The Violent Bear It Away

Maundy Thursday
Tonight we begin the enactment of a story, Jesus’ last hours. I don’t know what most impresses you about the story of the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion of Jesus. What impresses me is its sheer bloodiness, the violence. I pray to God that I’ll never get so hardened of heart, so inoculated to the violence, that I cease to flinch as Jesus is nailed to the wood.
It’s a very violent story. Jesus foretold this night in a parable (Mt. 21). A man had a vineyard. He improved it, built a wall around it, a tower too. He leased his vineyard to some tenants, allowing them to collect and keep the fruit of the vineyard, never charging them rent. One day, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect the rent that was due. The wicked tenants beat the servants, killing one, stoning another half to death. The owner thought, “Unbelievable! This time I’ll send my own son to collect my rent, that will surely shame them, or bring out the best in them.”
The owner failed fully to reckon the depth of wickedness, the potential for violence among the tenants. They say to themselves, “Well, here comes the son, the heir to the vineyard. Let’s bash in his head, kill him, so that it will be ours.”
And Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is just like that. He who never one time used violence, or even self-defense (wouldn’t let us use our swords tonight to protect him), was the cause of violence. He, who embodied the best, brought out in us, the worst. The gospel is a violent story.
So is ours. We are a violent people, we tenants of the vineyard, and most of the stories about us, if they are true, are bathed in blood. Historian Stephen Ambrose says that 1945, the year before my birth, may have been history’s bloodiest year. In every corner of the world, the sight, says Ambrose, of a half dozen teenaged boys, walking down a street, would strike fear among the people. They were armed to the teeth, young killers in uniforms provided by old men in government. I was born one year later, the year of the last lynching in the South, in my hometown. I was conceived in blood.
And weren’t we all? Creation is but six chapters old, says Genesis (6:11), when God notes that something had gone terribly wrong. The earth that God intended to be filled with birds and beasts and humanity, is “filled with violence.”
And hasn’t it always, at least our part of the earth? A few years ago was published a three volume, Violence in America.[1] A brief perusal proves it really is as American as apple pie. We were born in blood, what we call “The Revolution,” others call it the genocide of the natives. 168 people killed by a young man, U.S. Army trained, in Oklahoma City. The crazed Unabomber, a Harvard man. Most of our children have seen something like a thousand TV murders by the time they are ten. And so many of our heroes, Kennedy, King, Lincoln, assassinated by their fellow citizens. I confess I only made it for about twenty of the encyclopedia’s nearly 2,000 bloody pages.
And he gathered us, the night before he was whipped, beaten and nailed to the wood. And taking the bread said, “This is my body, broken, for you.” And then the cup, “This is my blood, shed, for you.”
For you. Because if there were not some blood to it, some brokeness, it wouldn’t be for me, for you.
“We don’t really believe that the cup actually contains the blood of Christ, do we?” he asked. Well, why not? What did you think it meant when it said, on Christmas, that “the Word became flesh and moved in with us”?
“I will, having failed at all else, send them the Son,” said the Father, that will bring out the best in them, shame them, change them, surely.” Well, tonight we see that, he came into the world, the world (in the words of Genesis, “filled with violence”) and brought out the worst in us.
Any Savior who wants to save us, must be willing to get bloody in order to get to us, for our story is one of broken bodies and shed blood.
Earlier, in Matthew’s gospel, when they came and told Jesus that John the Baptist had been arrested and was awaiting execution (Mt. 11:12), Jesus commented that, since the first days of Creation, since Genesis, since John, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent try to take it by force.
What’s new? Well, what’s new is this night, that the kingdom should come to us, the violent, not by violence, but by One willing to turn his cheek to the smiters, to shed blood, body to be broken, for us, for us.
[1] Violence in America: An Encyclopedia, Ronald Gottesman and Richard Maxwell Brown (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001).
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