Sunday, March 13th, 2016 – the fifth Sunday of Lent
Foothills Christian Church, Phoenix, AZ
Scriptures: Psalm 116:1-2,12-19, Mark 14:12-26
Hymns: “Multiplied”, “Enough”, “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”
What Makes Tonight Different from Every Other Night?
Passover has been observed as a traditional part of the Jewish calendar year for thousands of years. Dating back to the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people have celebrated Passover every year in remembrance of their people escaping slavery under the rule of the Pharaoh. Within that celebration are certain elements that have never changed – the food served, such as the lamb and the unleavened bread, and the words spoken. The Hebrew words spoken to open the observance of Passover every
year are as follows: Ma nishtana, ha laylah ha zeh, mi kol ha leylot.
“What makes tonight different from every other night?”
Traditionally, these words are spoken by the youngest member of the family, as an acknowledgment that the one person in the family who yet has the most to learn and the longest to live should be the one to ask why the first night of Passover is different from every other night the rest of the year. And as I was preparing for this sermon, I started wondering: who spoke the words of the ma nishtana when Jesus and His followers celebrated the Passover in the upper room?
Obviously, we have no way of truly knowing. None of us were there, the Gospels do not tell us, and there are no secular historical records that contain an account of the meal that evening. However, as I think about Jesus’ apostles and the nature of the meal, my gut tells me that it was probably either Peter, James, or John.
Why one of those three? First of all, if you think about it, when Jesus called the three of them to be His followers, Peter was still working for his father, Jonah, and James and John for their father, Zebedee, on their respective fishing boats. Men did not live to be terribly old back in those days – often having a life expectancy of no more than 55 – and they tended to marry and have children fairly young. There is an oblique reference in the Gospels to Peter being married – earlier in Mark, we see Jesus heal his mother-in-law – but there are never any references to any of those three men having children. When you take all of those factors into account, chances are good that the three of them were all in their early-to-mid twenties, perhaps even as young as eighteen or nineteen. By comparison, somebody such as Matthew would have to be considerably older, seeing as when he was called by Jesus, he was working as a tax collector, a position of great importance in the Roman Empire, if one of great scorn among his own people.
So I think chances are good that either Peter, James, or John was the youngest of the apostles present at that meal. It also stands to reason that the three of them were young, because they were the ones who were constantly being impetuous and causing trouble, surely making Jesus sigh more than once, but they were also the ones who were always asking questions, eager to learn more, eager to understand how they could better take the Good News to the people Jesus came to serve.
And if you think about the way the church has progressed in the centuries and millennia since then, it is always the younger people who have a tendency to question authority and cause trouble. Martin Luther was the ripe old age of 34 when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg. Alexander Campbell was only in his mid-twenties when he was expelled from the Orange Presbytery for having the audacity to question the doctrine of infant baptism. Billy Graham was 29 when he conducted his first crusade – an event which he insisted upon being fully integrated and open to persons of all colors, something virtually unheard of in 1947. Martin Luther King, Jr., was only 27 when he was arrested for the first time for protesting against discrimination.
Closer to home, think about the last three non-interim ministers that this church has called – Erin Wathen, Andrew Shepherd, and Bekah Cypert-Krevens. All three were under the age of thirty when they were called to serve this congregation. They are the continuation of a centuries-old tradition in the church of young leaders of the church being the people who stand up and ask the question, “What makes tonight different from every other night?”
And it is when those young leaders ask what makes tonight different from any other night, what makes today different from any other day, what makes this place different from any other place – THAT is when change occurs. Peter, James, and John would go on to be among the first and most influential leaders of a movement that is now two millennia old and has drawn literally billions of followers to the teachings of one humble Jewish rabbi. Martin Luther would kick off the greatest reformation in the history of the church. Alexander Campbell would become one of the founding fathers of America’s first home-grown Christian movement – the Disciples of Christ. Billy Graham and MLK went on to irreversibly change the path of not just Christianity but humanity in America. And the work of the three pastors I named of this congregation have turned it from a once dying, stagnant, old church into a vibrant, thriving place that has opened its doors to full acceptance and affirmation of ALL people who seek to follow Christ.
It would be wonderful if that was the full depth and breadth of the story, if we looked at those who dared to say, ma nishtana, ha laylah ha zeh, mi kol ha leylot, and we recognized that they are the people who have always injected new life into the church, keeping it relevant and moving forward. But we know very well that it’s not, because just as Peter, James, and John sat at that table, celebrating the Passover meal with Jesus, so too was there another apostle. An older apostle, one who had come to Jesus probably out of what was considered the financial sector of the time, one who handled Jesus’ finances and dealt with the public on his behalf. This apostle was used to a significant degree of control and power, and so for the young apostles to turn to Jesus and say, “What makes tonight different from every other night,” posed a threat to him, a threat which he sought to nullify in the only way he knew how, by turning to money and power.
We all know well what this apostle’s name was: Judas Iscariot.
Judas believed, just like every other Jew, that there was a Messiah who would come to liberate his people. He believed that that Messiah was the rabbi who he had decided to follow, Jesus of Nazareth. However, he also believed that there were very certain ways in which Jesus needed to go about so doing – ways that wouldn’t get him and his followers all killed, ways that would lift the Jewish people up and allow them to become conquerors. So never mind the fact that the younger, hot-headed apostles were asking, “What makes tonight different from every other night?” It was when Jesus started making similar inquiries, questioning authority and upsetting what Judas saw to be the rule of order, that Judas began to have qualms about the way things were going.
And we all know what happened after that. It’s in the words that are spoken at the table every Sunday in churches around the world – “On the night in which Jesus was betrayed…” When that youngest of the apostles on that first night of Passover asked, “What makes tonight different from every other night,” I sincerely doubt that they were expecting that the answer would be, “Tonight is the night that the Son of Man will be handed over to the authorities to be executed.”
As we know, though, that’s exactly what happened. Judas sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. The Roman government arrested Jesus. The Sanhedrin egged Pontius Pilate on to call for Jesus to be tortured and then crucified. Judas realized the enormity of what he had done, and in his guilt and grief, killed himself. Jesus died and was buried.
What happened after that… well, that’s a story for two weeks from now.
But what we know is that IN SPITE of Judas Iscariot’s actions on that night, the movement that Peter, James, and John would go on to lead sprang up out of the ground like wildflowers in the spring, pollinating young minds the world over, and growing, and growing, and growing over the centuries to come. Unfortunately, we also know that the example of Judas is still alive and well in the church today.
Every church has their Judases. We all know who they are. They’re the ones who think that because they’ve given more money than others, they should have more control over the church, forgetting that Jesus Himself said that it’s not how much you give, it’s the intent with which you give it. They’re the ones who think that because of the positions they hold and have held in the church, they should have more control over the church, forgetting that Jesus Himself said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. They’re the ones that look at a style of worship that has remained stagnant since the 1950s and say, “Well, it was good enough for my parents, and it was good enough for me, and it’ll darn well be good enough for the kids today,” forgetting that the way worship is done in the church has, until the last half century, never remained the same for more than ten to twenty years at a time.
They’re the ones who, when confronted by the young leaders who say, “What makes tonight different from every other night,” go to great lengths to obstruct their attempts to move the church forward and, if need be, crush them where they stand and sweep them out of leadership. Those young leaders pose a remarkable threat to the status quo, to the power and control that these modern-day Judases have held for so long.
But when they do so, when they put so much effort into maintaining their desperate grasp on a church that no longer truly exists, that is when they betray those young leaders; that is when they betray their own church; indeed, that is when they betray Christ.
Strong words, I know, but words that are true now and have been experienced by every young leader of the church in some way or another for the last two thousand years.
When the young leaders of our church – and indeed, many of the older ones, who remember and celebrate what it was like to be young leaders – ask what it is that makes tonight different from every other night, we as the body of Christ have an obligation to support them, even if perhaps we don’t fully agree with the answers they are getting to that question. It is only when we allow these leaders to ask that question and find the answers alongside them that the church can grow and evolve.
And as far as the Judases go – well, our first instinct is to protect the young leaders from them, but that’s not what we should be doing, either. Indeed, we should be engaging with them, helping them to see and appreciate the ways in which the church is growing, helping them to communicate their fears to these young leaders and in turn, receiving the reassurance and affirmation they need to overcome these fears – to understand that even as the church changes throughout time, it will still remain the same place of grace, mercy, and love that it has been throughout the centuries.
For you see, the answer to what makes tonight different from any other night can be summed up in five words: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through that resurrection that grace, mercy, and life have been made available to all persons throughout the world. Let us, therefore, not shy away from asking what makes tonight different from every other night, but work together to empower those who are bold enough to ask the question, and stand with them to be Christ to all God’s children. Amen.