Friday, July 5, 2013
After the Revolution
After the Revolution
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, July 6, 2013
Text: Matthew 26
Revolution, blowing things up, pulling down systems and despots is the easy part. Building something new and beautiful, shaping a just, compassionate community . . . that's hard. It is just that dream we keep alive every time we share the Lord's Supper.
It was just two days before the Jewish 4th of July, their celebration of independence—the Passover. Passover remembered their escape from slavery, from bondage in Egypt. After 400 years of living as outsiders and then as slaves, God worked in a miraculous, fantastical way to grant them independence. That's what Passover remembered.
Passover was when Jewish people were most proud of their heritage. God had chosen them. God had been on their side. Because God had been on their side, they had been invincible. They became free people. The freedom had not lasted. In the days of Jesus, they were under the thumb of the Roman empire, dreaming of recovering their historic freedom. Some Jewish people imagined recovering their freedom in the usual way—war. Others, the more religious, dreamed of a another, grand intervention by God.
Passover fired these dreams. Passover celebrated the power of God to bend history to his will. And his will, as expressed through the prophets was for the eventual triumph of righteousness and the triumph of the Jewish nation. As the representatives of God, the Jewish people would become the aristocracy of the world. Jerusalem would become the capital of the world. The temple would become the destination of all spiritual pilgrimages. The Jewish king would be king of all nations, the king of kings. It was going to happen sometime soon. That was for sure.
For the followers of Jesus, these dreams centered on Jesus. He was the true king. His work of healing proved his goodness. His teaching and preaching proved his wisdom. Stories from his birth proved his pedigree and divine calling. It was just a matter of time before Jesus was established on the throne.
Passover was a big deal in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of pilgrims from all around the Mediterranean world poured into the city. Jesus' followers were not immune to this excitement. They couldn't help wondering, would this Passover be the time? Would Jesus finally unveil his true identity?
In this atmosphere of excitement, Jesus sat his disciples down for an astounding announcement:
"As you know, Passover begins in two days, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." Matthew 26:2
This sounds like defeat, not victory. Matthew makes no comment on how the disciples responded to this announcement. It appears to have gone in one ear and out the other. It was simply unbelievable. After all the miracles Jesus had worked, they could not imagine any ordinary human force being able to trip him up. Other times when the authorities had tried to go after Jesus, it hadn't worked out for them. It would be the same this time. Jesus was too good, too wise, too powerful to fail.
Meanwhile, according to Matthew,
The leading priests and elders were meeting at the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest, plotting how to capture Jesus secretly and kill him. Matthew 26:3-4
Then curiously, Matthew adds this:
"But not during the Passover celebration," they agreed, "or the people may riot." Matthew 26:5
Jesus said, “Passover is coming and I will be handed over to be crucified.” The clerics who controlled the country said to one another, “Let's not do it during Passover. With the massive crowds in town, who knows what might happen.”
These contradictory perspectives echo a grand central theme of Matthew's gospel: Jesus' life and ministry moved according to a divine plan. The bad guys in the story become unwitting tools of heaven.
* * *
Jesus was invited to dinner.
While they were eating, a woman sneaked in the back door, came into the dining room and poured outrageously expensive perfume on Jesus' head.
The room full of men was scandalized. What a waste! The money spent on this perfume could have helped hundreds of poor people. Jesus interrupted the chatter.
“Why are you troubling this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me. She has poured this perfume on me to prepare my body for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” Matthew 26:10-13
Notice what Jesus does here. First he defends the woman. She is the outsider, the person with the least status in the room. She is doing her best to express affection, admiration, devotion. Objectively, her actions are not prudent, judicious, careful. They are extravagant, emotional, reckless. Still they come from a good heart and Jesus defends her. More than that he praises her.
She is the only person besides Jesus whose actions are explicitly declared to be part of the gospel.
How many times does Jesus have to defend people from the “good judgment” of his followers! This story invites us to hold lightly our wise, careful analysis of what is right and proper. Jesus does not need our help correcting people. He probably does not need our help keeping the riffraff out of the feast.
Secondly, Jesus connects this woman's act of warm affection with the reality of his death. There is no way for Jesus to finish his work without going through the horror of the crucifixion. But instead of magnifying the horror of the cross, Jesus surrounds it with astonishing warmth. Here just before he descends into the darkness of the black weekend, he claims her extravagant act of affection as a special preparation for his death.
In the very next verse we read about Judas. Judas sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. But the horror of his betrayal is almost trivialized by the grandeur of this woman's affection. Jesus is wounded by Judas. He is healed by this woman.
The day after this dinner, Jesus sent two of his disciples into Jerusalem to prepare for the groups' celebration of Passover.
"As you go into the city," he told them, "you will see a certain man. Tell him, 'The Teacher says: My time has come, and I will eat the Passover meal with my disciples at your house.'" So the disciples did as Jesus told them and prepared the Passover meal there Matthew 26:;18-19
When it was evening, Jesus sat down at the table with the twelve disciples. While they were eating, he said, "I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me. Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, "Am I the one, Lord?" He replied, "One of you who has just eaten from this bowl with me will betray me. For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!" Judas, the one who would betray him, also asked, "Rabbi, am I the one?" And Jesus told him, "You have said it." Matthew 26:20-25
The preparation for this Passover celebration was done at the explicit direction of Jesus. In his instructions, Jesus said nothing about checking the credentials of those who were going to participate. Going further, the way Matthew tells the story, Jesus clearly knew of Judas' treachery and still specifically welcomed him to the table.
What guidance does the Last Supper give us for dealing with the reality that among us are people who are imperfectly committed to the cause? Or maybe even sold out to the enemies of our cause? It is natural for us to want the church to perfectly reflect the character of Jesus. We want the church to be seen as noble, generous, wise, compassionate, principled, disciplined. It's a short step from this desire for the church to live up to our ideals to wishing some people would just go away.
Going all the way back to the Apostle Paul church leaders have occasionally imagined that the church would be better off without people who disagreed with those leaders. Not infrequently, zealous preachers within the Adventist Church have called for strenuous efforts to purge the church of riffraff. These dreams of a purged, pure church do not come from Jesus.
Jesus invited Judas to the table. Matthew makes it clear that this was not naivete on Jesus' part. Jesus knew the lethal potential in Judas. Jesus invited him anyway. Jesus included Judas in his invitation: “Take. Eat. This is my body broken for you. Take. Drink. This is my blood spilled for you.” Jesus included Judas at his table, in his community. Not because of who Judas was, but because that's who Jesus was.
Jesus did not stop with Judas. If Jesus had addressed only Judas' deficiencies, we might be tempted to imagine we could distinguish between the good people and the bad people. Good people like us should pray for bad people like Judas. Judas would be our project. We should love him. We could organize acts of compassion for people in the Judas category. We could structure our worship services to try to win them over. But we would be very clear that we were different from Judas. Unlike Judas, we have no plans to fail Jesus.
But Jesus did not stop with Judas. After supper, the group headed out together. As they were walking along, Jesus said,
"Tonight all of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say, 'God will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' But after I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there." Matthew 26:31-32.
It wasn't just Judas who was going to experience major fail. Sure, he was the only one with a deliberate plan to fail. But when push came to shove, the entire group was going to surprise themselves by abandoning Jesus.
This was simply not believable. Peter protested,
"Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you."
Poor Peter. He didn't know himself. But it was okay. The failure would hurt. Yes. Peter would deeply regret it. Jesus would hate it. But Jesus explicitly announced his intention to reconnect with his disciples after their failure.
“After I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there.”
They were with Jesus at his table before they failed. Jesus had already reserved their place at his table after their failure. And every time they gathered to share bread and wine, that is every meal, was to be a celebration of Jesus inclusion of us all.
Central to our worship as Christians is the celebration of the Lord's Supper. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are remembering our Lord's death until he comes. We are remembering that his death was not tragic in the deepest sense. It was not a failure. Surrounded by the failure of his friends and enemies, Jesus' death turned out to be a triumph. It created an eternal, universal welcome that we reaffirm and remember every time we eat his body and drink his blood.