09 April 2009

Sermon for Maundy Thursday: "Unsurrendering Love"

“The decisive factor is said to be that in Christianity the hope of resurrection is proclaimed, and that means the emergence of a genuine religion of redemption, the main emphasis now being on the far side of the boundary drawn by death. But it seems to me that this is just where the mistake and the danger lie. Redemption now means redemption from cares, distress, fears, longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave. But is this really the essential character of the proclamation of Christ in the gospels and by Paul? I should say it is not. The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the [Christian hope] sends people back to their life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself, they must drink the earthly cup to the [end], and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and they crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary experiences, but Christ takes hold of us at the center of our life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel Prison, 27 June 1944.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for treason at Flossenburg Concentration Camp 64 years ago today. As we began preparations for this Maundy Thursday service, I couldn’t help but notice the coincidence and comment upon it. I am one who has been continually challenged and comforted by Bonhoeffer’s writings and the stories of his life, most notably his choice, in 1939, to return to Germany and continue his work in the Confessing Church, resisting both the Nazi Party and the majority of German Christians who had fallen in line with the government. He had the choice to remain in the United States, but Bonhoeffer insisted “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” Within months Bonhoeffer was a co-consiprator against Hitler and, eventually, arrested, imprisoned and executed.

In his letter which I quoted earlier, Bonhoeffer wrote something I want to tie to the gospel reading for this service. “Like Christ himself,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “[Christians] must drink the earthly cup to the [end].” In the Gospel of John it is written, “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” This commitment to see things through “to the end” is, I believe, the essence of what gathers us here tonight.

It is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, “commandment.” We call it “Commandment Thursday” because of what Jesus said to and did for his disciples on this last night together with them. He humbly knelt and washed their feet, a chore generally regarded as beneath even the lowliest servants. He broke bread with his friends, even though one of them would leave the meal to betray Jesus to the authorities who wished him dead. He commanded them: “love one another as I have loved you.” Then Jesus continued to love his disciples to the very end of his life; abandoned, rejected, scorned, humiliated, flogged, crucified and executed. These are the deeds of the One who loves his followers to the very end, to the bottom of the bitter cup.

This is not an easy thing for us to gather and remember. It is a far cry from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrated on Sunday. Even the crucifixion is easier to handle if it’s properly interpreted. I remember a “Lord’s Gym” shirt I used to wear that had a picture of Jesus doing a push-up with the cross on his back. The idea, of course, was that Jesus took on the cross the way the Cyclones take on the Hawkeyes: the ultimate rivalry, the grudge match, the game in which the good guys must emerge triumphant. Come Sunday, some of this might be justified, but not tonight.

No one comes out a winner on Maundy Thursday. Judas left to betray Jesus to the authorities; Peter and the rest of the disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed and ran when Jesus was arrested. And Jesus? He surrendered. Utterly. No resistance, no protest of innocence. Jesus laid himself into the hands of authorities who would rather see him dead than hear any more about the relentless, unconditional love and mercy he had been preaching.

There’s only one thing Jesus did not surrender on his last night with his disciples: his love. Remember, John tells us, “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” He surrendered his position as he knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. He surrendered his trust as Judas betrayed him with a kiss. He surrendered his dignity as the priests and authorities questioned and tortured him. He surrendered his honor as he was paraded through the streets and crucified, an execution meant for the lowest criminals and deadliest enemies of the state. But Jesus would not surrender his love for his disciples, then or now.

This is what it means to “love to the end.” This is what makes Jesus’ commandment a “new” commandment. There was nothing new about the commandment to “love one another:” that had been one of the two great commandments since the time of Exodus. What makes Jesus’ commandment “new” is Jesus’ living example of the lengths to which that love will go. God will surrender everything else in God’s unsurrendering love for sinners – and in telling the story and remembering that love, we are caught by its power and unsurrendering resolve.

The first letter of John says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Take this time tonight and consider what it means to be the object of God’s unsurrendering love. Leave behind our superstitious belief that the cross was the sacrifice demanded by the Father for our sins, and consider that the cross is actually the final proof of the relentless, unsurrendering love of God for us, God’s children. The gospel says “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” You are his own, brought into the body of Christ through your baptism in his name. You are his own in the world, tonight, remembering the night long ago when Jesus gave us this meal by which we remember his love for us. Now, friends, know this – to the bitter end of all that is, you are the object of God’s unsurrendering love. Live in that love – serve in that love – believe in that love, and be God’s beloved children, now and forever. Amen.

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