What kind of victory (or path to victory) are we ready to stomach? Are we able to stay and keep watch when expectations crumble?
The disciples and Jesus observe the Passover. They have spent the evening reflecting on the decisive victory of God. When God’s mighty hand was stretched out and horse and rider were flung into the sea. Where the warhorse and chariot of the imperial enemy were overrun by the primal forces of nature. When God decreed that the people would be established and Pharoah, in all his splendour and might, was helpless to frustrate their liberation.
It is little surprise then, that on the heels of this meal, when soldiers of another imperial force confront Jesus, the agent of God’s salvation and liberation, one of the disciples pulls out his sword and strikes. For surely this must be the time, surely this is a moment like that moment back at the Red Sea, this is the moment of God’s decisive, liberating, majestic activity - the forces of evil are being confronted and overwhelmed by those of God. Surely this is the time when horse and rider will once more be flung into the sea, and the people of Israel will once again be free! Here Jesus stands, amidst the memory of Passover, surely this is the moment that he will lead them to triumph, all they must do is trust that the waters will indeed part. And so, out of an abundance of faith, hope, and frustration the disciple draws steel and swings.
But Jesus does not follow suit. Jesus does not call down heavenly fire, does not marshal angel armies, does not raise his arms so that the very primal forces of nature would do his bidding, crushing his enemy. Instead Jesus instructs the disciple to return his sword, and heals the one who was cut.
The disciples flee.
The question posed on Maundy Thursday is are we able to stay and keep watch when nothing about this seems triumphant? When nothing about this feels victorious? When nothing about this looks the way we have been taught to see and expect God’s redemption? What happens when the mighty waters seem to be rising all around us, while our enemies walk dry upon their banks, what then, O disciple?
When Jesus instructed the disciple to put away his weapon, he remarked: “those who live by the sword die by it” – and perhaps this sounded all well and good but then Jesus still dies by the sword. Nails are driven into his hands and feet, a spear driven through his side, and he breathes his last breath while hanging between thieves. Are we able to stay and keep watch when, in the face of blunt and uncompromising violence, even Jesus’ own words feel naïve and inimitable? His first disciples couldn’t, and I think that is the most understandable reaction in the world.
We do not get to test ourselves in that moment, there’s no hypothetical pondering visceral enough to truly test whether we would have been able to stay or run in that garden. Yet, we are nonetheless asked: Are we able to stay and keep watch for what Jesus is doing when nothing around us feels triumphant? When the church feels smaller and more fragile than any time in our memory, when the injustice and despair in our world feels more pervasive than it has ever been, when the distance between that which we have valued and prioritised and what those coming after us value and prioritise feels ever wider, when wicked prosper and righteous suffer, when apathy abounds and sincerity wains, when that which always worked falters at every turn… are we ready to stay and keep watch, ready to trust that Jesus will be present to us, will be victorious for us, even if that victory and the path to it look so different than what we have been taught to expect… are we ready to stay and keep watch for the new thing Christ is doing – that new thing he is bringing about through death and rebirth – or do we, at the last moment, strike out and flee?
Which way, O disciple?
Image: Christ On the Mount of Olives, Paul Gaugin (1889)
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