It could be this is the first time you’re coming to church on Maundy Thursday. It could be you’ve been coming to church your whole life and you’ve been to zillions of Maundy Thursday services over the years. For all of us, what’s happening in the service tonight is strange and surprising.
Normally, Maundy Thursday pretty much stays at the table. Maybe there’s the story of footwashing. Maybe the disciples sing hymns after communion and go out to the garden… But tonight our story takes all us the way to the middle of the crucifixion, right to the middle of Jesus’ death on the cross. If you’re feeling a little blindsided by this, yeah, you’re not alone.
All through the history of our faith, Christians have tried to find a way to tell the story so the cross makes sense. This is an understandable human response to trauma. Here you have a horrific act of violence that disrupts what you believe to be true about the world! Whenever that happens, what we need is a story that makes it make sense.
You’ve heard some of these stories before. Some purport that Jesus died to save us by paying the price that we owe for our sin. Some claim the cross satisfies God’s wrath or reconciles us to God’s mercy. Some Christians tell the story that God wanted Jesus to die as part of a larger plan. Some Christians’ll tell you God never wanted Jesus to get killed. The cross broke God’s heart and brought him to tears.
We don’t all tell the story of the cross the same way, but we sure want to find the version that works. This desire to get our hands on a manageable narrative is not wrong; it’s our human impulse. We need stories to make things make sense. It’s just…
I need to tell you. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes along and interrupts our well-written script with a surprise we never would have guessed…
In tonight’s scripture, we hear the story of the cross from the Gospel of John. This was the latest of the Gospels; it came into being sixty—maybe seventy— years after Jesus’s ministry, so the cross was not breaking news. It’s a safe bet, that from its earliest days, nearly everybody hearing this already knew what happened to Jesus.
When the Gospel of John gets to the part about the cross, the author employs bits and pieces from scripture in order to show how Jesus is the Messiah that the ancient prophets predicted. The author wants us to understand that the cross had to happen like this in order to fulfill the scripture.
Tonight’s story begins when the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s tunic. The story ends when Jesus announces, “I am thirsty,” and the soldiers bring him vinegar. And if you think they’re just following the script from hundreds of years earlier, you’re exactly right. The beginning and ending of our story make perfect sense; they help the Gospel writer’s argument that the cross was inevitable, that the Messiah was destined to die like this.
Here’s what gets me… In between these two acts, Jesus speaks up from the cross. This was not to fulfill the scripture. In this moment, the Word of God had no designated speaking part, but that didn’t stop him from ad-libbing a few lines. And I know the writer of the Fourth Gospel invented this, but I also have to believe the Holy Spirit helped.
Right in the middle of the cross, Jesus looks at his mother and sees her standing beside the disciple whom he loved. Even though he is dying, even though this was not part of the plan, Jesus looks at her and says, “Woman here is your son.” Then he looks at the disciple whom he loved and says, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, this disciple took Mary into his own home.
Now one theory is that this invitation was really a signal to the early Christians. In the early days of the Fourth Gospel, there was conflict within the Jewish community between those who were part of the Jesus movement and those who were not. As the theory goes, by telling the beloved disciple to welcome his mother, Jesus is telling the early Christians to embrace their Jewish heritage and maybe their Jewish neighbors too.
A similar theory celebrates how this spontaneous outcry was a radical act of compassion. Here Jesus is using his last words to comfort his mother in her anguish and to institute chosen family. You both are hurting, says the Lord. Turn and care for each other.
Clearly this moment was not part of the soldiers’ standard operating procedure; it was not predicted by the prophets. Here Jesus is speaking up from the agony of violence in order to suggest an option for peacemaking.
What if this is exactly the kind of surprise the Holy Spirit keeps springing on us?
What if it’s up to us to learn how to listen for this unexpected possibility?
You and I are living in a world torn apart by conflict. I don’t have to tell you that our nation is divided. Increasingly, what concerns me is that it’s getting easier and easier to become resigned to this division.
Of course, they’re on their side, we’re on our side, and seriously, it’s not like anybody’s going to change their mind. That side has a story that makes things make sense. This side has a story that makes things make sense.
But if we just stick to our side’s story, we’re putting ourselves at risk of missing what the Spirit is saying. We’re so convinced by our division, we’re so sure we know how things are bound to unfold. Without even meaning to, we’re putting ourselves at risk of missing the surprise…
A few weeks ago, I was attending a Zoom meeting that brought together an assortment of people to work on a common issue. I didn’t know many of the other folks on the Zoom, but I noticed that one woman, Jill, was from That Church. I’m sorry to tell you, I’ve got some feelings about That Church. It’s huge and famous, just outside of Chicago, and when Jill spoke up as a representative of That Church, it triggered all my ugly judgyness.
The problem was Jill started to talk about how the practice of solitary confinement gets imposed on individuals dealing with mental illness and how she is deeply concerned for those who are most vulnerable. And here’s the thing, I have said that before!
She went on to talk about the prison pen pal ministry at That Church and what her pen pal is helping her understand about prison. We have a similar ministry at Church of Peace, and you know what, I could have said nearly the same thing.
As she was talking, two thoughts spoke to me at the same time: First, not only do Jill and I have more in common than I want to admit, but all my judgyness toward That Church is starting to crumble. I’m not going to be able to hold on to this contempt.
The first thought was my inner voice realizing Jill and I are allies, and there’s no getting around that. The second thought was I absolutely heard the Holy Spirit laughing at me. And you know the Holy Spirit’s sense of humor— you know she does that sometimes!
This Lent, the people of Church of Peace have been reading the book Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. Pastors Robb and Eric interviewed the author a few years ago on Pulpit Fiction; I believe it was Pastor Robb who asked Rachel about her strategy for receiving criticism. (You know they always tell you don’t read the comments, but of course we read the comments!)
Rachel explained that her practice was to have thick skin, and a tender heart. Now the thick skin part makes sense! You know the critics will come at us; they’re following the script from their side. It was the other part that got me. Consider what it means to live in this world —so entrenched with division— and let our hearts grow more tender…
This might put us on the path of sorrow. It might bring us tears. This might bring us right to the foot of the cross only to find That Person is here too. And what are they doing here? And what if the Lord speaks up with a, “Turn and care for each other,” and we can’t pretend we didn’t hear him. We know his voice.
When the Spirit speaks and we hear it, it might change us. It might change the story we cling to and control. Our hearts might grow more tender. A new path for compassion might emerge that we never saw coming.
Earlier this evening, when you headed out the door on your way to church, you might not have guessed we would be finding ourselves at the cross tonight. That’s not usually how we tell the story! Leave it to the Holy Spirit to disrupt our narrative arc. Leave it to Jesus to depart from the script in order to speak up in tender kindness.
And all I can tell you is if you think tonight’s a surprise, just wait till you see the plot twist coming on Sunday. When we killed Jesus on the cross, just wait till you see how God surprises the world and changes the ending…