope…hope that even in the Pit all is not lost.
But let’s not jump too far ahead. Being given the opportunity and space to reflect on this emptiness is a gift in my opinion. It validates these very human emotions and reminds us that even the Pit is a part of our journey of faith.
These are the stark realities of Holy Saturday, and for Holy Saturday these realities will have to do.
Since the Safer at Home order went out a few weeks ago, Megan and I have tried to settle into somewhat of a daily routine. It’s been hard for both of us to get used to this new reality, which I can imagine has been challenging for you as well.
But since becoming home bound we have gotten better about walking our golden retriever Sadie every day. We’ve got a pretty good size backyard, and when both of us were getting home from the office around dusk, we’d usually just play fetch in the yard for a while. But now with the extra time, we’ve gone on more walks around our hilly neighborhood in Goodlettsville.
On one of those walks last week I noticed something interesting happening around the subdivision. A few of the neighborhood kids had spent the day creating masterpieces in their driveway with chalk. Some had drawn sunflowers, while others did balloons or even self-portraits.
The next day there were even more beautiful creations on different streets. One creative artist used their whole driveway to showcase a colorful geometric design. Another wrote a short story with big bold letters right in the middle of the street.
It’s evident the kids in our neighborhood are getting a little stir crazy, and with the nice weather last week they were finally able to do something out of the house.
But the more I thought about it, I began to realize the profound message that our group of local chalk-artists-in-residence were making, whether they realized it or not.
They were taking their dull grey concrete driveways and making them beautiful works of art. Through their childlike wonder they were transforming boredom into creativity, and in doing so, they brought joy, and even a little hope, to the neighbors who walked by.
Like any good artist, they used the materials that were right in front of them and made something that was worth pausing to behold.
Theologically speaking, they were taking that which is old and making it new.
The story of Easter is just that: God taking that which was lost—completely dead and gone—and bringing forth life…again. This theme of something new springing forth out of the old was one of the central pieces of Jesus’ teaching.
He kept saying to the crowds, “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” as a way claiming that he had a new interpretation springing out of the old tradition. He talked how new wine should not be put into old wineskins. And he referenced on numerous occasions plants and vines and seeds to talk about life and death, the new breaking forth out of the old.
Secular vs. Christian Interpretation
And so it’s important to note what Easter is and what it isn’t. Many today like to think of Easter as a celebration about spring’s arrival. The new plants and flowers we see and thank goodness winter is behind us.
That’s what the commercials say and what the candy aisle in the store makes me think of. Most folks won’t get much further than that in their celebration of springtime and nature’s rebirth.
But for Christians, Easter’s message has profound implications. All that stuff that Jesus said about the new coming out of the old was actually true. He not only meant what he said, but by dying and rising from the grave he was living proof that a new reality had been inaugurated.
This isn’t a celebration about springtime and flowers, but that the real, historical resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God and therefore he is the rightful King of all the world.
This has universal implications.
As one theologian put it, “The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world (though it is that as well); it is, principally, THE defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus” (Wright 73).
With Jesus’ resurrection there is the promise that we will one day rise with him. This whole resurrection business is not for Jesus alone, but rather he is the forerunner, the first of the new creation.
He is the Second Adam, the true perfect human being, the image of God himself who came to lead the human race into their true identity as children of the living God (Wright 103).
We are children, Paul even calls us heirs, of this crucified, risen, and reigning King. Jesus reigns, and he does so in a way that no other king or leader ever has or ever will.
And as children and heirs all we must do is know our place in this new reality. We must know that he is King of the universe. In this new kingdom it’s all about Jesus, and it’s just not worth going back to our old, stubborn ways, it would be like attempting to put new wine into old wineskins.
I think about Oscar Wilde’s wonderful scene in his play Salome, when Herod hears reports that Jesus of Nazareth has been raising the dead. Herod in anger says, “I do not wish him to do that…I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead” (Wright 75). But in this new kingdom, Jesus calls all the shots, and it’s best if we simply follow the King.
He has shown us time and again during this Holy Week that his kingdom is rooted in the boundless love that is shared by the three persons of the Trinity. It is a love marked by servanthood, humility, and sacrifice—just think about Jesus washing his disciple’s feet and dying on the cross—every action of Jesus was done because of his love for us.
The resurrection is no different. It is in that mighty act that he calls us to become citizens of his new kingdom where the dull and grey powers of Sin and Death no longer reign. And with that call he breathes new and abundant life into us, so that we might be more like him and to share his glory in the world.
Our neighborhood kids may have not realized it, but the brilliant colors they poured onto our streets this past week may have made a more profound point about what God is up to in this world and in our lives than what any sermon could ever attempt to do: new life coming forth from the old.
Thank God for children and their chalk. And thank God for Jesus’ resurrection. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Maundy Thursday. Year A. John 13:1-17, 31b-35. Commentary used: Dale Bruner’s John. Severian of Gabala was the Syrian bishop.
Good Friday. Year A. John 18:1-19:42. Many ideas came from: The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge.
Holy Saturday. Year A. Matthew 27:57-66.
Easter Sunday. Year A. Matthew 28:1-10. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright.