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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

Following Jesus and Battling Dragons

John 3:1-17, 33-5, 14:25-29, 15:12-14, 16:32-33

I recently watched a DVD with my 13-year-old niece of the movie, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” While I must admit I have only a passing familiarity with the Harry Potter stories, I was quickly caught up in the story of Harry Potter who finds himself mysteriously selected to compete in a dangerous tournament between three schools of magic.  Each competitor must face three difficult tasks.  The first task is to battle and defeat a fire-breathing, winged, powerful dragon.  Harry is overwhelmed with dread and unable to formulate a plan of action that would allow him a reasonable chance of success.

  The night before the competition, Professor Moody asks Harry, “What are you going to do about your dragon, Potter?  What are your strengths?”

Harry haltingly replies, “I can fly—I mean I’m a fair flyer.”

His professor responds, “Better than fair the way I heard it.”

“But I’m not allowed a broom,” Harry says sadly.

“You are allowed a wand,” Professor Moody reminds Harry.

So Harry battles the dragon, using his greatest strength, flying, with the help of his wand. Harry and the dragon take to the air in a battle of flying skills.  Harry is pursued by the dragon, and just when the dragon is almost upon him, Harry soars through the small spaces within the structure of a great bridge.  The large dragon follows him, crashing into the bridge and falling to his death.

This story and especially the encounter between Harry Potter and Professor Moody remind me of the story of Jesus with His disciples on the evening of His betrayal and arrest. The dragon is a symbol that we find in the Bible in a number of places, at least 21 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament and in the New Testament, quite memorably in several chapters in the book of Revelation, where the dragon is defeated by Christ.  In the Bible the dragon is used as a symbol of evil.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a fourth century theologian of the early church wrote, “The path to God passes by the dragon.”

On this night of nights, Jesus knows that He is battling evil and He knows that His disciples are about to enter into their own battles with evil as well. Jesus wants to use his final hours with His disciples to remind them of their greatest strength and to provide words of comfort and encouragement before they face their battles with the dragon of evil and witness Jesus’ seeming defeat in His crucifixion and death.

The first lesson that Jesus shares with His disciples is one that He teaches in both word and deed. It is the lesson of humble service.  On this night, Jesus knew, we are told, that His hour to depart out of this world to go to the Father had come.  The journey before Him held great suffering, humiliation and seeming defeat before His hour of glory.  Jesus also knew that the devil had placed in the heart of Judas Iscariot the intent to betray Jesus to His enemies.   After sharing a final meal with His disciples, Jesus rose and tied a towel around Him.  He poured water into a basin and began to wash the dirty feet of His disciples and to dry their feet on the towel.   The disciples are astonished and Peter would have stopped Him from washing his feet, for to wash the feet of guests at a dinner was the role of a servant.  Jesus knew they did not understand what He was doing, but, in time, understanding would be given.

Jesus explains His actions to His disciples, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and you call me ‘Lord’; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

The Gospel of Luke tells us that on Jesus’ final night with His disciples, a dispute arose among the disciples concerning which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. (Luke 22:24)  The disciples had not yet learned the lesson of humble service.  They had not learned that whoever would be great among them must be their servant, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. (Matthew 20:26-8)  Jesus is teaching His followers to serve others as He has served them.

The second lesson that Jesus teaches His disciples is the path of following a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus tells them. Follow my example, Jesus says, and love one another.  Jesus’ life is an example of a life of loving others, love that is possible only because of the love of God for Jesus and Jesus’ love of God and Jesus’ love of us.  “You are my friends,” Jesus tells His disciples, “if you do what I command you.”

Trevor Hudson is a pastor serving in South Africa and the author of a number of books. I recently read his book, Beyond Loneliness: the Gift of God’s Friendship, in which Trevor affirms his belief that God wants to enter into a friendship with us and to guide us through our lives.  Trevor explores how we can nurture our relationship of friendship with God and how our friendship with God can transform our lives.  Trevor recounts that he once asked a trusted Christian author, Dallas Willard, for a list of books that he should read to assist him in his discipleship and ministry.  Dallas answered simply, “The four Gospels.”  Trevor began to focus his devotional time on “keeping company with Jesus in the Gospels.”  He found that reading the Gospels and reflecting on them gave him the experience of a personal interaction with the living Christ.  Jesus’ life and teachings uniquely reveal to us what it means to live as God’s friend and partner.  Trevor recommends beginning with the Gospel of Mark and reading slowly and reflectively, asking questions like: How does Jesus’ relationship with His Father God come across to me?  What do I notice about Jesus’ relationships with people?  What things puzzle me that I would like to talk about with Him?  Following Jesus will lead us into friendship with God.  As with Jesus, we are closest to one another in love when we are closest to God.

Nowhere do we encounter the living Jesus so poignantly, so filled with love and a longing to teach and lead His disciples, as we do in His last hours with His disciples, before His betrayal by one of His disciples and His desertion by the others and the arrest that leads to His death.   Chapters 14, 15 and 16 of the Gospel of John express the love Jesus has for His disciples and the wisdom He is seeking to share with them to prepare them for all that will follow.  Many people leave letters for their loved ones to read after they die.  In these letters they express their love for family members and provide instructions for handling their affairs.  This is what Jesus is doing in these chapters through words spoken to His disciples.   Jesus knows what will follow and He knows one disciple will betray Him and the others will desert Him.  Yet, Jesus calls His disciples His friends, friends if they will do what Jesus commands them.

The command to follow Jesus and love and serve one another in love is easier to recite than it is to live on a daily basis. Our love is riddled with resentment and anger and petty jealousy and with the desire to be appreciated and valued.  There is something within us that resists being a humble servant.  We would much rather be served than to serve others.

In the 2004 commencement address of Princeton Theological Seminary, the President of the Seminary, Thomas Gillespie, preached a sermon to the graduating seminarians entitled, “There Be Dragons.” He described a framed piece of artwork that hangs in the workroom of the president’s office.  A medieval castle is in the distant background as a dragon lies in the foreground, leaning against a tree.  The dragon is using a lance as an after-dinner toothpick.  Scattered all around are pieces of a knight’s armor.  Beneath the scene a caption reads:

No matter how hard you work,

No matter how right you are,

Sometimes the dragon wins.

Why would the President of Princeton Theological Seminary tell a festive class of graduating seminarians about to embark into the practice of ministry that sometimes the dragon wins and evil defeats good despite our most valiant efforts? Because, of course, it is true.  Sometimes, the dragon wins, but not always.  Sometimes we witness miracles, as in the healing of lives and relationships.  But sometimes despite our fervent prayers and best efforts, despite our sincere conviction that we are fighting on the side of all that is good and right and true, the dragon wins the battle.    

Jesus was about to face the greatest challenge of His life as He faces His arrest, cruel beatings, crucifixion and death. Jesus is about to battle the dragon of evil and human sin and His disciples will battle the dragon of fear, doubt, and supreme desire for self-preservation.  They will believe that the forces of evil have won and their beloved Teacher has been defeated.  The Light of the world, they believe, has been extinguished.

Jesus knew that His disciples and later followers would be battling dragons, the dragons within themselves and the dragons of this world, the dragons of all the forces that would pull us away from being a friend and follower of Jesus. The apostle Paul understood the battle Jesus’ followers face.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote: “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”   (Ephesians 6:11-12) 

We face battles in our lives. We understand the challenge of human frailty, struggles in our relationships, ill health, addictions, grief when loved ones die and the disappointment of failed dreams.  We have known times of darkness when God may seem very silent, and we think, “The dragons have won.”

We hear of explosions in Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday that kill and injure worshiping Christians, explosions for which ISIS claims responsibility. We hear of African Americans engaged in a Bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, early one morning, shot and killed by an intruder as a racist hate crime.  We think, “The dragons have won.”   

It is just because we are battling dragons that Jesus shares with His disciples a third lesson. It is a lesson that offers them the greatest and most powerful gift.  This gift will be His disciples’ greatest strength as they follow Jesus and face their dragons with courage.     

Jesus tells His disciples that while He is going away, He is not leaving the disciples of His day or our day desolate. Our greatest strength in following Jesus will be the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is present to help us in the battles and struggles of our lives.  We do not have the physical presence of Jesus with us, but we are given a gift far greater, for the Holy Spirit is not bound by the limitations of physical time and space.  The Holy Spirit is with each of us, always and forever, and will remind us of all that Jesus taught us.  The Holy Spirit will offer us wisdom, guidance, courage, joy and peace.

“Peace I leave with you,” Jesus says. “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”

How can the disciples experience this peace in the days to come when following Jesus will bring rejection, persecution, hardship and threat of death? They will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and know a peace that surpasses all understanding.

“Abide in Me,” Jesus says, “as I abide in you.” Jesus knows that our lives cannot bear fruit of loving service unless He abides in us and we in Jesus as a branch abides on a vine.  Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, united through the Holy Spirit.

On this final evening with His disciples, Jesus provides a fourth lesson, a gift that foreshadows a new day, a gift the disciples do not understand, at least not yet. But in three days, early in the morning, when they peer into the empty tomb where the dead body of Jesus had been laid, they may remember.  They may remember how on the night that He was betrayed, Jesus shared a dinner with His disciples.  They may remember that Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave thanks and broke it and said, “This is my body which is broken for you.”  They may remember that He took a simple cup of wine and said, “This is my blood shed for you.”  They may remember that after dinner, Jesus washed their dirty feet and told them to wash one another’s feet.  They may remember the commandment to love one another and that Jesus promised to send them the gift of the Holy Spirit to teach them and unite them with the living Jesus.  They may remember that on this very night, Jesus spoke to them some mysterious words:

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.”  Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to Him, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.”

Tonight the disciples wonder at the meaning of Jesus’ words. They do not yet understand that Jesus is offering them a vision of death defeated, evil vanquished, and life eternal in the place where Jesus is going.  Someday God will dwell with them and wipe every tear from their eyes and death will be no more, neither will there be mourning nor crying, nor pain.  Someday, God will make all things new.  But not tonight.   Tonight there is only darkness and fear.  Jesus has done all that He can do to prepare His disciples.  This very night Jesus’ enemies are also preparing for the most terrible battle the world has ever known.

 

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