Sometime in the past 100 years, as a church, we switched from a narrative that, in general terms, tended to emphasize rules, God the Father, punishment, and hell—from that to a narrative that emphasizes love, Jesus, forgiveness, and heaven. The first narrative had ceased to be believable to believers; while repelling non-believers. The second narrative is more attractive, open and welcoming. But it also suffers from a believability problem. Not so much that it seems antithetical to a God of love, but more that it seems detached — even for believers — from the reality of the world we live in, and the lives we lead.
We faithfully repeat that “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” And yet I’ll bet for many (including me) we’ll focus on “Jesus … save[s] us” rather than on “Jesus died … [for] our sins.” Yet, the evidence of our eyes shows us each day from every corner of the world so much about both death and suffering, as well as humanity’s (including my) sinfulness. So, the newer narrative, while an improvement on the old one, still seems detached from reality.
It need not be so. The humanity on display in the psalms plumbs the depths (literally in Psalm 130), and then soars to the heights. In the Hebrew Scriptures we see the terrible things humanity can do, but also the glory of God. Likewise in the Gospels — if we will only read them in their fullness.
Never more so than in Holy Week is humanity’s frailness and sinfulness in all its ghastliness more clearly on display. First, the actions of other groups of individuals — the machinations of the Temple authorities, the plotting of the hypocritical Pharisees, the fickleness of the crowd, the greed of the moneylenders in the Temple courts. But more than that–we also learn of the emotions experienced by the human being who was also God. For Jesus, there’s fear, there’s sorrow, there’s loneliness, there’s abandonment, there’s utter despair, and there is, of course, a violent, wracking death with real nails going through a real human body into a cross of wood. But almost the unkindest cut — the most egregious blow short of death itself — is the one we read about in today’s Gospel lesson: Betrayal. Betrayal by a friend and follower. Betrayal by someone he thought he could trust, by someone he loved.
The story of our God is of how he came down to earth to live as a human; to experience what it was like to be human. Particularly in Holy Week, Jesus experienced it all. How many of us have felt betrayed in our lives by friends, partners, or colleagues? Yet, how many of us have associated that with the experience of Jesus? But here it is in John 13.
The “happy” narrative of love, heaven, etc., detracts from the reality of Jesus’ actual life. To be sure, on Easter Day, the resurrection is the ultimate good news. But in our lives, today, before the ultimate promised perfection, we should draw consolation from the fact our God…that Jesus understands and feels the very worst we can go through. He waves no magic wand, does no miracles, does not immediately erase the pain. Instead, he shares it, understands it, begins to soothe it — because in Holy Week it was also his. As Jesus says in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He truly will — because he has been there.
That‘s a narrative that works, one that is believable — and that truly is Good News.
The Rev. William Morris, Assisting Priest for Engaging Local Communities
Links to the appointed readings and prayer for today: