Try to imagine this in your mind. You are back in the in the time of Jesus following him around and seeing Jesus do wonderful, powerful, amazing things. After following him for several years he tells you that he will be betrayed and killed. You don’t understand but are afraid to ask for clarification. And then later you start arguing about who is more important in your group. This is basically the story in the Gospel today. But so much of it seems strange. It raises so many questions.
Who is it that will betray and kill Jesus? The betrayal part could seem easy to define though hard to understand. Betrayal is an act by friend. It is done by a person on your side. Someone who stabs you in the back. Betrayal hurts. It is done by someone close to you. So when there is a warning of betrayal everyone starts looking around at each other, just like at the Last Supper I suppose.
The killing part on the other hand, that is not so hard. Anyone can do that. Just look at all the slaughter going on in the world around us. One of the sad truths of history is that much anti-Semitism in the world is as a result of the Christian tradition of blaming the death of Jesus on the Jewish people. In our more modern times there has been a move to set the historical record straight and point out that it was indeed the Roman authorities who killed Jesus. It was the Romans who had the power, the ability and the will to carry out the murder of Jesus. The Jewish people of that time did not. This fresh approach is historically accurate. However, it is also still wrong. It is wrong because it is theologically wrong.
The answer to who betrayed Jesus and who killed Jesus must be found in theology, not history or anti-Semitism. And the answer is the same to both who betrayed and who killed Jesus. The answer for all of us is “me”. I killed Jesus and you killed Jesus. One of the marvelous things about Education for Ministry is the teaching that all of us can and should be theologians. As Christians theology should be the thing we look to first in the answer to questions in our lives.
While unfortunately rarely sung in any Episcopal Church that I have ever attended, Hymn #158, “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended” is tremendously powerful and theologically accurate. Verses one and two are as follows:
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
And here is the key part:
Who was the guilty- Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
'Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.
“Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee! I crucified Thee.” This is the truth of the Gospel. Sadly in our world today too many Christians are busy arguing about who will be the greatest rather than humbly acknowledging our responsibilities to God.
It is in our human nature to not want to own up to our failures and weaknesses in life and instead argue about other things, like who is first or who is better. Or perhaps to argue about who is right and who is wrong. This is exactly the situation played out in the Gospel reading for today.
The disciples were faced with two challenged from Jesus. First he would be betrayed. They should have been looking among themselves, questioning their commitment to the person they had chosen to follow, but they did not. Second he would be killed. They should have been looking around trying to figure out who in the world would do that, but they did not. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying to them so they basically ignored it. And then got on to the important business of trying to decide who would be first in the group.
Unfortunately Christianity down through the centuries has not done any better than the disciples. The Christian Church has only been too happy to point fingers at Judas as the betrayer and at either the Jewish people or the Romans as the murders of Jesus. In essence we have done no better than the disciples. Instead we have spent centuries arguing about who is first. We have argued and defended who may enslave who. We have argued and defended who may marry who. We have argued and defended who may ordain who. And now we are arguing about who may love who and in the midst of that who is more pure than whom.
These purists insist that you must agree with them or else you are apostate or a heretic and you must be excluded from them. They refused to participate in the Eucharistic gatherings at General Convention lest they be tainted. They will refuse the leadership of our duly elected Presiding Bishop even though they voted for her.
But at least the disciples were ashamed of what they were doing. Regretfully, the purists in our midst now have no shame about what they are doing.
However, I have great hope for the Episcopal Church. While some sadly are mislead by these often dishonest purists, I believe most faithful members of our church see these people for who and what they are. Eventually, the purists will leave the Episcopal Church and I will grieve for the loss of them. But in the end they will quietly disappear and waste away as they strive to maintain purity by excluding more and more people. At the same time, the Episcopal Church will continue to move forward, ministering to the needy, helping the oppressed and sharing the Good News of Jesus in the world around us.