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April 14: Maundy Thursday

Luke 22:39-53

[This sermon was preached as part of a service that contained 3 reflections - one on the footwashing, one on the Last Supper, and one on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This reflection, on the Garden of Gethsemane, was the final reflection in that service.]

This is a story of abandonment.

Tonight, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus is alone.

I mean, he's got his disciples with him – he's surrounded by people – but he's still alone.

As we arrive at the Mount of Olives, it is clear that we have left the warmth of the upper room – of the meal with beloved friends, of the moment of intimacy washing their feet – we have left that all behind. This scene is no longer bathed in warm candlelight. This story happens in the dark.

In the darkness, in the garden, alone on the mountain, Jesus begins in prayer. This is an intimate moment – a conversation between the perfect Father and a beloved Son – but despite Jesus's special status, even though at his baptism a voice from Heaven declared him to be God's beloved Son, even though at his transfiguration a voice from heaven told the disciples to listen to Jesus – despite all of that, in this moment, there's no voice - there's no evidence that God even is listening. There is no response from on high. There is no promise that Jesus will be rescued – even though this is just the moment when a divine rescue would be really helpful. Instead, Jesus is greeted with silence. He prays for this cup to pass from him – for the suffering and death he knows is coming to somehow be stopped – and, then, faced with the silence, he prays simply, "Father, not my will, but yours be done." Jesus, like us, is utterly human. He is unable to force God the Father to respond to his plea. Like us, in his darkest hour, he faces silence, he is alone, and he must trust in God, even when he can't see or hear God.

As he ends his prayer, we discover that Jesus is more alone than we had realized. He had asked his disciples – his closest friends, his beloved followers – to stay awake and pray with him. He longed for his community to support him, to show up and care for him as he walked through the hell of his last night. But, instead of the community of support he was hoping for, what he discovers is his friends failing to pray, napping on the ground because they had too much wine with dinner. God is silent. His friends are asleep. Jesus is in the darkness, alone.

And then there's Judas. We think of Judas as the betrayer – we remember him for what he does in this moment – but prior to this, he wasn't the betrayer – he was one of Jesus's closest friends, a member of his inner circle, one of his chosen followers, meant to be one of the first leaders of this thing we call church. How long has Judas been plotting this? Had his heart turned against Jesus long ago, or is this a spur of the moment failure in the midst of mounting pressure and danger? Either way, this betrayal must have cut Jesus to the bone. This friend, this Judas, approaches out of the darkness, and betrays Jesus, turns him over to the authorities. And, not only that, but the sign Judas uses – the signal he's given to the soldiers so they will know who to arrest – is a kiss. "Arrest the man who I kiss," he has told his co-conspirators. Judas turns an intimate kiss – a customary way to greet a close friend – into a tool to begin a murder. This moment is absolutely heart-wrenching.

All of the disciples – even Judas – have just shared the Last Supper with Jesus. According to our understanding of Holy Communion, these followers had just shared in his body and blood – sharing in, united by, this holy mystery, a meal that we believe helps to make us into this thing called church, a feast that we believe unites us with Christ and with each other. How, then, just a few hours after sharing this holy meal with Jesus himself, how after this sacrament of unity, could they so quickly be so divided and so faithless?

But the abandonment, the betrayal, Jesus being alone does not end here. After the kiss of betrayal, the security forces arrive, Roman soldiers ready to arrest Jesus and bring him to the authorities who will eventually kill him. The disciples, seeing this crowd of evil-doers and men of violence, ask Jesus if they should fight back. But, they don't even wait for him to answer – they don't care what he has to say, they do it anyway, they draw the sword and spill blood. But Jesus quickly denounces their violence, says that it is yet one more betrayal, one more abandonment – an abandonment of his way of peace. He will not be, he refuses to be, a messiah who captures Jerusalem by force of arms. He will not conquer by the sword, by shedding the blood of others. No, he will conquer by his own cross, by having his own blood spilled. The one who told his disciples to love their enemies does just that in this moment – he heals one of the people who has come to arrest him, he refuses to do violence even to protect himself, even to those who would kill him. And, in this moment, his disciples discover that his way of peace is too difficult for them to walk. And, so, they scatter. His friends were willing to fight for him, but not to stand with him as he enters into his suffering.

And, so, again, Jesus is alone. He is abandoned not just by his closest friends, but by the institutional and religious leaders who are supposed to lead his people, to care for him. When he taught in the temple at age 12, the temple leaders there were astonished. When he was teaching in the temple just a few hours before this encounter in the garden, the crowds were amazed. But, now, the leaders of the temple, in an alliance with the powers of Rome, have found Jesus, away from the temple crowds, and placed him under arrest.

His friends have failed him, abandoned him, betrayed him. The authorities who should be protecting him are instead trying to kill him. He is isolated, alone, overcome by darkness.

And, nevertheless, he remains faithful. That's the story. That's the story we tell tonight, the story we tell during Holy Week, the story that defines our lives. Jesus Christ is the faithful one. Our faithlessness does not get the final word in God's story. Because this story, ultimately, is not about us. This story is not about all the many people who fail Jesus, who betray him, abandon him. This story, our story, is not a story in which we are the main characters. The main character in this story is the God of Jesus Christ, the main character is the One who faces abandonment and yet remains faithful, who remains the Light of the World even when the forces of darkness are gathering all around him, who remains loyal to God's way even when we are disloyal to him.

When we are overwhelmed, we are able to hold on to hope, because the One who we worship, the One who we follow, has also been overwhelmed, and yet did not give in to the darkness.

When everything falls apart, Jesus Christ holds together. When we are faithless, Jesus Christ is faithful. When we fail, Jesus Christ does not. When darkness surrounds us, Jesus Christ shines with God's light.

On that night in the garden, Jesus was completely abandoned. And because he was abandoned, and yet remained faithful, we are never alone. That's the story of Holy Week. It is the story of our salvation. Thanks be to God.

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