Maundy Thursday: the end of love

The Gospel tells us that Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end. But what is the end of love?

Jesus told them, “Love one another.” This was not a new commandment, exactly; it had been around since humans knew how to pronounce the word love, and before that, we knew it in our bones, that love was the answer to many wounds, and the death of many wars. But Jesus knew that his disciples would need to hear it anew ahead of the crisis to come: the cross, and all of the afflictions that accompanied them on the way there.

Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end. But where does Jesus’ love end?

And that’s just it, isn’t it? Christ’s love knows no end.

It doesn’t end with washing his disciples’ feet. It doesn’t end with their foolishness, nor with their betrayal, nor with their carelessness, nor with their cowardice. It doesn’t end on the cross. It doesn’t end in death.

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that love is not destroyed by death. Hearts can be broken, grief run riot; love fuels the sleepless nights of the bereaved.

Love is perhaps more often killed by life than by death. The daily grind of disagreements, disrespect, dishonour erodes our commitment to the way of love. But Jesus asks, how else will people know that you are my followers, unless you love one another?

Where is the end of love? It does not end at the edges of our skin, nor the ends of our street. It shouldn’t end at the limits of our understanding, struggling to interpret the neediness of another, frustrated by their pinpointing of our impotence to help. It cannot be ended by casual affront, not if it is love, not if Jesus washed even Judas’ feet.

Love calls us to serve those for whom we have distaste, and to wait upon those who waste our time. Love calls us to forgive those who do not know what they are doing, or cannot help themselves. Love calls us to forgive others, too; sometimes from a safe and loving distance.

Love is a decision. It is our choice to make, and we cannot make the excuse that someone else destroyed it, if Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and healed the ear of the servant sent to arrest him, and restrained the angels from coming down from heaven to frighten the hell out of Herod and that weasel, Pontius Pilate, letting love be his gospel, and his end.

Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end, and commanded them (not suggested, not requested, but commanded them) to love one another.

If we belong to Christ, if we would have him wash our feet, then we must allow our love to be stretched to its limits, because the love of which Jesus speaks has no limits, no end.

After he had washed their feet, and broken bread with them, he went to pray, and they fell away, falling asleep or falling into cahoots with the authorities, no matter. We are the same way. We fall out of love with God every day, and take out our disappointment on one another. Our feet are dirty and our hearts unpretty. Yet Jesus’ love for us has no end. Day after day, time after time, he pours himself out for us, his body and blood, in the water and the wine, in the bread and the tenderness of sacramental love.

As we approach the end of Lent, trembling toward the end of Holy Week and the cross. in the water, in the wine, in the bread, in the love we have for one another, we remember that Christ’s love knows no limits, has no end.

Amen.

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Tenebrae

Scarlet shadows seeping backward
from the cross; cruel fascination
draws us to the flame like moths,
extinguished one by one; love
like an earthquake sends us trembling
toward the tomb

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Kind conspiracy

Sun low, river high,

Nature’s un-kind conspiring

to blind Narcissus.

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Palms and Passion: If these were silent

A sermon for Palm Sunday at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, April 2019

Some of the Pharisees in the Palm Sunday crowd wanted Jesus to tell his people to pipe down. They were afraid of the judgement that might be called down upon them – from Rome, if not from God. They were worried that the authorities might sense a riot, and crack down on the Jews ahead of their Passover festival, the most sacred feast of the year. They were offended that some in the crowd seemed to have crowned Jesus as the Messiah, without first consulting the chief priests, let alone King Herod, and don’t even mention – please don’t mention – Caesar’s puppet, Pontius Pilate.

They were frightened that God might be doing some new thing, and that either they had missed it, or, perhaps more worrying still, that they might yet be required to join in.
Jesus told them, if the people piped down, the stones would sing out. The walls of Jerusalem, the foundations of the Temple would proclaim the story of God’s faithfulness to Zion, God’s saving mercy and redeeming power – the power that brought the people out of Egypt, and the mercy that returned the remnant from their Exile, and the faithfulness that promised to do it again and again, as long as the people called upon God to be with them. The stones that had built up the Temple, and had been brought low, and raised up again, and now trembled as the troops of Rome entered one side of the city,
while a procession of praise escorted Jesus in at another (Borg & Crossan, 2); these stones knew their history perhaps more completely even than the people, and if the world fell silent, they would bear witness to God’s terrible and faithful and merciful judgement and love.

And some in the crowd cautioned quiet, please don’t draw attention, please don’t.
The stones cry out God’s faithfulness and pray still for God’s salvation. The people praise Jesus for all of the works of power they have seen and the words of wisdom they have heard and they cry out for more: Hosanna, which means Save us, we pray (Levine, 31).

We know that by the end of the week, the tables had been turned. Jesus was arrested, and a crowd clamoured for his crucifixion, appeasing the emperor with his blood and their betrayal. We so often tend to see these mobs in black and white hats, but the probability exists that the same Pharisees and undecided disciples who had held back their hosannas at the gate, whispering their doubts, now shook their heads sadly, saying, See what it has come to. What did we tell you? They stood between the agitators and the agitated, casting pity over Jesus’ desperate disciples, standing slightly apart, as they
had at the gate, washing their hands of the whole distasteful, disgraceful episode.

We read of the weak, duplicitous dealings of the high priests and potentates. We remember the injustice of Pilate and the fickleness of the populace. We know about the betrayal of Judas, of Peter. But what about the way in which this small and particular group of Pharisees betrayed themselves?

These were good people. They were good, religious, pious people. They knew their scriptures, they understood the implications of Jesus’ words and actions, and the response of the crowd. There was a reason that they gathered by the gate to see him coming: they wanted to believe, they wanted to shout hosanna; in their hearts, they prayed that it might be true, that he might be the Messiah, that salvation, the kingdom of God might be at hand. They knew enough to know that it was true. Yet they held back.

They were afraid: of being wrong, and seeming foolish; of being right, and called to be brave; they knew that God’s grace changes everything, and they had concerns.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. This little band of churchgoers was not unwise, but they were not all in.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this, seeing as this parish is no whitewashed tomb, nor is its worship in vain. Still, there is a risk always of making our religion tame, forgetting the wild freedom of Jesus’ call to carry the cross; of becoming respectable, at the expense of revolution. It would be a judgement upon us if our building, the wood and stones, the cross and the carillon, were to proclaim the gospel more loudly than our lives, than we ourselves could manage. Even for the most faithful, Holy Week is a necessary reminder that there are no half measures when it comes to following Christ, who told the rich man to give it all away, and told the uncertain applicant to leave the dead to bury the dead, to leave no piece of his heart behind if he were to follow in the way of life, of our life-giving, loving, liberating God.

Secretly, perhaps, many of us have sympathy with those Pharisees, those faithful and devout people, who wanted nothing more than a quiet and pious life. We may not fall into the trap of Peter, denying Jesus outright, and God forbid that we fall into the pit that Judas dug for himself. But we betray ourselves, each time we secretly pray that not too much will be demanded of us, that not too much will change, that the way of the cross will not lead us into crisis; that our faith may fly under the radar of the world and its empires and its everyday interactions, injuries, and options, and the question never be
raised.

Dare I say that even Jesus knew that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, wondering whether it was all too much, wondering whether he might, after all, slip quietly into insignificance, retire, perhaps, to Galilee, try to live down his bold words about the work that God was doing in his world? Of course, we know what he decided. He would not betray himself, nor his followers, nor his God, for the sake of a little peace and quiet.

Holy Week sets a high bar for the followers of Christ. It raises the cross before us and asks whether we are willing to cry louder than the forces of sin and death for our salvation, or whether we will rely on some structure, stones, wood, the cross and the carillon to do it for us, and hope that they are loud enough. It asks whether we are all in.

No wonder, then, that the word the crowd cried out was Hosanna: Save us, please. Hosanna: Save us, we pray.
Amen.


Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2006)
Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week (Abingdon Press, 2018)

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Attempting faith

I crossed the creek on the old tree trunk,

letting its broad back bridge the gap

between my fear and its fall.

I trod in the lake,

letting its icy wash awaken

the dream of walking on water.

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The stones would shout

If these walls could speak, they would sing
of the sun’s light seeping into sandstone,
warming the night
when Love comes calling;

They would cry blood, gasp
at the impact of hatred focused through a fist,
politics rifled to precision strikes,
alleged to keep the peace;

They would chant the prayers of sophisticates
and the simple psalms of children,
the chants of theologians, devotions
of pilgrims, and the braying of an ass.

If the world fell silent, yet
these stones would shout, Glory:
how the mighty crumble; Glory:
their facades are fallen; Glory:
when the Christ comes calling: Glory.


From the Liturgy of the Palms: Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)
First published at the Episcopal Cafe

 

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Anointing

They say that scent is

the closest sense to memory;

I wouldn’t know, but Jesus,

enveloped in the memory of myrrh –

his mother Mary eked it out,

birth by birth –

his mortality laid out end to end,

Jesus remembered swaddling love.

One can only imagine Judas

had other memories

that smelled less sweet;

I wouldn’t know.

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