Friday, June 18, 2010

Solidarity and Transformation: A Sermon on the Cup of the Lord


God, you are our God.

Earnestly we seek you,
as thirsty people long for water
in a dry and weary land.

God of love,
we long to be embraced by you.

God of justice,
we long to see your kingdom come.

God of power,
we long to see you transform us,
long to see you shape us by your Spirit
into the image of your Son, our Lord.

God of holiness and of suffering,
you who are Other than us,
different than us, better than us,
higher and wider, longer and deeper than us,

we worship and proclaim you also
as One who came near,
as One who took on our flesh,
as One who suffered with us and endured our troubles.

God revealed in Jesus Christ,
we love you,
we long to know you,
we seek to follow after you.

And now, God, to that end
I ask that you would pour through me the gift of preaching
that these old words would speak afresh to us today,
that the word of God
for the people of God
might call forth thanks to you, O God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Cup in the Prophets

Hear this word of the Lord, spoken by Ezekiel to Israel (23:28-35)—and as we go through these next few passages, be listening for the language of “cup” and what it is meant to invoke.
For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to deliver you into the hands of those you hate, to those you turned away from in disgust. They will deal with you in hatred and take away everything you have worked for. Your lewdness and promiscuity have brought this on you, because you lusted after the nations and defiled yourself with their idols. You have gone the way of your sister; so I will put her cup into your hand.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

You will drink your sister's cup,
a cup large and deep;
it will bring scorn and derision,
for it holds so much.
You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow,
the cup of ruin and desolation,
the cup of your sister Samaria.
You will drink it and drain it dry
and chew on its pieces—
and you will tear your breasts.
I have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Since you have forgotten me and thrust me behind your back, you must bear the consequences of your lewdness and prostitution.
So in this passage we hear Ezekiel saying to Israel that, just as Samaria, the kingdom to the north, was disobedient to God’s covenant and therefore punished by exile, so now Israel and Jerusalem will be given over to the same result as a consequence for their disobedience. Now hear this word of the Lord from Jeremiah (25:15-29):
This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them." So I took the cup from the Lord’s hand and made all the nations to whom he sent me drink it.

[And the Lord said,] "Then tell them, 'This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Drink, get drunk and vomit, and fall to rise no more because of the sword I will send among you.' But if they refuse to take the cup from your hand and drink, tell them, 'This is what the Lord Almighty says: You must drink it! See, I am beginning to bring disaster on the city that bears my Name, and will you indeed go unpunished? You will not go unpunished, for I am calling down a sword on all who live on the earth, declares the Lord Almighty.' "
In this passage we hear the same message, but now extending to all nations—if God is going to punish his people for their disobedience, the nations around Israel that have engaged in just as much evil and violence will be similarly punished, and in the same way.

Now hear this final word of the Lord from Isaiah (51:17-23):
Awake, awake!
Rise up, Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
the cup of his wrath,
you who have drained to its dregs
the goblet that makes people stagger.

These double calamities have come upon you—
who can comfort you?—
ruin and destruction, famine and sword—
who can console you?

Therefore hear this, you afflicted one,
made drunk, but not with wine.
This is what your Sovereign Lord says,
your God, who defends his people:

"See, I have taken out of your hand
the cup that made you stagger;
and from that cup, the goblet of my wrath,
you will never drink again.

I will put it into the hands of your tormentors,
who said to you,
'Fall prostrate that we may walk on you.'
And you made your back like the ground,
like a street to be walked on."
Here in Isaiah we get a different tone—now the punishment has passed, and the prophet’s message is not one of judgment, but of hope: the cup Israel had to drink is now taken from their hands and never to be drank from again.

And we could go on, with examples from Lamentations, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and the Psalms. But by now the point should hopefully be clear enough for us to be able to answer the question: What is the “cup” in these passages, how is it functioning as a metaphor?

The answer seems to be: for the prophets, the cup that God gave Israel to drink was of his judgment and wrath, punishment for their covenant disobedience—and what it resulted in was suffering, exile from the land, and ultimately alienation from God. The nature of this imagery is not necessarily that God is actively “doing” something against Israel, but that God lets Israel’s choices run their course—in Paul’s language, he “hands them over” to the idols they worship or to the nations they trust, lets them “drink” from the cup they’ve already poured themselves. In other words, there is agency in Israel’s alienation from God—it is by their own hand, and even as it happens they are agents, actors, participants, in their own suffering.

So as we’re setting the scene, this is five or six hundred years before Christ, and on the one hand, we know from Scripture that God delivered Israel from exile in Babylon, as a partial fulfillment of his promise in Isaiah that never again would Israel have to drink from this cup.

But on the other hand, even after Israel returned to the land, things were not as they should be—and as a people Israel longed for God to act, once and for all—to redeem Israel, to return to Jerusalem, to fulfill the ancient promises to bless all nations through Abraham.

Jesus’ Formation: Human Being, Prophetic Discourse

It is this situation that Jesus is born into and raised in—of expectation, of remembering, of still-lingering exile and alienation from God. Now remember that Jesus is both God and human—not 50% God and 50% human, like a hybrid—but 100% God, 100% human.

So imagine together what it was like for Jesus to be raised as a child of Israel, as a son of Abraham, in this time of expectation, of hungering for God to act mightily. From his ministry, we can tell that Jesus was most centrally formed by the prophetic tradition, by the language and actions and stories of Israel’s great prophets of old. We see this throughout his life and ministry—like a prophet:
Jesus is called and sent directly by God by with a mission.
He is anointed and filled with the Spirit—at his baptism.
He journeys as a nomad and speaks truth to power unflinchingly.
He announces God’s judgment on injustice and oppression, calling the people to repent, to turn, and to obey God as they once did.
People even mistook him for a prophet, and he had to answer whether he was “the” prophet to come.
In all these ways we must imagine Jesus—the Israelite child, the Jewish teenager, the Hebrew young adult—not being born a kind of omniscient infant, but learning over time the stories and proclamations of Israel’s memory; imagine together Jesus hearing how the prophets talked, what they talked about, and coming to see himself as somehow the one to whom they witnessed and pointed, the one uniquely able to fulfill what they foresaw and prophesied.

The Cup of Solidarity: Cross, Covenant, Communion, Thanksgiving

Now, having heard the language of “cup” in the prophets—as representing judgment, wrath, suffering, exile, what we are calling alienation from God—let us see what Jesus does with it. Keep in mind—Jesus has inherited this tradition, this way of talking about Israel’s alienation from God, and it is also in the imaginations of his brother and sister Israelites. Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of “the cup” comes in three steps—and as the first step, Jesus refers unambiguously to the cross as the cup he will drink.

In Mark 10:35ff, Jesus and his disciples are nearing the end of their journey to Jerusalem, and James and John come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Jesus replies, “What do you want me to do for you?” They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” [Listen!] “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

Just a few chapters later in Mark 14:35ff, Jesus is in the garden the night before his crucifixion. “Going a little farther, Jesus fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And moments later, as told in John’s Gospel (18:10ff), when Jesus is about to be arrested, Peter draws a sword and strikes the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. Jesus commands Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

What has Jesus done here in using the “cup” metaphor for the cross?

It is not mere semantics: Jesus has taken up the prophets’ language of exile, judgment, suffering—of what it means for Israel to be alienated from their God—and said that his mission is to share in that alienation through the cross. Jesus has said, in the well-known language of the prophets, that just as Israel, just as all people, are alienated and distant from God, alone in their suffering, in Christ God has come near to be with them in their suffering and alienation. In Christ God has come near—and in this unimaginable act of divine solidarity with those who are hurting and alone, God himself drinks the cup of the cross.

But that is not all: Jesus takes a second step in his radical reinterpretation of the “cup.” On the night Jesus is betrayed, he shares the Passover meal with his disciples, what we call the Last Supper. Starting in Luke 22:19: And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

So what is the cup now?

The cup of the cross, the cup of God’s solidarity with our suffering and alienation, does not end in Jesus’ death—it is transfigured, transformed by the resurrection, into the new covenant through his blood—into covenant relationship, into membership in God’s people, into salvation and deliverance from sin and death!

The cup of the cross becomes the cup of the new covenant. God’s solidarity with our suffering and alienation through the cross of Christ does not end there, does not remain in the darkness, but emerges into the light of resurrection life, and gathers us out of our exile and exclusion and into the embrace of God’s love, into the transforming power of the Spirit, into the welcoming home of the body of Christ.

The cup of the cross has become for us the cup of the new covenant. Like the covenant God made with Israel after the Exodus, in which a band of slaves became the chosen people of God, this new covenant through the cross of Christ is God’s binding promise to be with us (Emmanuel) and to be our God forever—in other words: God’s new solidarity with us in Christ does not end at the cross, but begins there.

But even this is not all. There is a final step, which we already see hinted in the Last Supper. This meal isn’t a one-time event—it is what Jesus’ disciples over time are to do “in remembrance of me,” in remembrance of Jesus, partaking of the bread and the cup. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? ... You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.”

What then has happened in observing the Lord’s Supper together?

The cup of the cross, which has become the cup of the new covenant, is finally made into the cup of communion. The word Paul uses elsewhere for "thanksgiving" is the word many traditions use to refer to the Lord’s Supper—“thanksgiving” in the original language is “Eucharist.” So the meal is Eucharist—the meal is Thanksgiving. And what do we also call the meal? Koinonia, fellowship—communion.

So together we sit at the Lord’s table, we partake of the body and blood given to us, as the cup of God’s solidarity with us through the cross, as also the cup of the new covenant through his blood shed on the cross, and finally as the cup of communion and thanksgiving, having been reconciled, both to God and to one another, and made one people through Christ and by the Spirit. This is the work of God in Christ. Amen!

God’s Missionary Solidarity and Power for Transformation

In light of our emphasis this summer on mission, this work tells us something about God. In particular, this exploration of the imagery of “cup” in Scripture, and how it is changed in and by Jesus, tells us about God’s missionary solidarity and power for transformation. For in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has come near and shared in our lot, in our portion, in our cup of alienation and suffering and loneliness.

And it is not that God has to “fix” something in himself to be reconciled to us—in a sense it is not even that he must “fix” something in us to be reconciled to him—it is God’s work itself that is our reconciliation. In taking on our flesh and sharing our lot in life, through the mystery of the cross and resurrection, God acts once and for all to reconcile us both to himself and to one another—neither of which we could have done on our own.

And the point, the good news of it all, is that God has already done it—this is not an achievement we must work toward, but a gift to receive: we have been reconciled through the cross of Christ, we who once were enemies of God—and we are now a people and a family, given peace in the Spirit.

And as we have seen, the way God does this is through solidarity and suffering—God drinks from our cup, but he refuses to leave it there, and he transforms our cup of alienation, disconnection, and darkness into the cup of covenant family, of communion, of thanksgiving.

This is God’s missionary solidarity because it is God taking the initiative, God coming near, God sending his Son, God sending his Spirit, God redeeming us when we were lost.

This is God’s power for transformation because he takes up our mess, our lostness, our darkness, our suffering and, through that solidarity, transforms it by the power of his redeeming love—into family, into belonging, into fellowship.

Transformation Today: Experiences, Hopes, Fears

So here is the question for all of us today: What is your cup of suffering? What is your cup of alienation, of loneliness, of darkness, of disconnection? What is it in your life that has created or continues to create distance between you and the love of God?

On the one hand, this is about memory: How has God acted in your life to transform your suffering into belonging, into communion, into thanksgiving? What, as we have said this year, is your active witness to God’s power in your life?

On the other hand, this is also about faith: Can you believe that God is able to take up whatever it is that has brought you low in life and transform it into something beautiful? Can you believe that whatever your lot, whatever your cup—that you are not alone, that you are not abandoned? Can you believe that the God who created the universe has come near in love, that he refuses to leave you to your own devices? Can you believe that whatever you have done, whatever you have seen, whatever has been done to you—that God’s power of love to transform is inexhaustible, without limit, and without condition?

That’s the gospel; that’s the good news of Jesus; and it is an invitation to all—and which leads us, finally, to mission.

Solidarity Today: Mission and Communion With, To, and For Others

An important clarification: this transformative power of God is not the change-over from “bad stuff” to “prosperity”—this is not (repeat, not) the health and wealth gospel. Rather, the gospel is the word of the cross—that in Christ God redeems us by the cross but also calls us to take up our own crosses and follow after him.

Therefore the character of God’s cross-shaped transformation is this: Not that there will not be suffering—but that suffering does not have the final word. The good news then is not immediate escape from life’s difficulties, but instead that abundant life in Christ is found through giving of ourselves on behalf of others.

What is the mission then?

The mission is to be in the world as Jesus was. To be the few called to sacrifice and servanthood on behalf of the many. To go to others, with Jesus, and to share their suffering with them, imitating God’s solidarity with us, by bearing one another’s burdens and sharing our lives together. The mission is to share with others the cup of thanksgiving, the fellowship, the forgiveness, the abundance, the reconciliation that God has given us in Christ.

God, always the first and primary missionary, loved us so much that he took the initiative to go to the cross. Just so, we take up the cross for others. We do so not to baptize suffering as somehow good in itself, but in the faith that the God who raises the dead is alive and more than able to do what he has promised.

Finally: We are sent into the world to give others eyes to see that their cup, their portion, is never unredeemable in the light of God’s love. We are sent to give a hurting world eyes to see that suffering, alienation, and failure do not have the final word: Jesus Christ, now and forever, is God’s final word on all suffering, all sin, all death—and with him we are more than conquerors.

And so with Psalm 116 we are able to proclaim in joy, in thanks, in hope:
You, O Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

But what shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation—and call on the name of the Lord.


  1. Thank you, sir. I appreciate that.

  2. Honestly, its sermons like this that are behind (and hopefully will be evoked by) our recent "theses". It's all about being given over to Jesus's way of being in the world.