Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: Holy Wednesday, John 13:21-36 (April 16, 2014)


During Holy Week, one of the things that I find myself reflecting on most often is the humanity of Jesus. Yes, Jesus is fully divine, and affirming this is a vital part of our Christian identity. But that’s not the whole story, and besides, the idea of God taking on flesh and walking the earth is so theologically loaded that it can become exhausting trying to make sense of it. I find that the passion narrative becomes much more vivid for me when I meditate especially on Christ’s humanity: when I imagine his grief…his pain…his fear…his loneliness. The sacrifice becomes so much more than just words on a page; it becomes relatable, dramatic, and real.

So imagine my…let’s say disappointment...when I realized that my first sermon as an ordained pastor would be on John’s gospel—the one out of the four that is notorious for its emphasis on Jesus’ divinity. For heaven’s sake; the first words of the gospel are, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It might as well have been on one of those t-shirts: “Jesus is God; the rest is just details.”

So here I was, left with the task of reconciling my “preferred Lenten Jesus” with John’s divine Messiah during Holy Week, and with no idea of where to even begin looking for Jesus’ humanity in that gospel. I started by scanning John for any preliminary indications of a human Christ. Let’s see…in both chapter 8 and chapter 18, he refers to himself in Greek as ego eimi, “I am”, which would have been understood as a reference to God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3…in chapter 17, he talks about being glorified alongside God…in chapter 10 he flat out says that he and the Father are one…it was not looking good for team “humanity”.

Furthermore, the Christ that I found in John seemed detached, almost cold—not necessarily qualities that I had hoped to find in my fully-human God. In chapter 2, before he performs his first miracle by turning water into wine at a wedding, Jesus resists his mother’s urging by saying, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” Harsh. Towards the end of his ministry, he goes to his death quietly, almost indifferently, with none of the sense of self-preservation or resistance that you might expect from a human. In chapter 18, he approaches the men that Judas brings to arrest him and identifies himself before they even arrive. He certainly exhibits none of the human qualities of humility and vulnerability that I find so engaging in the synoptic gospels. So far, I had only seen the divine side of Christ in John, and I hadn’t been particularly fond of what I had found.

But in this passage from chapter 13, our gospel reading for today…one single word challenged me to see John’s Jesus in a new way. The scripture portrays Jesus at perhaps his most vulnerable moment, and in looking at it with fresh eyes, I saw something that surprised me.

The very first sentence of this passage tells us that Jesus was troubled, that he was “stirred in spirit.” This might not seem too unusual in context; after all, this was the crucial moment when he told his disciples that he would be betrayed by one of his best friends. But to me, in the gospel of John, this is a big deal. This is a rare glimmer of emotion on the normally cool, calm, and collected Christ that we have come to know through John. And it doesn’t stick around for long—after Judas leaves, Jesus seems to switch gears again, launching into one last (long) lesson for his disciples and describing his own death without even blinking. In John’s version of Gethsemene, Jesus doesn’t even ask that the cup of suffering be taken away from him, as he does in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But before all this, in verse 21, Jesus is troubled. For the first time, I saw the humanity of Christ visibly intertwined with his divinity in John’s gospel.

So I asked myself, “What is it about this event, this brief moment in Christ’s life, that is so significant that John must reframe his theological portrait of Jesus to make room for his humanity?”

The answer, I decided, is that this scene, where Jesus is sharing a meal with his closest friends in the world, is full to the very brim of relationships. Christ’s relationship with Judas, his close friend turned traitor, his intimate relationship with the beloved disciple, and indeed, his complex and, at times, confusing relationship with God all bubble up and confront Jesus within the space of these few sentences—I would have been quite surprised if his humanity had managed to stay completely hidden under these circumstances.

Once I identified this thread of Christ’s humanity, I began to pull at it and unravel the tapestry of John’s portrait of Jesus. I discovered this was not an isolated event, as I had originally thought, but an essential theme that undergirds God’s entire plan. Jesus’ humanity dances in harmony with his divinity throughout John’s gospel wherever he is in relationship with others. Remember Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha and the dear friend of Jesus? Jesus seems to act rather insensitively when he hears that Lazarus is sick, presumably because he plans to bring Lazarus back to life, and yet when he sees the sisters mourning, he again is troubled and, indeed, is moved to tears. Even though he knows that he will personally be speaking to Lazarus within the hour, he weeps over his dead friend.

All of the signs that Jesus performs throughout John are directly connected to the love and compassion that he feels for those around him and the very human interactions that they have. He is not a divine miracle machine who churns out impossibilities in order to prove a point. Jesus’ divinity intimately, subtly, indisputably works in tandem with his human relationships to ultimately accomplish God’s will. To be of the same mind as Jesus, as Paul calls us to do in Philippians, is not just to strive for stark holiness, nor is it simply to live exactly the same one-dimensional life as other human beings do. It is to infuse one’s life with both of these qualities and to unify them through holy relationships—just as Christ did.

It follows, then, that we are at our best—the most fully Christ-like—when we are in relationship with one another. Relationships are where humanity most closely touches the divine. Perhaps that’s what I am drawn to in Christ’s humanity: when I see it in conjunction with his divinity, I can begin to understand what it is—or should be—to be created in God’s image.

So, what should we do with this new understanding of Christ’s dual nature, and what does it mean for us?

Well, I’ll begin by observing that, in the face of crumbling loyalties and impending death, Jesus abandoned neither his divinity nor his humanity. He did not crumble into a quivering pile of helpless emotion, and he did not cling to his foreknowledge of what was to be without regard to the human reality around him. He did not disown Judas. He did not distance himself from the beloved disciple. He did not regard his relationships as terminal and therefore pointless.

In the face of chaos and tragedy, Jesus held tightly to his human connections, and he made absolutely certain that his followers did the same. Indeed, one of his very last teachings was for his disciples to love one another. One of his very last acts was to initiate and seal a bond that would last even beyond his death: “Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” Only after this relationship was assured could Jesus declare, “It is finished.”

Standing at the foot of the cross is no time to be alone. God’s work cannot be completed unless it rests upon the shoulders of holy relationships. Christ, with his inseparable humanity and divinity, showed us that.

As we again draw near to the cross and contemplate God’s glory, it can be easy to forget, as I thought that John had, that Christ’s humanity is necessarily tied to his divinity. He did not come to earth for the sole purpose of lording over us, but to be one of us. To teach us the holy things that make us human, and the human things that make us holy. This is what Lent is all about: remembering that Christ’s call to us is not simply to turn our ears to his teachings and lift our eyes cross-ward, but to turn our ears and eyes to one another, to enter into the dark places with one another, and to seek holiness with one another. While our essence is entirely human, Christ has shown how we, in our humanity, can touch the divine when we reach out to one another. May we remember this as we journey together, hand in hand, toward the cross and, ultimately, the empty tomb. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment