April 9, 2020

The Defects of Jesus, VII: The Company He Keeps

Passage: Maundy Thursday

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For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  —Hebrews 4:15

Rather than reading the seven Gospel lessons, Drs. Evertsberg and Forrest will provide brief synopses of the various stages of Jesus’ passion, from Garden to Cross and Death.

The Shadow of BetrayalLuke 22:39, 47–53
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”

The Shadow of Denial Luke22:5462
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

The Shadow of Unjust AccusationLuke 23:13–25
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.”But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

The Shadow of the Via Dolorosa—Luke 23:26–31
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

The Shadow of Mockery—Luke 23:32–38
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

The Shadow of the Cross—Luke 23:39–43
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Shadow of Death—Luke 23:44–49
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.


So we’ve just commemorated an abbreviated service of Tenebrae, which is a Latin word meaning “darkness.” The candles we extinguish represent the shadows that encroach upon the life of Our Lord during the last two days of his short life.

Every Maundy Thursday we try to live into the darkness of Jesus’s suffering, this stygian darkness is so thick and heavy you can almost feel it, like when they turn the lights out in Mammoth Cave.

I love James Weldon Johnson’s description of the primordial darkness of the universe before God created the first light: “Darkness covered everything, blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.”

It doesn’t take much effort to share Jesus’ shadows in the middle of our own tenebrous times. Perhaps it’s scant comfort, but we should remember this Holy Week, that whatever terrible traumas and troubling anxieties we are experiencing worldwide just now, the Son of God has been there before us, and with much worse. “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses.”

But what’s so disheartening about the Passion story is how many of the shades engulfing Jesus are cast by his best friends. We can understand Pilate’s kangaroo court and Herod’s contempt and Caiaphas’s hostility and the Roman soldier’s cruel malice and the thief’s bitter mockery.

But even those who love him best are just gone. His three best friends fall asleep on him at his hour of greatest despair; Judas betrays him for 30 pieces of silver, worth about $6,000, the price of a ten-year-old Jeep; Peter denies him three times and then goes out to weep bitterly when the cock crows. And then all of them flee in terror at the end, leaving him to die alone, except for a handful of women who are brave enough to watch from a distance.

Among the Defects of Jesus is surely the company he keeps, right? To put it a different way, he appears to have been a terrible judge of character. Someone once conjured up what it would look like if Jesus were hiring new staff for a start-up and presented these candidates to his investors.

After meeting the disciples, the investors call Jesus into the office. “Jesus,” they say, “most of your candidates lack the background, education, and aptitude for the enterprise you are starting. Simon Peter is unstable and has a terrible temper. The two brothers James and John put personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas is a negative person and has a skeptical attitude that will undermine morale. We did a background check on Matthew and find that his neighbors can’t stand the sight of him because he’s a quisling for Rome. Only one of your candidates shows great potential. He’s smart, able, resourceful, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend that you make Judas Iscariot your CFO.”

Over the course of this sermon series, we’ve been telling you that the idea of Jesus’ Defects comes from Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent 13 years in a Vietnamese concentration camp.

Obviously, those were terrible years for the then Archbishop. But he and his fellow prisoners continued to observe their precious Catholic faith.

They fashioned a crucifix from a scrap of wood and a piece of wire. Someone snuck a Bible into the prison, and since it was contraband, they ripped it apart and distributed the pages around to all the Catholic prisoners.

When guards were near, they buried the pages in the sand floor. When guards were distant, they committed those pages to memory. During the night, each prisoner would recite his own pages aloud, so that over time, they made their way through a sizable portion of the entire Bible.[1]

Pleading a stomach ailment, the archbishop got his guards to sneak him a single bottle of wine for, he said, medicinal purposes.  Every afternoon at 3:00, the hour Jesus died, he celebrated his own private Eucharist with 3 drops of medicinal wine. How many drops of wine are there in a single bottle? Are there 14,220 drops in a bottle of wine?  Enough to last 4,740 days, 13 years?  I don’t know.   “Those were the most beautiful masses of my life,” he says.[2]

So if our celebration of the Eucharist this evening feels a little pale and hollow because we cannot be together, just remember the Archbishop and his three drops of medicinal wine. It might be the most meaningful Eucharist of your life.

And oh, by the way, back to those failures Jesus called friends. It turns out that Jesus wasn’t such a bad judge of character after all. Those 11 guys who fled in terror at the end and left him to die alone? They came back. With a vengeance. Fifty days later, the Holy Spirit set their courage on fire and they spread out across the Roman Empire, eventually bringing the Good News of our Glad God to every distant, obscure corner of the known world, from Spain to India. Two billion Christians today.

In our Bible study of Jesus’ last week this morning, we sort of decided by consensus that the Gospel portraits of Jesus’ disciples didn’t discourage us. They made us more hopeful. They energized us. Because it means if God can use the likes of them, God can use us as well.

Martin Luther said, “God carves the rotten wood and rides the lame horse.”[3] If God can use the rotten wood and lame horses of mediocre, average, ordinary, very human blokes like them, well, maybe God can use the likes of us. God can use anyone to accomplish God’s purpose, even Peter, James, John, Thomas, and Matthew. Even you and me.

Cardinal Văn Thuận said:

Why does Jesus have these defects.  Because Jesus is love.... From the home of the great Trinity he brought us infinite love, a love that reaches to the point of folly.... I hope that, at the end of my life, the Lord will receive me as he received Matthew the tax collector. I will sing of his mercy for all eternity.... I will be happy to see Jesus with all his ‘defects,’ which are, thanks be to God, incorrigible.[4]

[1]Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, Testimony of Hope, trans. Julia Mary Darrenkamp and Anne Eileen Heffernan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p. 65.

[2]Văn Thuận, p. 131.

[3]Quoted by Martin Marty in Varieties of Unbelief (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1964), p. 222.

[4]Văn Thuận, p. 18.