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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

March 28, 2013

 The Third Cup

Psalm 116; Mt. 26:36-46

            When the Corinthian Christians were hurt and angry at one another, conflicted over misunderstandings and poor behavior at the Lord’s table, their pastor Paul set their sights on the most important thing: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you do proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  Something in these words resonates throughout church history, because we still recite them to this day.  We have recited them so often, in fact, that I’m sure that their power is overlooked.  So why don’t we pause over them for a moment?  “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you do proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

            That qualifies, I think, as a paradox.  You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  Here are two true statements that contradict each other.  The Lord died.  The Lord is coming.  Those who have died cannot be expected to come.  Those who are expected to come could not have died.

            What sort of conviction do we have, you and I, as we gather at this table?  What sort of paradox do we embrace when we eat this bread and drink the cup?  What sort of “nevertheless” do we curiously declare by accepting that he died and trusting that he is coming?

            I am persuaded that it is the same “nevertheless” that Jesus himself declared on the night of his betrayal.  Jesus hosted the Passover meal for his disciples, providing a room, leading the liturgy, taking part with them in the recitation of God’s great Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.  He led this celebration of liberation on the eve of his own destruction.  He had tried to warn them of this: that he must suffer and die; but it seems that they just didn’t comprehend fully.  But he did.  Nevertheless, he celebrated the Passover with them.

            In that Passover meal, likely there were three or four cups of wine shared as part of the ritual.  Only Luke’s Gospel gives a hint of that detail, and tells us of only two cups.  Of a Passover meal in that time, we know that there was a cup with the first course, then a question and answer and the singing of Psalms 113 and 114, then a second cup.  Then the meal and a third cup, and the singing of Psalms 115-118.  And then, possibly, a fourth cup.

            So Jesus is sharing these cups with his disciples and singing these songs of salvation. “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.  Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.”

            Just how did he sing these songs, knowing what lay ahead? Did his voice fail, maybe? Did he have to stop for a moment?

“The snares of death encompassed me;

The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;

I suffered distress and anguish.”

            Now, I realize that someone might say that Jesus could confidently sing that song without worry, because he knew how it was going to work out.  He could sing with a smile on his face and no catch in his throat, no pang in his stomach.  I guess he could, if we were to speculate.  But that’s not necessary.  All we need to do is listen to the Gospel.  And the Gospel says that Jesus, after singing, went out to the Mount of Olives to pray.  And the Gospel says that he began to be grieved and agitated.  And he begged Peter and James and John to stay with him.

            This is what he prayed: “Let this cup pass from me.”  In other words, “I don’t want to do this, Father.  I don’t want to do this.”  The first two cups, back at dinner, Jesus drank.  The third cup is the one he would rather not.  It’s a metaphorical cup, obviously, but it refers to something very real.  It is the cup of suffering.  Jesus does not want to suffer.  On this night, he is not simply reciting the Psalms of Israel’s deliverance; he is reliving Israel’s need for deliverance. The snares of death do encompass him; the pangs of Sheol do lay hold on him; he does suffer distress and anguish; and so he does call on the Lord, “save my life!”

            While there is something to commend about that movie by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, I will say that one scene especially bothered me.  It bothered me because I think it misses the mark on Jesus’ true humanity.  In the movie, when Jesus is being flogged by Roman soldiers, there is a moment when he seems to break.  He collapses and the soldiers pause, thinking that they are done.  But to the gasps of the watching crowd, Jesus re-gathers his strength, and stands, and in effect asks for more.  The unmistakable message is that here is someone of superhuman strength and will.  And that, the church confesses, is exactly the opposite of the truth.

            Jesus is not superhuman; he is fully human.  He doesn’t want to do this.  He asks God not to have to do this.  If you ever have doubts that God is with you, let this be the prayer of Jesus that you ponder.  “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Is there any prayer more human than that?”

            Perhaps there is one: “Nevertheless, not my will, but thy will be done.”  Perhaps that is the most human prayer of all.  “I don’t want to, but thy will be done.”  It’s the prayer that Adam and Eve, who preferred not to be fully human, could not pray.  They prayed, “Not thy will, but my will be done.”  They tried to be superhuman.  Jesus was content to be fully human.  Maybe we can, too.

            One of the more remarkable examples of faith I have witnessed was the family right next to Anne and me in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Duke University Hospital, in July and August of 1999.  Their son was in the isolette next to our son’s isolette.  Their son had the same brain hemorrhage as our son.  Their church was just as attentive to them as ours was to us.  They prayed as vigorously for his healing as we did for ours.  Our prayers were answered, just as we prayed.  Theirs were not.  We took our son home without further surgeries; they did not.  We returned our son to the clinic from time to time, where the doctors found remarkable recovery and development.  They returned their son to the clinic, where the doctors worked to overcome the complications and delays.  I suspect that their son has had several surgeries since.  I suspect that they have been subject to a distress and an anguish, a suffering, that we have not known.  But remarkably, as long as we continued to see them, we saw no resentment, no anger, no resignation.  We saw faith.  We saw gratitude.  We saw love for their son and trust in God.  This qualifies, I think, as a paradox.  Two true statements that contradict each other.  They love the Lord, who did not answer their prayers as they asked.

            Faith is a great “nevertheless.”  It is a fully human trust in God, regardless of circumstance.  It is belief that what all the saints have confessed through the years is true, even when we don’t see it at the moment.  It is a willingness to keep praying with all the saints, while we wait for the confirmation: “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.”

            It is what Jesus prayed on the night when he knew that he would suffer and die; when he didn’t want to, but nevertheless agreed to.  “Get up, we must be going.”

            It is what the saints always have done, setting an example for us.  It’s what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did when King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them in the fire if they didn’t bow down to the idol.  “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire, O king, let him deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the statue.”

            It is what Jeremiah called the people to do when their hopes were dashed and their lives were uprooted and they were carted off as exiles to a strange land: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce….  Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

            It is what Moses called the people of Israel to confess in the moments when the only thing before them were the chariots of Egypt’s army and the only thing behind them were the waters of the Red Sea.  “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”

            Faith is a great “nevertheless.”  So Jesus drank the third cup that could not pass.  He prayed, “not my will, but thy will be done;” and he lived it.  He lived a fully human life, trusting God.

            As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you do proclaim the Lord’s death, because God did not answer his prayer.

            As often as you drink it, you proclaim it until Jesus comes.  He will come, just as surely as God defeated his death.  He will come, just as surely as the fiery furnace could not destroy; just as surely as the Israelites were sustained in exile and brought home again; just as surely as the waters of the Red Sea were split in two.  He will come, just as surely as he came out of the grave on Easter morning.  It is what the saints have been confessing from the beginning.  It is what you and I confess whenever we eat this bread and drink the cup.  It is the great “nevertheless.”

            No matter your circumstances, never hesitate to pray that the cup – your third cup – might pass. Never hesitate to pray, “I don’t want to.”  But do not hesitate to be fully human – if you must, eat the bread and drink the cup.

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