Today, we conclude our journey with Jesus. Over the course of the last thirteen chapters, we have been following Jesus and the disciples on their journey to Jerusalem. In Chapter 9, Luke tells us that Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and he knows (and we know) that this means his eventual death.
We have arrived.
This morning’s first Lukan reading comes from chapter 19, where Jesus enters the city triumphantly. He comes into the waving of the palms and the yelling of hosannas. It is the high point of the journey, and it appears that perhaps this story will have a happy ending.
It goes downhill quickly. Jesus marches straight into the Temple and starts giving the religious authorities all kinds of reasons to want to kill him. He turns over the tables of the money-changers, because it turns his stomach to see how faith and consumerist culture have been wedded in the very house of the Lord. Throughout the week, he continues in this vein, teaching in controversial and upsetting ways. Each day, the authorities get angrier and angrier, until it reaches a fever pitch on Thursday. Finally, in Chapter 22, we arrive at the Thursday evening discourse. This is literally the end of the journey. The literal journey to Jerusalem is complete. The symbolic journey to his death is coming to a close, as well.
This morning, I want to make a simple point about this Thursday discourse and the events that lead up to Jesus’ crucifixion: Jesus died like he lived. Over the course of the last several weeks, we have been asking how Jesus lived, and pressing the point to an uncomfortable level: what if we lived like Jesus lived? The last four weeks, we have looked at how Jesus owned, how he forgave, how he prayed, and how he confronted evil. And now on this Thursday discourse, his last night on earth before his death, tells this story anew: Jesus died like he lived.
First, he shows us again how we own. The scene begins at the tail end of the Last Supper. In Luke, so much of the teaching happens around the important culture center of table. It is at meals, and at table conversation, that Jesus teaches his followers what it means to radically welcome, to include, to serve. And so it comes as no surprise that as Jesus and his disciples are sitting, following his pronouncement to eat and drink in remembrance of him, that he teaches one final table lesson. Once again, the disciples are arguing about greatness. Who will be greater in the kingdom? But Jesus points to a servant – perhaps even literally pointing to a table servant waiting on them as they finish their dinner – and says that the servant is the model for his kingdom. Greatness is being seated at the table, counting your money and possessions, and letting someone serve you. That is not God’s way. The way of the Lord is servanthood, serving another. It is a radical new way to own. And it is a reminder for us today. It is a reminder to us today that there have always been – and there will always be – Herods and Pilates and foolish disciples who talk about greatness and making ourselves great. That message is always counter to the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is servanthood.
Second, he shows us again how to forgive. As they continue to sit at the dinner, Jesus offers his famous prediction of Peter’s betrayal of him. Three times, he says. Of course, Peter refutes Jesus. He would never deny him. But Jesus knows. And yet, look at his posture toward Peter. It is not one of judgment or anger or even hurt, but one of forgiveness. It is a matter of fact that he will betray him, but Jesus still sits at table with him, including him, loving him. In fact, he has just shared the table with Judas, the one who will betray him to death. This is the lesson that the disciples won’t understand until after the events of the next few days, but we get the profundity of it as we read – Jesus has forgiven them before they have even done anything to need forgiveness for! The way of Jesus is forgiveness.
Third, Jesus shows us again how to pray. After dinner is completed, he stands with his disciples and leads them to the garden. Notice how Luke tells the story of the Gethsemane prayer. Remember the four words about how Jesus prayed from a few weeks ago? Jesus’ prayer was constant, comfortable, God-centric, and trusting? We see these four elements in the Gethsamene prayer – vividly and clearly. Jesus’ prayer was constant – Luke tells us that he goes back to Gethsemane, as was his custom. It was a well-worn path to the garden that Jesus led them on…they knew exactly where he was going because it was what he did. Jesus prayer was comfortable – again, Luke tells us that he prays to Abba, the familiar form “Daddy,” even in these difficult moments. Jesus’ prayer was God-centric – “not my will, but thine” – he knew that God knew best. Now, the Gethsemane prayer underscores Jesus’ humanity – he doesn’t want to die, but he knows that God knows best at that he will be cared for by God regardless of what happens. Finally, his prayer is trusting – he entrusts the disciples to God, and entrusts himself and his fate to God. He will trust God to the end, and the prayer in the garden is a reminder of that trust. The way of Jesus is trust.
So, in this discourse, Jesus has again taught us how to own, forgive, and pray. Now he teaches us how to confront evil.
There is a principle in drama sometimes called “Chekhov’s Rule” or “Checkov’s gun” that suggests that any time that a loaded gun appears in the first act of a play, then it will be fired by the final act. That’s what it almost feels like Luke is doing here. There is this difficult passage in the Thursday discourse, in which Jesus tells his disciples that they need to buy a sword. It seems very un-Jesus-like, doesn’t it, for Jesus to tell his disciples to arm themselves against the coming struggles that await. A couple of the disciples even show Jesus the swords that they have. So, a couple of scenes later, Chekov’s Rule comes into play.
Following Jesus’ prayer in the garden, the soldiers come to arrest him. Jesus speaks some words to Judas, and suddenly, one of the disciples makes a choice about how to confront evil. He chooses to confront it with self-defense and violence. He takes that sword from a few verses only, and pulls it out and tries to kill one of the soldiers come to arrest Jesus. He barely misses, but slices his ear off in the process. Jesus, clearly and unmistakably explains that this is not the way to confront evil. Instead of violence and self-defense, he chooses wholeness and healing. He reaches out to the injured man, heals him from his injury, and rebukes his disciple, clarifying that this is not what he meant. If Jesus wanted to, he could have chosen to defend himself and even enacted retribution on the soldiers and those who sent them. He did not. He confronted evil in a radically different way. He healed the ear of the man who came to arrest him. The way of Jesus is healing.
So what about us? How are we going to live – and even die – like Jesus did?
I want to return one final time to the story of Ed Dobson. Dobson was one of the most popular preachers in the country. He was leader in the religious right and colleague and good friend of Jerry Falwell. He had power and position and fame. But along the way, he made a decision that he was not living the life of Jesus. He yearned to live like Jesus lived. He wrote a book about his experience titled, “The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do.” The way that he chose to live is a model for those of us trying to live like Jesus lived. It is but one way to do it, but it is a graphic and profound story for us to watch and consider.
Dobson owned like Jesus owned. He gave up greatness and power and possession to live a life of servanthood. When he suddenly chose to step away from the pulpit, a day or two later his phone stopped working. He was a busy pastor, serving a 5,000 person church, and so his phone rang all the time. Before he took it in, he asked his wife to call him, to make sure. And it rang. The problem wasn’t the phone. It’s just that no one called anymore. Dobson had left his place of greatness and now struggled to figure out what a new life of servanthood looked like. “When you are not needed,” he said, “you lose part of your purpose in life.” For Dobson, he found the need to reclaim that purpose. He wrote about trying to live like Jesus for a year, but came to understand that it was the only way to live! “Trying to live like Jesus gave me a compelling purpose that helped me live every day,” he said. He began to own his very life in new ways. Not in ways of greatness, but in servanthood and worship.
Dobson forgave like Jesus forgave. One of the most controversial decisions that he made, trying to live like Jesus lived, was how he cast his vote in the presidential election in 2008. Remember that he was one of the architects of the religious right. The movement was closely tied to the Republican party, it really never was an option who to vote for. Until he started to live like Jesus. For the first time, he had to struggle with his vote. He asked himself which candidate represented the values of Jesus more to him. And to his surprise – and the horror of many of his colleagues – he chose Barack Obama. Now he still differed greatly from Obama on the issue of abortion, and did not agree with his pro-choice stance. But he chose to look beyond one issue and found that he agreed with many of his other stances. And so he supported a candidate that he never would have supported before. He voted for Obama. Now, don’t get caught up in the detail here, but the principle. I am not telling you that if you want to be like Jesus, you have to vote for Obama. Don’t go around saying that your preacher told you to vote for Obama (you can’t anyway, but that’s beside the point.) The point instead is this. Living like Jesus messes you up. It messes up your assumptions, your cultural biases, your stereotypes, your easy answers. Dobson thought he had everything all figured out, until he really met Jesus. And learned to see a political candidate – and really every one of God’s children – in a new light. Again, I am not telling you how to vote…but who to follow. And reminding you that following Jesus is going to mess you up. Mess up your assumptions and stereotypes of others. It may even lead to the way of forgiveness.
Dobson prayed like Jesus prayed. I have left out a significant piece of Dobson’s story up to this point. One of the catalysts that led him to change was his sudden diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was this diagnosis that caused him to leave his church, to begin his rediscovered journey with Jesus, to change everything for him. He writes about his disease at length in his book, as he struggles to make sense of it. For those who do not know, ALS is a disease that slowly takes over your body, causing you to lose the ability to move, then to swallow, and finally to breathe. He writes in his book about his difficulty dealing with his disease, and how he identified with Jesus in the Gethsemane prayer. He – more than many of us – understands Jesus’ prayer to take away his pain and suffering. And while he recognizes that there is no comparison between his ALS and Jesus’ suffering, he learned from Jesus how to respond in the face of such suffering. And so he wrote his own Gethsemane prayer, learning from how Jesus prayed:
Daddy, I know you love and care for me.
I know that nothing is impossible for you. You could heal me in an instant.
Please take this cup from me. Please heal me of ALS.
But it’s not what I want that matters, it’s what you want.
Dobson learned to pray like Jesus prayed.
Finally, Dobson chose healing like Jesus did. Given his ideological leanings, one of the most difficult issues for him to come to terms with was homosexuality. Again, he thought he had it all figured out, until his son Daniel came to him one day and told him he was gay. And he was still a Christian. And he believed that he could be both. For Dobson, it had to be a difficult thing for him to hear, going against everything that he was raised with in his culture. Yet, after a moment of stunned silence, his father’s reply was a powerful one: “We still love you. And nothing else changes.” He chose healing. This issue has already divided families, divided churches, in some ways divided The Church. But remember that when Jesus had the option of choosing judgment and violence, he instead chose healing and wholeness. He healed the ear of the man who was coming to arrest him. How might we also choose healing and wholeness when it comes to this potentially divisive issue? Ed Dobson chose healing, for he had learned to heal from the Master.
Ed Dobson tried to live like Jesus lived. And in the same way that Jesus died like he lived, this became a part of the journey for Dobson. His diagnosis of ALS meant a death sentence, and not simply a quick and painless death, but a slow, agonizing, painful one in which his last moments meant suffocation. It would have been easy for him to give up, curse God, and die. But it instead made him want to live more like Jesus.
I want to show a video about Ed’s story, narrated by Dobson himself. It tells the story of his difficulty as the disease progressed, and the decisions he made about everyday activities. In the earlier part of the video, he talks about how much he loves Christmas, and how much he didn’t want to go to his church’s Christmas program this year because of his disease…
Ed Dobson died three months ago. The day after Christmas. He died the way he lived, trying to follow the footsteps of his Master. This week, as we turn our hearts and minds to what it must have been to live – and die – like Jesus, let us proclaim with hope and anticipation, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”