Maundy Thursday Talks 2019

Part 1: “Not so with you” (Luke 22:14-33)

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.”

“Not so with you”

What a topsy-turvy few verses these are. We are presented with the Passover, the great celebration of Jewish freedom, with its implied promise of the restoration of God’s kingdom, before being plunged into two agonised discussions about betrayal sandwiching a bragging contest about who will be the greatest in the kingdom.
It’s all very human. I know myself how easily I swing from triumph to disaster: “I’m brilliant! I’m useless! Everything’s wonderful! It’s all going wrong!” I vacillate between extremes and the gap between them can be a single day, or even just a few moments.

But there is perhaps more consistency of motive here that first appears. What links the wild swing between honour and betrayal is personal ambition: the desire to be the greatest. Whether it be the ambition of Judas to be the agent responsible for bringing in the kingdom, of the others who want to be top of the pile once Jesus is king, or of Peter to be the only one who really gets Jesus, to be his closest and best friend, his most dependable General, each is driven by personal ambition.

It is a powerful driver. I have felt its tug all my life. In my former career I had to be the hardest working, the highest earner for my firm, the one with the most spectacular case results. It became so all-consuming that I lost sight of why I was doing it or why I wanted it. For me, part of the call into Christian ministry was a call to lay that ambition aside, to allow all that I had worked for to fall away and see what happened if I lived only for Christ.

Of course, the instinct doesn’t stop – I still wrestle with it, but at least working for God’s kingdom, with a rather different reward system, has given me a greater awareness of myself and the motives that govern my will. At heart, it is a desire to be loved, to be valued, and to feel that my life is worth something. And that is a basic human need, but it’s important to look for it in the right places.

The world holds out many opportunities for honour and glory. You can be distinguished in your profession. You can be distinguished in your community. You can be a great sportsperson or a celebrity, admired by everyone. There are many ways that seem to offer us honour and respect, attention and admiration. But in the end they deceive. At best they fix one bit of our lives, but leave a mess in the rest of it. At worst, they don’t actually fix anything: just leave us with an impossible target that we never can reach, never feeling the love and acceptance we crave.

And from a global perspective, personal ambition can have no place in God’s kingdom. It simply sets us against one another, competing for personal advancement at the expense of others. “But not so with you.”
Seeking love, attention and value from worldly status only makes us vacillate between a self-image that is by turns delusional self-praising and devastatingly self-loathing. And ultimately it drives us to become either a traitor or a braggart.

“Not so with you”, says Jesus. “Rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.”

To be in Jesus’ kingdom at all requires us to lay aside personal ambition, to stop the anxious quest to be well thought-of by the world, to stop trying to be respected or admired and to allow ourselves to be deeply loved for who we are. That is what lies at the heart of Holy Communion: the Lord utterly giving himself to us. Each time we receive it, it reminds us that we are deeply valued, without having to prove it. We are so valuable that God himself gave his life for us – and to us. “This is my body (me), given for you”. Each time, it feeds us with his love until we are what we eat. He loves us! Let that be enough.

The rest of the world can chase after its idols and discover how thin and threadbare is the glory this world has to offer. “Not so with you.” Your value will not be earned at the expense of one another. It will not be earned by deluding yourselves that you are better than others, or that you matter because you briefly earn the faint praise of others who are not competent to be your judge. Your value is that you were created magnificently by God, that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. We cannot be the person God made us to be by seeking love, attention and value from worldly status. We can only be the person God made us to be by recognising that we are made in God’s image. We discover who we were created to be by knowing the God in whose image we were made and becoming like him. His love is expressed in service and in complete self-giving. It is a love unknown to the world, but it is the only love that can truly give us the value we crave.

God loves you so much that he was willing to give his own life for you. No creature can be valued more than this. And we can inhabit the love we crave by serving others, so that they can know their true value also.
You will be the greatest in the kingdom, if you can let it go all cravings for worldly affirmation, if you can become like a little child, delighting in the simple beauty of our Father’s love and willing to serve, just as our Lord is among us as one who serves.

Hymn: Glorious things of thee are spoken

Part 2: “I do not know him” (Luke 22v54-62)

Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

“I do not know him.”

In these five words, Peter commits an utter betrayal of Jesus. He betrays the cause to which he had committed his life; he betrays his vocation as the Rock on which Jesus would build his church; he betrays his family; and it is also a deeply personal betrayal. He betrays his own identity as Peter, the Rock, the one whose highest ambition was to be Jesus’ most dependable friend. And he betrays Jesus as a person – “I do not know him.”

When we think of the Disciple who betrayed Jesus, we think of Judas. But right now, Peter thinks it is himself. “See, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on this table,” Jesus had said at the Last Supper. No-one knew to whom that referred, but Peter was already clearly anxious that it might be him. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Peter protests.

But now he has become the very person he most dreaded – the betrayer. It is a betrayal every bit as bad as Judas’s. And in the Gospels, the only difference between Judas’ fate and Peter’s seems to be that Peter hung around long enough to be forgiven, whereas Judas did not. The difference does not lie in the scale of the sin, but in the willingness to accept forgiveness.

The simple fact is that we all betray Jesus. And no-one’s betrayal is more or less serious than anyone else’s.
Two years ago, I stood in the recently excavated courtyard of the High Priest’s house and looked down the hole in the centre into its only prison cell, the place where Jesus spent his last night on earth. I stood where Peter had stood and realised just how easily Jesus would have heard, in his cell below, everything that Peter said. We might think that betraying Jesus is an easy option, that we can cover over our allegiance to him, deny our identity as his followers, but every betrayal is conducted in the full presence of Jesus.

I stood where Peter had stood and I remembered my own betrayal of Jesus. Many times I have betrayed him, but on one occasion in particular, I had betrayed the cause to which I had committed my life; my vocation; my family; and my own identity. And I now saw how I had done it in the full presence of Jesus. And like Peter, I ran away and wept bitterly.

I don’t know if I ever wept more deeply or with more profound regret. I found myself in the chapel above the excavations and there I looked up in tear-stained agony and there, in the centre of its vast dome was a picture of Jesus holding out his arms and smiling. His gesture seemed to say:
“It’s okay. Don’t you see? You must all become deserters. It was never dependent on you getting it right in the first place. It’s not you who solves it all. It’s all me. And I have done everything necessary. That’s what it’s all about. It’s okay.”

You see, we can only be saved when we realise that we are all deserters, that only Jesus saves. And it is only those who recognise the depth of their betrayal who are fit to minister in his name, because we do not stand on our own righteousness, on our own faithfulness. In the end we can’t resist the temptation to say “I do not know him.” But fortunately, he knows us better than we know ourselves. “He knows of what we are made”. We protested that we would go to prison and death for him, because we couldn’t face the truth about ourselves. But Jesus could – he always could. Our betrayal was always conducted in his presence. And yes, it hurt. But he always remembered of what we were made. He never expected it to be otherwise and never stopped loving us. And this whole business, from his birth in the stable, his incarnation into suffering humanity, through to his suffering and death on the Cross, was all about this. We were always going to betray him. And we were always going to be loved, forgiven, restored and sent out to assure everyone else who is as lost as we were – anyone who might still be anxiously telling the world “I do not know him!” Ah, but he knows us, all right!

Hymn: O Jesus, I have promised.