Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Cup of Pain and Mercy

This is the second in our Lenten series of sermons on the Passion Narrative in St Mark’s Gospel, Christ our Passover. Today we find Jesus in the upper room eating the Passover meal with his disciples, and afterwards, in the garden of Gethsemane where, as he faces his last ordeal, he prays to his Father. This part of the story is framed by two of Jesus’ most portentous sayings. Last week’s passage ended: ‘the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born’. Now, the same word shatters the silent agony of Gethsemane, when the disciples are heavy with sleep. ‘Arise, let us be going. Behold, my betrayer is at hand.’

We heard last week how at supper, Jesus foretells that one of his friends will betray him. This word has already featured in Mark’s Gospel near the beginning, when Judas Iscariot is introduced as a disciple. Literally it means ‘hand over’. It is not by itself a sinister idea: in Greek, paradosis simply means that which is ‘delivered’ or ‘handed on’, the same as the Latin traditio: the church’s ‘tradition’ is what is received from others and passed on to the next generation. In St Paul’s own account of the last supper, he uses the same word: ‘I received from the Lord what I am handing on to you’.

However, in the passion narrative, two things give this innocent word a darker nuance. The first is that it is now carrying the sense of Jesus being passed over from one kind of power to another. Up to now, he has been obedient to his Father’s purpose as the one announced in his baptism and then his transfiguration as God’s Son, the beloved. In his freely-chosen submission to God, he lives out the prayer he has taught his followers: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. But now he is handed over to a different authority, the ‘principalities and powers’ of this age who have quite other purposes in mind for the Son of Man. He becomes the passive victim, no longer the agent who goes around doing good, but now one who is ‘done to’ by others. And the first act of these others, as we shall learn next week, is to arrest him, not with the weapons of truth and justice but with violence, seized by bandits who are armed with swords and clubs.

But there is a bigger context here. For St Mark sees paradosis, this ‘handing over’ as nothing less than the act of God himself. Three times in the gospel Jesus has foretold that the Son of Man ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and after three days rise again.’ Why this necessity? This is the great mystery the Passion Narrative draws us into. The sheer length and detail of the story in all four gospels tells us that the evangelists saw the crucifixion as inescapably central to the gospel. It was not an accident. It was not mischance. It was intended all along within God’s purpose of redemption. ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ says Jesus earlier. In the upper room, the cup of wine that is ‘my blood of the covenant poured out for many’ is the way to the promised future he has taught his disciples to pray for. ‘Your kingdom come.’ ‘I shall never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ In the gospels, without the cross, there can be no kingdom, no future when God’s passover people will be freed from all that enslaves them. He must suffer. Es muss sein.
This cup of destiny features in both parts of today’s text. At the last supper, the cup of wine, along with the broken bread, is a living symbol of a death that is like the passover lamb. It heralds the day of salvation in which a redeemed people ‘pass over’ from death to life. It is both a memory and a future promise. It looks back with gratitude for a redemption that has been won, and looks forward to the kingdom of peace, that messianic banquet where people will sit and feast in the presence of God himself. At the passover meal, the cup is a symbol of a people’s destiny. And this is the destiny Jesus takes upon himself as the true Israelite looking forward to the long-promised day when God acts, and he drinks it anew in his kingdom.

And the same is true in the garden. After singing the passover hallel psalms of redemption, they go to a place whose name means ‘pressure’, Gethsemane where olives grew and their oil was crushed out of them. Here the life of Jesus begins to be pressed out of him as he faces the inevitable end that he has spoken about for so long. ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I will but what you will’. I said just now that for Mark, for Jesus, there is no question but that the passion is intended by God all along. And this is both the reason for his agonised prayer and the answer to it. Jesus does not dispute who it is who holds out this cup to him. Did he have in his mind Psalm 75: ‘In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed’. These are the grapes that are crushed in the vineyard of the wrath of God. ‘He will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.’
Can this be what his Father is holding out to him commanding him to drink it and die? No wonder he begs God to take it away. St Mark will tell of how on the cross, Jesus prays Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Gethsemane is the first stage of a terrible godforsakenness. Jesus takes upon himself the fate of the wicked of the earth from whom God turns his face away. They and he have no choice but to drink. As St Paul says, Christ became a curse for us. It is the hour of darkness. Nevertheless, in the midst of this mental and spiritual agony, Jesus’ obedience does not waver. He hears the echo of his own words: he must undergo this. ‘Not what I will but what you will.’ Once more it is the language of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. What he prays, and teaches us to pray, he himself lives out in his steadfast obedience. If ever the words of this prayer were fulfilled, it is here in Gethsemane: ‘lead us not into temptation’, or rather, ‘save us from the time of trial’, peirasmos, that ordeal at the end of days that makes or breaks the human sufferer.

In Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘sit here while I pray’. I see in this an echo of the story in Genesis that the evangelists will have had in mind as they told of the passion of Jesus. When God commands Abraham to take his beloved child Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountain far away, he tells his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Here is Jesus walking away from his young men, his disciples with only his trusted intimates. Does he hope against hope, does he pray that like Isaac, he will avert the fire and the knife while a ram caught in a thicket is offered instead? Here in Gethsemane, he learns that there is no escape. He too is a Son like Isaac, an only Son of a Father’s love yet that makes a terrible claim upon him. He too must ascend a mountain, Golgotha, be offered on that altar and submit to the will of the Father who requires this awful act of obedience.

So the cup means both pain and mercy. In being ‘handed over’ by God and man, by his submission to his Father’s will, by drinking of the foaming wine and becoming a curse, by his cry of despair in the darkness, by all that he endured, we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Because he does not refuse the cup the Father offers him, it passes from us. And yet, a cup is still held out to us. We remember it at every eucharist. Only now, it is gift. It is salvation. It is life. It is the promise of the kingdom. And even when the cost of walking the way of the cross is that we shall undergo our own Gethsemane ordeals, we know that they are endurable because Jesus has walked this via dolorosa before us and transformed the cup of destiny. George Herbert gives us the words in a meditation called ‘The Agonie’. It looks on the cross as the place where the cup of pain and mercy is filled to the brim and offered.

Love is that liquor, sweet and most divine
Which my God tastes as blood, but I as wine.


Durham Cathedral, Lent 2, 1 March 2015 (Mark 14.22-42)

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