Thursday 2nd April 2015, Maundy Thursday

by Revd Chris Palmer

There are three aspects of Maundy Thursday: Jesus washing feet, Jesus giving bread and wine, Jesus praying in Gethsemane. As I look back on my older sermons, I find that I’ve preached on the foot washing and the eucharist quite often, but less so on the Gethsemane story. But that’s what I want to talk about tonight - and especially about Jesus’ prayer, ‘not my will, but your will be done.’

‘Your will be done.’ Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane is exactly the same prayer he teaches us to pray when we say the Lord’s prayer. And usually we let the words slip by. I think if I ever think of them, I imagine they are about something ‘out there’ ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven…’ I imagine it’s about God wanting to bring peace and justice, to liberate the oppressed, to feed the hungry, console the sorrowful, and so on. And probably it is.

But Jesus in Gethsemane shows us that ‘your will be done’ makes a radical and absolute demand on our lives, because it makes a radical and absolute demand on his own life. It was a petition that could only be prayed through tears and with deep sorrow and grieving. It’s a prayer that has traction on our lives. It is an invitation for God to use us, a surrender to what will be, even if we flinch at the thought. We might be careful about letting such a dangerous and demanding prayer trip off our tongue without thinking. Until we’ve been reduced to tears of sorrow, to pleading with God for it to be different, for the cup to be taken away, we haven’t really prayed the prayer truthfully.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read Philip Pullman’s book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. If not, I strongly recommend it. Pullman of course is not a Christian and in many ways is anti-Christian, so if you read the book expecting an orthodox meditation on the life of Jesus you will be disappointed. But I think it does offer a startlingly different and arresting interpretation of Jesus. Very briefly the story is of two brothers, Jesus and Christ. Jesus is a good man who preaches love and humility, non-violence, and the Kingdom of God. And Christ is his bad brother who intends to exploit his brother’s legacy to found a church, a powerful organisation to exercise control over other people’s lives.

The chapter about Gethsemane I think throws light on what I mean about invoking God’s will. It departs markedly from the biblical story; it is one long monologue of Jesus praying to God, who he finds is entirely absent and really seems not to be there. I’m going to read three passages. Here’s the first

“’You’re not listening,’ [Jesus] whispered. ‘I’ve been speaking to you all my life, and all I’ve heard back is silence. Where are you? Are you out there among the stars? Is that it? Busy making another world, perhaps, because you’re sick of this one? You’ve gone away, haven’t you, you’ve abandoned us.

“’You’re making a liar out of me, you realise that. I don’t want to tell lies. I try to tell the truth. But I tell them you’re a loving Father watching over them all, and you’re not; you’re blind as well as deaf, as far as I can tell. You can’t see, or you just don’t want to look? Which is it?

“’No answer. Not interested”…

“’The psalm says “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” Well, I understand that fool. You treated him as you’re treating me, didn’t you? If that makes me a fool, I’m one with all the fools you made. I love that fool, even if you don’t’”

It goes on like that for several pages. But then, Jesus turns to thinking about his preaching the kingdom, and the alternative version that his brother offers.

“’And the Kingdom…

“’Have I been deluding myself as well as everyone else? What have I been doing, telling them that it’s going to come, that there are people alive now who will see the coming of God’s kingdom? I can see us waiting, and waiting, and waiting… Was my brother right when he talked of this great organisation, this church of his that was going to serve as the vehicle for the Kingdom on earth? No, he was wrong, he was wrong. My whole heart and mind and body revolted against that. They still do.

“’Because I can see just what would happen if that kind of thing came about. The devil would rub his hands with glee. As soon as men who believe that they’re doing God’s will get hold of power, whether it’s in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them. It isn’t long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this, or eating that, or believing the other. And the privileged ones will build great palaces and temples to strut around in, and levy taxes on the poor to pay for their luxuries’”

And the prayer finishes with him somehow uniting his sense of God’s not-there-ness with his truer vision of what the Kingdom of God is.

“’Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That is should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast, and gives blossom in the spring, and shade in the hot sun, and fruit in the season…

“’From time to time we’ll remember you, like a grandfather who was loved once, but who has died, and we’ll tell stories about you; and we’ll feed the lambs and reap the corn and press the wine, and sit under the tree in the cool of the evening, and welcome the stranger and look after the children and nurse the sick and comfort the dying, and then lie down when our time comes, without a pang, without a fear, and go back to the earth.

“’And let the silence talk to itself…’

“Jesus stopped. There was nothing else he wanted to say.”

What Pullman’s portrayal suggests and I completely agree with, is that Jesus is NOT in Gethsemane deciding to submit to God’s rules even though his own instincts are crying for something else. He is rather following his truest instinct, even though his fear tempts him in a different direction, and even though his prayers feel as if they are headed towards nothing.

The constant temptation of believing very strongly in God is that we recruit God to our own purposes, either to manipulate others, or to stamp an imprimatur on own [disordered] will: ‘I’m doing what God told me to do.’ But God’s will ‘used’ in that way has no traction on our lives.

It is only when we begin to loosen our grip on God, to live with uncertainty about his will, even about his very being, that we are turned instead to our instincts, to our deepest selves – aware that there are competing impulses controlling us, but more able to be honest about what is selfish and what is not. It is only then that God’s will bites and creates friction that changes us, rather than us arrogantly looking to change the world and others.

The irony of this is that when our rhetoric claims a competition between our wills and God’s will there is least competition: our own will has won. But when we pray ‘your will be done’ through tears and soul-searching, and then reach into in inner most self to discover the best we can bring, then God’s will is one with our own deepest longing.

Take time tonight to meditate on the words ‘your kingdom come’, to say them as a passionate prayer to God to call forth change and difference and surrender in your life. Take time in the watch of prayer – in the Gethsemane garden – to be with God, even when nothing seems to come back, but just to be. And allow God’s desire to be formed in you, despite your compulsions and fears.