Maundy Thursday – Tenebrae Service
Pastor Donna Buell
This evening we are gathered beneath the cross of Jesus to hear once again the painful story of betrayal and denial, rejection and abandonment, suffering and death. No one especially wants to go to the cross and hear this painful story. But I believe that we must hear this story. We must really hear this story in all its fullness if we are to be here at the dawning of Easter morning to truly celebrate the life and the love, the hope and the promise, the invitation and the challenge of the resurrection.
So before we begin our Tenebrae readings, I’d like to invite us to think broadly about the meaning of the Christ’s death on the cross. And in order to do that, I’d like to invite us to hold at least three perspectives in tension.
The first perspective is that Jesus died with us. The doctrine of the incarnation tells us that, in Jesus, God came and lived among us, taking human form. He didn’t just appear to be human. He was fully human. Jesus lived our human life, coming to know the full range of human experience: love, faith, temptation, anger, frustration, peace, joy, sorrow, beauty, horror, and grief. He knew what it was to be hailed and acclaimed. He knew what it was to be despised and rejected. In all these things Jesus lived with us, sharing the experience of human life with us, including the experience of death. And his death was not just any death. It was a horrible, painful, and public death on a cross.
There is comfort in knowing that God knows what we experience in life. It is especially comforting when we ourselves are experiencing life’s sorrows and struggles. When we suffer from injury or illness, from betrayal or rejection, from grief or loss, from violence or oppression, it is comforting to know that Jesus shares in that suffering, for it shows us that God is not distant, or remote, or disinterested in us and in our concerns. Jesus lived and died in solidarity with us and with all who suffer. And as the way, the truth, and the life Jesus also invites us to live as he lived, with compassion, in solidarity with those who hunger and thirst, with those who grieve and mourn, with those who struggle and suffer in this life. Jesus died with us.
The second perspective we need to carry with us to the cross is that Jesus died because of us. As we hear about the plotting of the faithful Pharisees, the disillusionment and betrayal of zealous Judas, the fear and the flight of the confused disciples, the impulsive denial of Peter, the indifference of the Roman bureaucracy, the fickleness of the crowds, the cruelty of the soldiers and others who jeered at Jesus from the foot of the cross, we must understand that the human sin that led Jesus to the cross of death represents all the sin of all humanity. Jesus was crucified because of human sin. Jesus was crucified because that is how humanity reacts to the love of God incarnate, to the word of God made flesh. O sure, there have always been people who have responded positively to Jesus, who have believed in him, who have sought to follow him, and who have tried to be faithful to him. But no one can ever claim to follow perfectly. We all have our moments of doubt and fear. We all have our times of selfishness and greed and hatred. We all have experiences of disillusionment and indifference. We all have ways in which we deny the power of God’s love to transform our lives and our world. We all have times when our backs are up against the wall, and we live as if we do not even know him.
So we cannot simply listen to the story of Jesus’ passion and death and point fingers at those horrible people who did that to Jesus. And we cannot sit here and point fingers at one another, either, for failing to live up to our own particular expectations of what it means to be faithful followers of Christ. We each must recognize our own place in this story…our own complicity with the human sin that resulted in Jesus’ death, for who among us has not sinned. When we look at Christ on the cross we need to remember his words: whatever you have done to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done unto me. So yes, Jesus died with us. Jesus also died because of us.
The third perspective we need to carry with us to the cross is that Jesus died for us. We’ve heard those words often, Jesus died for our sin; took our sin upon himself. Jesus stood there as he was falsely accused, and he refused to use his divine power to save himself, for Jesus understood that all this was part of God’s saving work. And so he humbled himself by living in complete obedience to God’s will even to the point of death on a cross.
Could he have made other choices? Could he have come down from the cross? Could he have talked his way out of the situation, making some kind of deal with Pilate? Could he have fled from the garden when he saw the soldiers coming, laying low until things cooled off? Could he have avoided Jerusalem completely during the high holy days? Of course he could have. But Jesus refused to shrink from the inevitable confrontation between human sin and God’s divine love. Having lived this life with us, Jesus understood the power that sin has over us. From the cross he called out to God, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus died to break the power of human sin, to release its grip upon our lives, to show us the power of sacrificial love, and to free us for life in all its abundance. Jesus died for us and for our salvation.
Someone once said that the story of Christ’s crucifixion is the story of humanity at its worst and of God at God’s best. So as we remember the night of Jesus’ death, I encourage us to take comfort in knowing that Jesus died with us, revealing to us the great compassion God has for us and for all humanity. I encourage us to face squarely the reality that Jesus died because of us, repenting of the human sinfulness in which we all participate as individuals, as communities and as nations. And I encourage us to give thanks that Jesus died for us and for our salvation, that through his sacrificial love he broke the power of sin and death over our lives, offered forgiveness for our sin, restored our relationship to God, and opened the door to everlasting life. Thanks be to God.