April 18, 2019
Maundy (Holy) Thursday
(1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15)
First, let us take a moment to offer our prayers for the people of Paris and the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday. 850+ year old piece of history and faith has been severely damaged. Today the cathedral would have been very busy with the Paschal Triduum but is now silenced and somber. My prayers are with those in Paris and the church this night at the beginning of this most Holy Season.
Let’s re-imagine the days leading up to Good Friday. Let’s suggest for just a moment that Jesus didn’t intend to die — at least not yet. Let’s speculate that on this Maundy Thursday, while Jesus is still the one sent “to save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), on this night he needs more time; he needs a few more months of amazing miracles and moving messages to let the world know that without a doubt he is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” as Peter put it (Matthew 16:16).
What if, on this night, rather than gathering together his disciples to serve them and to say “goodbye,” Jesus had gathered them together to devise a plan and plot a route to safety. Where could Jesus go without being killed for saying things such as “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), or “I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (v. 10). Where could Jesus and his friends flee, still telling those around him that he’s the Savior and yet, for a little bit longer, be guaranteed a safe haven? Anywhere?
Some places are safer than others, not just for Jesus but for all of us. Some time ago, University of South Carolina scientists gathered decades of death-related data to determine where people were most at risk of falling victim to an unforeseen trip to the afterlife. Their study didn’t track the likelihood of death by crucifixion. Rather, the group created a county-by-county map of the United States, measuring the risk of hazard-related deaths due to natural events such as floods, earthquakes or extreme weather. Some dubbed it “The Death Map.” Although death will find each one of us some day, regardless of ZIP code, according to their findings, you might want to avoid certain areas of the country if you’re looking to extend your days — or, at the very least, to enjoy low insurance premiums – if that even exists any longer.
For example, hazard mortality is most prominent in the South, where scorching summer heat, hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding along the Gulf Coast are all a reality. Even in the Midwest, where residents like to think of life as safer and saner than in the coastal areas, there’s a significant chance of a hazard-related death, as people experience the combination of blistering hot summers, dangerous winter roads and Wizard of Oz-style twisters.
Surprisingly, according to the research, one place we should all consider moving to in order to avoid an untimely demise is Southern California. With its temperate climate, the area actually carries a lower-than-normal risk of a crazy, weather- or natural-disaster-related death. That is, when it isn’t on fire or being rattled by an earthquake. Go figure.
But back to Jesus. Where on a first-century map would he need to hide out in order to best avoid the “hazard” of being persecuted? “They persecuted me,” Jesus said. “They hated me without a cause” (John 15:20, 25). Where would Jesus be least likely to die for doing his thing?
Jerusalem had already proven to be no friend to Jesus. The center of Jewish spiritual life, it was filled with rabbis, other religious folk, Sadducees and Pharisees who each had an opinion about Jesus, none of it good. Jerusalem had a short fuse for guys such as Jesus, especially when they were successful in gathering a crowd. It was just a matter of time before things in the Holy City got crazy for Jesus and his crew, and on this Thursday, things were starting to boil over.
Nazareth seems like a natural, safe spot. After all, this was Jesus’ hometown. This was where he played as a boy and learned the carpentry trade as a young man. Nazareth was home to family and friends who knew him simply as “Jesus the son of Joseph” and the firstborn of Mary. Certainly, he and the disciples could continue the ministry there, free from threats and with incredible effectiveness, right?
Maybe, but going home can be difficult. Just ask the small-town boy who’s made it as a big-city lawyer or the little girl who’s gone to college, earned a degree and has now seen as much of the world as Mom and Dad. When Doctor Smith heads home to New Hampshire, she’s still little Sarah to some, and when the father of five visits his folks back in Iowa, to Mom and Dad he’s just one of the boys. Many times when we go home, people around us struggle to see just who we’ve become because they’re most comfortable with who we used to be.
Early in his ministry, Jesus experienced just this. Reading from the Scriptures in the synagogue at Nazareth, he publicly proclaimed that he was, in fact, the long-awaited Redeemer of God’s people promised by the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-29; Isaiah 61:1-2). Yet even with Jesus’ “home-synagogue advantage,” the crowd didn’t react kindly. Jesus was driven out of the town to the edge of a cliff, where his own people attempted to kill him. Jesus was right on when he said, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24).
Like many people today who encounter Jesus, the folks in Nazareth didn’t want to deal with his claims that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). They wanted the Jesus who was just a good boy all grown up; a good man who made his folks proud. Not a “miracle-working” Jesus or a “one-and-only Messiah” Jesus, but a hometown boy who lived an honorable life. That’s it. Anything else is uncomfortable. So that means Nazareth is a “no.”
Northwest of Nazareth some 40 miles was the region of Caesarea Philippi. It was a part of the world known for its wild worship of pagan gods and goddesses. In Caesarea Philippi, worship of anything in any manner was fair game. Here, Jesus and the disciples would be just one crazy cult among many others. Certainly such an open, accepting place would be the perfect place for Jesus to set up shop, right?
But here’s the thing: Those tolerant folks who embrace the “all-roads-lead-to-the-same-God” language, and whose mantra, indeed, is the virtue of tolerance, are often the same people who are incredibly intolerant of those who argue that, no, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And Jesus’ message — while laden with love and acceptance of all — was certainly narrow, not broad, when discussing how one “comes to the Father.”
In fact, midway through his ministry, Jesus brought the disciples to Caesarea Philippi, to the epicenter of pagan worship, and it was there that Peter confessed that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah (Mark 8:29). Later, Jesus turned to what was a crowd likely gathered to worship false gods promising fertility and pleasure and shouted these words, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:36-38).
As a general rule, people who’ve already found a god they enjoy don’t take it well when others tell them they’ve gotten it all wrong. This means that if Jesus were to have a hazard-free home in Caesarea Philippi, he’d likely have to become some kind of “all-paths” Jesus, or a “big-boat” Jesus or an “it doesn’t matter who or what or how you worship” kind of Jesus. He’d have to become someone other than the Jesus we see boldly teaching and preaching and healing in the gospels in order to avoid being persecuted and “hated” as he was now. So much for Caesarea Philippi.
The truth is that no matter where Jesus went with his message, at some point he would be met with hostility. Regardless of where he might go on a map, conflict with people who would refuse to confess him as Christ was inevitable. Then and now.
There are those who want a human Jesus, not a divine Jesus. There are those who’d rather have a Jesus made in their own image, a Jesus who allows them to keep worshiping their own gods. There are those who want a Jesus who’s just a good teacher of truth and not the ultimate embodiment of it. There will always be those who’d rather kill Jesus and stay comfortable than bow to him and be transformed.
Knowing this, Jesus has gathered the disciples together in the upper room to say goodbye. Jesus is determined not to avoid this conflict by skipping to some “safer” town but to confront it and to crush it. That’s how you deal with people who refuse to see the real you. You don’t run from them — at least not when you’re Jesus. No, you stay faithful, you stick to the truth and in the end you lovingly but boldly prove them wrong.
For Jesus that meant hiding out not in some “hazard-free zone” but rather right in the heart of the action, in Jerusalem proper, and ultimately heading to a cross.
It was there, on the cross, where the conflict between who Jesus claimed to be and who the world wanted him to be came to a head. It was there, as the world killed a man people thought was a lunatic and a liar, that Jesus initiated his reign as Lord, shedding blood for their sin and procuring their future in the Father’s family. And when those who killed him were confident they’d proven him wrong, three days later Jesus would quietly but confidently come back, assuring the world that everything he said was true.
On this night, however, Peter, sensing some serious trouble and not knowing what was in store or how necessary it was, urged Jesus to take him along for the journey. Jesus responded by saying, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). It was necessary for Jesus to confront this on his own. But very soon, Peter’s time to confront it would come, as would ours.
After Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, after Easter Morning and the reality of a resurrected Savior who’s confronted his accusers and proven himself victorious, it’s no longer Jesus’ turn to die. It’s ours. It’s our turn to take that message to different points on the map. We’re to take it to our friends, to our children and to our community. Some of those destinations will welcome the message of Jesus. Most will meet it with at least a little hostility and the potential for hazard. Just ask Peter. Church history, from the likes of Tertullian and Origen, tells us that he would follow in Christ’s footsteps. In Rome, while sharing the message of repentance and trust in a resurrected Savior, Peter himself would succumb to crucifixion (see John 21:18-19).
It’s our turn to die.
We are not only to willingly run to the conflict around us, but, first and foremost, we are to confront the conflict within us. We must confess that we, too, desire a Jesus other than the one we’re given in the gospels. We, too, desire a Jesus who meets our needs and lets us love other gods rather than a Jesus who rules our lives, drives us to repentance and forgives our sin. We must face the fact that often the person who presents the greatest hostility to Jesus in our life is we ourselves. And, in response, each day we are the ones who need to die — to our earthly desires, our weird and wicked ways — so the reality of Christ and the truth of Christ might live in us and be shown through us (1 Corinthians 15:31).
For Jesus and for his followers, there’s no hiding out in hazard-free zones or finding the safest place to live. Instead, he and we head right into the action with the unfiltered message of forgiveness found in God’s Son.
But tonight, on Maundy Thursday, it’s time for foot washings, a final meal and a few goodbyes. It’s safe now. It’s quiet now. But once Jesus’ disciples leave this room, for each one the confrontation will begin.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA