Holy Week Sermons
I have compiled the sermons that I will preach over the next three days. Holy Week is a sacred series of services that include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. If you are unable to attend any Holy Week services these may be used as reflections that could be incorporated into your daily prayer time. All readings can be found at the bottom of the page.
A Stone Carving
Tucked away in Naumburg Cathedral in Germany is a painted stone carving of the Last Supper. In a panel that shows different scenes of the Passion, the one of the Last Supper would likely not grab your attention at first glance. For one, it’s at the far corner, out of sight and out of mind. And plus, it’s not convenient to look at, you have to stretch your neck to look 15 feet in the air to where the carving is.
But on closer inspection, this one stone carving is breathtaking, and in fact, it gives meaning to all the other carvings on the panel. It is soaked in symbolism of what is to come.
In it, the disciples are busy eating and drinking, and you can tell the conversation is flowing as freely as the wine. It is a joyful scene, the disciples are blissfully unaware of what is to come. One is gulping from a chalice, another is taking a bite out of a piece of bread, while another is filling his plate.
Part of the brilliance of this work of art is the busyness of it, the ordinariness of the meal. It appears like any other meal, yet we, the observer, know its significance.
And caught up in the hustle and bustle of this Passover seder is the man in the middle, the host of the meal, Jesus himself.
Unlike the others in this carving, Jesus is looking right at us, as if he just happened to look up and catch our eye as he passes a dish to John the Beloved Disciple. It is in the commotion of the supper that he pauses and looks directly at us, and like the good host that he is there is a twinkle in his eye that conveys that we are welcome to join him at his table—he has saved a seat just for us.
Tonight on this Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ love is on full display, and so it is good that we are here together. This is one of the three most important nights on the Christian calendar. Tonight we reflect not only on the Last Supper, but also the foot washing and Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As time ticks away and the pressure mounts of what is to come, we are reminded time and again this night why Jesus is going through all of this—and it’s because of his love.
The memorable parable of the Good Shepherd is lived out by Jesus himself during the events of this night. Jesus feeds and washes his sheep one last time before laying down his life for them, for us.
The Last Supper and foot washing are signs and symbols of what he will do on the cross. In the same way he stooped down and washed the disciples’ feet clean, he will very soon wipe the sins of all humanity clean by shedding his blood. Maundy Thursday makes sense in light of Good Friday.
John says that Jesus does all this because “he loved them to the end.” “To the end of his earthly strength, to the end of his earthly capacity, to the end of his earthly life.” And as one writer said, “But far more, to the end of the world, to the outermost boundaries of time, and beyond his Second Coming into the time that is beyond time, he loves us to the end” (Rutledge 75).
It is a suffering love, a love that will cost him everything, even his own life. And we see, even in the intimate scene of the Last Supper, that Jesus’ glory is most fully shown through humiliation. There is no other record in ancient history of someone of a superior status washing the feet of a subordinate (Bruner). Not one other instance has been recorded—only Jesus.
It is that drastic of an action, something so new that Peter didn’t know what to say or do. Jesus shows us through these actions and the ultimate action of Good Friday that he loves us to the end.
Passover & Heavenly Banquet
Now this loving action of Jesus cannot be fully appreciated without seeing the larger context of the Last Supper. And so, for a moment I would like to take a step back and look at two images that will help us understand the importance of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.
Like I said earlier, this was the Passover seder, a meal that was drenched in ancient biblical symbolism. It was a meal to remember when God delivered his people from bondage and slavery in Egypt—we heard the whole story in our Old Testament reading tonight.
Though Moses was the great leader of the Exodus, any good reader of the Bible would know that the primary actor, energy, and force in the grand story of the Exodus was not Moses but God.
It was God who delivered his people from slavery. It was God brought them out of Egypt, who split the Red Sea in two, and led his people in the wilderness by cloud or by fire.
And if God had saved his people once, first century Jews believed that God could, and would, do it again. Though they were not slaves in a far away land, they were under the oppression of Rome, and surely, God would deliver them yet again.
And so, within this Last Supper we have the theme of the God who delivers—who saves his people—and the disciples, who are happily eating and drinking, don’t have a clue that their great Deliver, One greater than Moses, was about to secure their freedom forever—that their Exodus would actually happen tomorrow afternoon.
One other image in our gospel lesson that will help us with the context of this story is the image of the heavenly banquet.
Time and again during Jesus’ ministry, he talks about the Kingdom of God in terms of a feast.
There’s the parable of the father who invites the whole town to his son’s wedding banquet after all the invited guests decide not to show up. There’s the parable of the ten virgins who wait for the bridegroom to arrive and take them to the wedding feast. The Prodigal Son’s father kills the fatted calf and has a feast upon his son’s return. And we must not forget that Jesus’ first miracle happened at a wedding banquet.
When God’s Kingdom arrives, it is likened to a lavish meal around a table. It is a time for joy and celebration and fellowship. It is the heavenly banquet hall with God at the forefront and center.
And so, with the Last Supper these layers of context and symbolism bring about a greater sense of depth and gravitas to all of Jesus’ actions. He is the New Passover and Exodus. Like the Passover Lamb that was slaughtered, he too will die for the sins of many. Just like in the Exodus, God will once again be the one leading humanity out of bondage into new life and freedom.
And in some strange and holy way, the heavenly banquet comes to earth in a small, stuffy room on the west side of Jerusalem—and the disciples haven’t a clue that being formed around that table is a new community—a community that will break bread and drink wine “in remembrance of him” from that night until this very day.
Tonight is a night to celebrate being a sacramental community. We have kept Jesus’ command of table fellowship, of breaking bread and drinking wine in remembrance of him. The Church has never taken a command as literally as this one. It is a meal that has never ceased, and to this day it continues to feed our sin sick soul.
We come tonight in need of a thorough washing and a good meal. And thankfully Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does both. He washes us with his blood that we may be clean, and he feeds us with himself—"This is my Body…this is my blood.”
No wonder the Romans thought the early Christians were cannibals—this is some odd language, and yet this is straight out of our Lord’s mouth.
But it is beneficial tonight that we reflect on the power and mystery and holiness surrounding our Eucharistic feast. Even 2,000 years later, the themes of the Passover and heavenly banquet continue to appear every time we say these sacred prayers, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.”
Become What You Are
I want to end where I began. The stone carving of the Last Supper in the German cathedral—there is something so ordinary about the meal on display. It is a meal like any other meal, and yet like none other—it is filled to the brim with symbolism.
In the same manner, the altar here in this church, is like any other table that we have dinner at, and yet it is like no other table. It is in this place, around this altar, where you and I continue the tradition of table fellowship with Jesus. And like the carving, Jesus’ face shines through with the invitation to come have a seat at his Table, to be fed and nourished by him.
We who are the Body of Christ, eat the Body of Christ the Bread of heaven so that we may go and be Body of Christ to the world.
“If you…are Christ’s body…” St. Augustine said, “it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving…See what you believe... become what you see."
Embalmed in Blood
There is a Good Friday poem written by the 17th century poet and priest John Donne that goes like this, “There now hangs that sacred body upon the cross, rebaptized in his own tears and sweat, and embalmed in his own blood, alive. There are those bowels of compassion, which are so conspicuous, so manifested, as that you may see them through his wounds. Then those glorious eyes grew faint in their light, so as the sun, ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too.”
Today’s question is: What do you think of the crucified Christ?
Plenty of people consider themselves spiritual in some form or fashion. Many in this country still believe in God (however they define it), but what about that man on the cross? We hear Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?”
This day differentiates the faith of the church from religion in general. Jesus is not like the other leaders of world religions who escape into a blissful state. Quite the opposite—crucifixion was gory in nature. Donne’s poem gives us a glimpse of that when he describes Jesus being embalmed in his own blood, yet still alive—barely.
The cross above our altar may have been about the size of the one Jesus died on. Now imagine a man being on that cross—it is an offensive thought, especially if that man was innocent.
Roman crucifixion was brutal, and that was the intention. It was meant to degrade and humiliate the victim. You were stripped bare, paraded through the city to be scorned and spat on by your fellow citizens (some formerly friends and neighbors), and then taken outside the city to a prominent hill near a major road so that all who passed by could see you in your final, excruciating moments.
You were not even given the final grace of having an executioner. Your own body would turn on you, and you would be the one to fulfill your own death sentence. With your hands nailed high, and your body sinking lower as you grew weaker, you’d either go into cardiac arrest or your lungs would finally collapse. The Romans were merciless.
A Unique Death
But everyone must die. Death isn’t that surprising of a thing, we all will die, and I think we know that better this year than ever before.
But we claim that the death of Jesus, this one death that occurred in a far-off land 2,000 years ago actually did something. There has been and never will be death like his—it was utterly unique.
The Romans crucified tens of thousands in their day, if not more, and yet in all of their written records, we know the name of only one crucified man.
As one writer put it, “This death, this execution, above and beyond all others, continues to have universal reverberations. Of no other death in human history can this be said. The cross of Jesus stands alone” (Rutledge 4).
Though Jesus’ death is unique in that sense, in the religions of ancient Near East, gods died and rose again all the time, typically during agricultural seasons. What is distinctive in the Christian story is that the Creator God was revealed in such a gruesome death.
Yet again, the man on the cross is scandalous.
In our modern times it has even become too offensive for Christians. While I was in Boston, one of the local Episcopal churches was deciding what kind of mosaic they should display on the front of their church building.
Their church was situated along a prominent street, so whatever they chose would be seen by many in the city, and hopefully the artwork would convey something about the church.
Someone suggested a beautiful mosaic with a cross at the center, but the church leadership decided the cross was too uncomfortable of an image to display to all who walked by (as if comfort should be the defining factor).
It is true, even followers of the Crucified Christ are uneasy about the heinous pain and suffering Jesus endured on our behalf.
But all four gospels agree that the pinnacle of Jesus’ life was his willing self-sacrifice on the cross. Their whole story builds up to Calvary, and even the resurrection is given its true significance through the cross (44). Resurrection is then Jesus’ vindication—proof of Death’s ultimate undoing.
When we look at the cross we see what it cost God to secure our release from sin (246). Sin is that serious—and we’re not simply talking about our individual sins—our petty jealousies, our temper, or greed.
Yes, those are bad, but they are not the whole story—Jesus is doing something much bigger than trying to release us from coveting our neighbor’s nice car.
On the cross we see Jesus taking on the malignant Powers of Sin and Death—the cosmic forces that try to pull the world and humanity towards disorder and darkness.
And so, on the cross, “God’s justification of sinners is not a forgetting, nor is it simply forgiveness. It is a definitive, wholesale, final assault upon and defeat of Sin…and the creation of a new humanity” (281).
As the crowd derided him on the cross, waiting to see if Elijah would come and save him, all the demonic powers were unleashed on Jesus. As Paul said, “He made him to be sin who knew no sin.” And Isaiah said in our reading, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
And so, we cannot hide from the cross, we cannot skip over it, for it is on that cross that Jesus secured our redemption and release from the cosmic forces of evil.
We are then a community of the cross—the suffering Christ who “was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried.” We are rooted and grounded as a community by proclaiming this fact every time we gather.
Pay close attention to the hymn we’re about to hear after the sermon.
“What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? Oh, make me thine forever! And should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.”
What do we do with the Crucified Christ? It is hard to know, but maybe the first step is gratitude. It may be good for us to be humbled in this moment and to be thankful for what he has accomplished on our behalf. Even in his dying breath he was doing it for us.
Truly, he loves us to the very end.
Descended to the Dead
We rarely recite the Apostles’ Creed anymore. If you pray the daily office or come from another denomination, then you may be well acquainted with it. In the creed it says, “[Jesus] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” It then says something that is omitted in the Nicene Creed, “He descended to the dead.”
On Holy Saturday we reflect on the stark nature of death. Jesus’ lifeless body lays in a tomb. The world seems dark and merciless to his grieving disciples.
But as the Creed says, we believe that as the disciples mourned, Jesus was at work—this time not among the living but the dead.
The medieval church described Jesus’ action on this day as the harrowing of hell. Harrowing comes from an Old English word that means “to make a war raid.” It must have come from the Vikings and their war raids across the British Isles.
Somewhat surprisingly, Peter refers to this harrowing a couple of times in his first letter. He says, “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19).
And then the next chapter, in what we just read, he said, “For this reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
But it may come as a surprise that the New Testament writers are not in full agreement as to what happened after one died. They blended a few different ideas of the afterlife that were held in their day and time.
Some of them spoke of Sheol, mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament as a place of shadows where there is no meaningful existence.
There’s the Greek idea of Hades, the realm of Death. And then there’s Gehenna which is translated “hell” in many of our Bibles, known as a place of tormented punishment. It’s this last idea of the afterlife that has stuck in our modern mind and imagination.
Peter himself seems to talk about the afterlife in terms of Sheol and Hades—not willing to be pinned down by one or the other.
But wherever Jesus descended to the dead, one thing is certain, he was cut off in some strange and mysterious way from the Godhead. We have to hold this paradox in holy tension.
If Jesus was made to “be sin who knew no sin,” and had thus entered into a state of Godforsakenness among the dead, then somehow, someway God was separated from God.
Like being in exile, Hans Urs von Balthasar makes the claim that Jesus was isolated from the love of God—he was in complete solidarity with us in Sin and Death. In his death, he sank into the Pit, so deep and far removed that no light of hope could reach him (Rutledge 407).
This interpretation moves us away from the war raid of hell, the great preaching to the dead, and instead invites us to reflect on the moments when we have been stuck in a bottomless pit, without light or hope. In those lonely nights of the soul where fear, anxiety, or depression take hold of us—even there Christ is present.
He was cut off from the love of God, so that we wouldn’t have to experience that deafening isolation. Even in our deepest pain and sadness we are not forsaken by God.
Truly Jesus loves us to the end, and that statement takes on a whole new meaning on Holy Saturday.
He loves us to the end of his earthly life, to the end of death, to the very bottom of hell and back. Even in death and exile, Jesus loves us.
-Maundy Thursday. Year B. John 13:1-17, 31b-35. Fleming Rutledge The Undoing of Death.
-Good Friday. Year B. John 18:1-19:42. Donne poem in Rutledge’s The Undoing of Death. All other quotes and much of the content is based off Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. Hymn: “O sacred head, sore wounded”.
-Holy Saturday. Year B. The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge.