TO FACE AN ATROCITY
This morning we will continue the sermon series that has carried us through Lent, Heart to Heart Talks. The reading today from the gospel according to Matthew is a heart-to-heart difficult conversation Jesus has with his disciples, just before he is betrayed and handed over to be tried and crucified. He talks heart to heart with one who will betray, and with others who will deny him. Listen now for the word of God to us.
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says: My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ He answered, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’ Judas, who betrayed him, said, ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He replied, ‘You have said so.’
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”
But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
The events of this Holy Week tell the story that is at the heart of our faith, and that is why we take the time to rehearse and relive it year after year. Palm Sunday begins with the loud shouts of Hosanna on the road into Jerusalem. It is a Hebrew word that means, “Save us!” The crowd is shouting in the words of Psalm 118, hoping that their Messiah will save them from oppression and poverty and shame.
But only a few days later, the shouts of “Hosanna” become cries of “Crucify him!” The sure strides of Palm Sunday, become the stumbling steps of Good Friday. The confident disciples who accompanied their heaven-sent king become the frightened few who scatter to save themselves. Only a brave few remain at the cross to witness him die.
The turn to the cross begins in the part of the story we just heard when Judas decides to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. From there Jesus is arrested, tried, beaten, condemned, and crucified. Each gospel account makes it clear to us that nothing was done to him that he did not allow, and he went to the cross willingly, for us and our salvation.
Professor Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, writes about this week: “[Holy Week] asks that we pause to witness an atrocity. Jesus, God with us, humiliated, tortured, executed, and buried. If we want to appreciate what it means for God to dwell with us in all the glory and all the horror of our condition, it is time to sit still and hear this story. Jesus stays with us, however uncomfortable that makes us.” Hearing this story is the work we do this week.
This week, as I have thought of this central story, and the events of this week, tragedy and atrocity, I have thought about how we, as a people of faith, face tragedy, and even atrocity. Our great temptation, of course, is always to turn away. When it comes to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, we can simply go from one Sunday to the next: waving Palm Branches on one day, to shouting He is Risen on another. When it comes to contemporary events, we turn down the radio, or skip the podcast, change the channel, flip to lifestyle or sports, or click through to something else.
Holy Week asks that we pause to witness an atrocity. How do we do that? As we reflect on the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross, I want to suggest three ways that can guide us: prayer, action, and confidence in God’s promises. First, prayer.
Prayer in the face of tragedy has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. It’s regarded often as a trite response, even by people of faith… a perfunctory response that doesn’t attend to the depth of human suffering. And sometimes it’s true that we type “thoughts and prayers” as a quick a reflex, or “I’ll pray for you” as something to say when we really need to change the subject. Yet genuine prayer from people of faith is always an appropriate response in the face of a tragedy, and even atrocity.
After the Last Supper, after Jesus confronted Judas with his betrayal and the other disciples with their impending denial, what did Jesus do? He went alone to the garden to pray. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed with such intensity and anguish that sweat poured from his head like drops of blood. He poured out his soul in prayer to his heavenly Father, he centered himself in his relationship with God, and prayed for his will to be folded God’s will no matter the cost. In the face of tragedy, and even atrocity, we can always pray.
This week, in the wake of the school shooting in Nashville at the Covenant School, the columnist David French, who writes for the New York Times, wrote eloquently about prayer in the face of an atrocity. French lives in Nashville, and he had been a member for many years of that Covenant Presbyterian Church. Reflecting on a prayer vigil he attended the day after the shooting, he wrote.
“For the faithful believer, prayer isn’t a substitute for action; it’s a prerequisite for action. It grounds us before we move to serve others. It grounds us before we speak in the public square. Moreover, petitioning God is a tangible act of faith. It reminds believers of their ultimate sense of trust in an eternal presence. ”Prayer is always the right response. Prayer softens spirits. Prayer heals wounds. Prayer brings new clarity. Prayer moves the heart of God. In the face of an atrocity, we should always pray.
First is prayer. The second, and equally important, is action. We cannot rise from prayer and do nothing. In the face of his own atrocity, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Praying that way means praying that God will guide our thinking, our choosing, and our acting. As followers of Jesus, praying “Not my will but yours be done,” means rising from prayer ready to act in ways that bring healing and wholeness.
Sometimes our actions will be very personal – making a phone call or visit to a person who is hurting, or bringing a meal or flowers to brighten a dark day. Sometimes our actions are more organized – we donate to an organization that provides help, we volunteer to sweep floors, or run errands, or prepare meals, or teach English, or listen to stories. And sometimes our actions need to be more systemic and far reaching. We need to learn about an issue, advocate for better policies or laws, march for justice, and vote for change. Whatever it is that we do, when we rise from prayer we must be ready to act in ways that bring healing.
Let me give you an example from Holy Week. When Jesus left his prayer in the Garden, a large crowd armed with swords and clubs came to meet him and arrest him. One of Jesus companions, who was ready to fight and defend Jesus, took out his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Jesus immediately told the disciple to put the sword away. He said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Then he reached out and healed the young man’s ear. Even in the face of the atrocity, in his darkest moment, Jesus acted with mercy and led his followers into paths of healing and peace.
When we rise from prayer, we must be ready, like Jesus, to take whatever steps we can to help the hurting and work for the wholeness of God’s kingdom.
John Bell, the Scottish theologian and hymn writer, puts it this way in a verse from his hymn “Heaven Shall Not Wait.” He writes,
Heaven shall not wait
for the dawn of great ideas,
thoughts of compassion
divorced from cries of pain.
Jesus is Lord,
he has married word and action,
his cross and company make his purpose plain.
Prayer is married to action. Finally, the third way that we can face a tragedy, even an atrocity, is with confidence in God’s promises. At the Last Supper, in the text that I read, Jesus gives his disciples two powerful promises to sustain them during the frightening and tragic. These promises will also sustain us.
The first promise comes as Jesus is serving the Passover meal. He took the cup and told them to drink it, saying, “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Embedded in that saying is a promise that one day, on the other side of tragedy and atrocity, on the other side of disaster and on the far side of human evil, Christ will drink the cup again at a great heavenly banquet he has prepared where all will be made well and made whole.
All that is hidden will be revealed, all that is lost will be found, all that hurts will be healed.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of this banquet like this:
“…the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud [that means death] that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
When Jesus promises to drink the cup again with us, this is the banquet he means.
In the face of tragedy, and especially atrocity, it is easy to feel small, helpless, even hopeless. Our hope is anchored in this sustaining promise, given at the Last Supper, and which we remember each time we gather around this table: the promise of a new heaven and new earth where every tear will be wiped away, where we will feast with Christ at a table of joy. This promise gives us hope and preserves us from despair.
The second promise Jesus gives his disciples and us, comes after supper, in the garden, before he goes to pray. He says, “After I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” This is the promise Jesus kept after the resurrection. He went to find them in Galilee, the place where he first met them, the place of ordinary and real life.
Jesus’ promise to us – that he goes ahead of us – is a promise that we do not have to face life alone. In this in-between time in which we live, the time between Christ’s resurrection and the new heaven and new earth, Jesus goes ahead of us. In the power of his Spirit, he goes ahead of us to bless our joy and comfort our sorrow, to consecrate our happiness, and lead us through our anguish. His promise to meet us there gives us strength and courage to pray and to act with faith.
Holy Week asks us to witness an atrocity, but there is so much more to it than that. Holy Week asks us to witness, most of all, the work of the Savior, who has come to redeem: to bring goodness out of evil, life out of death, and joy out of the grave. Let us walk with him, and wait with him, suffer with him, and rejoice with him.
Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina