It All Really Does Rise and Fall on Union with Jesus Christ

Two weeks ago, Thursday, April 13th, 2017, was the one-year anniversary of my father passing away. It was also Maundy Thursday, when Christians around the world remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples (as they were observing the feast of the passover), when Jesus famously washed his disciples feet. I had the privilege of preaching that night, and I wanted to share my message below. My goal was to faithfully point people to Jesus, and honor the work of Jesus in the life and through the death of my dad, especially over the painful months since his passing.


Maundy Thursday, April 13th, 2017
Jamie Brown

My dad loved Holy Week. He loved the pageantry of it, the liturgy of it, the theology of it, and the beauty of it. And he loved Maundy Thursday. In particular, he loved how the service ends. If you’ve been to a Maundy Thursday service here before, you’ll know this, but if this is your first time I’ll give you a sneak peak. After we have communion together at the end of the service, instead of ending with a song, the service ends in silence. And in darkness. We remember how, on the night of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, he was arrested, and betrayed. And so we end in darkness. And all the vestments and linens and colors are stripped from the front of the room, as a reminder of how Jesus was stripped and humiliated and eventually crucified. This is what we call the “stripping of the altar”.

And I have vivid memories growing up as a preacher’s kid of my dad walking up to the Lord’s table at the end of the service, after everything had been stripped away, and grabbing the fair linen with both hands – the fair linen is the very thin, precious, fabric that sits right on the wood of the table – and with all of his strength, he would SNAP it off the table.

And you could hear a pin drop. Everybody in the room would sit up straighter. We would all be paying attention. It was one of the most powerful moments of the year.

Why did my dad love that moment so much? And Holy Week and Maundy Thursday so much? Because that’s what this night – and this week – is all about. It’s calling us to pay attention. To wake up. To simply stop… and be quiet… and let it hit us right here in our chests.

And on a night like tonight, with all of us gathered here, with all of the different things and pressures and joys and heartaches swirling around in our lives, God is calling us to fix our eyes on Jesus. It really all does rise and fall on this.

There are two – what I call – “pictures of grace” that I want to help us see God paint on this holy night. Two converging pictures that come together – each one revealing a different angle of the greatness of Jesus Christ, and the indescribably good news of the gospel – that literally have the power to change our lives forever.

The first “picture of grace” that God paints for us on this night is the story of the Passover from Exodus 12 that we heard read just a few minutes ago. This is a story of deliverance from judgment. Of freedom from slavery. Of the saving power of God. God’s judgment was about to come down on the Egyptians, the people who had enslaved God’s people. The firstborn son of every household would be killed. And God’s people were to be saved not by their own works, not by their own worthiness, not by their own might – but by the blood of a spotless lamb.

What does the Passover have to show us? What we’re Saved FROM, and whom we’re saved THROUGH.

SAVED FROM DEATH
If we had kept on reading, we would have heard from Exodus 12:29 that the death had extended “From the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne – to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon – AND all the firstborn of the livestock”. The curse of death hit EVERYONE. (Echoes of Ephesians 2 here).

SAVED THROUGH CHRIST

  • Exodus 12:3 says: “a lamb for a household” (repeat it)  Instead of the firstborn dying – the lamb dies. The lamb is the substitute.
  • Look at what Exodus 12:13 says: “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you…”

What are we to take from this story of the Passover? How is this a picture of grace? This is really important for us to GET: The Passover story is ultimately a picture for us of Jesus as our Passover Lamb.

(1 Cor 5:6 “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”) We’re saved FROM death. Saved THROUGH CHRIST.  Not just physical death, but SPIRITUAL DEATH. Everyone in this room. From the most spiritually mature to the least.

In Christ, because of his blood, because of his death on the cross, God passes over our sins. We have been saved from death – by the death of our Passover lamb, in our place, once for all, by the shedding of his blood, applied to our doorposts… Praise the Lord! 

The second “picture of grace” that God paints for us is in the image from John 13 of Jesus – that spotless Lamb of God – at a meal celebrating the Passover of all things! – getting down on his knees – and washing his disciples dirty feet. It certainly got his disciples attention! This was something that slaves were supposed to do. Not Jesus! Peter says in John 13:8 “…You shall NEVER wash my feet!”

The reason why this picture gets our attention is because of just how practically we can “feel” the same tension his disciples felt. Let’s be real. Most of us don’t want someone to touch – or wash – our feet. Much less Jesus touching – or washing – our feet. It’s up close and personal. It’s not theoretical or abstract. It’s almost invasive. And that’s the point. It represents our place of vulnerability… And Jesus says I’LL WASH IT.

In Christ, God doesn’t only pass over our sins, he washes them away.

And he knows our places of vulnerability. And he says “you can trust me”.

Jesus says it plainly in John 13:8: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Look at that. “If I do not wash you.” A lot of us in this room have it all backwards. We think the message of Jesus is this: “If you do not wash yourself, you have no share with me”. If you do not wash yourself.

But the reality of grace and message of the gospel is the opposite of that. It’s Jesus saying to us “I wash you”. I wash you. It’s why the symbol of Christianity isn’t a ladder: us climbing up to God. It’s a cross: God coming down to us. A basin and towel, not Jesus walking into other room. Can you accept this grace?

And once we accept this grace, we extend this grace.

Jesus said in John 13:14: “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 just as I have done to you.”

This is why every year at this service we take time to reenact this scene. We have different stations around the room where you’re invited to come, to sit down, and have someone wash your feet. This is another one of those jarring moments of Maundy Thursday. One of those moments that says “pay attention”. Because when you wash someone’s feet, or when someone washes your feet, you’re saying “This is what grace feels like.” And you accept this – awkwardly – and extend it – awkwardly! Grace reaches down, and grace stretches out.

And this is why God calls us to pay attention, to wake up, because we have to get this. Because we so often miss this!

The gospel is the gospel of grace. God’s great grace to us in Jesus Christ. It’s a grace that passes over our sins. That washes our sins away. It gets up close and personal. Jesus literally touches our dirty feet. And it sounds too good to be true, but it’s true.

Behold your Passover Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. Behold your Servant who washes your feet.

And behold your Savior who leads you from death to life.

See these pictures of grace converge tonight.

This is a message I need to hear tonight.

It was exactly one year ago tonight when I was sitting in a seminary class over in Falls Church and I got a call from my brother Matt that he had found my dad alive but unresponsive on his apartment floor. I rushed there as fast as I could, and he was still alive but barely. I called out to him. He was rushed to the hospital, and the E.R. doctor soon came to deliver the news that there was nothing they could do to save him, his heart had failed, and that he had died.

There is nothing that can prepare you for that moment. For the utter horror and helplessness that you feel. For the incredible waves of grief that begin to swallow you up. The finality of death and the deep void that it leaves in your life is literally heart-wrenching. Many of you in this room know what this heartache feels like.

And in the dark days that followed my dad’s death, and in the weeks and months since then of walking the path of grief – all of this stuff we’re talking about tonight has been all I’ve had to cling to. I never had a dramatic conversion experience growing up. This past year has been my dramatic conversion experience.

Jesus has gotten my attention. Now I know:

– Just how hopeless this would ALL be without Jesus.
– Just how glorious the good news of the gospel REALLY is.
– Just how deep and wide the blood of Jesus reaches to wash away our sin and shame.
– Just how kind and merciful Jesus is to get on his knees and wash us instead of expecting us to wash ourselves.
– Just how much we need a Savior who defeats death by his death and offers eternal life through his life.

Because here’s what I KNOW is true for my dad:

That he was covered by the blood of Jesus. That his sin was passed over and paid for on the cross. That Jesus had washed him clean. That Jesus led him – by the hand – from death to life. That my dad is now more alive – in Christ – than ever before.

And here’s what I KNOW is true for me:

That Jesus’ blood covers me. That my sins have been passed over and paid for on the cross. That Jesus is washing me clean.

And he has washed me clean of a lot of things this year.

I grew up close to my dad. I loved him. He was a wonderful man. But he had faults and he had made mistakes, and over the last 5 years I had put distance in our relationship. And what was – at first – necessary and needed distance became unforgiveness, and bitterness, and shame.

I’m grateful for two wonderful coffees with my dad in the months before he died. But when he died, I still harbored a weight of bitterness in my heart. And Jesus – who I knew theologically as the Passover lamb – became very practically the foot washing servant. In a matter of days, going through my dad’s apartment, seeing how he had lived his final days in very real victory over sin and in pursuit of Jesus, Jesus washed all of my unforgiveness, and shame, and bitterness – AWAY.

In one of my dad’s journals that he kept towards the end of his life, I came across this hand-written note: “It all really does rise (or fall) on union with Christ (or lack thereof).” My dad got that. And he gets it now! And I’m starting to get it. And that’s what Holy Week and Maundy Thursday is all about.

God wants to get our attention. He wants us to get it. To fix our eyes on Jesus. (We need to know what’s true!) Look at Jesus.

We see him in these pictures of grace that converge on Maundy Thursday. As the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. As the Servant who washes our feet. And as the Savior who leads us from death to life.

In just a moment we’ll wash each other’s feet, if you’re comfortable.

We’ll say “this is what grace feels like.”

And then we’ll come to the table and feast on the Passover Lamb, Jesus himself. And we’ll say “this is what grace tastes like.”

And then we’ll end the service in darkness, in silence, and in solemnity. And we’ll say “this is what grace looks like.”

Last August, my family gathered for a small burial service for my dad in Florida. And this prayer out of our Book of Common Prayer was prayed at the conclusion of the service:

Into thy hands, O Lord, we commend thy servant Marshall, our dear brother, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Savior, beseeching thee that he may be precious in thy sight. Wash him, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatsoever defilements he may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he may be presented pure and without spot before thee; through the merits of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord. Amen. 

In this life, and in our death, we are washed… in the blood of that immaculate lamb… our defilements are purged and done away… and we are made to be without spot through the merits of Jesus Christ on our behalf, in our place. And one day we’ll gather around his table…

It all really does rise or fall on union with Jesus Christ. Our Passover Lamb. Our Foot Washing Servant. Our Savior who leads us from death to life.

Pointing to Jesus In Our Life and In Our Death

1Two weeks ago, a beloved older man in our congregation passed away. John Lehrer had been a faithful member of this church for over 30 years, and had served in almost every kind of leadership role possible. Most recently, he oversaw the 70+ volunteers who help serve communion at our services every week of the year, and this was a huge role. That ministry falls under my supervision, so John and I got to know each other pretty well.

John was also one of my dad’s best friends. He was absolutely crushed when my dad passed away four months ago, and had told me so. He helped serve communion at my dad’s funeral, and had sent me several notes to check in since then.

I had the privilege of leading the music and preaching the homily at John’s funeral, and the audio and transcript of what I said is below:

“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 except through me. (John 14:1-6 ESV)

As we stand, let’s bow our heads and pray.

Father, this morning we gather with grief in our hearts over the loss of a man we all love. But we know that you love him more than we do. And we know that not even death can keep us from your love, and so while we grieve, we have hope. Because we know John is more alive now than he has ever been. This is all because of your Son, Jesus. And we thank you for the way to eternal life that Jesus has opened for John, and for us. Open our eyes to see Jesus more clearly and fill our hearts with your peace, we pray. Amen.

Let me begin first by saying to the Lehrer family, extended family, friends, and guests, how much this church loved John. John was a very special man to us all. We thank you for sharing him with us, and we are honored to have you here today, as we give thanks for his life. And we grieve with you.

Jeanne and John, we are so sorry for your loss. This church is here for you. Not just today – as you can see – but in the weeks and months and years to come. This church doesn’t just love John, but we love you too. And I hope you know that.

In the past week, since John’s death, as his family has begun to get different affairs in order, and go through different files, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that John had left very specific instructions for his funeral. Very specific.

He wanted “Amazing Grace” as the processional hymn, and so we sang “Amazing Grace” as the processional hymn. He wanted “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the very end. And so — John… — we’ll sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the very end.

Not only did John request the specific songs we’re singing this morning, but he also requested particular people to be involved. Coleman and I made the cut, and we were both deeply honored to be asked.

John had asked for Tory, our senior pastor, to officiate, and Tory is so incredibly sorry to be out of the country on his sabbatical and missing this service. I know he’s sent his condolences to you, Jeanne and John, and I know Tory is thinking of you this morning.

But John made one other very specific request – and that was for my dad, Marshall Brown, to have a substantial role in the service. Sadly, that isn’t possible, as my dad preceded John into heaven by about three and a half months. So, it is truly an honor to stand here in his place, and while I don’t know exactly what my dad would have said, I think I have a pretty good idea.

Jeanne, John, Lehrer family, extended family, guests, and Truro family, believe in Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Follow Jesus.

Believe in Jesus
In the very first verse of the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled”.

Now, if this was some sort of Hallmark Card that someone picked out in the “bereavement” section, with a picture of a rainbow and a dove, we’d be tempted and justified to throw that thing in the trash. “Let not your hearts be troubled”? How in the world am I supposed to not let my heart be troubled?

Here’s how: Jesus continues, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

So we turn to Jesus in belief. In the face of grief, loss, mourning, what-ifs, if-onlys, I wishes… We turn to Jesus in belief. We don’t turn our brains off, or our hearts off, or sweep our very real pain under a rug, but we simply believe. And when we turn again to Jesus, even this morning as we come face to face with our own mortality, Jesus speaks his peace into our hearts.

John knew this peace. How else could a man walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the kinds of sorrow, the loss of a son, the trials and pains – and health scares of recent decades – without crippling fear, or uncertainty, or despair?

It wasn’t because of how strong he was. Or resolute he was. Or resilient he was. It wasn’t him at all. It was Jesus! Jesus was John’s peace. Jesus was John’s comfort. Jesus was John’s security. It wasn’t John. It was Jesus.

So we don’t turn inwardly this morning. We turn outwardly. We look to Jesus. That’s who John pointed us to with his life, and it’s who he’s pointing us to in his death. We turn again to Jesus in belief and he speaks his peace to our hearts.

So we also…

Listen to Jesus
In this passage from John 14, Jesus is speaking to his disciples. Jesus speaks words of reassurance, words of eternal hope: Verse 3 says “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.”

Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is in the business of speaking to His disciples.

John Lehrer knew this.

He listened to Jesus. He knew Jesus was speaking to him. And sometimes that meant people thought he was crazy.

John sat in my office one day and told me a story of a time he was outside in front of his house, when, and I quote “The Lord spoke to me and told me that two Mormon Missionaries were about to walk up, and that I was to confess Jesus as my Lord and Savior”.

Apparently John had this experience more than once. Of Jesus speaking to him.

Was John crazy? I don’t think so. I think he was a disciple of Jesus. And Jesus speaks to his disciples.

One of the songs John asked for (that we weren’t able to fit in) was an old Baptist song called “In the Garden”.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Jesus walked with John, and he talked with John.

And John wasn’t crazy. In fact, he was right most of the time.

And I owe a debt of gratitude to John for how he listened to Jesus.

When I came to Truro as Director of Worship and Arts two years ago, it had been two and a half years since I had seen my dad. And it wasn’t for lack of my dad’s trying. I had been hurt, I had created a distance, and I had allowed my heart to become hard.

John and my dad were “best friends”. And one day, John approached me in the office and said “Jamie, Jesus spoke to me this morning, and told me to tell you that you need to have coffee with your dad”.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It exposed my un-forgiveness. But, you know what, soon enough I had a wonderful coffee with my dad at the Starbucks over here on Lee Highway last September. And a month or two later I did again. That was the last time I had a face-to-face conversation with my dad.

And this week, I realized, if it hadn’t been for John Lehrer, I don’t think I would have had that precious opportunity.

John believed in Jesus, and knew his peace.

John listened to Jesus, because he was his disciple.

And John followed Jesus.

Follow Jesus
After all that Jesus had said to his disciples about not letting their hearts be troubled, and him going to prepare a place for them, and coming back for them, they still didn’t get it. Thomas said: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

They didn’t get it.

They wanted to know what to do. Where to go. They wanted a system.

And we’re no different.

We want a system to get to God. We want to know what to do. What rules to follow. What not to do. What not to say. What to say.

How to earn our way in. How to work our way up. We want a system!

Systems make sense! Systems work! Systems can be followed!

John knew all about systems. He had managed huge budgets – he liked to remind people – of BILLIONS (with a “B”) of dollars.

And he brought that electrical engineering / systems-minded approach to his role here at Truro. He oversaw and coordinated our largest pool of volunteers here at Truro, our Lay Eucharistic Ministry. We lovingly refer to these people as “LEMs” (not to be confused with lemmings), and they are organized, scheduled, positioned around this room, and administrated with one of the most genius systems I have ever seen.

Two days before he died, John sent a reminder to all the LEMs scheduled for the month of August. And in early June, he sent a schedule through the end of 2016. And totally unsolicited, he emailed me the two “master files” for the LEM ministry, with contact information, who serves in what positions, who has what preferences, and who can serve at which services. John knew all about systems.

But John knew that following Jesus wasn’t about following a system. It was about knowing and following a person.

Thomas and the disciples didn’t get this. “…Lord, how can we know the way???”

Jesus responded to them – and he responds to us – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If we miss this, we miss everything.

John isn’t in heaven because of how good, or clever, or nice, or generous he was. He was all of those things, but it wasn’t enough.

John is in heaven because he knew Jesus. And he had placed his trust in Jesus alone. Not in a system, not in his own goodness, and not in his own righteousness – but in a PERSON. In Jesus himself.

There is simply no other way this morning has any business being hopeful.

Without Jesus, this casket, and the burial plot at Fairfax Memorial Park, have the final word. But death does NOT have the final word.

JESUS has the final word. And Jesus says I AM THE WAY. I AM THE TRUTH. AND I AM THE LIFE.

In the last book of the bible, Revelation, chapter 1 verse 18, Jesus says “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”

THAT’S the kind of Savior we can stake our eternal destiny on. That’s the kind of person who has the right to say to us “Let not your hearts be troubled”! That’s the kind of Savior worth believing in. And listening to. And following. Up until our final breath.

John knew this. John lived this. He pointed to Jesus with his life. And he’s pointing to Jesus in his death. May this be our legacy as well.

Amen.

Instead of You

1Last month I had the privilege of preaching at my church’s Sunday night service, where I wrapped up a summer sermon series called “Seeing Christ in the Old Testament”.

The text was 2 Samuel 18 (verses 1, 5-9, 15, 31-33) and dealt with the death of David’s rebel son, Absalom.

There’s good news and bad news when you read that story.

The bad news is that, if we had to play a part in that story, we would play the part of Absalom: the rebel child, arrogant enough to think we deserve to be exalted in our Father’s place, and deserving of punishment, even a brutal death hanging from a tree.

The good news is that Jesus plays the part of David: weeping over his rebel children with love, longing to die in their place, and then (as the true and greater David) dying the death we deserved to die, hanging from a tree instead of us.

The Old Testament shows us a problem: man has fractured his relationship with God.

The Old Testament shows us the solution: the perfect keeping of God’s law.

The Old Testament shows us that no one can do that. We all deserve God’s punishment.

The Old Testament, and even this story of David and Absalom, points us to the One who would restore our relationship with God, who would perfectly keep God’s law for us, and who would die in our place, as our substitute, “suspended between heaven and earth”.

Jesus died “instead of you“. And in Christ, our rebellion and arrogance is paid for, and covered over, and we are made sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, forevermore.

This is really good news!

You can listen to my sermon here if you’d like.