Monday, July 21, 2008

Obedient Until Death

Bible Reading: Mark 14: 17-37

Today, our reading takes us to an upper room in Jerusalem, a celebration of Passover with a difference, and a time of personal spiritual tribulation. It ends almost where Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ begins.

Our theme is Obedient unto Death.

So much occurs in today’s passage: The prediction of Judas’ betrayal, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial and Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Each of these is a topic for a sermon of its own. Yet if we look at it from the perspective of the theme, “obedient unto death,” it is not too much of a stretch to connect these dots: predictions of betrayal and denial, the instating of the ritual of the Eucharist and Jesus’ moment of weakness, into a picture which shows us different angles of the same theme.

The question can be asked: is Judas merely obeying Jesus’ statement that one of the 12 will betray him. Certainly if the other 11 are saying ‘not me, no way, I’ll never do that,’ he’s left with the responsibility. I’m sure many of you a by now aware of the recent publication of the English translation of a Coptic manuscript from the 4th century which seems to be a Gnostic gospel of Judas. According to the introduction, this is a secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover. In it Judas is praised by Jesus for and I quote, “…sacrificing the man that clothes me…” Perhaps if we had read this earlier – we might have done a few things differently on Sunday night. Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that this 4th Century manuscript has it right. But we can see a purpose to the act of Judas, and his obedience to God’s purpose, unto death, both his and Jesus’.

Peter too is obedient to the prediction of denial, although he, James and John could maintain their obedience to Jesus’ command to stay awake and keep watch.

Jesus prays in Gethsemane for the cup of suffering from which He must drink to be taken from Him. Yet he remains obedient to not His will but His Father’s will unto death.

When we participate in Holy Communion, we too are being obedient to the Christ’s command of remembrance. Our obedience here results in the death of our old life of sin and a in a new life in a new creation.

I recently watched a film which was but one story in the epic saga of the battle for independence of India, from the British and who were for a time ruled by a one of the first transnational companies – the British East India Company. It is the story of Mangal Pandey who sparked what Western historians refer to as the Indian or Sepoy mutiny and Indians refer to it as their first war of independence. The rebellion was put down after a year but brought an end to the East India Company as the British Crown took over the governance of India. This next form of oppression would be challenged and defeated in another story through the non-violent satya-graha or truth-force of Mahatma Gandhi, loosely based on the Beatitudes. For these two men also, albeit non-Christian, their obedience to the cry for deliverance of their people, would result in their death.

As I was pondering over this theme last week, I happened to open one of the many prayer books from the Holy Trinity Cathedral which, according to my sources can be found in Labasa in Vanua Levu and even in New Zealand. Last week there were two modern servants of God whose deaths were commemorated. One was Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoffer, a theologian, who left the security of the United States to return to Nazi Germany to work in the Confessional Church and during the second world war worked in opposition to the Nazis and was arrested and ultimately executed in 1945 for plotting against Adolf Hitler in 1945, just weeks before Germany surrendered.

From his letters and papers smuggled out of prison, I would like to share with you some extracts, from an essay titled ‘After 10 years,’ written a few months before his arrest in 1943:

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is no his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call to God….

It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy., in body and in spirit, and since that day, many Christians have suffered with him.

The other name that I read was that of another theologian (by this stage I was beginning to wonder if I made the right decision to major in theology) this time from what was and is still purported to be, no offence David, the bastion of democracy, USA. Civil rights activist, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who took Gandhi’s of non-violence and love replying to hate, was a leading figure in the campaign to affirm the dignity of African-Americans. Awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1967, he was assassinated a year later, at the age of 39.

Martin Luther King Jnr is known for the Montgomery Alabama, Bus boycott; the massive public march on Washington DC the capital of USA and of course his immortal “I have a dream speech.”

I would like to share from another speech, not as well known as “I have a dream”, this speech was delivered in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, a day before he was assassinated:

The question is not, “if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do not stop to help, what will happen to him,” That’s the question…

Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

In 1980, in the midst of a US funded war which the UN Truth Commission called genocidal, the soon-to-be-assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador promised history that life, not death, would have the last word. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he is quoted as saying. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadorian people.” On March 23, 1980 he preached his last radio broadcast sermon directed at the national guard, the police and the military which ended with:

In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

The church preaches your liberation just as we have studied it in the Holy Bible today. It is a liberation that has, above all else, respect for the dignity of the person, hope for humanity’s common good, and the transcendence that looks before all to God and only from God derives its hope and its strength.

The next day, as he celebrated Mass, he was murdered by a sharpshooter. A number of those who attended his funeral were also shot in front of the cathedral.

Here in the Pacific, we remember the Seven Melanesian brothers killed during the ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands by Harold Keke and his militia. Brother Nathaniel Sado, Brothers Robin Lindsay, Francis Tofi , Alfred Hilly, Patterson Gatu, Ini Partabatu and Tony Sirihi made the ultimate sacrifice of a peacemaker.

But is not just priests, ministers and lay church workers and missionaries who are called to be obedient unto death. Time does not permit me to reflect on the 200 million Christians under some form of persecution around the world. All of these people from different places, races, cultures, denominations face arrest, eviction, attacks, intimidation, interrogation, imprisonment, beatings, being burned, beheading, starvation, stoning, rape, and death for their faith in and obedience to Christ.

Brothers and sisters, the message to us is deafeningly loud, we are called, we are challenged and we are shown how. Do we dare to be obedient unto death? Amen.

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