Thursday, March 28, 2013

When darkness reigns

Text: Luke 22 7-53 (the Last Supper; Jesus' arrest)

"When Darkness reigns." These are Jesus' words after his arrest and before the trials and crucifixion of Good Friday.

It is in the darkness of Holy Thursday that Jesus gives us the sacrament of communion. He gives us his very body and blood, broken and poured out for us. Jesus shows us that within the very heart of darkness, God in Christ is with us. Christ serves us, supports us, and dies with and for us.

Setting the Last Supper at Passover creates a sharp contrast between the kind of God whom the disciples were expecting in Jesus and the God in Christ whom they received.

Passover is a time each spring when Jews remember their liberation from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In the Exodus, God's Mighty Hand gives the Hebrew Slaves victory over the Pharaoh. God visits 10 plagues on the Egyptians including the murder of the first born of every family, except in those households where the blood of a sacrificial lamb has been dabbed on the doorpost, which it passes over. God's Hand parts the water of the Red Sea to let the Hebrews pass. It drowns the Egyptian army in those same waters. It leads the Hebrews for 40 years in the desert providing manna from heaven.

Jesus' friends believed that he was a leader who would similarly use his divine powers in a violent way against their enemy in Palestine, the Romans. They also thought he would be a king like David who lead them to military victory.

But Jesus is not a violent king or God. Jesus shows us a path to freedom in communion. Unlike Passover, communion is a sacrament that remembers self-sacrifice and not the slaughter of one's enemies. It reveals God not as a violent military ruler, but as a suffering servant who leads us by example to new life beyond death . . .

One of the things I enjoy this time of the year are TV documentaries on the life of Jesus. I saw one this week that raised a familiar theme, that the death of Jesus on a cross was a stumbling block and scandal for the first disciples. As the narrator said, killing God on a cross is not how one would choose to found a world religion.

However, I think this point is overstated. Clearly a world religion -- the largest one for the past 500 years -- was founded on stories of the death of God. The God of Passover -- a god who slaughters our enemies -- has one kind of appeal. But I don't think that it fits with our experiences. Looking over history and our own lives, we usually don't see miraculous wish fulfilment. We don't see many Davids beating a Goliath, or slaves being freed from their masters by magic and violent acts.

The Exodus story, which we remember at Passover, is much loved, of course. It portrays the power of God, but not in a realistic way. I view it as a strange and scary dream or painting that Jews and Christians retell in worship as a way to evoke awe and reverence. But to hope in 2013 that God's Mighty Hand will provide manna from heaven or violently destroy our enemies is not credible.

Holy Week is different. In the darkness, betrayal, pain, and death of Holy Thursday and Good Friday I see my own life and our own times. We often live in darkness. We often experience pain. We sometimes betray our deepest values. We all fear death.

The joy and love revealed in Holy Week is found in the quiet of an empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning and the appearance of the Risen Christ to a handful of his followers in the days that follow. Freedom is available for all us. But it is not freedom won in violent conflict. It is freedom found in a quiet dawn after a dark night. It is found in our sure hope for loved ones who have died. It is found in the light of God in Christ we burns within each of us.

Holy Week is a time when darkness reigns. It is also a time in which Jesus prepares the purest light that any of us will ever experience. This is the paradox of Easter, the paradox of Christianity, and the paradox of God.

Many of us here today have lived this paradox. In long lives, we may have experienced happiness and joy, but also times of loss or sadness. We may be in pain today, and so we can identify with Jesus as he approaches the cross on Good Friday.

We have also experienced how new life arises after a harsh winter and how love blossoms again between friends and families after heartbreak or loss. This is the promise of Easter, and it is here for us in any gracious moment as well as at the end of all of life's struggles.

During Holy Week, God's realm might sometimes looks like a Kingdom of Darkness. But Easter morning shows us that it is a Kingdom of New Life, now and always.

Holy Week, with all its triumph and tragedy, reminds us of the pain, joy and promise of life. So as this Holy Week continues, may we all live it fully and feel it deeply.

We have come with Jesus all the long way to Jerusalem. By following him this Lent to the end, even to the foot of the cross, may we confront our fears, and then move past them with Christ to Easter morning.

Thanks be to God.


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