“I will Go Ahead of You” (Matthew 26:30-36)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Thursday, April 21, 2011 – Maundy Thursday Worship
We have together taken the bread – the broken body of Christ, and cup – the shed blood of our Lord. This year on Maundy Thursday, I am profoundly conscious of how important this is for me. My sins are on my mind; not so much specifics sins as my failure to improve. I still commit sins I committed years ago. Too often, it feels like I am not getting better.
If you asked me, “Rob, are you a failure?” I would say, “No.” I don’t feel like a failure in general. But, thinking about the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s passion, his suffering and death, I am beset with how much I fall short of God’s glory. Toward my wife and my children, I feel a failure and that means I am a failure before God because God has entrusted their care to me. I do many good things in my roles as husband and father. I am not blind to the areas where I do well. But, I know I come down hard. I fail to show mercy. I fail to show patience. And I can be manipulative. As I think of the bread and cup, all this comes to mind.
I am not a perfect pastor, not by any means. And I am not referring to things I just don’t do well. I have weaknesses – everyone does. I don’t beat myself up over my weaknesses. But what I am thinking of here is the areas where I have some ability. I come up short there because I don’t work hard enough all the time. Sometimes I do. But sometimes, my effort is not what it could be. God has entrusted the leadership of this church to me. Does that mean there’s a ceiling on how great this church can be? In my moments of laziness, do I lower that ceiling, lessen what we can accomplish in our worship of God and our service and love of one another?
I think of the bread and the cup, the body and blood. Jesus died for the sins of the world. Jesus died for the sins of Rob. I don’t feel myself crushed every time we take communion as I have described tonight. I don’t always crumble under the burden of my own insufficiency. But this year, as we worship on Maundy Thursday, I think of Jesus’ suffering, I think of my mistakes, the thoughts coalesce and here I am: a failure, dining at the table of Jesus. I am here by his invitation, and oh what a price he has paid because of what I have done.
To come to the table in the mindset I have had and have just described is to miss the heart of Jesus’ words when he sat down with his disciples the night before he was crucified. He did not look at them and say, “I am doing this because you guys and every other human being are messed up.” He did not say that. He said, “Take, eat. This is my body.” In the Last Supper, Jesus did not blame, he gave. He did not pound the disciples with their sins, their faults. He invited them to be near to him.
What motivated Jesus as he gathered his friends in that intimate setting for the more personal of meals? What drove him as he willingly, knowingly, went into the hands of people who would beat him and then turn him over to Rome to be flogged, mocked, spit upon, and crucified? Why did Jesus go through this? Many here could answer this easily, but I need to press the question so that I can receive from God freedom from my own guilt. And I think many who have participated tonight also need that freedom. What I shared at the outcome – my own pressing sense of unworthiness – I think many feel that way at the communion table and not just there but every time the church gathers for worship. I think many stay away from church to avoid dealing with the oppressive sense of unworthiness.
Jesus did not drown his disciples in their failures. He said, “Here I am. Take. Eat.” He invited them into a new covenant. “Drink all of you,” He said. “I will drink it with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” Why?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
17(V) And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and(W) knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to(X) inherit eternal life?" 18And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments:(Y) 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" 20And he said to him, "Teacher,(Z) all these I have kept from my youth." 21And Jesus,(AA) looking at him,(AB) loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go,(AC) sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have(AD) treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Mark 10:17-21).
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Jesus hosted his friends at the table, and he invites us to His table out of love. Jesus went through the pain of the cross out of love. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves you. Confession has its place and confession involves painful honesty and true recognition of the sin that is in us. Confession is a part of our practice of the Lord’s Supper. But, Jesus loves us far too much to accept our debasement of ourselves. Jesus will not have us hate on ourselves the way I did at the outset. I spoke my honest feelings. Now, I need to fall into the love of Jesus, receive his forgiveness, rest in his embrace, and stand in his grace. We all need to do that.
What happens after the supper with the disciples, as we read it in Matthew, drives home the point. In our Holy Week worship and in our practice of faith throughout life, there is one driver that tells the story and it is not sin. Sin is in the story. My sins darken the pages of the story. Your sins and mine are black marks, insults to God, lashes on Christ’s bloodied back. But our sins do not write this story. The driver of the story is the love of Jesus. The love of Jesus determines who we are; who I am; who you are.
It says after they sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. As they walk in the cool of the evening, Jesus says, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (26:31). Two characters stand out in this portion of the Gospel. Peter denied Jesus. Judas betrayed him. But he describes all 12 as deserters. He tells them anyone of them might be the betrayer. And they are all so confident of their faithfulness, they immediately begin to “be distressed and to say to him and to one another, ‘Surely not I’” (Mark 14:19)?
We do well to mark the shaky faith of the disciples. We do well to enter the story at that point because we have our moments of weakness. “You will all be deserters.” Jesus speaks to our heart, but not to drive us into dungeons of guilt. Jesus speaks truth to us. Only in knowing the truth about ourselves and in knowing Jesus who is the truth (and the way and the life) can we be free. Moments come when we fail him; but, that’s not all Jesus says. He speaks to the disciples as the walk from the house, up the mountain pass, to the Garden of Gethsemane.
From places of safety, into the night of uncertainty, into the fog of the unknown future, into the threatening shadows of anxiety and fear, Jesus walks with us. As we go, he speaks with us. He tells us we will have moments of failure. He says more.
“It is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matthew 26:31c-d). These words from the prophet Zechariah originally spoke the dispersion of God’s people from the Promised Land. Jesus applied the prophet’s words to the fear-filled retreat and subsequent hiding of his followers upon his arrest. It looks like the high priest Caiaphas initiates the suffering of Jesus, and the merciless Roman soldiers ratchet the violence up a notch. But God acts in the midst of this human evil. “I will strike the shepherd.” I don’t think God moved those who hurt Jesus as if they were puppets on strings. They sinned with their hatred, the disciples sinned in their cowardice and we sin in the 1000 ways we sin. God acted within the context of sin – scattering and then gathering.
As they walked from the house where they took the supper, through the heavy night, to the Garden of Jesus’ agonizing prayer – as they walked – Jesus spoke with them. “You will all fall away because of me this night” (26:31b). “It is written, ‘[God] will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (26:31c-d). As we walk through the highs and lows of life, he speaks to us. We will desert Him. We will be scattered. He says more.
“After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (26:32). Just as the supper was not about our sinful failings, but rather it was about Jesus’ faithfulness and love, so too his words on this walk up the Olivet Path are not about the sins we will commit. As bad as I might feel about what I have done, I will sin again. Tonight isn’t about that and indeed, my life is not about the sins I have committed or will commit.
The author of the story is Jesus and the subject of the story is His love at work in me, at work in you. Though we cannot see around the next bend, we can trust the one who sees all. We can trust that He makes good on his promises. He knows we will fail Him, yet he promises that he will go before us. Jesus is well aware of how awful the cross will be; even worse will be his sense that God, his Father, has given Him over to death.
Let there be no minimizing of how terrible that time was for Jesus. He was a man and went something worse than any man or woman had before or has since. He suffered physically. He suffered unjustly – he was innocent of all accusations. He suffered relationally – his closest friends betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. And he suffered separation from God. But, he had vision to see beyond it. And He has vision to see beyond our lowest moments. This is His story, and His story involves His great promise to go before us and wait for us.
Following the text in Matthew, the screen narrows in on Peter who, lacking the benefit of knowledge of the resurrection, refuses to accept the script Jesus is writing. He pledges his faithfulness even on pain of death. Jesus tells Peter his denial among all the others will be the one remembered. The other disciples some how don’t hear Jesus prophesy Peter’s moment of shame. Instead, they follow their bombastic companion’s lead and also pledge their fidelity.
We have the blessing of History. We know the cross leads to an empty tomb. But, even with that knowledge, even knowing the Holy Spirit of the resurrected Lord lives in us, we still deny and flee into the night at moments of weakness just as the 12 did. Which is why the final word – not something Jesus said but something He did – is so important for us.
As they walked Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (26:31b). “It is written, ‘[God] will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (26:31c-d). “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (26:32).
“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane” (36:36a).
He did not simply promise to be waiting for them on the other side, after the horrors of the arrest and the trial and the cross. He went with them.
I do not know the state of your heart this evening, this Holy Week. Some might be in an unwinnable battle with sin. Others may already be basking in the brilliant light of resurrection. Wherever you are, wherever we are, the words of Jesus to us on the path are true, timely, and timeless. He is going before us, and He is with, and the reason is he loves us.
The Easter story is a love story – a story of Jesus loving us. If there is one thing to hold on to when life is coming apart at the seams it is the unshakable truth that when we are in Christ, we are in the steady hands of God. Even that night, though he appeared as a leader of a pathetically small band of powerless men, Jesus had control of the story and all earthly powers around him ultimately served God’s purposes even as they tried to destroy God’s son. The words of Jesus on the path that night are the words he sends us off with this night. We can sum up what he says with his words that end Matthew’s Gospel. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b).