Sermon Archives

Thursday, March 29, 2018
Maundy Thursday
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Becoming the Christ - He Loved Them to the End

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Having loved his own who were in the world,
he loved them to the end

Forty days ago, as we began our Lenten pilgrimage, we were taken back to the beginning of Jesus’ journey throughout the Galilean country side.  As with so many of the ancient stories of Israel, his story begins at the water’s edge.  Like Moses and the Israelites before him, and like Elijah and Elisha some time later, Jesus goes to the banks of the river, to hear the remarkable proclamation of God’s blessing and to experience the fullness of his redemption and liberation.  As Jesus emerges from those holy waters, the waters by which he received the baptism of forgiveness that John so boldly offers, he hears, too, the fullness of God’s love for him as a heavenly voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  So complete is this love, that it takes not only the form of a father’s blessing, but even more, the physical indwelling of the spirit, as the living presence of God fills him, choosing to abide in him, as he, Jesus, lives in God. 

And so begins the story of Jesus, a man from the small Galilean town of Nazareth, becoming the Christ, the Messiah, the living and full embodiment of God’s love and mercy in the world.

It is tempting to think that, because Jesus is God as our tradition teaches, that he must have known his identity and purpose in full from the moment of his birth; however, we mustn’t forget that our tradition also teaches that Jesus was man, as fully human as you and I are today, and that he experienced a full human life, with pain and sorrow, hope and uncertainty, as all men and women do. 

Lest we wonder if such human uncertainty has any foundation in the biblical record, we need look no further than the conclusion of this hallowed night as Jesus encounters the dark night of his soul, laboriously praying, take this cup from me.

In fact, what we see in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, and what we see in high relief throughout the movement of Holy Week as Jesus slowly approaches Calvary, is his maturation as the Christ, slowly, progressively transforming before us from beloved man, to Love incarnate.

And as we have seen these past days this maturation occurs through a series of transformations as Jesus slowly assumes the full implication of God’s love – for him and for the world. 

This of course, is remarkably human – for the journey of human life is a journey of perpetual becoming, of becoming ever more who we are and who we are meant to be.  Even our most fundamental relationships are continually maturing and developing – the father that I am today, is not the father I was at the birth of my first child or my second, nor am I today the father that I will be when my strength fails me and my final breath are at hand.  Even as our final days approach, we may ask what does fathering or mothering or beloving mean, now.

The same is true of our life in Christ.  Who among us upon hearing God’s remarkable love for us, immediately took on that full love for our neighbor, let alone our enemy?  No, as with so much of our human life, the progression of Godly love within us is a slow progression as we first struggle to receive God’s love within us, and then work to embody it more completely, more naturally, within our lives.

And we see this within Jesus as well.  As he walks the Galilean countryside, encountering women and men of all sorts and from all places, we see him progressively maturing in his understanding of God’s love for the world.  While I suspect that there is little question within this room tonight as to the reality of God’s love for the world, and the breadth of his saving embrace, we mustn’t forget that this was not a common, first century understanding of God’s love. 

No, the ancient gods were both possessive and territorial. 

In ancient Palestine, YHWH was the God of Israel.  There was no doubt that YHWH’s love was for Israel and his descendants – they were his people and he was their god.  Even more, for many, certainly the religious leaders of his day, the God of Israel was principally the God of the faithful, the ritually clean and spiritually obedient. 

This was the image of divine love with which Jesus, himself, was formed; and it was this image of divine love that undergoes great transformation throughout Jesus’ life.  That is, as we walk with Jesus, we see a gradual transformation in his understanding of God’s love, specifically his understanding of the object of divine love. 

The first of these transformations is perhaps the easiest.  Perhaps because he was raised by a mother who knew social stigma and a father who stood beside her, Jesus seems to naturally expand God’s love beyond the ritually clean and spiritually obedient.  From his first miracles in a small home in Capernaum, we encounter Jesus offering God’s love and mercy to those who long had stood on the edges of God’s society.  As he heals a frail woman of her illness, as he forgives the sins of a paralytic man, as he cleanses a leper and draws a despised tax collector into his fold, Jesus quietly proclaims that God’s love is broader and wider than ever imagined.

Expanse though it is, Jesus soon learns that such love is not complete. 

Some time later he and his band of disciples are making their way through the region of Tyre and Sidon.  No doubt he had received the hospitality and friendship of men and women there, as Elijah had generations ago.  They would have opened their homes and tables to him as he came proclaiming the message of God’s kingdom; but now his message of forgiveness and peace was put to the test – did God love them, too?  Would God’s healing and mercy extend to this gentile community as it had for the people of Israel in Capernaum? 

And so Jesus’ gradual transformation continues.  In spite of his initial refusal, rooted in an ancient understanding of divine love, Jesus continues to mature, and the Christ takes more shape before us.  Love once reserved for Israel, gradually becomes love for Jew and gentile alike.

But even so, his love was not yet complete.  Tonight, we see the final maturation of divine love in Jesus.  It is one thing, you see, to love one’s own people, one’s family and friends as it were, and it is another, to be sure, to love one’s neighbors; but it is another altogether to love one’s enemies, and not just one’s enemies, but one’s enemy who once was a beloved friend.

And so tonight, as Jesus gathers around the table with those closest to him, those he not only called friends, but sisters and brothers, he must allow his love to expand, to mature, once again.  There is Judas, of course, who betrays him with a kiss; but there also are Peter, and James and John who abandon him to his arrest, and Andrew and Bartholomew and Thomas and Nathaniel, each in their own way transformed by his life and teaching, who like we tonight, simply forsook him and fled.

They are all there, gathered into that upper room to celebrate that Paschal feast.  And Jesus must ask himself – where does God’s love end, where will his?

Does it end at boundary of faithfulness and love?  Or is there still more love to give? Is it possible that love, human and divine, extends beyond the territory of family and friends and neighbors, beyond the boundary of faithfulness and reciprocal love?  Is it possible, truly possible, to love one who does not love you?  To love one who abandons and betrays you?  Is it possible, to love one’s enemy, even one who betrays you with a kiss?

We mustn’t diminish the significance of tonight’s action.  For such love is not ordinary.  It is never been ordinary for women and men like you and me, neither has it been ordinary for God. 

Tonight reveals the final threshold of divine love that Jesus must cross.  Tonight as he gathers no longer with merely his followers and disciples, but with those whom calls friend, he must choose.  They will betray him, they will abandon him, they will forsake him, this he knows; but will he, in spite of it all, continue to love them?

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Tonight, the maturation of divine love is nearly complete.  Tonight, with the simplicity of bread broken and a cup shared Jesus not only proclaims, but reveals, that God’s love has no end. 

As his followers we must ask a simple question of ourselves, does ours?