Sunday, April 09, 2017

Passion Sunday 2017 - Famous Last Words

Isaiah 50:4-9
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-35

“Even though I must die with You, I will not deny You.”  St. Peter, Matthew 26:35

If ever there were “famous last words” spoken by any person, these would be those words.  These are the same words so many of us speak, so sure are we of our faith in Messiah even though we have never really been tested; questioned maybe, but not tested. 

And while we may certainly understand Peter’s intent and state of mind when he spoke these “famous last words”, we must surely also appreciate the wisdom (in hindsight, of course) of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 5:2-3; “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.  For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.   For the dream comes through much effort, and the voice of a fool through many words …”

I doubt any among us has a death wish.  I don’t have romantic notions of dying for my faith to prove my loyalty to The Lord.  What I pray I had, and what I pray for all of you to have, is an abiding appreciation for the very real power of Messiah’s words.  Peter didn’t - even though he had been following and watching and learning from Jesus for about three years.  Surely in that time Peter and the others had come to know Jesus did not speak hastily or thoughtlessly. 

Peter did speak hastily, though; and often so do we.  Peter meant well, and so do we.  We want Jesus to know we are with Him even to the bitter end should such an end come, but we must learn to have an appreciation of what following Jesus in discipleship really means beyond reciting a creed or attending worship; what it really means to us as individuals, and what it can or should mean to the greater Church and every individual congregation.

What is interesting about this discourse in Matthew’s Gospel, however, is not just the portrayal of the Last Supper nor even the establishment of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Rather it is the beginning of the discourse when Judas set out to betray and set up Jesus for arrest. 

There is, among the so-called Gnostic gospel accounts a “Gospel of Judas” in which Judas is presented not as a betrayer but as the dear and most trusted friend of Jesus who merely set things in motion as they were intended to go.  Jesus does say in Matthew’s Gospel that “the Son of Man goes as it is written of Him”, but our Lord also says “but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed” (Matthew 26:24).  It has been traditionally taught that Jesus was referring exclusively to Judas Iscariot, and by what is written there is no reason for us to believe otherwise.

However, preceding the discourse was the dispute over the jar of “costly ointment” in Matthew 26:7-13.  Recall that the woman (not named in Matthew’s Gospel) poured an entire jar of this expensive ointment over Jesus’ head, as Jesus taught, to “prepare [Him] for burial”.  It was an act of worship Jesus says we are compelled to remember.  Judas objected because the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. 

Remember Jesus’ admonishment, however.  “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me” (Matthew 26:11).  Meaning what?  That poverty is a fact of life?  Yes, but that reminder has nothing to do with the plight or the failure of the poor to make the most of every opportunity they may have.  Rather it may be better understood in the fullness of the context as an indictment of those who have resources to share but choose not to.

When we understand fully what is taking place here, that indictment cannot be restricted only to “the rich” because wealth as we may try to define it is subjective.  There is no magic dollar amount that defines “rich” nor is there a cut-off point at which it may be determined that we are protecting our assets OR betraying our Lord as surely as Judas did.

“Surely not I, Rabbi?”  These were Judas’ “famous last words”.  As they were all sitting around the table, Jesus had said, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me” (Matthew 26:23).  And while Jesus had said, “ONE of you will betray Me”, it may be safe to assume they had all dipped into the same bowl since they had all said, “Surely not I, Lord?”  “Famous last words” spoken by all the twelve at one point or another.

It falls on us all, then, to examine this entire chapter with a much closer look at what Jesus is talking about; for though Judas is specifically named as the one actively seeking to betray Jesus, they all (and perhaps we as well) are named when Jesus quotes from the prophet Zechariah (13:7), “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered”.    

As we prepare ourselves for the Journey that is Holy Week and we endure together Jesus’ final days on this earth, it is not for us to skip directly to Easter without first looking more seriously at ourselves and the often careless words we speak, the religious practices we share, or the excuses we allow ourselves to do neither.  We claim an allegiance to Messiah in these words and in these actions, but what about the rest of our time?  Are we truly walking with Jesus in faithful discipleship, or are we going our own way?  “Surely not I, Lord?”

It was our own Bishop Mueller who recently wrote, “We ask, “How could you allow this to happen, God?” God asks, “How come you did nothing about it?” We say, “Thank God we’re okay!” God says, “What about those who are crying because their loved ones aren’t?” We say, “Life is good because everything worked out the way I wanted today.” God says, “Call your neighbor down the street who had a horrible day.” We say, “Lord, I’m so blessed you love me unconditionally.” God says, “I long for you to love me with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” It’s interesting. So very interesting. It’s always a matter of perspective.”

Loving The Lord with all we have and with all we are is about much more than any single religious practice or single prayer of gratitude.  If we are spared calamity, are we “blessed” only for our own sakes or are we “equipped” to help others who were not so lucky?  Speaking a prayer of gratitude with no mind or thought toward others who have not escaped life’s harsh realities may be considered our own “famous last words” precisely because we lack a proper and much broader perspective; that the Word of God is not about “me” but about “we”.

Peter spoke his “famous last words” hastily and there can be no doubt he meant them when he spoke them, but I am not so sure Peter was as eager to protect Jesus as much as he was seeking to protect his friendship.  That is, Peter was speaking for and about Peter … not Jesus.  Because of this reality, Jesus had to remind Peter that when things get hard – and they will – Peter will again become much more concerned about Peter than about Jesus.  So goes the indictment against perhaps all of us to one extent or another – not because we are ungrateful but because we are not completely committed to Christ Jesus, not completely committed to The Word.

Lent and Holy Week are not designed strictly to make us feel or even share guilt, however.  Just as we cannot appreciate good without enduring evil, we cannot experience Life until we have endured at least a measure of death.  And none of it is because of the words we speak; it is entirely about what we choose to do in and for The Living Word which became flesh in Christ.

For the Word to endure, however, the flesh must be stripped away … in Messiah, in Peter, and in us all; for it is The Word itself in which we live fully, not our words.  Let it be so, Lord.  Amen.

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