Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Cup of Freedom, the Servant God

Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday: Psalm 116:1, 10-17; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I raise the cup of freedom as I call on God’s Name. ICEL Translation, Psalm 116:11

I love the translation we just used for the psalm this evening. “Cup of salvation” in the Prayer Book translation becomes (quite legitimately from the Hebrew), “cup of freedom.” Tonight I want to reflect on this freedom cup we raise.

Freedom is always freedom from something. From what are we celebrating our freedom from this evening?

First of all one must say that it may seem a bit premature to be talking about our freedom this evening. We are only beginning these three days of celebrating what we call the paschal mystery, the dying and rising of Christ. In many ways tonight is just a preliminary to the dominant events of Friday and Sunday.

Yet not for us. For us in the sacramental tradition, who live our lives from week to week, from Eucharist to Eucharist, this night has a depth of importance and richness that rivals even Easter. This is the night we were given this greatest of gifts that sustains our faith and our life.

This is the night when we are given the lens to interpret Friday and Sunday and then to live Friday and Sunday out from day to day and week to week.

What this lens of the Eucharist tells us is that Friday and Sunday are about our freedom, acts to achieve the freedom of the people of God, the freedom of you and of me.

Yet again, freedom from what? I think the best way to explain that is through another powerful image we are given this evening, that of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

It was an act that was unexpected and disarming, if not a little shocking or even offensive, especially to Peter. Is this an appropriate way to act for the one who John begins his Gospel calling, “the Word made flesh.” Clearly Peter doesn’t think so.

Jesus, however, wants to leave his disciples with a contrary image to that which he knows they believe about God, that God requires them to be his servants. It is not a wrong thing to think, but for Jesus it is more important for them to understand deep within their souls this contrary notion he brings before them.

God wishes to serve them. God exists to serve them.

It still flies in the face of everything most of us believe about God. God is the one we worship and seek to obey. God is worthy to be praised and adored. Yet here the praiseworthy one takes the role of a servant and, literally, gets his hands dirty. The God of Jesus is the Servant God. The Word made flesh came not to be served but to serve, to live among us as servant and friend.

What do we celebrate our freedom from tonight? It is that predominant image we have of God as the one who requires our service, who seeks to rule over us and exact our obedience. Jesus gives us freedom from that God and offers us the freedom of the God of love and companionship and servanthood.

That means, of course, that we are to love and serve one another. Jesus makes that clear and gives his “new commandment:” “love one another.” But it is love “as I have loved you.” God’s love comes first. Elsewhere in this Gospel Jesus will say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”

Jesus believes, you see, that we can only adequately, honestly and even divinely serve one another if we first experience the God who serves us. God’s service, God’s love, our freedom, comes first. It is not a consequence of what we do. “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)

This notion of God is utterly consistent with the events that we will celebrate tomorrow and Saturday evening and Sunday. The God who is willing to die for us is the Servant God. The God who is raised from the dead and forgives those who betrayed and abandoned him is the Servant God.

For tonight let us savor this amazing image and let it overcome all our resistance and sink deep into our souls. Let us lift up and drink from the cup of our freedom, the cup that is the gift of our amazing servant God.

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