Sermon Archives

Thursday, April 13, 2017
Maundy Thursday
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Two Paths

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Among the most fundamental journeys of human life, that is, a journey that each and everyone one of us must make, is that to independence.  From the moment of our birth we are plunged into a movement of self-differentiation and definition.  We spend the next several decades, if not the entirety of our lives even, exploring and defining who we are apart from others.

Part and parcel to this journey is the uptake of personal responsibility.  From the moment a child emerges from the womb she begins to take on responsibility for her own life.  Breathing is now hers to do; feeding, too.  Dressing, bathing, learning, working, resourcing – each of these becomes the child’s personal responsibility as she ages.  Over time, of course, these responsibilities will expand beyond the confines of self-care to care for others within our lives.  At first, these responsibilities comes somewhat naturally, as the “other” – a sibling, a friend, a parent, a pet, even! – is a natural extension of the self.  It is easy, at least easier, to love those whom we love, those who are part of “us” in some concrete or natural way, albeit by birth, by marriage, by chosen affection, or natural affinity.

The uptake of personal responsibility, however, ultimately poses a much more challenging question:  what is my responsibility to my neighbor?  Not just the neighbor who has become an extension of my family, but that one down the street who never brings in his garbage cans on Tuesday when trash is collected?  Or that neighbor at work who is usually late completing his work, leaving me in a lurch?  Or that neighbor who just dinged my car with his door?  Or that new neighbor who just moved in and wears a hijab?  Or that neighbor who, for whatever reason, doesn’t have food to put on the table or water to drink?  What’s my responsibility to her or to him?

If this is a fundamental human question, then tonight and in the coming days, we begin to see the fundamental human choices in response.

On the one hand we the choices made by Judas and Peter and the other disciples, by Caiaphas and the Chief Priests and Crowds, and by Pilate and the Roman soldiers.  To this fundamental question, what is my responsibility to my neighbor, each, in his own way, has provided an answer. 

For, before them all stands a neighbor, a powerless man in need of their protection, in need of their compassion and companionship, in need of their care. 

Yet, for each one of these men or groups – Jesus also presents a threat.  Judas, of course, has chosen his own version of the “Messiah” over that of Jesus, believing, for whatever reason, that his way is the better course.  And so with a kiss, he hands the innocent one over to the authorities. 

For Caiaphas and the Chief Priests, the threat they feel is not only personal, but likely also a threat to the Jewish community as a whole lest Rome, learning of “the king of the Jews,” would unleash its unthinkable power on the secular and religious community together. 

Peter, too, must choose.  While there is little he can do to change Jesus’ plight, it is within his power to change his experience.  The abandonment that Jesus inevitably experiences is brought on by the concrete abandonment of his closest friends and disciples, those who have walked with him and known him these past years, who out of honest fear now say, “I do not know the man.”

Pilate and the soldiers, have their role to play, as well.  Each in their own way has the ability to change the story.  Pilate, bears the responsibility to enforce justice, especially for the innocent; the soldiers ought to protect the innocent in their charge.  But none do.  Willingly or unwillingly, it doesn’t matter; together they become co-conspirators in the tragedy that unfolds for the neighbor before them.

Even the crowds play their part.  They heard Jesus teach, they experienced his mercy, and, only days before, they hailed him as king.  Sure, they may have been stirred up the by Chief Priest, but it is within their power to call for Jesus’ release.  But they don’t.  For whatever reason, they don’t dare raise their voice in opposition to the powers around them, and so they acquiesce; and in their silence their neighbor is condemned.

What is my responsibility to my neighbor?

Judas, Peter, Pilate, Caiaphas, the soldiers and the crowds; to a one they reveal to us today one of the two fundamental choices we have in response to this seminal question.

What is my responsibility to my neighbor?  Nothing costly. 

As long as it costs me little or nothing, as long as it places no burden upon my shoulders, or poses no threat to my life, I will love my neighbor.  But, as soon as it becomes costly, as soon as it threatens to disrupt my community or my place within it, as soon as it places a heavy demand on my life in some meaningful way; there, at the point, I shall proclaim, “I do not know the man! . . . I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

This is natural.  This is human.  It is a fundamental challenge we all face, and we all make this same choice.  Over and over and over again, we choose to love ourselves at our neighbor’s expense.  We say, we can’t afford it, the cost in some way is too high, and so we allow our neighbor to live a life we would never allow ourselves or our children or our dearest friends to endure.

This of course, is the way of death; not necessarily our own, but of someone, usually the poor and the dispossessed.

But there is another way.

What is my responsibility to my neighbor?

If Judas, Peter, Pilate, Caiaphas, the soldiers and the crowds, reveal a human response to this fundamental question, so, too, does Jesus.  Wracked by fear, and possessing all the emotion of anger and sadness that we all possess when faced with betrayal and abandonment, Jesus presents another way.

On Monday night, Areeta introduced for us an ancient Christian theme, kenosis, that is, self-emptying. If one response to our responsibility toward our neighbor is that of self-care or self-preservation, Jesus offers us another response, that of self-emptying, the giving up and giving over of one’s self for another. 

In terms of fundamental theology, this is among the classic teachings on Christ.  From the incarnation on, we are witness to one who is perpetually emptying himself for love of another.  The same self-emptying that enables to Word to become flesh, is at work throughout Jesus’ life, and in no greater way than in the story of the Last Supper which we have just heard, and in the Crucifixion which shall hear tomorrow. 

Here at this table, the world is turned upside down.  At first, the natural human instinct for pride and vanity is overturned as the teacher takes on the role of the slave.  As Jesus wraps the towel around his waist, even more as he humbly pours water upon the foot of each disciple, he invites them to relate to one another and to their neighbor in an entirely new way.  In stark contrast to James and John who sought greatness among even the disciples, Jesus empties himself of all pride in service and care to them; he who was first among them, becomes the least in love for them.  This is Jesus’ way.

But he doesn’t stop there. It would be one thing if Jesus stopped at the loving of his friends in that upper room – as he says elsewhere, do not the tax collectors do that?  And so his self-emptying continues, he shows us that the way of kenosis, the way self-emptying is not merely for ones friends, but even for one’s enemies. 

Now, it will take us no time or effort to see this modeled upon the cross as he proclaims, “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.”  We likely know it, too, see such a giving up of one’s self in the garden as he heals a soldier who has come to arrest him, and commands his disciples to put up their swords.

But we are wise to see it tonight as well, for in many ways the choices that follow over the coming hours begin around the table tonight.  Aware that his betrayal is near at hand, and his betrayer even closer, Jesus takes up his final and greatest act among his disciples.  Knowing of Judas’ impending treachery, Jesus feeds him.  He does not offer Judas up to his brothers, he does not have him forcibly bound by Peter and the others who are more than willing to brandish their swords and rain down fire from heaven.  That is not Jesus’ way; it is not the way of kenosis.  In this moment of ultimate human choice – faced with a choice between himself and his neighbor, his enemy even, Jesus chooses Judas.  He chooses Judas, even at the great expense of his life and his ministry. 

And this is what we celebrate and receive at this Table.  As we gather with one another, disciples young and old, we are reminded in this Holy Meal that Jesus is ever pouring himself out, emptying himself for, you and me and the world.  Kenosis, self-emptying, is and always has been, and ever shall be, the way of Jesus.

This, of course, Jesus promises is the way to life.  Only through such kenosis, only through the emptying of ourselves, can we free ourselves from all that binds us; and only through the giving up of ourselves for our neighbor, can we truly change the world around us.

Friends, this is the path that we are invited to follow today and this week, and every week and every day as disciples of Jesus.  Each and every day, be it at home with a partner or loved one, or at work with a co-worker or customer or client, or in the many pathways of our lives with friends who delight us and strangers who trouble or threaten us, we must ask, what is my responsibility to my neighbor?

At times of course, we will answer in a most human of ways as we choose self-preservation and care.  Don’t fret, too much, Blessed Peter did the same.

At other times, however, we will make another, equally human choice, as we give ourselves up for our neighbor.  The real work of discipleship is to take up our responsibility, to fulfill our human potential and to make the way of Jesus the common way of our life.  That is our responsibility as we mature as followers of Christ.

But let me close with the great promise:  in those miraculous places of humility and sacrifice, we will find ourselves in the glorious company of Christ, who gave himself up for our sake and for the sake of the whole world.