Take a microphone to the streets of Champaign-Urbana and ask people to tell you what God is like. You can bet that "love" or “loving” will be mentioned more than any other word. And Love is all over the Bible, too, as we see in this week’s readings. Last week, 1 John even told us that God is love. Now that sounds like a simple statement, but it isn’t. Ask people to explain it, and you’ll discover that they don’t agree.
So I want to talk this week about what our own community, followers of Jesus, means by God’s love, and point out three misunderstandings about it. Now of course if you orient your life around something else than Jesus, they could be perfectly reasonable ideas. All of these are misunderstandings from the Christian point of view, which is of course what we’re all here to situate ourselves in.
One common misunderstanding, if I may put it this way, is in essence the assumption that the Bible’s statement “God is Love” can be reversed. That when we talk about God being love, we basically mean more or less the same thing as “Love is God.” Love is the highest reality. And you hear this implied when people say things like "I think in the end, all religions boil down to loving your neighbor."
But actually there is a great difference between claiming God is love, or claiming Love is God. Peter Kreeft explains it this way. "When we say A is B, we begin with a subject our hearer already knows," and add some new knowledge about it. "Mother is sick means: you know mother, well, let me tell you something new about her: she's sick. God is love means let me tell you something new about the God you know"...this infinite, majestic Lord of the universe, who is all powerful, all knowing, all holy.... let me tell you something more about that God – his deepest nature is Love.
"But Love is God means: let me tell you something about the human love you already know; [whatever that word love stands for in your mind,] that is the ultimate reality. That is as far as anything can ever go. Seek no further for God [than the idea of love you already have]." The Biblical teaching that "God is love" is radical and intellectually profound. The cultural teaching that "love is God" is a platitude and for Christians, a complete non-starter.
Another misunderstanding is that divine love is a sort of generic benevolence. Again, from the Christian point of view, God’s love is anything but. The love of God that Christians talk about is specific and personal and has a definite shape about which he has told us a great deal. Jesus says today for example, that abiding in his love includes keeping his commandments.
For us, what God’s love is like is revealed in Jesus. We see that character as Jesus eats with outcasts and as he denounces false teaching about God. We see it as he heals people as a sign of the complete restoration God will one day bring, and as he confronts sin and exploitation as a sign of the same thing. We see it as he humbly washes the disciples’ feet, and as he holds them to a higher standard of behavior than the Old Testament did. The love God reveals to us in Christ says no to some things and says yes to others. That love both challenges and pursues us.
Which leads me to an additional comment on the "generic" misunderstanding. God's love is also not generic in terms of how it is given. God does not love humanity in bulk, as an undifferentiated mass. He loves you as you. He loves the secret beauties about you that no one else knows. There is nothing generic about this. It is specificity to the end and if we want to know what the specifics are, we look at Jesus.
The third common misunderstanding is that when we say God is loving, that somehow cancels out his justice and his holiness. People in cultures like ours that have a residue of Christianity but where very few people actually know the teachings of Christianity often think this. They've picked up that God is loving and forgiving, and they assume that’s all he is.
There’s this naïve storybook image that you know, somebody will reach the gates of heaven, and God will sort of ineffectually beam at them and say, "Well, you made a lot of mistakes, and you don’t really deserve it, but aw, heck, come on in anyway." (If you push someone on this, they will often say it doesn't happen for so-called really bad people -- Hitler is the most common example -- but that surely God will turn a blind eye for all the nice folks like us.)
Behind this image is a confused view of love that says, "If you love me, you’ll accept anything I do." Sure, love accepts people, but it does not accept actions that hurt people. Love cares about right and wrong. How loving would a God be who didn't care whether or not a parent abused their child, or didn’t care whether or not a shooter took the lives of innocent people? The idea that God ought to ignore evil asks God to contradict his own nature. To deny his own holiness and justice. Even more, it makes light of God’s own self-sacrifice on the Cross; God chose to put himself through that agony because his love says such a strong No to evil, that that No ends up as a Yes to redemption. It’s because God’s love says No to evil that it says Yes to coming in person to heal the damage evil has done, to set the world to rights.
God’s love is holy love. His love is married to his holiness. His mercy is married to his justice. It’s this seamless reality. And through Jesus he offers you and me, and the entire created universe, a way to satisfy both, which has got to be the most loving thing anybody has ever done for anybody.
We could say so much more about God's love, but that's enough for one day. I just want you to hear this call from the Gospel again: Abide in my love, says Jesus. Abide in my love. This is a love that doesn't peter out at what we already know, but that builds on our understanding of the God who spent the entire Old Testament getting across his holiness and his justice so we could understand the radical claim that this God, this God is love. This is a love that is specific and personal and deliberate, not vague and generic. This is a love that is both holy and just, and merciful and kind. It’s a love that loves you.
There’s a lot of stereotypes about twins out there, but one of the most common and perhaps the most accurate is that there is always a time when the twins will butt heads. For me and my sister, that was our senior year of high school. It was a rough season for several reasons, but the one thing that really got to me, the one thing that I couldn’t let go was that my twin always, always, always slept through her alarms, which would mean that we would be late to school. It infuriated me; but rather than mapping out a quicker way to school or helping my sister figure out how to wake up in the morning, I would actually drive to school more slowly and then park in the back of the very last parking lot just to spite her. Because why not. After school, we’d get home, still mad about the morning, and we would inevitably hear, “Why can’t you just get along?” And my answer, being the mature 18-year-old I was, was always some variation on, “I don’t know. Why does she have to be so frustrating?”
Human relationships are hard — and that’s not just because we get annoyed by different things or that we come from different backgrounds and speak different languages. It’s because there is something wrong with our hearts.
In our epistle lesson today, St. John urges us to love one another. “Beloved, let us love one another,” he says, because 1) love is from God and 2) God is love and 3) if we love each other, God abides in us.
The repetition can at first strike us as tiresome. We got the message the first time. You want us to love one another. There’s nothing that special or that hard about it. But when we stop and think about our own high school tantrums or more recent experiences at holiday dinners or on our favorite social media platform, I think we would all agree that love and everything about it is much easier said than done.
Why is it so hard to love other people? Why do we constantly fail to love one another?
The answer to those questions lies back at the beginning. When God created humankind, things looked pretty great. Man looked at woman and woman looked at man, and there was recognition of mutual humanity, of worth and value, of beauty. There was, in short, love, the giving of oneself for another’s sake with no designs on what you might get in return. But the effortless goodness of those first moments ended quickly, and what was left was afterwards has forever haunted us.
The world changed in an instant and try as we might to get back to paradise, we could never find the way. Not that we didn’t try. History is littered with attempts at fixing what we broke; but none of them ever worked because we were always too tired, too angry, too concerned with our own survival to realize that we were the problem. On that day in the garden, our mother and father chose themselves over God, and every single human heart since then has followed their lead.
Except for one.
His story is the greatest love story ever told: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us,” writes St. John. “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Before time began, when there was nothing but God, he knew that his creation would fall, knew that we would think we were gods, we would decide to do as we pleased with the world and each other. And God knew that we would hate our creator because of it. He knew this, and still decided we were worth saving.
In this is love, not that we loved God — because our self-obsessed hearts never could — but that he loved us and sent his Son to bring us back home.
I think this year more than any time in our lives, we have a much more accurate understanding of how limited we are. We feel how hard it is to love other people when we’re anxious about catching a deadly disease, when we’re exhausted from keeping the kids quiet during Zoom meetings, when we’re angry over another mindless shooting rampage.
We may be good people. We may have the best intentions, but we still need to be reminded, encouraged, exhorted to love one another — because we forget or we’re too tired or we decide that those people don’t deserve it anyway. In short, because we’re human and we need God’s grace if there is to be any light in our world.
Love is from God, and our capacity to love comes from him. Our world may be fractured, we may at times feel nothing like tenderness or compassion toward it, but that doesn’t mean that love is in short supply. It is in fact a never-ending fountain because God is love. In him is no failing, no exhaustion, no spite, no deceit. He alone can heal our hearts so that we may truly love one another. AMEN.
“Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Both the gospel and the psalm use the metaphors of sheep and shepherd. It is not a leap to know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that we humans are the sheep. In the time scripture was written, these metaphors would have been readily understood as a way to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers. Other Biblical leaders, Abraham, David, and Amos were shepherds or traveled with herds of sheep. It was natural to call God’s people, a flock. These metaphors, when originally written, brought actual meaning to the hearers.
However, for most living here and now, the image of a shepherd is not part of our day to day experience. I can honestly say I have never met someone whose job was to watch over sheep. And yet I can understand a good shepherd because of what I have heard in these passages.
Also, most probably our first-hand knowledge of sheep is limited. We enjoy the products the animals provide—beautiful wool and good tasting meat but that’s about it. We take others words about sheep—they are animals without much intelligence, followers who are quickly lost without a good leader. The actual metaphor loses some of its power without experience of the reference.
As I said, I do not know any real-life shepherds. However, I have had an encounter with a group of sheep that for me provides a picture of what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s gospel.
Some years ago I visited Iona, a small island in the Hebrides. Iona was the spot that Columba used as a base to bring Celtic Christianity to Scotland in 563. The island, just a little over 3 square miles, has become a place of religious pilgrimage and spiritual retreats. It is the burial place for approximately 60 kings, including MacBeth and Duncan! There are fewer than 200 people who live on the island year round and many of those raise sheep as their main source of income. The sheep wander the island freely.
I was there near the summer solstice when the days have about 20 hours of sun. Late one night I walked alone to the west shore to see a gorgeous sunset. On the way I encountered a large group of sheep. They were as interested in me as I was in them so I paused as they neared me. One of the larger rams had those beautiful curved horns and I was a bit afraid at first. We each stood our ground and looked into the other’s eyes. We both decided the other did not pose a danger and we rested quietly together there for a while. I then continued my trek and the ram continued his grazing in that same spot. After the sun had gone down I returned the same way I had come. That same ram was still in that spot, watching for me to come back. He then accompanied me as I walked to the gate of his field and again made eye contact as I left. Perhaps sheep are followers, but certainly not stupid! This metaphor of sheep changed for me after that real life experience.
Because of being “up close and personal” in that large group of sheep, I was interested in knowing more. I identified at least six different breeds of sheep, many whose names I cannot pronounce. The variety was incredible. Some had black faces, some white faces, some were rounder than others. Some had long black legs, and others shorter white legs. I was fascinated by those with pink faces. Some of their wool was coarse and some soft and fluffy. Some had large curved horns. Each of the sheep had a painted owner’s mark, a bright red stripe, a yellow cross, a circle of blue and so on. All of the sheep graze together until spring when they are gathered and separated for shearing. Though different looking, they were able to co-exist in a peaceable and calm way, each getting what they needed.
Taking the metaphor of sheep representing human beings, I wonder. Certainly there is a wide diversity in people’s appearance, as was true of the sheep but did that Scottish flock hold a message for us that Jesus wanted us to know?
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I believe Jesus acknowledges and encourages diversity in his followers with this statement.
At the time this scripture was written the sheep that did not belong to the fold were most likely the Gentiles. And the writer of this passage was encouraging inclusion of the Gentiles as equals in Christianity.
Today we know that the body of Christ includes all nations, races and people. There is diversity in Christ’s church worldwide. We know this and yet do we embrace this diversity?
I wonder, “Who are the gentiles of our day?” Who are the “other sheep” who do not belong to this fold?
I ask you to keep in mind the image of that large group of sheep of all kinds grazing quietly together, including, accepting and watching over me that night. Can we not do the same to the “other sheep” of our time?
Jesus, our Good Shephard, said, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. Amen.
A friend of mine says, it takes God to know God. We can get a certain distance toward the divine on our own, but eventually we need supernatural help. It takes God to know God. If that’s true, and I think it is, knowing God requires a bit more than the techniques we use to learn things in most of our life. If we need to familiarize ourselves with something, we might read about it, talk to someone who is an expert in it, Google it.
And of course, people read and talk and google Christianity, as they should. The world is full of skeptics who researched the historical data on the Resurrection and came to think it was plausible – there are enough books telling that story to fill a whole bookshelf. And in the Episcopal church, at our best we place a high value on that kind of thing – intellectual inquiry, encouraging asking questions, hoping people will think things through and not just blindly accept what someone else says.
At our best, this is a great trait. Sometimes among our denominational family though, it turns into condescension towards others, or intellectual laziness that is content to applaud questioning as an end in itself, and resists actually reading and thinking historically and textually about doctrine and Scripture. I’ve noticed in discussions of the Bible that as our culture has shifted steadily to emphasize self-expression as the highest good, folks seem to want to jump straight to how they feel about a text, or how they feel about other people’s actions related to the general topic of the text, rather than beginning by using our brains to read and absorb and interact with what it actually says.
The Gospel we have this morning is like that. We lose so much if we jump straight to how it makes us feel without noting that it’s full of perplexing details. Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Excuse me; how did he get in the room? They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. But you just told us that not five minutes ago, they were discussing the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What’s with the "ghost" remark? And startled I can understand, but if it’s they know it’s Jesus, why are they terrified?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Why does he tell them to touch him when he told Mary Magdalene not to? Is he proving his identity by showing them the marks of crucifixion, and if so why are there still wounds in a risen body? Does being raised not fix that? They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Do risen bodies have to eat? How often? Is this some kind of stunt? If we don’t consider the text closely enough to feel disturbed by it and ask questions about it, we are never going to receive its benefits. We have to start by observing what the text actually says.
And then Jesus tells them, I told you “while I was still with you: everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” And here comes the moment where, as important as data and observation are, we go beyond it as we’re confronted with this startling sentence: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
Don’t jump over that. Look at what it says. Note that this is not a claim that the disciples thought harder or the disciples changed their opinion or the disciples heard some new information. It’s claiming there was an act of God. He opened their minds. It starts with their already being aware of what’s in the Scriptures – you can’t understand something you’re not even aware of – but it goes beyond that, because at this moment Jesus supernaturally changes the way they are able to absorb and conceptualize something they had naturally observed and learned. It takes God to know God.
Some of us have been in good Bible studies, ones where people both intellectually observe the text and are open to the Holy Spirit, as opposed to one where people just share how they already feel about things loosely related to the theme of the passage. If you have been in a good Bible study, I will wager that you have had this happen to you. You have had God open your mind to understand the scriptures. You saw things one way, and then something happened inside you that you weren’t the cause of, and everything looked different. It takes God to know God.
In the spiritual life, it’s definitely not that we don’t use our intellect and our powers of research. It’s that we do, but God adds something to them that we could never achieve on our own. He reveals himself. When we carefully consider what the Scriptures say, God steps in with the next step: He opens our minds, in the words of today’s Gospel, to understand them. Or in the words of the Collect prayer for today, he opens our eyes to behold him at work. God gave us intellects so that we could use them. But God also acts upon us and reveals himself, to bring us closer to him than mere human powers can get. Both these things are true, and in the Christian life neither stands alone.
There are two conclusions about life that we ultimately have to make. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Or did he not? If he didn’t, as Paul says, we are of all people most to be pitied. But if he did, then our hope is sure because it is founded on a promise that confronted death and won.
It’s easy to say something like that, to hold up a coin and show you both sides and say pick one and stick to it. The stakes in that case aren’t very high. But when something goes wrong, when a loved one dies, when a pandemic takes away everything from family reunions to a spontaneous drink with friends, the meaning of those words, “Jesus is risen, Jesus is Lord,” are a lot easier to ignore or even forget. Sometimes the world just gets too big and too messy for us to really believe that the battle has been won and we are the victors. Sometimes we just want to lock our doors and stay inside for fear of what may confront us without.
What is doubt but fear that Christ has not risen?
That fear is exactly what kept the disciples inside on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death. When Mary Magdalene brought news of the Lord’s resurrection, none of the disciples went out to find him, rejoicing in the power of God. Instead, they locked themselves in their rooms because they were terrified.
It was in the midst of that fear that Jesus appeared before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” He held out his hands and showed them his side. “Peace be with you.” And Jesus breathed on them, giving them his Spirit, the Spirit of peace, the Breath of God, before he disappears. But in his absence, the doubt once again creeps into the disciples’ minds, and when Thomas emphatically and infamously does not believe their report, they all go back into hiding, locking the door behind them. A week later, Jesus appears again, saying again, “Peace be with you.” And immediately he turns to Thomas and shows him his hands and his side; and Thomas, repenting of his doubt, recognizes that Jesus is who he is. My Lord and my God.
If we ask what or who overcame the disciples’ doubt, the answer, I think, is obvious. The risen Lord himself. But just because the answer is obvious does not make it any less remarkable. Jesus doesn’t confront his disciples’ lack of faith or the fact that they abandoned him, he just shows up. And in that act of showing up, the Son of God, by his very presence, scars and all, lifts his disciples out of their fear and commissions them to do his work. “Peace be with you,” he says again and again; and the peace he gives is himself.
As much as we might not think it, as much as we might protest against it, we are the very same as the disciples. Confronted with death and disease, with the threat of violence or with the pain of indifference, we can be tempted to hide in our homes, to put our lamps under a basket, because we cannot risk the hurt of Christ’s resurrection not being true. But when we doubt, Christ himself answers. He reaches out to us through his Word, through the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, through the church herself, saying, “Peace be with you.” Because Jesus is risen, because Jesus is Lord, the promise is true: where there is a cross, there will always be resurrection. AMEN.
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
When Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb on the first Easter, they are coming looking for an end. Jesus is dead, his mission is over, and they just want it all to have a proper burial. They are coming looking for an end, whereas God is offering them a beginning. They are going to bid farewell to their hopes, whereas God is welcoming them to a future in which hope becomes something substantial and concrete.
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
The hope Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Salome learn about this morning is not primarily a hope of life after death or a hope of comfort now, though the Christian faith does offer us life after death and give us comfort. The young man at the tomb tells these three women not that they can feel less sad because Jesus has gone to heaven, but that Jesus has been raised to new life by the power of God, his body is no longer in the tomb, and he is already out in front of them -- in this world, in that risen body, going ahead of them to apply to our world the same power that raised him.
In this year where so many human bodies have been invaded by a virus, where nearly 3 million human bodies have died of it, where we’ve reckoned anew with all the human bodies who have been harmed because their skin is brown or black – in this world, we need a God who deals with bodies. We need a hope that is substantial and concrete, a hope that is bodily, a hope that is not just for later, but for now -- and this is the hope we hear about on Easter.
The Presbyterian writer Timothy Keller has a brand new book drawing on the overwhelming events of the last year, which for him coincided with battling pancreatic cancer in his own body. It’s called Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. As he works through the data on the resurrection, he lays out why the hope Easter proclaims works in times of fear: because it guarantees that Jesus in his risen body is already out in front of us, drawing his future into our present, and his risen body into our mortal bodies.
“In the resurrection,” Keller writes, “we have the presence of the future. The power by which God will finally destroy all suffering, evil, deformity, and death at the end of time has broken into history [on Easter] and is available, partially but substantially – now.” That power breaks into the world specifically in the risen body of Jesus. Not in an idea or an aspiration, but in human flesh – human flesh remade into a carrier of the power of God’s coming Kingdom.
So hope for a Christian is not optimism. Hope is not wait and see. Hope is not put a good face on it. Hope is not pie in the sky when you die, although the hope that begins today certainly extends past the grave. Hope for a follower of Jesus is substantial, concrete and bodily, guaranteed in the risen flesh which carries God’s future now, and brings it into our world, our bodies, our lives.
Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
Let me read that quote from Keller again. What we learn today is that “The power by which God will finally destroy all suffering, evil, deformity, and death at the end of time has broken into history [on Easter] and is available, partially but substantially – now.”
It is available. Not in its fullness till the next world, when God’s whole future is made manifest, but still available, partially but substantially, here where we can see it. And in fact, you will see it in just a few minutes yourself. After all, the body of Christ that we offer and share at every Eucharist is, of course, that very same risen body, that very same carrier of the power by which God will finally destroy all suffering, evil, deformity, and death at the end of time.
Easter is not just for later. If you come to communion today, in just a few minutes you will hold it in your hands. And at the end of time, the fullness of its effects will be realized, substantially and concretely, and all suffering, evil, deformity, and death will be destroyed. But it begins now. It begins here. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Happy Easter.
What we do tonight is remember. As a family gathers after a death, we have come together to remember. We take turns telling stories, praying, and sitting some in silence. We find comfort in being in each other’s presence. We are a family, God’s family, and we are in mourning, sitting together, shedding some tears, talking about the one we love who has died an awful death. For a little while we go back in time and identify with those early disciples.
For one night we experience a fraction of the pain of those original disciples in thinking that Jesus was gone, gone forever. Even though Jesus had told them what was to come, on Friday they did not know it. Sunday was not to be imagined. So tonight is a time to put ourselves in their place and think as they did that Friday. What might it have been like to not know Jesus as the Risen Lord? What would it be like to not have Jesus in our life?
A critical part of our Good Friday experience is to live as witnesses of the horror and senselessness of the crucifixion. I have often wondered how could Mary, Jesus’ precious mother, have kept her vigil as her son suffered? His pain was so intense and real; how could she have remained there watching? And yet how could she not.
Tonight we remember and identify with these disciples and like them we look to find meaning in Jesus’ death.
When Jesus entered the upper room on the night before he died for us, he was tired. Exhausted. And afraid. He knew that death was coming, knew that his time was up. This would be his last meal on earth, his last night to spend with his friends. But instead of doing the things we might think a person would do if they knew they were about to die, Jesus does something unexpected. He takes off his coat, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and washes his disciples’ feet.
The whole scene is strange. We might imagine the surprise, even the distaste on the disciples’ faces. Because what was happening didn’t make sense. Barely a day had passed since Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, and the people had hailed him as king. But now he was doing the work of a slave. What did this mean for their understanding of the Messiah? What does it mean for them? Up until that moment, they would never have imagined that this man would pick up a basin and a towel and begin shuffling around the room on his knees, washing the dust of the roads off of the feet of his followers. But here he was, doing just that.
What the disciples didn’t understand and what we so often forget, is that Jesus is a king who embraced humility. As St. Paul tells us, the Son of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, so that we might be saved. On the night before Jesus died for us, he showed the disciples what his love looks like: willingly humbling himself in order to serve and save his people.
Today, we enter into the story of Jesus’ last hours on earth. We walk with him into the upper room, we watch and listen as he breaks bread with his disciples, we wait with him as he prays in the garden. And the whole time, we know that the betrayer is coming. That the cross is coming. But in this moment, here, right now, Jesus invites us — despite our own exhaustion, our own worries and fears — to do as he has done. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus, in this small act of washing feet, challenges us. He challenges our love for honor and prestige, our debates about who will be the greatest. If you want to become great, he said, you must become small. Jesus challenges our distaste and embarrassment with the least and the lost. While we don’t want to look dirty, Jesus is on the ground washing off dirt, he’s eating meals with cheats and speaking to drunks and healing adulterers. And Jesus challenges our lack of love, our desire to correct instead of comfort. While we are picking and choosing who is worthy of our efforts, who is not “too bad to be worth saving,” Jesus is washing Judas’ feet.
This is a hard lesson and we may say to ourselves, “who can bear it?” But the good news is that Jesus has loved us unto the end, straight through Golgotha and beyond.
Jesus has shown us what it means to love as he loves; but we may not feel like we have the strength to do it. And we don’t; only Christ in his humanity and his divinity has the strength to love his own, even his enemies, unto the end — which is why he has given himself for our sake, not only in the act of service and humility, but in his very body and blood.
As we leave here today, we go out into a world that is just as broken, just as violent as the world in which Jesus lived. To love as Jesus loved is hard, and it can sometimes look just as odd as a king washing the feet of his servants. But Jesus calls us to follow him regardless. May we remember that and hope as we come to the Table — for Jesus has given us himself, that we might have the strength to walk beside him. AMEN.
Our Lenten pilgrimage has given way to Holy Week. We begin today the slow march with Jesus to the Cross and tomb, through Good Friday to Easter. And through the things we will do together over this week, we feel again the sublime truth about Christ, his humiliation, his exaltation, and his cosmic offer to take us along with him in that process.
We feel this year, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, how much evil and suffering there is in the world. Perhaps what happens to Jesus should come as less of a surprise to us this time around.
I’m sure every one of us has brought some aspect of what we’ve been through this past year with us today as we enter into what Jesus goes through on our behalf. Personal pain, family pain, global pain, whatever it is, we carry it with us into this great week long process that is bigger and more powerful than the things we bring with us.
And accordingly, we have just together proclaimed the passion Gospel, taking it into our voices, because that is where it belongs. If we want our life story to make sense, we have to find its meaning in Jesus’ story. We have to find ourselves in him.
If you believe that, you will want to live this week with Christ, whether in person, on Zoom, via video, or through the materials we’ve emailed out. This week we walk together with Jesus through the great events by which he won our salvation. Take everything you bring, all your pain, all your questions, all your hopes, and pour them into this. Let Holy Week do its work until we arrive at Easter. Let God bring you, in Christ, all the way to the real end of the story.
Things weren’t good in Jeremiah’s Jerusalem. The city itself had broken down into the kind of factions we see today — the wealthy oppressed the poor, the powerful ignored the plight of the weak, widows and orphans were left to fend for themselves. It had been this way for years; and the consequences were about to unfold. The LORD had warned his people that disobeying his commands and turning aside from his way would result in death and destruction; and death and destruction were on the way. Nebuchadnezzar himself was coming to lay siege to the city, and the survivors would be forced to return to Babylon with him, leaving their homes, their temple, and their land.
Everything was in chaos.
And yet this is the time that God chooses to share his promise, the hope of a new covenant, with Israel.
We’ve talked for the last month or so about the ways God has blessed his people, Israel, and through them, the world. We’ve looked at the promises made to Noah and Abraham and Moses, and all of them have been remarkable and beautiful. But this one is different.
Or perhaps we should call it surprising or counterintuitive — because it comes while the people of God are embroiled in the consequences of their own disobedience. It comes before they’ve figured out what they have done, before they have repented of their sins. God makes this new promise — a promise that features him as the only one doing anything — while humankind is still at odds with the one who made them.
C.S. Lewis once called the story of the Bible, which is the story of everything there is, a comedy — in the classical sense. Unlike a tragedy, which begins with everything being semi-okay and ends with most everyone dead, a comedy begins with everything wrong and ends with everything finally coming to rights. The road to that conclusion doesn’t have to be funny; it can actually be quite tragic. But we know, or the author knows, that the marriage feast awaits.
Ever since that fateful day in the Garden, God has been working to bring his people back to him — and we’ve fought him every step of the way. And yet he’s been forging ahead regardless, using imperfect and sometimes wicked human beings to accomplish his work, to bring us to the end he desires: that we should willingly, happily, joyfully be his people and recognize him as our God.
“Behold, the day is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. . . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. . . . For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
God doesn’t wait until his people are perfect, until they’ve recognized their sin and repented, to save them. As St. Paul writes, “when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus, God’s own Son, put his life on the line because he wanted more than anything in the world to restore the community we once had with the LORD.
The day is coming for us, too, when we will see God face-to-face. Until then, though, know that however messed up we are, however imperfectly we live our lives, however unloveable we think we are, God is for us. He loves that which he has made, and he is working every minute of every day to save us, to bring us all to the happy end, when we will feast together at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. AMEN.