Mary Shaply preached this at our Maundy Thursday service this year:
Maundy Thursday Sermon, April 5, 2007
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
After reading today’s passage I started off thinking about the people who Jesus hung around with while he was here on earth. You know, Jesus didn’t have a lot of stuff. Essentially, he was homeless. But what Jesus did have was a group of close friends. And I think we can learn a couple things from Jesus and his friends. First, we see the importance of community. And in that, we also see a redefining of who really belongs. Jesus didn’t hang around with the people in power. I think sometimes that North American Christians who are from a white, middle or upper class background are very eager to move from Jesus’ death to his resurrection, from Good Friday to Easter, thereby avoiding having to look at what it meant that Jesus suffered and died as a subversive who challenged the powers of his day.
But besides just the people that Jesus impacted while he was alive, one of the amazing things about Jesus is that his legacy continues to live on in communities today. Unfortunately, though, one of the things that we as Christians don’t really like to look at is how there have been people and communities that have committed real atrocities in the name of Christ. I was doing some research on group behavior for a social psychology class recently and I discovered that many of the hate groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center have the words, “church,” “Christian,” or “God” in their names.
And of course social psychology focuses a lot on how group processes influence us to do things that we would never do on our own. One of the most-researched topics in that field is how nice people get corrupted and what factors influence seemingly normal people to commit horrible atrocities. The seminal case study, if you will, in social psychology is the Holocaust. It’s really the classic example of how a most terrible evil evolves out of a series of smaller evils. Two researchers in the 1970s examined how German civil servants surprised Nazi leaders with their willingness to handle the paperwork of the Holocaust, since they were just pushing paper, not actually killing Jews themselves. Perhaps even more horrifying is the way in which the Christian church acquiesced so easily to the Nazi’s demands.
On the other hand, the Holocaust also showed us examples of humans at their very best, and in my research what I find so fascinating is the way in which the life of Jesus and the traditions of the Christian faith have inspired individuals and communities to greatness in ways that even they don’t always seem to fully understand. One of those people was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany and although he had lived and worked in both the United States and England during the early years of World War II, he felt called to return to Germany where he taught at an illegal seminary, and formed a community with his some of his colleagues, including Martin Niemoller and Karl Bart, that was known as the Confessing Church. Even though the Confessing Church was not a large group, it represented major opposition to the established powers of the day, which ended in many of its followers being imprisoned or killed. After spending years in a concentration camp, Bonhoeffer himself was executed on April 9th, 1945, just 3 weeks before that camp was liberated.
A lot of sermons or writings that mention Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero or other martyrs are often very quick to mention that not everyone is called to this type of radical discipleship. Especially for parish pastors, I think there’s a desire to placate your congregation because you’re not usually real popular if you suggest to people that God is calling them to some extreme form of service that might result in death. I once heard someone say that the problem with the modern day role of pastor is that it is a combination of several ancient roles, such as priest and prophet, and so you are supposed to both “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And so there’s a real temptation to reassure people that coming to church and giving to charity and being “good” people is all that God requires of us. The problem is, that is exactly what Bonhoeffer spoke against when he talked about the true cost of discipleship. Bonhoeffer is well known for his discussion of cheap grace and costly grace. He said, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Jesus knew about costly grace. It is what he extended to his disciples when he washed their feet. Jesus even washed the feet of the man who he knew would betray him.
Bonhoeffer, in commenting on the power of the incarnation, said, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross, He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. [The Bible] … makes quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. … The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”
In another passage, he said, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man—not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”
I don’t know about you all, but I don’t like to think of participating in the suffering of God. The disciples apparently weren’t too keen on the idea either, as we see in Peter’s response to Jesus washing his feet. I mean, I’d much rather share in the joy of the resurrection. But that is the very heart of the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. And we see that difference not only in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of so many others who came after him. They knew that true discipleship costs us something. It means that we are giving up our lives, if not literally, then metaphorically, something which seems especially important to reflect on today, as we not only look with hope to the resurrection, but we also pause to remember the hours leading up to the end of Jesus’ life here on earth.