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That Night and the Twelve

Cecelia Armstrong

Rev. Cecelia “CeCe” Armstrong is the associate pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in Charleston, South Carolina, on the lovely James Island.

Are you Nathanael, also named Bartholomew? Skeptical until there is a personal encounter? Are we like Nathanael, who is not certain that Jesus is who he says he is? Nathanael was not going to easily follow Jesus. But when Christ was able to prove to him that he knew him and his location prior to Philip’s approach, Nathanael was fully aware of Jesus’ claim.

Preached at St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Maundy Thursday 2021 (a virtual service). For a film of the worship experience, visit youtube.com/watch?v=vlt9EXNLIFM.

Read John 13:1–11.

Jesus knew exactly who was going to betray him. Yet he acted out of love to provide a foot washing for each of the disciples. In a sense, Jesus knows that we are going to be tempted to betray God in our words, actions, and deeds, and yet God acts out of love to provide for us a cleansing, called baptism. Remember your baptism.

Read John 13:21–28.

Have you ever considered those who sat at table with Jesus on that night before his arrest? There he sat with his dearest friends to share with them what was to come. They had been with him for some time and should have been well aware of what was to come, but all along they did not fully grasp what was about to take place. They were all close to Jesus, yet they struggled with something that separated them from him. We come to this table on a regular basis because this draws us closer to Jesus, and there are things in our lives that separate us from Christ.

Joel 2:12–13 tells us that the Lord wants us to return with all of our heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. The Lord specifically tells us to rend our hearts and not our clothing. What is it that we may be experiencing that is separating us from God? Whatever it is, we should know that we aren’t the first to have this separation and we will not be the last. We need to recognize what separates us and then spend time designing intentional plans that will help reconcile us with our Creator.

Are you Peter? One minute walking on water by faith and the next sinking in doubts? Are we like Peter, best known for denying Jesus when pressured? Jesus spoke of his death, and Peter was quick to rebuke him, saying that it couldn’t happen that way. Jesus was concerned about who touched his garment, and Peter said, “It is just the crowds.” Jesus wanted to wash the feet of his friends, and Peter said, “No, thank you.” After he understood the significance, he changed his mind to say, “Wash my hands and head too.” Most of us can relate to Peter because what separates us from God is our desire to be faithful and logical at the same time, eliminating the need for faith and the acknowledgment of grace.

Are you Andrew? Bringing folks to Christ and then slipping into the background? Are we like Andrew, who lived in the shadow of his more famous sibling, Simon Peter? Andrew led Peter to Christ, then stepped back as his brother became a leader among the apostles. Andrew was the one who brought the boy with the fish and loaves of bread. Most of us can relate to Andrew because what separates us from God is our desire to push folks ahead of us, forgetting that we are leaders too.

Are you James or John? Making assumptions usually without thinking? Are we like James or John, known for being in the innermost circle with Christ? These guys had the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” They were proud of being who they were with Christ and would be willing to shut others down who were not in line with the teachings of Christ. They were also the ones whose mother wanted to know how far they would go in rank with Jesus. Most of us can relate with either James or John because what separates us from God is our willingness to be bullies in hopes that it grants us high rank in heaven.

Are you Philip? Introducing the individuals who will bring with them doubt? Are we like Philip, who asks questions that will invoke probable cause for doubt? Philip introduced the known skeptic Bartholomew to Christ. Philip asked at the feeding of the five thousand about the amount of wages necessary to feed the crowd. Most of us can relate to Philip because what separates us from God is our desire to make sense out of what God is able to do, as if we could have that much understanding. Later Philip had an experience with the Ethiopian eunuch who wanted to know how we can understand anything without someone teaching us.

Are you Nathanael, also named Bartholomew? Skeptical until there is a personal encounter? Are we like Nathanael, who is not certain that Jesus is who he says he is? Nathanael was not going to easily follow Jesus. But when Christ was able to prove to him that he knew him and his location prior to Philip’s approach, Nathanael was fully aware of Jesus’ claim. Most of us can relate to Nathanael because what separates us from God is our desire to have some sort of proof that God is God all by Godself.

Are you Thomas? Doubting because something tangible must precede belief? Are we like Thomas, called Didymus—meaning “the Twin”—although a twin brother or sister is never mentioned in the Bible? Thomas was an outspoken skeptic to the point of being known as a pessimist, yet his courage and loyalty to Christ really points to him not wanting to be left out. When the disciples feared that returning to Bethany at Lazarus’s death would cause them to die, Thomas spoke up and said, “Let’s go and die with him.” When Jesus spoke of his ascension to be with God and told the disciples that they knew where he was going, Thomas spoke up and said, “How do we know the way?” Most of us can relate to Thomas because what separates us from God is our desire to have enough faith sprinkled with a little bit of physical assurance.

Are you Matthew? Like a tax collector in Roman times, the most despised type of person? Are we like Matthew, who tended to only know traitors and social outsiders because that’s exactly who he was? Matthew only knew folks who were religious outcasts. A tax collector in those days would take extra money from the people to pay off the Romans and pad their own pockets. Yet, when Jesus said follow me, he left his cursed profession forever because he had new life in Christ. Most of us can relate to Matthew because what separates us from God is that we boldly want to leave our old lives behind and yet we want to hold on to whatever value we think it gives us.

Are you the other James? Not quite as noticeable and outspoken as the rest, but still present? Even called James the Less, probably because there is nothing mentioned about him except his mother and brother’s names. Are we like James, who usually hangs out in the background? James may have been in the background, and yet he was chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve to further the kingdom of God. He was trained and used by Christ in a powerful way. Most of us can relate to James because what separates us from God is that we are not confident that we are valuable team members in the ministry that God has called us to do.

Are you Simon the Zealot? Named in such a way that says he was an enthusiast and was ready to fight the power? Are we like Simon, who was probably a political activist? Simon was a man of fierce loyalties, amazing passion, courage and zeal. He used his fiery enthusiasm as devotion to Christ, even though it was once used to promote the political sector. Most of us can relate to Simon because what separates us from God is that we are adamant about something in our lives that has nothing to do with our Christian walk and yet lack that same zeal when it comes to actual service for the Lord.

Are you Judas (not Iscariot), known by three names, including Labbaeus Thaddeus? Named in such a way that meant he was a child at heart? Are we like Judas Labbaeus Thaddeus who was tenderhearted and compassionate? He innocently questioned Jesus as to why Christ wasn’t going to make himself known to everyone. Most of us can relate to Judas Labbaeus Thaddeus because what separates us from God is that we do not want to reveal our humility and rather be brash or bold or overconfident about our convictions.

Are you Judas Iscariot? A traitor? Are we like Judas Iscariot, who gave Christ moments of his life but certainly did not give Jesus his heart? He betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. He drew as close to the Savior as was humanly possible to be. He enjoyed every privilege Christ affords. He was intimately familiar with everything Jesus taught while he remained in unbelief and went into a hopeless eternity. Most of us can relate to Judas Iscariot because what separates us from God is that we do not want to admit that our faith is too weak to believe God all the time. Nelson Mandela reminds us that “one cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”

Read John 13:31b–35.

Jesus leaves us all to deal with those things that separate us from God. We suffer from spiritual carelessness, squandered opportunity, sinful lusts, and hardness of heart. Yet, Jesus also reminds us of the new commandment that will allow us to be encouraged. We may feel separated from God, but the twelve should give us hope because they exemplify how common people with typical failings can be used by God in uncommon, remarkable ways. This is why we give. This is why we pray.

Our encounter with Jesus tonight allows us to hear the invitation to the Table.

Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. The gift of God for the people of God.

We have come face to face with our forgetful and flawed nature. We can easily be turned from the promise of baptism and the beauty of communion to betrayal. The threat of death hovers near and darkness is coming. We realize in these moments of comfort and light of the sacraments that there is anxiety and pain in the garden, and the cross is on its way.

Sit with that . . .

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