View print-optimized version | View pdf of a.m. bulletin | View pdf of p.m. bulletin

Palm/Passion Sunday, April 9, 2017 | 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.

Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John

Final Things

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 24
John 19:16b–30

Jesus, the holy one, the whole one,
guide us through the streets of our journey.
Open our eyes and our ears to the guiding of God’s spirit,
who calls us to costly faithfulness and to joyous wholeness.
Let us sing with all our selves.

Beth Richardson, “Passion Sunday,” alive now!

“I am thirsty.” According to the Gospel of John, these are some of Jesus’ last words before he dies. “I am thirsty.” And then, after he gets his drink of sour wine, Jesus quietly proclaims that it is finished, bows his head, and silently gives up his spirit.

Since we have been immersed in this Gospel of John during the entire Lenten season, I am sure it will not surprise you one bit to learn that this Gospel is unique in the way it describes Jesus’ crucifixion. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, there is no prayer time full of spiritual struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane with disciples sound asleep and Jesus pleading for God to change the plan and spare his life. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, in John’s account, Jesus does not verbalize his sense of abandonment on the cross. And unlike the Gospel of Luke, John does not show Jesus interacting with the criminals on either side of him, speaking words of forgiveness or promise.

Rather, the dying Jesus in John’s Gospel is a Jesus of few words, great dignity, and much restraint. He carries his own cross. He takes the initiative to create new family relationships in order to care for his mother when he’s gone. In this Gospel of John, Jesus does the work of dying quietly, seemingly because he knows he has lived fully the life and the mission God gave him to live.

Again, this account of Jesus’ death probably should not surprise us. As we have discovered over these past six weeks, the Gospel writer of John wanted to paint a particular portrait of Jesus. The writer wanted to show us a Jesus who was always in control, even when the powers of the world said otherwise. We saw that control when Jesus was at table with his disciples at their final meal and he basically told Judas to go ahead out into the night and “do what you are going to do.” In other words, go on and betray me. Let’s get this process moving.

We saw that control even after Jesus’ arrest, as he stood trial in front of the high priest as well as Pilate. Jesus chose when to speak, and he chose when to stay silent. He asked Pilate almost as many questions as Pilate asked Jesus. He did not cower or bow down or show much reaction at all. No, the Jesus of John’s Gospel is a Jesus, who even when being crucified, hanging naked on a cross, in the midst of degradation and seeming defeat, still manages to exude quiet dignity and humility for much of the experience.

But it is because this Gospel writer paints such a consistent portrait of Jesus from his or her perspective again and again that these almost-last words from Jesus might startle us, for they are so out of character for this Gospel of John. “I am thirsty,” Jesus cries, while he is actively dying. “I am thirsty.” His cry for a drink catches me off guard. Does it do that for you? “I am thirsty,” he says.

Now, the Gospel writer indicates the only reason Jesus said those words was to fulfill an Old Testament scripture—a regular pattern in John’ writing. But I don’t think that tells the whole story. That is because Jesus’ cry reminds me of the many nighttime moments I have experienced when my children were little. What do little ones who call out for their parents in the middle of the night normally cry? “Mommy, I am thirsty.” “Daddy, I’m thirsty.” Usually it is a cry for attention. Sometimes it is a cry because they are scared and want to know their parents are there in the dark and they are safe. Occasionally they really are thirsty and need a drink to feel better.

Frankly, because of this connection, I have been wondering if Jesus directed his last cry to his mother, who John tells us was standing there. As she stood watching her son die in front of her, powerless to stop it, did he look at her and say, “I am thirsty”? It could be that when the scripture says “they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth,” the “they” might have been his mother and his aunt, two women doing their best to comfort him and care for him, even then.

Honestly, I don’t think that proposition is too farfetched, because Jesus’ unvarnished cry of “I am thirsty” exposes again just what God was up to in Jesus, a vulnerable truth that even the Gospel writer couldn’t tidy up. No matter that John wanted to portray a dying Jesus who went into his death with total control and dignity, in God’s grace the full humanity of Jesus refuses to be ignored.

Jesus’ cry of thirst powerfully reconnects us to his birth. It reconnects us to the crying, red-faced, baby boy who was born into this life just like the rest of us. Jesus’ cry of thirst immediately reminds us that the One who hangs on the cross is the same one who was born in a stable, into poverty and nobodiness, who became part of a refugee family fleeing certain death from the political powers of his time. The One who cries out for a drink at his death is the same one who cried out for his mother’s milk at his birth.

Both cries were cries of need. Both cries were cries for comfort. Both cries were cries that demonstrate for us that Jesus really was flesh and bone, just like you and me. Flesh and bone that hurt. Flesh and bone that was bleeding. Flesh and bone that was dying. Flesh and bone that there, on that cross, was thirsty and that called out to his mother for relief. Jesus’ cry reminds us once again that Jesus was not God playing dress up in the garments of our life. Jesus was not God un-carnate, just pretending to be human, while in actuality somehow remaining detached and above all the grubbiness of creatureliness. No, Jesus’ cry of thirst reminds us that God in Jesus was incarnate, really flesh and really blood, down in the dirt and the muck of being fully human, just like we are.

Even though we preachers are always told to make sure not to stick too much of ourselves into the sermon, I have to tell you how much Jesus’ last cry has meant to me just during this past week alone. Hearing Jesus’ cry of “I am thirsty” ringing in my ears has offered me a strange comfort during a week when we have again been reminded of the brutality we can inflict on each other. Just pick a news story. Perhaps it was the story of the restaurant shooting in South Shore last weekend, when another mother watched her sons die in front of her eyes. Or perhaps it was the story coming out of Syria this week, a story full of pictures of parents holding their children who were no longer with them due to brutal and inhumane acts of war and terror. Then there’s Stockholm on Friday and Egypt just this morning. I don’t want to list any more; you all know them. But add to the news we see in the paper and on television all the stories of friends and congregation members dealing with new diagnoses of terminal diseases or those experiencing first-time anniversaries marking deaths too soon, and, well, it’s been quite a week for many of us.

So how, you might wonder, has Jesus’ carnal cry of thirst offered any comfort in the face of such suffering, such grief, such despair? I can only speak for myself, but it has offered a strange comfort for me, because Jesus’ “I am thirsty” has reminded me that God, God’s very self, has experienced it all. Because of Jesus, God knows first-hand what it is like to hurt. Because of Jesus, God knows firsthand what it is like to suffer. Because of Jesus, God knows firsthand what it is like to lose one’s breath. Because of Jesus, God knows firsthand what it is like to lose one’s child. Because of Jesus, and God’s willingness to fully enter into our humanity, to take that risk of extreme vulnerability, we can trust that not one of those who entered our news cycle as victim, not one of those on the receiving end of a devastating diagnosis, not one of those overwhelmed by waves of grief—not one of them was or is ever alone, without the persistent presence of the Holy. Jesus’ calling out his need, “I am thirsty,” reminds us of that truth of our faith.

The poet and writer Christian Wiman, who wrote his book My Bright Abyss as he fought a rare cancer, claims it is the honest humanity that Jesus shows on the cross that keeps him a Christian. Here is how he puts it:

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection, and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions, and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised. I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me. . . . I know, I know he was quoting the Psalms. . . . The words are not the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. . . . I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love. . . . Such a realization should ease loneliness—even for the grieving who is left alone; it should also, in time, help to propel one back into life. (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, p. 155)

Even though Wiman was reflecting on Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of Matthew when Jesus verbalizes his sense of divine abandonment, I find Jesus’ vulnerable cry of thirst here in John’s Gospel to be a similar revelation. Both cries reveal a God who chose to be so fully one with us and of us that he would choose to suffer, to experience pain and death, in order to remind us that even when everything and everyone tells us otherwise, we are never alone. Furthermore, even when everything and everyone tells us otherwise, suffering and war and pain and death will not have the last word in our world or in our lives.

As Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has written,

Jesus’ [cry] on the cross is not just the heartbreaking lament of an abandoned man. It is that, but it is not only that. What we see and hear in Jesus’ death is not just his identification with the wretched of the earth. It is that, but it is not only that. What we see and hear in Jesus’ death is the decisive intervention of God to deliver God’s children from the unspeakable fate of ultimate abandonment. . . . The cosmic scale has been conclusively tipped in the opposite direction so that sin and evil and death are not the last word and never will be again. (Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death, p. 15)

As he hung there dying, his mother waiting and watching, Jesus cried out for a drink. “I am thirsty.” It was a cry of vulnerability you would expect from a child, but not one you expect from God. It was a cry that reminds us of everything God was willing to endure for our sake. It was a cry that demonstrates for us that nothing we can experience—not even fear or death—is outside of God’s own experience through Christ.

On this Palm/Passion Sunday, as we prepare to enter another Holy Week, when rumors of war are again afoot and pictures and stories of human suffering and our capacity for brutality are again on full display, God’s desire to take it, to take us, all in is indeed a strange comfort, a strange grace, a strange giving of breath and presence, perhaps even a strange offering of courage.

“Mommy, I am thirsty,” Jesus cried out. And with that cry, it was done. What wondrous love is this, O my soul. Amen.