Wednesday: For the Sake of the Joy
The remarkable truth about Holy Week that we find so hard to grasp is the fact that everything and everyone is redeemable.
There is no tragedy so great, no action so unjust, no person so evil that he or she cannot be redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ.
We say we believe that, but most of the time we are carrying around grudges and shame and wounds that we, in our heart of hearts, don’t think Jesus can heal.
Because why would he want to? Why would he bother with redeeming our sins when he could just sweep in on a white horse and carry us off to heaven?
Well, Jesus doesn’t work that way, and we’re never going to understand his work on the Cross if we don’t understand what redemption is.
Sometimes people think that redemption is erasure of bad things.
It’s just gone, like it never happened.
But that is not redemption.
God is not doing a retroactive censorship of our lives, blacking out the parts that we’d rather not remember.
Redemption is a threefold process. It consists of forgiveness, illumination, and healing.
Erasure, elimination, forgetting and cutting out the deeds of sin and pain does not happen at all in redemption.
They’re still there. But they are fundamentally changed.
Let me explain.
When we approach God with sin on our conscience, we seek God’s forgiveness.
That is the first step because we cannot make any progress until we first acknowledge what we have done, and get some emotional relief from the urgency of our guilt.
So we receive and accept God’s forgiveness.
Then comes illumination, and this is a crucially important step.
Whatever happened is not fully redeemed unless and until we come to some new understanding of what it reveals about us and our need for spiritual growth.
If I say something rude in a Vestry meeting, and then ask forgiveness of the Vestry and of God, fine. But that’s not redemption.
The next step is to ask myself, “Why did I feel the need to say that? What part of my unhealed dark places reared up at that moment? What was going on inside me that my ego was stung and I had to pop off? How can I pray about this going forward?”
This is illumination, the second step of redemption.
It’s turning a screw-up into a step in spiritual growth.
And then we get to the third step, healing.
We have asked forgiveness, we have searched out illumination, and then we let the shame and pain of that mistake be bathed in God’s love until it subsides.
We cannot “go and sin no more” as Jesus says unless we understand and accept that God’s love for us is deeper and more real and lasting than any sin we could commit.
This is the full cycle of redemption: forgiveness, illumination, and healing.
It all sounds well and good when we’re the ones who are sinning.
But how do we take part in redemption when someone sins against us?
What happens in this process when we’re the injured party?
A lot of us get stuck on forgiveness because we have that same faulty perception we started with, that redemption is erasure and forgetting.
But remember, forgiveness is only the first step.
Unfortunately, it can be a really tough step. We can get stuck here for years.
Don’t beat yourself up about that, just keep praying and wrestle with forgiveness as long as you need to.
But I’ll tell you what will help you get to forgiveness, and that is pursuing illumination and healing at the same time.
Don’t wait for the three steps to unfold in linear time, live into them simultaneously.
So ask yourself: how can I learn and grow from this terrible thing that happened to me?
The abuse, the cancer, the addiction, whatever it is—how is it awakening me to compassion and patience and just plain sheer grit to get through it?
What is the redeeming value of this experience? How have I seen God with me even in the deepest darkness, if only in the simple fact that my heart kept beating and I kept breathing in and out?
And then healing.
Healing might look like emotional scar tissue, kind of ugly but damn tough.
Your soul is no longer pretty and smooth like it was before you got hurt.
But this is precisely how we know that this is the path of redemption!
This is how Jesus appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection—with his wounds intact and visible, but no longer causing him pain.
The marks of the nails in his hands and feet, the wound in his side—they were still there and became the very means of his disciples recognizing him.
Forgiveness, illumination, healing: this is the work of redemption, the work that Jesus did for us on the Cross.
How does this connect to where we are tonight, on Wednesday of Holy Week?
Easter is still a long way off, and we are in a very dark place in our gospel today.
There is such pain in this scene from John—Jesus predicting that one of his dearest friends will betray him, the disciples’ confusion and fear building by the minute, Judas feeling overtaken by evil and compelled on his painful and destructive course.
John ends this scene with the words, “And it was night,” and this is so very true for where we are in this Holy Week journey.
We’ve all felt as bad as Judas must at this moment.
We’ve all felt ourselves careening down a disastrous path and felt helpless to stop ourselves.
We know that we’re hurting someone we love, hurting ourselves, hurting everyone, but somehow we keep making the same mistake, deepening the addictive rut.
And that is a lonely, lonely place.
Because we have turned away from our own hearts, we feel like God has turned away also.
How can God look at us when we’re actively sinning?
But this is the remarkable truth of the process of redemption.
It is happening right now, even two days before Jesus’ crucifixion.
Forgiveness, illumination, healing—it is all available to Judas even as he storms out of the Last Supper to betray Jesus.
And it is available to us, even as we nurse our grudges, speak cruelly to family members, withhold generosity from someone in need, punish ourselves mentally and physically for our sins and bad habits while still failing to change them.
How do we know?
Consider this remarkable verse from our Hebrews text: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
“For the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”
Consider this sentence in the light of this scene in the gospel.
The joy that was set before Jesus was not just the Resurrection, which after all was a long way off.
The joy that was set before Jesus was not just God the Father or the eventual descent of the Holy Spirit.
The joy that was set before Jesus was Judas and the other disciples at the Last Supper.
Judas, in the very worst moment of his entire life, is beloved by Jesus.
Jesus bathes him in compassionate honesty.
He says that the one to whom he gives the bread after he has dipped it in the dish will betray him.
He acknowledges the truth of what Judas is doing, but Jesus’ response is to feed him with bread and wine, his Body and Blood.
That is redemptive work!
To Jesus, even this trainwreck of a last supper, full of pain and regret and fear and betrayal, is joy, because it is with his friends, the people he has been given to cherish.
And we are his friends. We are the people he has been given to cherish.
And so we–at the moment we give in to our worst impulses and betray him by hurting someone else–we are his joy.
That is unbelievable. That is life changing. That is redemption.
But that is what scripture says, and more than that, that is what Jesus, rooted in our souls, is trying to convince us of every moment of every day.
For the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross.
And you are that joy.
That is our word of hope tonight. That is our light in the darkness. And that is the promise of redemption given to us.
The next few days are going to be rough.
We are going to have to dig deep to follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, to his arrest and trial, to his long walk to Golgotha and the agonizing hours of the Cross.
How will we do it?
For the sake of the joy that is set before us.
The joy that is set before you is manifold.
The joy that is set before you is the person next to you in the pew. It is the Holy Communion we are about to share. It is the journey of your own awakened heart.
And most of all, it is the knowledge that your receiving the great gift of redemption is what is strengthening Jesus at this very moment.
For the sake of the joy set before him, for the sake of you, Jesus is going to the Cross.
For the sake of the joy set before us, let us join him there.
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