In tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I preached a series of three short homilies on scripture related to this night. While I read the scripture for each homily, some of our youth acted it out. The following is my original manuscript of these homilies.
Homily 1 Text: John 13:1-20
Last weekend, I saw Disney’s new live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Somehow, watching flesh-and-blood human beings act out the story—as opposed to cartoon characters—brought home to me just how beastly the beast’s behavior was toward Belle. Think about it: The Beast, whom the audience quickly ends up rooting for, was literally holding a young woman captive in his castle—trying to make her fall in love with him. Because only the giving and receiving of love will undo the curse of the enchantress who turned this vain, uncaring, self-centered prince into a beast in the first place.
It’s as if the Beast were saying, “You better love me or else—or else I’ll never let you out of this prison!” It’s insane… It’s so wrong!
Eventually, however, even the Beast realizes that he can’t force Belle to love him—that wouldn’t be true love. So he sets Belle free to return to her father and her village. The Beast explains his decision to his servants, asking, “Can anyone truly love who isn’t free?” And of course the answer is no.
But something unexpected happens: In spite of the fact that the Beast had so badly mistreated her, in spite of the fact that she of all people ought to join her fellow townspeople in wanting to hold the Beast accountable for his crimes—to bring him to justice, to make him pay—she not only forgives the Beast, but she does everything she can—even at great personal cost—to save him from his death sentence.
Belle’s love, her forgiveness, her grace, completely melts the Beast’s heart. He is rightly amazed that she of all people came back to save a wretch like him. He doesn’t deserve it, and he knows it.
And so it is with Peter in today’s scripture. Peter often gets a bad rap for his pride, his impulsiveness, for being quick to speak and slow to think. But in this scripture I just read, Peter alone among the disciples seems to understand exactly what Christ is doing for him—and how much he doesn’t deserve it! Messiahs aren’t supposed to perform this most humble act of service—slaves are! And here we have none other than God himself humbling himself to wash these sinners and make them clean—just as he would the next day, on the cross.
And just think: Jesus, unlike Peter, knows exactly what’s coming; he knows that Peter’s own betrayal will fall just below the betrayal of Judas himself in terms of sin and evil. But it’s as if Jesus were saying, “I forgive you, Peter. I forgive you for everything you’ve done against me in the past; I forgive you for what you’ll do tomorrow—or next year or the next ten years—until you die. When I go to the cross, I’m going to wash all of your sins away. All you have to do is let me wash you—which means recognizing that you need me to make you clean. Which means recognizing that every sinner is a beast on the inside, but I can and will transform you into something beautiful.”
Brothers and sisters—friends—I believe Jesus saying the same thing to us tonight.
Homily 2 Text: Matthew 26:17-29
“Is it I, Lord?”
Each of the disciples asked Jesus this question after Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. And each of them asked sincerely—except the one who would actually betray Jesus. Jesus didn’t answer their questions, of course. It’s not like he said, “No, John, it’s not you.” “No, Matthew, it’s not you.” “No, Thomas, it’s not you.” But if he had, I suspect these anxious disciples would have felt relieved. “Thank God that I’m not the one who will commit the worst sin in history! I may be a sinner, but at least I’m not that bad of a sinner!”
But I don’t know… Comparing yourself to Judas and feeling better about yourself because you’re not as big a sinner as him is probably not an appropriate response.
Anne Kennedy is a sharp Christian blogger and thinker who wrote this week about recent controversies involving two companies: Pepsi and United Airlines. Pepsi released an advertisement that everyone agreed was in poor taste. And of course, United had a law-abiding passenger literally dragged off a plane for no good reason at all. Regardless, she said that those two companies have done us a great favor. She said that these examples of misconduct make clear the fact that
we are bad and stupid even when (sometimes especially when) we are trying to be good and awesome. Pepsi did not wake up that auspicious morning and say to itself…, ‘How can I literally offend every single person in the world today?’ They said, ‘How can we get people to buy this gross sugary drink thereby increasing our shareholder whatchamacallit and making all people love us more.” They were trying to do a nice thing.
Likewise, all the people working at United didn’t wake up and think, ‘You know what would be great? Publicly shaming and humiliating and abusing a person who paid us more money than we’re worth for a product we’re not that great at delivering anyway!’
Her point, and mine, is that despite our best efforts to be good, to do the right thing, to be nice, we often end up causing great harm. Because we are miserable sinners. I am. You are. We can’t help ourselves! Literally. We can’t help ourselves. That’s why we’re here tonight!
So we have not come here this evening to ask, “Is it I, Lord?” Because guess what? It is I. And it is you. It’s all of us. All of us need Christ’s blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Homily 3 Text: Mark 14:32-50
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Yet not what I will, but what you will.
In the model prayer that Jesus gave us, in the Sermon on the Mount, he teaches us to pray the same: “Thy will be done.”
We pray for God’s will to be done because we don’t presume to know what’s best for us, or for our loved ones, or for the world. God does. We are finite and sinful; God is infinite, perfect, and perfectly loving. We can trust him!
Just last night, I went to a concert. Before the show I was chatting with David, the person sitting next to me. I had never met David prior to last night. When he found out I was a minister, he was making small talk. At one point in our conversation, he said, “Although faith isn’t as central to my life as it used to be, I still blah blah blah.” And I knew I had my opening. Remember I preached a couple of months ago on witnessing. I said you should listen for openings to talk about your faith. So later in the conversation, I said, “So you dropped out of church. Why is that?” And he said, “Oh, it’s a long story.” And I said, “I’d love to hear it.”
And he told me about his marriage to a mentally ill woman—how he had prayed for her healing and how God didn’t answer his prayer. After a tragic turn of events, he finally got divorced. He said, “It’s not that I stopped believing in God; I know he exists. But I’m just really angry at him. I know I need to get over it.”
I asked some clarifying questions and gently challenged him on a few things. At one point he said, “I know I’m in a much better place now than I ever was before… Things are a thousand times better.” I said, “So you’re saying that you’re a better person today having gone through all that?” He said, “Definitely.” And I said, “How do you know that’s not God? That God used this suffering to shape you into a better person today.” And then I gave some examples from scripture—of Joseph in Genesis 50 and Paul in 2 Corinthians 12—of faithful people who, despite their prayers, had to undergo great suffering—out of which God brought something very good. Not to mention today’s scripture…
To say the least, if God has the power to transform the greatest evil imaginable, which is his beloved Son dying on a cross, into the greatest good imaginable, which is forgiveness of sin, salvation, eternal life—well, needless to say he can take all lesser forms of evil that we face and do the same thing.
Not that this scripture is mostly about us… It’s about what God the Son does to save us. And you might say, “What is this about a cup? Supper is over. There are no cups around.” Jesus is referring to Isaiah 51 and Jeremiah 25. One Bible scholar, N.T. Wright, describes these passages as follows:
The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself.
If you’re like me, when you heard about President Assad in Syria dropping nerve gas on innocent men, women, and children, you felt in the pit of your stomach that this was wrong… evil… You wanted justice to be done. You wanted evil to be punished. You felt a righteous kind of anger. If you felt that, then you understand, in a small way, what God’s wrath means.
And if you understand the Cross of Jesus Christ, you understand that Christ, who is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, drank the cup of God’s wrath down to its dregs, in order to save us from it.
Why? Because God loved us that much. He loves you that much. He loves me that much. “God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!”
1. Anne Kennedy, “Pious Holy Week News Commentary,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/2017/04/11/pious-holy-week-news-commentary. Accessed 12 April 2017.
2. Cited from Trevin Wax, “Don’t Tell Me N.T. Wright Denies Penal Substitution,” TheGospelCoalition.com. Accessed 13 April 2017.
3. Romans 5:8 CSB