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April 13, 2006 (Maundy Thursday)—“Living on Death Row”

Pastor David Barber

John 13:1–17, 31b–35

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I read books or I watch a movie about a prisoner who has been sentenced to die, I often wonder what it must be like to be on death row. What’s it like to stare death in the face and know that you’re going to be executed at a specific time, especially if you’re healthy and well?

We’re often told about the condemned eating their last meal. Some eat steak or lobster or ice cream or another favorite food. But I’m still waiting for someone to choose Spam or even lutefisk.

But I don’t understand it! How can you eat when you know what’s just ahead of you? I’d be spending my last few minutes, or even the last few hours, in the bathroom.

Perhaps something happens in the process where you come to a point of acceptance or even serenity for what is about to happen.

I just recently finished a book, The Mayor of Lexington Avenue. In this book we meet Rudy Kelly—a 19-year old who is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Because of a corrupt police chief and a corrupt prosecutor as well as an incompetent, alcoholic public defender, Rudy Kelly sits on death row.

After a number of appeals have failed to change his situation, a high-powered attorney takes his case and begins to work to free his client from the clutches of the death penalty.

In one conversation on death row, Rudy tells his attorney that he’s grateful for all that he’s doing on his behalf. However, if this last appeal doesn’t change his impending appointment with death, it’s okay. Some very positive things have happened as a result of his imprisonment and even his time on death row.

He’d been able to establish a relationship with his father—a father whom he had never gotten to know because his mother had left his father when he was an infant because of his drinking.

His mother and father had also reconciled as a result of his situation. In addition, Rudy had also grown tremendously in his faith. As a result he was able to face death—not only with acceptance—but courageously and heroically.

Once again—in another year—we are reintroduced to another man on death row—another man who eats his last supper and also faces his death heroically and courageously—at least according to the Gospel of John.

Especially in the Gospel of John, we see Jesus in charge of what’s going to happen to him. He’s the one who refuses to act as a victim. He’s the one who tells us that his hour has not yet come but also signals at the appropriate time that his hour of glorification has arrived.

If we fast-forward a bit to what happens after our Gospel for this evening, there is no scene which shows us the deep agony of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. There’s only one verse which further indicates that John wants to portray a man directing his own destiny.

Our Gospel for this evening is in keeping with this same theme. On the night before his crucifixion, we see Jesus acting almost like a Master of Ceremonies.

During this supper, Jesus takes off his outer robe and ties a towel around his waist. He pours water into a basin and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.

It is Jesus who takes care of the disciples—becomes a servant to them and gives them instruction on what it means to be his followers—on the last night of his life. The one who is about to die takes care of them and not the other way around.

I’ve experienced the same thing many times in my ministry in a multitude of situations. I’ve made a trip to the hospital in a time of crisis or to the home of someone who has just lost a loved one to offer words of hope and words of comfort. And many times I’ve become the one that has been ministered to. I was the one who was the recipient of that person’s deep and abiding faith.

On this night Jesus bravely and boldly ministers to his disciples and takes care of them. He tells them that true greatness in his kingdom involves the willingness to be a servant and the willingness to do what needs to be done.

It seems that times of crisis can frequently show us the temper and the quality of our faith. A man by the name of Langdon Gielke learned this for himself in a most unusual way.

In the 1930s he went out to the interior of China to teach in a private school. He was there when World War II broke out and the Japanese conquered China. All the Allied citizens who were there on the mainland were gathered up and sent to a prison camp.

Gielke tells us that they were not inhumanely tortured, but the 1500 American, British, Canadian, Dutch, French, and Australian citizens were suddenly thrust together in very crowded circumstances.

The food supply was uncertain and there was lots of insecurity in the air. What amazed Gielke was that people that had gone to China for humanitarian purposes—namely missionaries, teachers, and social workers—when their security was threatened, they reverted back to being utterly savage in their dealings with each other.

It became every person for themselves. He saw missionaries stealing food and hoarding it for their children, so that other people couldn’t have it. Fear had cast out love, and the common good was lost completely.

There was one exception to this. There was a group of Roman Catholic monks who had gone to China to run a school. These were individuals who were deeply rooted in the Jesus reality.

These were people, who, like our Lord, knew that they came from God and were going to God. They knew that their worth was secure in the hands of their Creator. They were the ones who were free to love as Jesus loved in this time of crisis.

We don’t live on death row, and we don’t live as POWs, but we do live in a time of tremendous insecurity and fear. As well, there are those who want to capitalize on this time of uncertainty, and they want to keep us in a perpetual state of being afraid.

They want us to be victims of their manipulation rather than to take hold of the servant life that is freely given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is a time of crisis in our nation and the world. This is a time when the circumstances demand that we act bravely and faithfully as the people God has called us to be.

We can choose to live in terror and fear. We can choose a lifestyle where it is every person for themselves. Or we can choose to tie a towel around our waist and in loving devotion become servants to one another.

We as well come from God and are going to God. Our worth has already been given to us by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On this night we are now called to live out of this grace relationship by being a servant to others and by loving—just as Jesus loved us—all the way to the end.


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