Sermon Context: Nall Avenue Church of the Nazarene, Prairie Village, KS.
There has been fear in recent days about the decline of religion in our culture, particularly around Christianity and diminishing attendance rates. There is a growing fear and trepidation. But it’s interesting religion has not gone away. In fact, spirituality in several surveys shows an increase. Though there may be a decrease in those who profess to be practicing Christians, there is an increase in those who would identify in some way as exercising some kind of “spirituality.” We have not gotten away from those practices and realities at all.
In fact, one of the prominent religious organizations gathers every Sunday in huge cathedrals. The faithful flock in and wear the liturgical colors. They gather for a time of worship and often their hands are raised in celebration and adoration of their idols. They have officials that work and walk the people through the four movements of the service. There is libation, drink and food, that they eat together. It is a place where families are gathered together and formed deeply by these liturgical rituals. “This is who we are!” There are even chants and song that talk about the life they share together in this place. It is powerful. If you have ever attended one of these worship services, you find yourself gripped by it. You get caught up in the fervor and the emotion of the moment. It is powerful. Very powerful.
The worship service is geared around something very damaging. The very thing it centers its life around is violence. There is a lot of violence in this place. Yet, the faithful gather to watch it every Sunday, to talk about their kingdom and their glory… and sometimes “the good old days.” Perhaps you would recognize this place as a place like Arrowhead stadium where the Kansas City Chiefs play football. It is a place of worship where the faithful gather every Sunday to sing songs of celebration, to proclaim there is only one kingdom. This is for the glory of the city, if you’re more of a Sporting Kansas City fan. There’s even a “Blue Hell!” There is life and death in these matters. There’s times of celebration and lament – all centered around competition, and winning, and being the best, and dominating the foe, putting them down. It’s a powerful liturgy.
I was brainwashed from a very early age. I didn’t grow up a Chiefs fan. I am a Cowboys’ fan. That’s a different kind of sinner. I grew up in the days of Tom Landry. So, I have been formed so that even when they have gone through their decline, I wonder each year if this will be the year they get the glory. Usually I’m disappointed. We are transfixed by this celebration of violence where men have become bigger and bigger, stronger and fiercer. They SMACK each other and we celebrate. It is like the days of the gladiator modernized with protective gear. We celebrate the ritual of violence against each other and it lets off the steam of our own desire for violence. I can celebrate the violence of others and relieve my own desire for violence.
Liturgies of violence deeply form us. This morning my 3 ½ year old daughter came into our room and exclaimed, “I got my laser beam! I’m going to find the bad guys!” She’s 3 ½ and she’s talking about bad guys! She doesn’t know “bad guys,” other than when she thinks mom and dad are the “bad guys” for correcting her. She doesn’t understand good and evil. She doesn’t understand the full complexities of life. She has been so deeply formed by television shows she has seen, the realities of our culture, that this morning she was talking about going and getting “the bad guy.” These liturgies capture our hearts, imaginations, and desires so quickly and at such an early age. They largely go unquestioned, unchallenged. Sometimes in the Church, the liturgies of violence are so ingrained in us we don’t question it but when we talk about being peacemakers it is questioned. We always have an excuse for not seeking out peace. “Yeah, but what if this happens?” “Yeah, but what if it’s against these kinds of people?” We’re quick to push down peacemaking, to question it. But the liturgies of violence go unquestioned.
We find ourselves in the midst of this story with Jesus and his disciples. Did you notice where they are? They have gone across the Kidron Valley and find themselves in a garden. Gardens are not where battles are fought. Gardens are places of respite, rest, wonder, and awe. We are reminded of something that is good and life-giving. Jesus would often go to these places for rest and prayer. He’d go to the gardens to escape, to connect, and to commune with God. He’d often take his disciples along with him to commune and pray with them. In Matthew’s Gospel, that is exactly what they have done. Jesus has taken the disciples and asked them to pray with him “for the hour has come.” Every time he returns, the disciples have fallen asleep. The garden is a place of prayer and respite. So, we don’t expect chaos to erupt in the garden.
We can remember stories from scripture about other gardens, particularly the Garden of Eden. Do you remember God would come down in the evening and walk with humanity? God would walk and commune with them. There was something so good, and beautiful, and right there. Everything was in harmony. Relationships were working well. There was a connectivity to one another, not hindered by shame and hiddenness and brokenness.
There is a moment of betrayal in the Garden. Do you know the story? They were told not to eat the fruit from a certain tree in the Garden for doing so their “eyes would be opened.” There is a desire humanity will not deny. They take the fruit and eat it. Immediately, the realize they are naked. They experience shame and hide themselves. Yet, God comes to them in the Garden. The story follows humanity continuously moving east of the Garden, away from God’s presence. This movement away from God manifests as increasing violence in human communities.
Cain and Abel, two brothers, who should be out for one another’s welfare, begin to fight. Cain deceives his brother, takes him out to a field, and kills him with a stone. The story continues until we reach Lamech. Lamech kills a young man because the young man said something against Lamech. Lamech exclaims that if Cain would be avenged seven times, he would be avenged seventy times seven. Violence has exploded exponentially. It has grown from brother against brother to everyone being out for their own gain and against each other. Betrayal.
We should be reminded of these stories when Jesus is found in a garden and Judas enters the garden with betrayal on his heart. Judas has come with an ulterior motive. Judas comes seeking Jesus, not in the way of a seeking disciple. Judas has come to orchestrate Jesus’ arrest. Betrayal. The communion between God and Judas is being severed, torn. Judas wields violence against the Creator, against Jesus. Judas comes with a contingent of soldiers armed to the teeth, ready for battle. They have come to do harm. There is an authority placed upon these soldiers to arrest Jesus because the religious leaders don’t like what Jesus is saying and doing in the community. He has been talking about a Kingdom with a very different way of life than the kingdoms of this world. Jesus speaks peace to those who are not “peaced” people. He brings in outsiders and heals those who have been hurt deeply by society. People begin to get “up in arms” about this. They don’t like this Kingdom that looks out for the least of these. They don’t like a Kingdom that questions everything about how we have arranged our lives together.
Jesus comes as a disrupter. Not with a sword. Jesus does not come as conqueror using force. Jesus comes as one who pours himself out – who serves, who washes disciples’ feet. This is a strange king and a strange kingdom. Jesus proclaims a peaceable kingdom. This kingdom seeks out the good of the neighbor. For some, this way of Jesus is just too difficult. It calls too much from us. There is great risk in being a servant. There is great risk in loving people, especially our enemies. When you bow down to wash somebody’s feet, you expose your neck. To expose your neck to somebody, particularly an enemy, makes us vulnerable. Yet, this is the very thing Jesus does for Judas, bowing down and exposing his neck.
Jesus takes the bread at the Supper, breaks it, and hands it to Judas. Breaking bread in Jewish culture is like a peace treaty. To receive that bread is saying, “I’m looking out for your benefit and I trust you are looking out for mine.” Jesus gives the bread as a sign of peace. Judas takes the bread knowing that he will betray Jesus. Even though Jesus knows Judas’ intentions, he still extends the peace of God to Judas. Jesus knows that serving enemies is risky business.
Despite the risk, Jesus has an unarmed guard of disciples as they go to the garden. Peter has found a sword somewhere. He has no business with a sword. He’s a fisherman, not a soldier. When Judas’ group arrives, Peter may think this is the moment to rise and fight to establish Jesus’ kingdom. This is the moment! Peter said he would never abandon Jesus, even if everyone else does. He will be with Jesus to the bitter end! He pulls out the sword to protect everything he hopes and believes, to protect life and to secure it by all possible means.
Peter swings at the one person who doesn’t have a sword! He’s so brave! He swings at Malchus, servant and reporter to the high priest. Malchus has no sword. He doesn’t need it. He’s surrounded by soldiers. Peter spots the most vulnerable mark in the group and attacks. All Peter manages to cut is part of an ear. He swings with all his might, trying to protect, trying to hold on, trying to control the outcome… as we so often do. He is gripped by fear, not love. He is gripped by the narrative of redemptive violence – the narrative that violence can redeem, that violence is necessary. We believe violence saves. Peter draws the sword ready to protect everything. But redemptive violence is a myth. It cannot save.
Jesus tells Peter to stop, to sheath his sword. Jesus confronts Peter in his moment of standing up and tells him to back down. “Put away the sword.” I totally relate with Peter. I imagined as a young boy that if my beliefs were ever threatened, I would stand up. I would be ready to accept whatever violence might happen and fight for everything I believed in. That’s a pretty natural response – to believe I can control the outcome and justify my violence.
I just can’t get around this Jesus character. He calls for some very difficult responses from us. “If you want to follow me, pick up a cross.” Be ready to die, not take life. “Those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.” Jesus calls for some very difficult ways of living, risk-taking, entering so fully into this way of love that violence is no longer an option. I don’t know that I’ve been so gripped by Jesus that I can fully say I’ve cut myself off from these ways of violence. I know how effective violence can be to achieve my goals.
Peter knew how effective violence is. He observed how Rome utilized violence to assert their power. There was talk of peace but always under threat of the sword cutting down anyone who dissented, anyone who opposed the Empire. They used power to put down. Peter saw how effective it could be. There were also the stories of the Maccabees who defeated the Romans and kicked them out of Jerusalem for a time. Peter hoped Jesus would expel the Romans again. But Peter finds out that Jesus Kingdom doesn’t resemble the Roman empire’s way of violence.
My father once told me, “Don’t get into a fight. But, IF you do, fight to win.” I remember being told this as a young boy and being so deeply shaped by it. Of course, you can see I am not an intimidating figure. I didn’t seek out fights. But I found ways of utilizing violence to get things accomplished. My sister, who is a couple of years younger than me, was being teased in school. Understand that as a freshman in high school, I was a whopping five-foot-one and eighty-one pounds. I was all bone. If it was windy outside, I whistled because I was so skinny. I’m supposed to be the big, protective brother. So, I gather a couple of my friends who love to fight and are much more imposing than I am. We find her bully. My friends pick him up and pin him up against a locker. I threaten him. It was effective. It was powerful. Even though I was so small and diminutive, I felt real power.
There is an intoxication with violence. Power comes in all sorts of forms. It can be utilized against our spouse by the words we use. It can be against our children by constantly reminding them they don’t measure up instead of building them up. It is a violence that allows us to keep and maintain control over them. Or, we might think about someone breaking and entering and we want to protect ourselves or others in our home. The very first thing we go to is violence. We don’t ask this question: “When those moments come where fear and anxiety and chaos surround us, when I or those I love are threatened, how do I seek the most peaceful way?” How do I respond when I hear Jesus say, “Levi, put the sword away?” That’s risky.
Right after this scene in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, bound, beaten. He will be given a crown of thorns, mocked, spit upon. He will be dragged through the streets. He will be humiliated and, ultimately, crucified. The cross is a political sword. Jesus is pierced by the spear. Yet, the one who holds all power does not retaliate but absorbs that very violence in his own body and exhausts its power. The power of the sword has always been death. Jesus has conquered death by going and accepting the blows himself. If we believe Jesus isn’t simply wanting us to be good people, to whisk us away, but forms the church as a colony of heaven living in a culture of death then the call of Jesus is not just a pipe dream about the future. It is a call to lean into God’s way of life here and now. The cross is the establishment of that way.
The Kingdom is established in the cross in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is focused on God’s glory, but by means of God’s condescension. It’s ironic. God’s glory is a crucified savior. God’s glory does not return violence for violence, fire for fire, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. God turns it upside-down and exhausts the power of violence by conquering death, Death itself, through the power of the resurrection. New Creation life blows like a fresh wind.
In the resurrection scene, Jesus is in a garden again. Jesus is in a garden when he is betrayed and now is in a garden when he is resurrected. New Creation things are happening. He has gone into the garden where everything has been death and violence. Now, being buried into the ground, risen three days later, not taking the way of the world but going the way of the cross, Jesus comes out of the grave as a victorious savior. Never once having swung a sword, yet having been pierced by the sword, Jesus is not defeated.
Some are quite fearful in the Church and utilize violence as a safety mechanism, something that gives us security. In that regard, I’m not sure resurrection has fully gripped us. The power of resurrection that has broken into this dark world has not fully gripped us because for so many of us death is to be feared. We fear death and, therefore, we hold onto life with everything we can. When we hold onto things in great fear, violence is usually the outcome. Can we trust God cares for us so we don’t have to be gripped by violence? Even if the very worse should happen, God forbid, does God love us so deeply that God won’t let death be the last word over us? Do I believe resurrection power is not something off in the distance but is now working its way in me, doing something different in me, so I don’t have to perpetuate cycles of violence that escalate? Can I embody an alternative way of being like Jesus, even at great risk?
We meet at the Table every Sunday. We gather at the Table to eat a meal that recalls our crucified Savior’s unwillingness to take our violence and turn it back against us. Even having received our violence, Jesus takes it into his very body and then offers us his peace. The bread, the body, broken for our sake. The bloodshed as an atonement for sin. Jesus offers his very life in this moment at the Table and in consuming the meal we are receiving in our bodies and lives the way of Jesus – to be broken and poured out for the sake of our world. We are not to return hate for hate but return hate with love. We are to sow peace in places of discord. We receive this meal with glad and open hearts knowing it calls us into something deeper than retaliation, unless it is retaliating to evil with good, hatred with love, violence with peace – the way of Jesus.
This is my Father’s world
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet
This is my Father’s world
The battle is not done
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And heaven and earth be one
Though the wrong seems oft so strong, though the chaos seems like it might envelop us, yet we serve One who has gone headlong into the chaos, headlong into death, and has received new life and promises that same new life to us as those who embody the way of Jesus.
A story that captivates me is the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. They experienced the threat of violence and real violence. Firehoses, dogs, guns, bombs. There was real risk in the way of non-violence that King embodied. His witness is powerful because it confronted the chaos and darkness of this world through non-violence. We continue to celebrate his legacy because he embodied a different way of engaging the powers that surround us. It is a powerful reminder that violence may be effective for a short time, but love conquers all. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
 Harrelson, John 12:23, 17:1.
 Harrelson, John 18:11.
 Luke 9:23, my paraphrase.
 Ken Bible, “This is My Father’s World.” In Sing to the Lord: Hymnal, 7th ed. (Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing, 1993), 75.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Vincent Harding, and Coretta Scott King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1st ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 65.