Psalm 22:7-8 (NLT)
7 Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
8 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”
“He trusted in God that He would deliver him: let Him deliver him, if He delight in him.”
(From Handel’s Messiah, Part the Second)
I don’t like it when God calls me to difficult things.
When Jesus says “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” I want to say “yes, but what exactly will this entail?”
This week we are confronted what exactly taking up our crosses may entail as we look at the last days of Jesus’ life on earth. Today is Maundy Thursday, the night of that famous Last Supper and Jesus’ betrayal, denial, and abandonment. It is a night in which the Messiah put on a towel and washed his disciples’ feet and served them a feast before bearing our sins, sicknesses, and sufferings and storming the gates of hell.
It is also a night when Jesus acknowledged that he didn’t necessarily like it either when God called him to difficult things. Matthew records Jesus praying three times in Gethsemane, wrestling with God over “the cup” he would have to drink.
Earlier that night, Jesus took a different cup, one of the cups that was consumed during the Passover meal and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples saying “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” It followed on the heels of Jesus offering the unleavened bread (and therefore, sinless because leaven was a symbol for sin) as his body. Jesus was about to go to his death and right before it he offers a feast. A feast that would cost him everything.
We know from history and the biblical record, that Jesus did take the cup. The King of the Universe (as that is part of the Hebrew blessing* said during meals and feasts), who created the fruit of the vine, drank the fruit of our sin and the evil of this world. And it wasn’t just a nightmare of physical pain and agony. It was frustration, humiliation, and alienation. The Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes “God suffers more in love than you do, suffers all the heartache of being misunderstood–but God is not changed.” On the cross, God in Christ allows Godself to be misunderstood. “He trusted in God that he would deliver him. Let him deliver him, if he delight in him.”
The mockers in Psalm 22 make a fair point. One that, if we’re honest, many Christians also raise. We trust in God. We delight in him. We believe God delights in us. So why do we suffer? Why will God not show all that Divine might and power to conquer whatever it is that’s opposing, oppressing, distressing us? Why does God’s calling often feel like a curse? Why does God’s deliverance look so much like failure?
Maundy Thursday is the point at which we see who God is and who we woefully, are not (unless God helps us). Looking out at the crowd, God sees our lust for power, beauty, pride, accolades, success, and maybe most dangerous of all, our comfort. Looking up at that cross we see all that we despise: death, weakness, nakedness/vulnerability, humiliation, ugliness, failure, and pain.
Yet that cross was Jesus’ moment of glory. Instead of being hoisted up on the shoulders of his followers and admirers as they continued to sing “Hosanna,” (or “We are saved!”) not really knowing what kind of salvation they were proclaiming, he was lifted up on a cross, to die in humiliation. Somehow, through the cross we see a strange beauty–the King of the Universe giving up all the power, beauty, reasons to be proud, accolades, success, and comfort for us. Somehow through this means of torture and scandal we find our greatest hopes and peace–reconciliation with God. As Paul admonishes the Corinthian church in his second letter, we should no longer regard even Christ from a worldly point of view.
In other words, don’t let your cross cause you to misunderstand who God really is. Or who you really are.
The people shouting “We are saved!” only a few days before were looking to Jesus to be a political leader, the long-awaited Messiah who would overthrow their oppressors. And if the story is to be believed, the oppressive powers of death, hell, evil, and sin were in fact, disarmed on the cross. Did it change the political, earth-bound circumstances of the crowd? No. But that act, that death on the cross enables every person who believes to live a life of love and freedom no matter the circumstances.**
In Luke’s account of that famous prayer in the garden, after Jesus’ first prayer to have the cup taken, an angel is sent to strengthen him. His disciples are asleep and can’t offer comfort or their own prayers. Though Jesus laments his forsakenness on the cross, we see that comfort and strength is still given. He is strengthened to continue to live a life of love and freedom no matter what it costs him.
It’s fitting that Jesus offers a cup to his disciples–in whom he delighted–before drinking his own. We are invited to delight in the cup he offers, and to feast richly on the bread that’s broken, because it is his blood and body. Through these gifts of God we find the strength to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We know that the one who offers it knows only so well how much grace and strength we need.
*For example, the blessing over wine reads “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” (The Seif Edition, Artscroll Transliterated Linear Siddur)
**This does NOT mean that if you are being exploited, manipulated, in physical danger or harm, or being abused that you should continue to submit to it out of a sense of Christian duty.
Ponder: Is God offering you a cup you don’t want to drink? Do you believe that if God called you to take that cup that God would also provide the grace and strength to endure?
Listen: This is the entire second Part of Handel’s Messiah, focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection.
Pray: This is a sonnet by Malcolm Guite, a poet-priest and the Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge.
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element,
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,
The fire dances where the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch.
And here he shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night,
He meets us here and loves us into light.