Cup of Judgment, Cup of Mercy: A Homiletical Reflection for Holy Thursday

Cup of Judgment, Cup of Mercy: A Homiletical Reflection for Holy Thursday

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We all know this story well, it is the story of the Last Supper. It is the story of, “On the night in which he was betrayed.” It is the story of Jesus instituting his supper, the one which we remember as often as we gather in his name. We also know that in the context of Luke’s gospel the institution of this supper was during the Passover meal. The Passover was and is not just about the Jewish people recalling what had happened to them as a people; it also was and is not just a mere sharing of folklore. The Passover was and is about bringing the past into the present. The Passover meal was and is about bringing the story to life in the midst of the people telling the story.

So tonight I’d like for us to view our own telling of the story in this way. We are not celebrating the Passover tonight, though our Jewish neighbors will be tomorrow. We are not celebrating the Passover tonight but we are celebrating when our God’s plan of deliverance for his people kicked into high gear. In this gathering tonight, the Spirit of God brings the past into the present. In this gathering tonight, the Spirit of God brings our story to life. And I’d like for that to happen by us focusing on text that comes after tonight’s gospel reading. 

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (Luke 22:39-46, ESV)


Look up above our altarpiece, if you will. We’ve made mention of our stained glass window depicting this scene before, but tonight is as good of a night as any to focus in on it. The most obvious thing happening here is Jesus is praying after supper with his disciples and the artist has included the cup that Jesus references to his Father. What is this cup that Jesus prays be taken from him? The prophet Jeremiah has an extended discourse on a cup of wine that appears to be connected with Jesus’s prayer here. The prophet writes,

15Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.” 17So I took the cup from the LORD's hand, and made all the nations to whom the LORD sent me drink it… (Jeremiah 25:15-17, ESV)

The cup of the wine of wrath is given by the Lord’s prophet to the rulers of nations and to the nations themselves. Without a doubt, this cup is the cup of judgment. And the Lord is sitting in judgment over all the nations—Israel included—for their sin and especially for their bunking with Death. The cup that Jesus is asking to pass by him is this cup of judgment. 

There are a lot of things in the passion narratives that disturb, if nothing else the mere reality of the crucifixion and Jesus’s undergoing it is enough. But it is hard to contemplate the nature of judgment and why Jesus had to undergo not just physical death but also judgment—and judgment on our behalf. And I’m afraid even seminary-level lectures on why leave you unsatisfied. It’s simply one of those things that just is and if we attempt to pacify it or explain it away we end up saying more about ourselves than God. So, yes, there are a lot of things that disturb in these narratives, and that Jesus begged his Father for the cup of judgment to pass him by—and it didn’t—is surely one of them. 

Just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus prays at the Mount of Olives for the cup of judgment to pass him by. But it doesn’t. We know it doesn’t because a few moments from now Jesus is betrayed and then arrested. We know it doesn’t because Jesus goes to Pilate and is condemned to die. We know it doesn’t because Jesus dies a criminal’s death between two criminals. We know it doesn’t because we have this window that tells us so.

And yet this revelation is the gospel for you. The cup that is judgment for Jesus is mercy for you. In the garden, the cup of judgment does not pass by Jesus. In the supper, the cup of mercy does not pass by you. What does this scene after the institution of the Last Supper mean? Thousands of people for thousands of years have poured over this scene like the drops of sweat poured from Jesus’s head. It is enough for you to know that whatever cosmic significance this scene has, for you it means that because the cup of judgment did not pass by Jesus, the cup of mercy does not pass by you.

Tonight we are not merely recalling a story, we are not merely sharing folklore. No tonight we are bringing the past into the present. Better yet—tonight, the Spirit of God is bringing the past into the present. Tonight, the Spirit of God is bringing this story to life. 

Tonight you do not merely participate in a play of sorts that remembers God’s mercy in a time and place which has long passed us by. Tonight you participate in something that is here and now. On this night of all nights, you drink the cup of mercy. Tonight the cup of mercy does not pass you by. Tonight the cup of mercy meets your mouth and on your lips you receive God’s mercy. Tonight the Spirit of God brings into the present when judgment, for a time, had its way with Jesus. And this is so that you may remember that mercy, for all time, has its way with you.

Tonight we recall that the Lord Jesus did not take the cup of the wine of wrath and make the nations drink it. Tonight we recall the he himself drank it so that the nations wouldn’t. And so it is with your sin and your death. Jesus drinks that bitter cup for you tonight, so that the cup which you drink is nothing but God’s pure mercy. Tonight you recall that for some strange, beautiful, and mystifying reason that God’s mercy triumphs over God’s judgment. 

Mercy over judgment. This is our story tonight; this is our story these three days. May it always be our story. Every time we see this window may God’s mercy in Jesus be our story.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.




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