Sermon from Palm/Passion Sunday
(I Don’t Know) How to Love Him
Palm/Passion Sunday; April 5, 2020
Matthew 26:69-75; 27:55-61
Our Church’s original plan for today was for the choir to take us through the story of Jesus’ passion and death by using selections from Jesus Christ, Superstar. You will get to hear one of the songs after the sermon, Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I was thinking also of the dialogue between Mary and Peter after Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:69-75):
Mary: Peter, don’t you know what you have said? You’ve gone and cut him dead.
Peter: I had to do it, don’t you see? Or else they’d go for me.
Mary: It’s what he told us you would do – I wonder how he knew…
That’s harsh, what Mary said to Peter: “You’ve gone and cut him dead.” But most of us have had harsh thoughts about Peter, because of his denial of Jesus. We wish he had done better; maybe you, as I do, wonder if you would have done any better. There’s a line in Ecclesiastes that seems relevant: better a living dog than a dead lion (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Peter, the living dog, saved his skin, and so he was there to do some remarkable things later on.
Still, at this moment, he’s quite a contrast to Mary and the other women, who were on hand when Jesus died and who were nearby when he was buried. They were present. They were there. When the servant-girl said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean,” Peter denied it. He said he wasn’t with him. He doesn’t come off so well.
But one of the people I like to read changed my thinking; William Barclay pointed out that Peter was, in fact, there. After Jesus was arrested, everybody ran away, but Peter followed him and was nearby. Even after he was recognized, he stayed. Barclay said: Peter loved Jesus. He loved Jesus enough to follow him to a dangerous place. Even after he was recognized, he loved Jesus enough to stay. Then out of his love for Jesus, he remembered what Jesus had said. And even though Superstar tells us that he made excuses to Mary Magdalene, the Gospels tell us that Peter went out and wept. If he had not loved Jesus, he would not have wept.
As much as I love the song, it seems that both Peter and Mary Magdalene did know how to love Jesus. They both knew this: the main thing about loving Jesus is to stick with him when everyone else runs away. Peter followed him to the high priest’s house; Mary Magdalene and her friends followed him to the Cross and tomb. They were there. And so too was Joseph of Arimathea, who treated Jesus as a member of his own family, taking his body and placing it in his own new tomb. He was there.
Sometimes, in my head, I get critical of the prayer I often hear, “Lord, be with us” or “Lord, be with Henry…” and so forth. I think, “Ask for something specific; the Lord is always with us.” I think my criticism may be wrong. If the first thing about love is being there; if we know that Peter, Mary Magdalene, the other women, and Joseph of Arimathea loved Jesus because they were with him, maybe we are really asking for God to show us that God loves us. “Be with us” means “Show us you love us enough to stick around.”
What signs have you seen recently that God is loving you, is hanging around? I’ve seen God’s people write encouraging thoughts; I’ve seen wonderful expressions of a great sense of humor about all this; I’ve seen signs of Spring. And, of course, this week we follow Jesus to his Cross, where he spreads his arms wide to embrace the world in the self-giving love of God.
I’d like you to think about my question: what signs have you seen that God is loving you, is hanging around? When you pray, “Be with us, Lord,” how do you know that your prayer is answered, that God is with you? Think about an answer or two, maybe even write them down, so that while we live with necessary restrictions and there may even be fear around us, you can remember that God loves you and is with you.
And so back to the original concern: I don’t know how to love him. Maybe Peter, and Mary and the other women, and Joseph can tell you and me how to love Jesus: be there. Be with him. Follow him to the High Priest’s house; follow him to the Cross; take him to the tomb. Be with him. But how to do that right now? How can I be with Jesus when I cannot leave my house? How can I be with Jesus when I cannot go to Church? How can I be with Jesus when I have to stay six feet away from anyone who does not live with me? I don’t know how to love him.
There is the challenge for your imagination. Here are some things I’ve heard; you can think of others. Some are making a practice of using the telephone to be with people. They can’t go visit, but they can call. And many people are rather isolated right now. They are with Jesus by being with his siblings. Our Prayer Shawl ministry has a good supply of prayer shawls, and don’t think they need to make more right now, so they are making caps, scarves, and mittens for folks at Edison School and at Siena Francis House for next winter. That’s a good reminder, isn’t it? There will be a next winter. I know that some folks with skill in sewing are making masks and other needed supplies for others.
I think these are signs that people are finding ways to be with Jesus, even though pretty much stuck at home. What other ways can you be with Jesus?
When, in the opera, Mary Magdalene sings that she doesn’t know how to love Jesus, what she is really telling us is her fears about him and her fear of him, as well as her desire to be with him. She sings that she doesn’t know how to love him, but in the opera, she is the one who shows him tenderness, the one who demonstrates simple care and deep affection; she is there. She may not realize it, but she does know how to love him.
And so do I. And so do you.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master