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Jesus is going to die

A Sermon by Tim Trussell-Smith

All Saints Parish
Brookline, MA

Maundy Thursday
April 21, 2011

Jesus is going to die.

Jesus knows he's going to die. And he knows that the end of his life is only a few hours away. In fact, Good Friday is already here. According to Jewish custom, sun-fall begins a new day. By sundown tomorrow Jesus will lie lifeless in a tomb. In Jesus' Jewish understanding, this is the final day of his life.

What will he do with these last few hours? These last few thousand heartbeats and last few thousand breaths? He has spent the last three years living on the road, trying to teach people about the Kingdom of God. Now he is here with a handful of friends. Friends who have been his followers: his students. What final lesson can he teach them tonight?

That's where we are. And we are really here. We are here with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room. These events are happening tonight, right now, in the present – that is the "magic" of Christian worship. We don't just remember what has happened to God's people – particularly Jesus. We participate in the event because it is not just a metaphor but a living reality in our own lives. This is how we come to know God as a living God and not just an intellectual idea. That's how we are formed as Christians – as disciples of Jesus Christ. That is the reason for the sacraments. So we can actually feel God's grace. We are bathed by it. We eat it. We're nourished by it. We put it on the finger of our beloved. We are anointed and healed by it. It's totally physical. Totally real.

And that is how Jesus teaches his final lesson. During and after dinner, he will speak to them at length, answer some of their questions and, finally, pray for them. But to start with "he loves them to the end" - by washing their feet.

Does Jesus feel desperate in this moment? Is he overwhelmed with how much he has left to teach the disciples? Does he feel despair at the prospect that this final evening is all the time he has to bring these His friends to true awareness of Who God is and Who God wants them to be? The Gospel tonight is from John: the evangelist of Christ's divinity, so maybe it isn't right to ask these questions tonight. But I cannot help it.

Death is real. And the reality of death must be weighing down upon him right now. I cannot imagine Jesus not feeling it; even though John's Gospel sometimes makes it seem like Jesus is so divine, so aware of what is going to happen that there isn't any anguish.

Yet we do confess in our tradition that Jesus was and IS divine. It is the great confession of our faith. The author of John's Gospel says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." That's poetry. But it contains a precise technical word – as much good poetry does. What we translate as "Word" is "Logos" in Greek and it has a richness of meaning. In Jewish and Christian theology of the first century it is the name for the creative and ordering aspect of God: that which creates. What we confess when we say Jesus is the Son of God is that God's creative capacity took a new turn in its creative attempts to heal the brokenness of the world. The Word entered into Mary's womb and was born into the world. It sounds philosophical and it is, but John isn't making an intellectual statement. He is making a statement about God's love. Using this technical term poetically, he is trying with all his might to express how much God loves the world! And, particularly, how much God loves US. The implication of John's Gospel is that the Word was born as a tiny helpless infant, the son of Mary. It was born into one of the most impoverished, oppressed and harsh countries on earth – and also, critically, into the most powerful empire of antiquity. It grew up, learned wood-craft from Its earthly father, Joseph. Learned the Torah from the poor Rabbis of Galilee – the heirs of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and, at the age of 30, began to teach about God's love ... of which IT was the very expression.

Tomorrow morning, the Word will be scourged with a whip, mocked and beaten. The Romans will steal Its clothes and tie Its arms – outstretched – to a piece of wood that weighs as much as 125 pounds. And It will carry the cross through the crowded streets of Jerusalem, led on a leash like a dog to the Place of the Skull to die.

But the morning has not come ... yet. And tonight, on the first night of Passover, the Word of God will take off His shirt and tie a towel around His waist. He will go from friend to friend. From the friend he knows is about to betray him, to the friends who will desert him in the garden and, finally, to his closest friend who still does not understand at all what He is doing. This friend who this very night will deny he even knows HIM. He washes their dirty feet. And this – this – is how he teaches them, for the last time, what true love is really all about.


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