Sermon preached at Marsh Chapel on Maundy Thursday, 2011 on the text of Luke 22: 31-62.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This evening I am going to do something rather unorthodox. For those who have been subjected to my preaching, much less my theology, in the past, this should not be terribly surprising. Perhaps it will be of some comfort to you that whatever level of unease you may be feeling about what might be coming, it inevitably pales by comparison with the abject terror Dean Hill is experiencing even now as he wonders if he is about to deeply regret letting me step into the pulpit.
It is customary in preaching to hold forth upon the texts that have just been read. I am not going to do that. Tonight I am going to preach on the text that will be read at the end of the service, Luke 22: 31-62. If I manage to pull this off, it is my ardent hope that you will appreciate the irony of a sermon entitled “Unspeakable Unknowing” on a text that is as yet unknown and unsaid.
May we pray?
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Eternal, have mercy on us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.
If I cast my mind’s eye forward on what God might call and empower me to accomplish in my life in ministry, I would consider it close to the pinnacle of my career to have the opportunity to preach a sermon on Easter Sunday entitled, “He’s Up! (Act Surprised).” The fact of the matter is, of course, that we already know where this is going; we already know how the story ends. It is a great privilege to stand on this side of salvation history from whence we can see what has been accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the suffering and pain of his death are not the final word.
In the course of Christian history, there have been those Christians, perhaps most often found among those loyal to the see of Rome, who have placed extraordinary emphasis on the agony, fear, torture, suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth in their lives of faith. And in good reactionary form, there have been those among the Reformers who have swung the pendulum back, although we must confess that, like many reactionaries, they are wont to let the pendulum swing back too far. What is at risk here, on one hand, is the glorification of suffering in the passion, and the triumphalistic denial of suffering on the other. How might we find our way forward to a dialectical resolution?
Tonight I wish to suggest that if we would seek to be Easter people come Sunday then we must, in these three days, unspeak and unknow resurrection. If I have learned anything from sitting at the feet of Ray Hart for the past twelve weeks, it is that human life is lived between two nots: the not from which we come in birth, and the not toward which we go in death. Not; nothing; nihil. This is to say that in life we know not where we are from, and we know not where we are going.
If this is so, that we know not where we are going, then we must come to know what Jesus did not know as he faced the cross. We have not yet heard how Jesus prayed in grief and anguish that the cup be taken from him. There are those who have said that this grief and anguish came at the prospect of suffering, pain and death. But I ask you, in your own experience, are you grieved and anguished by the prospect of pain, or are you grieved and anguished by not knowing what lies on the other side? Are you grieved and anguished at the prospect of final exams and term papers, or are you grieved and anguished at not knowing if you will have a job after you graduate?
Even as we gather here this evening, a very dear friend of mine from the church in which I was raised sits by her father’s bedside in a Washington DC hospital. It is becoming ever more clear that he is not long for this world. She was there in Washington, to be with her father, even as she received word that her fiancé had died in a tragic beach accident in Brazil. She knows grief. She knows anguish. And is it not the case that in the times of great grief and of great anguish that we know not whether joy will ever come again? In times of deep suffering, it is a woefully inadequate platitude to proffer that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30: 5).
If there is any truth in the theological notion that the efficacy of salvation is somehow connected to the divine experience of being human, then the experience of unknowing, of sensing abandonment, of being betrayed and forsaken, is the most humanizing experience God could possibly undergo. Not knowing whence we come or where we go is what makes us finite beings, in stark contrast to the infinity of God. If it is in crossing the chasm from infinite to finite that salvation is achieved, then the infinite must undergo unknowing.
And so must we. In these days, living as we do in the light of resurrection, we must unknow and unspeak what we know, that resurrection might truly come as a surprise. We must enter into, embrace, and become possessed by the confusion of unknowing exemplified by Peter his confident insistence that he will remain loyal, faithful, trustworthy and true, only moments later to betray, forsake, abandon and deny Jesus. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” (Inferno, Dante). There is no glory in this suffering. Merely abiding, come what may.
In these services of Triduum, including this service tonight and the Good Friday service tomorrow, I would encourage you to allow the rituals of Passiontide to move you to a place of deep unknowing. On Good Friday, the seven last words of Jesus from the cross will be read and meditated upon, but I encourage you to listen most deeply to the silence, in which everything we know about Jesus, his life and his death, is swallowed up in unspeakable unknowing. Tonight, as the vestments and paraments are stripped from the clergy, from the altar, and from the pulpit, allow the loss of beauty to help you to unspeak and unknow your hope and your expectation. As you come forward to have your feet washed, unknow your sense of comfort and security, and as you wash the feet of another, unknow what you take to be clean or dirty.
In a few moments we will turn to the communion table. This is perhaps the deepest place of unknowing in all of the Christian tradition. What are these things? Bread or body? Wine or blood? Why am I consuming them? What will eating and drinking them do to me?
We enter into these mysteries of God-with-us as people who know not and speak not. We are both fascinated and terrified by the God who beckons us, as Rudolph Otto pointed out, the God who draws us onward toward the not we do not know. And we step into a great cloud of unknowing, just as God knew not God on the threshold of the death of God. Amen.