To the Cross:
The Last Hours of Jesus and Why They Matter
Join us for our Lenten Thursdays on March 14, 21, 28 , April 4, and 11 as we share a time of food, fellowship, learning, and worship. This year we’ll be traveling through the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ final hours with his disciples, his arrest, his trial, and his crucifixion. We’ll explore the details of the story that is central to our faith, knowing that the resurrection of Easter holds deeper meaning when we truly understand what came before the empty tomb.
6:00 Supper with Soup and Bread
6:30 An Intergenerational Activity
7:00 Worship with a dramatic reading from the Gospel of Luke
Bring your questions. Bring your prayers. Bring a friend.
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Luke 6:35
Two drivers – one man, one woman – are in a hospital parking garage. They’re both going for the same parking space, but the woman manages to whip into it first, ignoring the turn signal that the guy has had on before she got there. They exchange some heated words there in the parking garage. She insists that the space is hers. He questions her moral character. She calls him a jerk. It gets pretty ugly.[i]
What neither of them stops to consider is why they’re both at the hospital. The woman – Patricia – is there because her daughter is having surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. The man – Gary – is there because his girlfriend is also having major surgery. They’re both terrified of losing someone they love, and so neither of them is behaving well.
And of course, because this is actually a TV show, they discover that they love the same person. Patricia’s daughter Maggie is also Gary’s girlfriend. So now they find themselves in the same waiting room, holding on to their resentments from the parking garage when what they really need to do is focus on Maggie.
So much of our lives is built on the expectation of reciprocity. I help you now so that you might help me later. You scratch my back; I scratch yours. Give and take. Favors are exchanged back and forth. Transactions, both emotional and practical, form the foundation of many of our relationships.
As the scene with Gary and Patricia reminded me, our hostilities are also built on the principle of reciprocity. You hurt my feelings, so I try to hurt yours. You have done harm to me, so I look for a chance to retaliate. Soon we find ourselves separated by a series of small antagonisms that make reconciliation seem impossible. And yet Gary and Patricia also remind me that we seldom know the full story of what people are going through. So often our resentments and retaliations are driven by something else – fear, insecurity, grief. Most of us are doing the best we can to get through the day; we just don’t always behave in the best way.
Into our hatreds and resentments intrudes today’s gospel, in which we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies. Right, Jesus. I’ll work on that right after I return from my trip to Mars and win my gold medal at the Olympics. At least those things seem possible.
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. It’s a tall order. It means first admitting that we have enemies. Call them what you will – enemies, rivals, antagonists, nemeses. We all have people in our lives who bring out the worst in us. It’s hard enough to summon the restraint not to engage in conflict with those people, and now Jesus is asking us to love them, do good to them, bless them?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem to care how we feel about the enemy. You can see it in this passage. Jesus doesn’t talk about our emotional response. He instead identifies some concrete actions. He tells us to pray for our enemies. Give them what they need – a shirt, a coat, money. In other words, we are to act generously toward our antagonists in spite of how we might feel about them.
Let me be clear about what Jesus does not mean. He does not intend for us to remain in abusive relationships. Turning the other cheek should not relegate us to perpetual victimhood. This text has often been misused to pressure people to stay in relationships that do not reflect God’s intentions of mutual love and support. Following Jesus’ directives here do not keep us from holding someone accountable for harmful behavior. What it does keep us from doing is poisoning ourselves with long-held resentments toward those who have harmed us.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave many powerful sermons during his life as a preacher and civil rights leader. One of his most compelling sermons is about Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies. In that sermon he offers three reasons we should love our enemies.[ii]
The first is this, in his words: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
We’ve all seen that reality unfold – in our lives and in our world.
The second reason Dr. King says we must love our enemies is that “hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.” He acknowledges the terrible harm done to those on the receiving end of oppression and hatred, citing as examples the Holocaust, the violence inflicted on African-American citizens in this country, and the horrors of war. But Dr. King reminds us that hate also harms the person who hates: “Like an unchecked cancer,” he says, “hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.” He observes that “modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality, and love in an amazing and inexorable way unites it.”
Dr. King adds still a third reason: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
The transformative power of love. It all comes back to that overwhelming force – a love that we have because God first loved us. Thankfully God does not operate with a sense of reciprocity. Because if God were to treat us as we deserve, we’d be in some trouble. God instead extends mercy to us far beyond our deserving.
Why does God treat us so generously? God desires our freedom. Freedom from the back and forth, freedom from the accumulation of grievances that harm both ourselves and others, freedom from retaliations and recriminations that erode relationships and our very souls. God wants us to be free from all of it – to live as people who don’t have to have the last word because we have what is first and foremost: an unfailing love.
The poet John O’Donohue has written a poem titled “For Lost Friends” in which he reflects on close relationships that have ruptured and are no longer the same.[iii] The final stanza of the poem is a prayer that fits any broken relationship. As I read it, I encourage you to think of someone with whom you have a difficult relationship. May God give us the courage to live this prayer:
Though a door may have closed,
Closed between us,
May we be able to view
Our lost friends with eyes
Wise with calming grace;
Forgive them the damage
We were left to inherit;
Free ourselves from the chains
Of forlorn resentment;
Bring warmth again to
Where the heart has frozen
In order that beyond the walls
Of our cherished hurt
And chosen distance
We may be able to
Celebrate the gifts they brought,
Learn and grow from the pain,
And prosper into difference,
Wishing them the peace
Where spirit can summon
Beauty from wounded space.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:1-11
I’d like for you to think about a time when you took a big risk. Jumped off a diving board for the first time. Tried out for a team. Asked someone out. Moved to an unfamiliar place. Started a new job. Trusted someone with a secret you’d been holding close.
I can think of many risks that I’ve taken in my own life, and every single time I was scared. It’s not that I didn’t trust God. It’s just that I would have preferred to know the outcome ahead of time. I’d like to assess at the outset whether something will work out successfully. I’ve often longed for some version of a crystal ball so that I could know how things would unfold after the big leap.
But that’s not how it works. We can’t know where those leaps will land us. Maybe that’s for the best – because knowing what the future will bring might keep us from doing the very things through which God helps us grow. In reality, if we never took risks, our lives would be much smaller. We’d never make friends. We’d never travel or move to a different place or change jobs. We’d never fall in love or have children. We’d never try anything new.
One of the riskiest things we can do is to listen for God’s voice in our lives and try to follow where it leads. In church we often talk about that in terms of vocation – or calling. What does God call us to do? That might sound like a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo, but what it really means is that we believe God can work through the roles we inhabit in daily life to make the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place. Our commitments as parents, as siblings, as children, as friends, as colleagues, as supervisors, as citizens, as volunteers – all of those roles can be lived out in a way that embodies our commitments as people of faith.
But it’s risky. Relationships of any kind can be messy. They take work. It would be more comfortable to hold back, to play it safe.
In today’s readings we have several examples of people responding to God’s call in their lives. Isaiah’s call story in the First Reading has all the elements of a dramatic movie scene. There are angels with six wings and a smoke-filled room and a voice out of nowhere. Notice that Isaiah initially responds by claiming he is unworthy: “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says. But when he realizes that God has removed his guilt, Isaiah has a different response. When God asks, “Whom shall I send?” the answer is there: “Here am I. Send me.”
Here am I. Send me. Isaiah has no idea how the rest of his life will unfold if he says yes, but he says yes anyway. And believe me, his life turns out to be a bit crazy at times. Being a prophet is not easy work.
And then there’s Simon Peter in today’s gospel. After a long and weary night of fishing without success, Jesus tells Peter to go out to the deep water and try again. Peter’s first response sounds like what any of us would say when are tired down to our bones: “Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing.” Why do you want me to do this thing that sounds foolish and unproductive, Jesus? I am exhausted. I not doing the job I already have very well, and you want me to do something more?
But Peter gives it a try. Without knowing what will happen – and probably feeling a little grumpy, maybe even a tad resentful about it – Peter goes out to the deeper waters. He and his comrades haul in so many fish that their nets start falling apart.
The risk pays off. But still Peter tries another excuse to keep Jesus at arm’s length: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” I’m not really worthy of doing this thing you want me to do. There’s probably someone with a better track record to do whatever it is you have in mind. Pick somebody else, Jesus. By now Peter is starting to see what Jesus makes possible, and it must have been both thrilling and terrifying.
This strange fishing expedition is just the beginning. Jesus asks Simon Peter, James, and John to come with him, to follow him into the deep waters of a life of discipleship. To leave behind the familiar and try something unimaginable.
They do it. They leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Just like that.
I don’t know what the deep waters are for you right now. Maybe there’s something your family is trying to figure out. Maybe you’re contemplating a change of some kind. Maybe there’s a difficult conversation that you’ve been avoiding. Maybe you or someone dear to you is facing some scary medical decisions. You know what those deep waters are in your life, even if you don’t know what will happen when you venture there. You can’t know. None of us can. We know only that God is with us.
In the midst of our uncertainty, it can feel risky to live and speak and act as followers of Jesus. We worry about getting labeled as a “Jesus freak.” We worry about how people will look at us if they know we are one of those churchgoing Christians. So we can be full of excuses to keep our spiritual life undercover. I’m not worthy, we whisper. Choose someone else. I’m just too tired.
A writer named Debie Thomas has this to say about following Jesus:
We don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our backgrounds, our educations, and our skills, and that [God] will bless and multiply the daily stuff of our lives for [God’s] purposes.[i]
I know that God prizes the gifts and talents and backgrounds and heart and experiences that each of you brings to the needs of the world. I have seen it again and again. What I hope and pray is that you will trust those gifts that you have – trust them so much that you’re willing to climb back into the boat and head out for deeper waters – even when it feels risky.
One of my favorite prayers is sometimes called the Prayer of Good Courage. It’s in our cranberry-colored hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship as part of a service called Evening Prayer. I invite you in this moment to breathe deeply and pray with me:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.[ii] Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ