RCL Year B
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
A Night of Terror
This is the night, a night of terror and a night of birth.
Tonight we read the stories of the Passover in Egypt, the birth of the Jewish people, and we read the account of Jesus’ last supper with his friends, the birth of our central act of worship as his followers. The stories are old, 3500 and 2000 years old, and all this time later, as we read them calmly, we have to remind ourselves, to stretch our imaginations, to get past the calm of our church and into the rooms of the Jews in their hovels in Egypt and into the upper room in Jerusalem where Jesus and his friends had gathered. To feel with them the terror of the night.
More than the birth and commemoration of the Passover connects the two stories. Both times, it was night; John underlines this: And it was night. There was terror all around. We know the ends of both stories, that everything was in God’s hands, but no one in those rooms those nights knew what would come.
Imagine the terror as the Hebrew slaves anticipated an escape from Egypt. They had no weapons, no armor, only some belongings and their children. How far could they trust the Egyptians if they indeed were able to get out of Egypt? And where were they going as they left their homes and the only land they knew? Into the unknown. There is terror enough in that.
Jesus, surely, knew what most likely was coming. After all, this is the man who defied Rome and the Temple four days before by riding into the city as a king. This is the man who upturned the tables of the money changers outside the temple because they were making money at the expense of the poor. He had intentionally antagonized and implicitly brought a threat to the powers that were. He had to know he was without earthly defenses and was being hunted by powerful people, armed well with weapons and law.
And so we begin to feel the terror.
It’s important for us to remember tonight that that week in Jesus’ life did not bring the end to terror on earth. In every age, in every place people live lives terrified. Jews through the centuries have been hunted and pursued, tortured and killed. Muslims were slaughtered in the Crusades and even today receive the back lash for the horrible acts of a few. People living in places where there is war live in constant fear; people living under oppression live in terror as they hide and try to protect their children.
In our time LGBT people have lived in terror just to walk in the streets, just to be denied employment and housing in some places. African Americans are terrified of law enforcement officers, the very people who should bring them comfort. Women have been and are terrorized on the street and in the workplace; men living on the street, and men holding tentative positions in their work are terrorized. The plight of the undocumented immigrant is well known today. We can’t forget the terror of a parent who is unable to feed their children.
And, as the nights of the Passover are nights of birth, we ask, what parent has not gone into childbirth knowing the dangers that lurk around the miracle? Reading the story of the Upper Room and imagining the terror that hung in the air that night remind us that Jesus did share our every fear and terror.
But that night he’s not running and hiding; he’s not cowering in a closet whimpering in terror. He’s still thinking of others, still living out the way he believes with all his heart to be the secret to life in all its fullness. Still making one last try to show his friends the way to life: the way of the servant.
If you’ve followed Jesus through the week you know that this is the week, in Bethany, when he reminded his disciples that the poor would always be with them. We usually read that to mean something like we can always help the poor and that we should show kindness to our friends, too, even though they may not seem to need our demonstrations of love.
But there’s another way to read this. The poor are always with you. Make your life with them. Don’t neglect them. Live where you can be among them every day. It’s easy to forget what you don’t see. It’s easy not to know their lives and the terror they know every day, living as they do on the edge of life. The poor are always with you. Serve them, as Jesus served us. They are your friends, your sisters and brothers. Mother Teresa reminds us: Treat your poor as royalty.
And so, with terror all around, Jesus kneels and washes his friends’ feet, as a servant. He gives them a way to know his presence, in the bread and wine of everyday fare. And in his terror he finds his strength trusting God, hoping against hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that everything is indeed in God’s hands, as God has promised.
It’s doubtful Jesus’ disciples knew fully the terror he moved in. As hope lies within the human heart, we usually do not anticipate the worst. Evil will pass us by. But if they sensed it, in their limited understanding, they must have felt the truth of these last teachings, because they preserved them for us. Love one another as I have loved you. This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.
Terror may surround the miracle of the birth. But terror will never have the last word.