XCovid-19: For our live-streamed Sunday services and information about Staying Connected when we are apart…Read more

Sermon Archives

Bread by Bread

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Mar 22

Text: Mark 14:26-42

In first-century Judaism, Passover was celebrated at the Jerusalem Temple. Thousands of people from the surrounding countryside, and across the empire, travelled up to the city for the celebration. And so it was that, on about the 14th day of Nisan, in about the year 33, Jesus and his followers made their way into Jerusalem. Next week—on Palm Sunday—we will tell the story of that day. Today we hear the story of Jesus and the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jerusalem was a fortified, walled city. Its footprint changed over the centuries as conquering armies swept through and new empires came to ascendancy. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Hasmoneans, Romans. As the city expanded to the north or the west, its walls were rebuilt to enclose and protect the city. There were gates on every side—as few as four or as many as eleven—depending on the year.

The ancient historian Josephus speaks of what travelers to Jerusalem would have witnessed on their approach to the city. They would have walked past the crucified bodies of those executed by Rome. Josephus writes that, at times, there might have been hundreds of crosses erected outside the walls of the city. A foreboding mark of Roman domination.

Jesus and his followers went into this Jerusalem—the Jerusalem of Roman occupation—and shared a Passover meal. The gospels tell us that after they had eaten, they sang a hymn. Maybe they sang words such as these from Psalm 118, one of the traditional readings for Passover:

Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
   the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
   What can mortals do to me?
The Lord is on my side to help me;
   I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
   than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
   than to put confidence in princes.

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. They might have gone out through the east gate and walked down—through the Kidron Valley, with its burial ground—and up again to the Mount of Olives. Here was the garden called Gethsemane, with its stand of olive trees.

Here in Gethsemane the story from this morning’s scripture unfolds. A painful story, filled with pathos. The disciples abandon Jesus—by sleeping when they should be awake, by intentional betrayal—in the case of Judas, and by desertion—in Peter’s case. Don’t we yearn for a better ending? We love Jesus and we wish he could be spared the agony of this desertion. We wish Peter could be spared the heart-break of his own failure. We wish that Peter could simply stay awake with Jesus, that he could be brave. We want Peter to be better than he is. We want to be better than we are. More faithful, courageous, bold.
It can be hard to see God’s grace in this story of desertion. We will return to this story and to God’s grace in a moment.

This Lent we have been pondering the question Jesus asked of Peter and the other disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” We’ve studied the historical, religious and theological context of first century Palestine. We’ve glimpsed Jesus’ humanity. Today we ask about Christ’s divinity. Christ’s divinity matters to us. Without it, Jesus might be just another good guy: a rabbi, a prophet, a healer and speaker of wisdom. But our tradition insists that he is more than this. The orthodox Christological doctrine puts it this way:

There is one person, Jesus Christ, but that person has two natures, human and divine. But what is divine nature?

Long ago—in the third century—Christians began to speak of Christ being of one substance (or essence) with God the Creator. A debate emerged at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the result was written into the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.

I suspect that it is not particularly helpful for us to think about God in terms of substance. (We, who think in terms of atoms and molecules—component parts.) I don’t mean to make fun of the Nicene Creed—not at all. I’m just not sure that speaking of God’s substance is the most salient issue, or that it adds to our understanding.

Are humanity and divinity two substances—like oil and water—so different that it’s hard to mix them? Is divinity is some sort of pure God concentrate that got poured into Jesus with unusual potency. Maybe we all have a bit of that divinity mixed into us. But Jesus has super-concentrated God-substance. (Thinking of Florida orange juice concentrate!)

Instead of thinking of God as a noun—made up of stuff—what if we think of God as a verb? And divinity a nature that expresses itself? What if we don’t need to sort it out philosophically, but rather to experience this verb—God’s action—at loose in the cosmos?

If we want a declaration of Christ’s divinity, we find it in the logos of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:1-4)

But might we find a little bit of transcendence in the gospel of Mark? I promised we would return to Gethsemane. So let’s do that now, in search of the God-verb in this story of bleak desertion. How is God expressed through Jesus in that garden of olive trees?

We hear pain in Jesus’ words, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” But Jesus isn’t outraged. He doesn’t even seem surprised. He doesn’t blame or shame Peter. In the gentleness of Jesus’ response, Jesus offers forgiveness. He holds up a mirror to Peter. As if to say, “Look brother—you are human and this is what humans do. I know what people are like. Get over yourself.”

As Jesus is holding up a mirror to Peter, he also shines a light on God—revealing the power of love. What could be more potent for Peter—in that moment—than to be reminded that he is beloved? A transcendent, saving moment in which Jesus—through his gentleness—reminds Peter that he is more than his failures.

In Gethsemane, Jesus is the God-verb: seeing Peter, loving Peter, forgiving Peter. Inviting—even insisting—that Peter carry on, despite his earth-shattering failure. This forgiveness ultimately empowers Peter and frees him from his own self-loathing.

In his book, Christ Actually, James Carroll writes,
Here is the surprise: the pit of moral failure into which Peter fell was not disqualifying. After his gross treason, Peter “went outside and wept bitterly,” because when Jesus looked at him, just as the cock crowed, Peter saw the ghost of their love—and felt the shock of his having betrayed it.

His having been more in need of forgiveness than anyone, and his having been nevertheless forgiven, was the source of his personal power. In his own being, Peter made the promise real. And look what happened then.

Peter… had learned from his encounter with Jesus…Unshakenness, gladness of heart, uncorrupted flesh, the permanent presence of the Lord—all of this, Peter declared on the authority of his own experience, was [offered] to anyone who would receive it.

Peter went on to preach and teach the good news of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s gospel even calls him the rock on which the church is founded.
What if the divinity that is in Jesus is not complex or remote, but rather, simple, ordinary and very present? Something we may touch and experience in the common events of everyday life? Again, I quote James Carroll: He writes,

The presence of God, therefore, lies with what is ordinary. Not in supernatural marvels. Not in a superhuman with whom we have nothing actual in common.”

[Jesus’] encounters with beloved friends, disciples, outcasts, antagonists, and Romans…are valued as occasions of his encounter with the Holy One—but they are typical encounters, not supernatural ones. Again and again he turned to God, and, as the tradition says, he turned into God—but that, too, occurred in the most ordinary of ways. Day by day. Act by act. Choice by choice. Word by word…bread by bread, cup by cup.

Jesus reveals that divinity abides not just in him, but in all of us.

Divinity abides in all of us, day by day and act by act. It shows up at the table, set for friends and strangers. In the NICU, through nurses and docs caring for babies. It is shows up at the bedside as we sit with an elderly or dying parent. (I’ve been at that bedside—have you?) It shows up it the smallest ways—in those little green sponges on a stick that bring moisture to the lips in the last days of life.

Divinity shows up in small acts of humanity and courage. Maybe you know the story of the villager of Le Chambon, a small rural town of farmers and shopkeepers in southern France. Le Chambon was a community 5,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) who, during the Holocaust, quietly harbored 5,000 Jews five thousand Jews from the Nazis. They quietly hid whole families in their homes—sometimes for as long as four years—providing ration cards, forged IDs and safe passage to Switzerland.

Why did the Christians of Le Chambon risk their own lives in this way? They claim no special valor. They say they were simply doing what they believed was right, what human dignity and worth and neighborliness demand.

Day by day, act by act, bread by bread, cup by cup. Amen.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...