Preached on April 12 at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, Chapel Hill
Holy Week, this week, is the most intense week of the Christian year. The secular world might say, looking at us, that the week leading up to Christmas Day is the most intense because they see us scurrying around searching for the perfect last minute gift. Or more likely the gift we forgot to buy because we didn’t know we’d be getting a gift from a friend at the office or an out-of-town relative who just showed up for dinner. You know, those surprise appearances in our lives at Christmas time that add to the intensity…
Some might say the week before school starts back in the fall is the most intense week of the year, and it is pretty intense for those of us who have school children. New shoes are just the beginning of it. Even before the first day at school, the children have presented us with that long list of school supplies, and we join the throngs of parents at Target or Office Depot searching for just the right notebook in a color acceptable to our child. Pencils, pens, glue, erasers, paper, scissors, the list goes on, and we are busy, busy trying to fulfill it.
Those are all legit intense weeks and there are probably some others in your life that I’ve skipped because I don’t know you all that well. But what I’m talking about tonight is the most intense week of the Christian year. There is a lot going on in the church this week. Services every day, even if you’re not having one every day here at St. Paul’s, someone somewhere is having a service every day this week, sometimes more than one. Nearly everyone is having a service on Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. So, you’ll all be back here again for the next two nights. Some people are holding Easter Vigils at sundown on Saturday night, while others are having Easter Celebrations at sunrise on Sunday morning. Clearly, only the most dedicated and sleep-deprived can handle both of those!
So, we are very busy, we Christians, during Holy Week. And where is Jesus in the midst of all this Holy Week activity? We all know where he will be tomorrow night, Maunday Thursday. He will be in the Upper Room, celebrating Passover with his closest friends. He will leave the room that night and stroll over to the Mount of Olives, to Gethsemane, for prayer and reflection. His disciples will fall asleep while keeping watch, fine followers that they are. Somewhere late in the night, Jesus will be “discovered” by the authorities and arrested for treason or blasphemy, depending on your source. Either source betrays a gross miscarriage of justice.
The trumped up charges take us to Friday and we all know where Jesus will be on Friday. He will have spent the early hours of that day between midnight and sunrise enduring intense interrogation, a botched trial, and a whipping for good measure. It all leads to Golgotha and the cross. Thursday and Friday are well rehearsed by our Christian faith and well resourced by our Christian liturgy.
But it’s Wednesday. Where is Jesus? Earlier this week, Jesus has been in Bethany, staying with his good friends Mary and Martha, of the famed, “Tell my sister to help me in the kitchen,” Martha, only to hear Jesus say, “Mary has chosen the better part,” thus granting Martha permission to put down her dishrag and come sit alongside Mary who is sitting alongside all those men, learning at the feet of the master. That Mary and Martha, also sisters to Lazarus. Lazarus who lay in the tomb for four days, long enough for Martha to say to Jesus when he finally showed up, “My Lord, he stinketh.” And well, he might have, but he also stood up and walked out of that tomb when Jesus yelled to him, “Lazarus, come out.” That’s where Jesus was earlier in the week.
After that episode with Lazarus, the handwriting was on the wall. The naysayers told the story back in Jerusalem, and the high priest explained the dangers of letting Jesus continue his signs and teachings while they all continued to languish under Roman occupancy. Caiaphas, the high priest, was afraid Rome would crack down on the Jews if Jesus continued to draw these large crowds. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble” was not their right in Roman occupied Palestine. Caiaphas didn’t want any trouble. With Passover upon them the city was teeming with visitors and you know how visitors can be when they come to town for a big celebration. The visitors sometimes get out of control, and even the residents forget their manners and cause some disturbances. This can happen when there is a basketball national championship, and it can happen during Passover. Caiaphas does not want this to happen. John reports that after the summit meeting of the priests’ council, “From that day on they planned to put [Jesus] to death.”
Jesus came to Jerusalem straight away from Bethany. He entered the city riding on a donkey’s colt. The symbolism of the donkey is not lost on anyone since the prophets of old had often said the Messiah will show up on such a beast. And it’s no small thing to ride an equine that has never been ridden before. If you’ve ever broken a horse, you know that’s a pretty good trick. Having brought his good friend Lazarus back to life, here comes Jesus, riding a donkey that’s never been ridden before, right into the jaws of power and privilege: priests and procurators; Caiaphas and Pilate. It’s the perfect storm, with throngs of people there to welcome him shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Shouts of praise that will morph into cries of derision a few days later, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
But today is Wednesday. Where is Jesus on Wednesday night? After the high of raising his friend from the dead and riding into the city as the Messiah, all the while knowing that the authorities have a warrant for his arrest, where would you be? Most of us would be looking for a way to get out of town. Or we’d be deep in hiding.
Jesus is reclining at supper with his friends. This is not the Last Supper, that will be tomorrow night, though the timeline gets a little muddled in the Gospel of John. The things we read about on Wednesday night seem to be part of what will happen on Thursday night. But then I can’t remember what I did last week, so I’m willing to grant John some wiggle room on his miscalculated days after two thousand years of counting those days.
Today is clearly Wednesday; I checked the Gregorian calendar before I came over here tonight. This supper is happening on Wednesday, and it is at this supper where Jesus gathers with friends, tells some stories, and breaks some bread. It is what people of faith do regardless of what is swirling in the world around them. There is a lot of learning that goes on around this table on this night, but it’s learning that happens because of a shared story and a mutual trust that supersedes the anxiety the world tries to heap upon us. Jesus will tell his friends that night about
- Service: “…you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
- Commitment: “Those who love me will keep my word…”
- Trust: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
- Sacrifice: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
- Love: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus’ gift to his disciples on this Wednesday night is to empower them to live faithfully without him there every day to show them how to live faithfully. His gift to us is to empower us to live faithfully. Jesus has just raised his good friend from the dead and ironically knows that because of this he is now facing arrest and almost certain death. The most important thing he can do in this in between time, the middle day of the week, is to have supper with his friends. To do what friends do, to behave the way faithful people behave, regardless of the world swirling around them.
Friends, some say we are facing difficult days, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. Just read the paper if you have any doubts. But difficult days are precisely the days when we stay focused on God’s justice.
- Caiaphas couldn’t stay focused. Caiaphas is the high priest, the one most steeped in the ways and the will of God, but he’s more afraid of Roman power than he is of God’s justice.
- Pilate is not even a person of faith, he’s the legal representative of Roman power, the one who should enforce justice, but Pilate is more interested in currying favor with the people he rules over than with upholding the justice of the ones who made him a ruler.
- Judas — we haven’t even talked about Judas, but tonight’s gospel reading is all about Judas. Judas is more interested in taking control of events than he is waiting for God’s good timing.
- Peter is more interested in bravado than loyalty.
- Thomas more interested in proof than belief.
- Philip more interested in facts than faith.
Everyone’s taking their cues from the world around them. On this Wednesday night with the world swirling all around him, Jesus takes his cues from God. You want to know what Jesus is doing during the most intense week of the Christian year on Wednesday night? He is doing what he has always done — staying faithful to the will of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.