Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


As Though I Were a Bandit

Below is the sermon I gave at noon today for St. Marys, Georgia's Ecumenical Holy Week services. I gave a storytelling sermon there three years ago and didn't want to again, but the text was the quote in the first line of the sermon and the only way I could see to enter into it fully was through a story, which I based on Matthew's account of the last week of Jesus life, the Book of Acts account of Saul's conversion, and Ignatius of Antioch's letters written while en route to his martyrdom in the coliseum:

“Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” That question on the lips of Jesus stopped me in my tracks. It got me thinking that night and I have been turning it round and round in my head ever since. It was a conversation with Jesus in which he asked one question and I have spent my life living into the answer.

They tell me that I will die tomorrow at noon. I am one of a small group destined to face the lions in this local coliseum. They have offered us a way out. Deny Jesus as Lord, offer sacrifices to the emperor as a God and live. But I am not capable of denying Jesus and so want to get this story out before I face my death.

You can trust that everything I say now is completely true. This is not a time for holding back. I want you to understand that we were not bad men. We were good men, who for all the right reasons, played our parts in the most evil act in human history.

I was there that night of Jesus’ arrest representing the scribes, the keepers of the law. I was one of the men sent by the chief priests and the elders of the people to make sure that Jesus of Nazareth was silenced. We had temple guards and others with swords and clubs ready to put down any resistance. We had Judas Iscariot ready to pick the rebel rabbi out of the dusty group from Galilee. We were ready for anything.

By torchlight, I could see Jesus face as Judas kissed his teacher, betraying him into our hands. Hurt, disappointed, but loving just the same. Then he asked the question: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?”

Unbidden from within me came the response flashing across my mind, “A bandit, yes!” That’s it, I thought. You are stealing the affections of the people, taking the attention that belongs to the authorities and claiming it as your own. You are the boldest of bandits, taking what belongs to others while acting like it was yours by right all along.

“Jesus” was the name everyone was talking about that Passover week now thirty years ago. Jerusalem buzzed with stories of Jesus greeted as a king when he processed into Jerusalem on a donkey to a crowd of admirers waving palm branches, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers, disrupting the worship in the Temple on its busiest week of the year. Jesus teaching that confounded every verbal trap we set for him that week. Jesus who was undeterred by our best efforts could effortlessly turn an argument on its head, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.

It was blasphemous the way the crowds treated him as the Messiah, God’s own son. I knew that night that the chief priests and the elders were justified in protecting God by silencing this Jesus. So when he asked why we were treating him as though he were a bandit, my reply to myself was, we treat you like a bandit, because you take what rightly belongs to the temple and the priests as your own. They should come to us for healing, for forgiveness, to get connected to God. Instead they were going to Jesus in ever larger numbers. He would steal the whole flock out from under the rightful shepherds if no one took action. So when an arrest party was put together, I was honored to go out and make sure nothing went wrong. Once Jesus gave me the words for it, I was eager to name him as the worst of thieves.

I stayed up all night. I was there and heard with my own ears when Jesus told the high priest he was the Son of Man who would sit at the right hand of the Mighty One. Blasphemy! The high priest tore his cloak. Then we traveled from place to place making sure that every loophole was closed. It should have been easy to get Pilate to understand that Jesus had to die, but he seemed oddly reluctant. When Pilate tried to offer absolution to Jesus and set him free, I was there screaming with all my might for Pilate to give us Barabbas instead. When Pilate asked what he should do with Jesus, I wanted him treated like the most unrepentant of thieves. “Crucify him!” I shouted along with the mob. “Crucify him!”

I followed close at hand as a beaten and bloodied Jesus made his way to Golgotha. I was there when cold steal tore through warm flesh and the sound of those nails driven into his arms of love haunts me still. I watched as darkness fell over the land and I heard him cry out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” I thought he was calling out for Elijah and joined in with others taunting him as he died. The words burn through my heart now, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In those words of the psalmist spoken by the dying Christ, I now see what length Jesus was willing to go from to save even me from the power of sin and death.

I heard the stories: The earthquake. People rising from their graves. The veil in the temple torn from top to bottom, as if the dividing wall between God and man had been rent from heaven. Monday, everyone was talking about the word that Jesus was risen from the grave. I knew that rumor was false. I had seen him breathe his last. I watched Jesus’ body come down off the cross. The one fact of which I was most certain was that Jesus was dead. I knew the movement he started would soon die out too. After all, I saw his disciples scatter and run when we came into the garden to arrest him. Jesus had come into Jerusalem to steal the hearts of the faithful and we had taken them back for ourselves.

Months passed. The movement gained new strength. Some of our group sought to put them down by force. I wasn’t there when that Greek, Stephen, was stoned to death, but I heard he was talking the same blasphemy as Jesus. It was Saul who got my attention. We both saw ourselves as up and coming spiritual leaders. I knew he was taking the lead in persecuting these fools who were following their dead teacher. That’s why I was so surprised when he told me about his trip to Damascus.

Saul was back in Jerusalem trying to join with Jesus’ disciples. He found me in the court of the temple teaching a group of boys to read the Torah. As the class ended he took me aside. With eyes aflame with a passion I knew nothing of he told me the truth. He recounted the blinding light, the voice of Jesus, and then the prophetic words that led Ananias to seek him out, teach him and baptize him. Saul told how he had been blinded and when the Holy Spirit came upon him it was like scales falling away from his eyes.

Saul’s words sounded crazy. Then Saul opened the scripture up to me in a way I never heard it before. I knew the prophets so well, but he showed me how they pointed to Jesus. It was all in our scriptures with such clarity, I was astounded that I had not seen it myself. When he began to quote from Isaiah words of the Suffering Servant passage, I took over reciting the words by heart,

“Surely he took our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

I was crushed. I wailed, sobbing uncontrollably. I had looked God incarnate in the face and rejected him. I had helped kill Jesus just as surely as if I had driven the nails with my own hands. The words “Crucify him” now burned in my throat. Saul understood and he let me cry myself out. Then he showed me how Jesus could forgive even me. He led me in a prayer to God through Jesus in which I felt the Holy Spirit in a mighty way.

The prayer was a continuation of the conversation Jesus started with his question, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” I admitted to him that I had done just that, thought of him as a bandit, stealing the hearts of the people. But in prayer, I gave him my heart freely, openly, completely. I realized that Jesus had never taken anything from anyone. He gave of himself freely even to his dying breath. In answer to my prayer Jesus gave me such peace and a feeling of forgiveness that I was flooded with joy.

Now I sit in a prison, chained to Roman guards who will be with us right up to the last. All I want to do is help them understand that I am free. They are the ones who are bound. Rome wants to take my life, without realizing that I have already given it away. They are putting me to death as a bandit as well. Their leaders think that I have stolen the power and honor and glory that rightly go to Caesar and have given them to Jesus. They don’t understand that in giving Jesus my life, I only gave back what was rightfully his.

Now if I can just convince this soldier next to me to have his own conversation with Jesus, I will add a bit of joy to these last hours of life. Try it. Offer Jesus your heart. You’ll be surprised at the peace and love and joy and hope he will give you in return.



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