"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Meditation for Maundy Thursday: A secret meal, prayer, betrayal and arrest. Mark 14.17-72

Mark 14-17-72
 And when it was evening he came with the twelve.   And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”   They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?”   He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.  For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
 And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”   And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.   And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.   Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.  And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’  But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”  Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.”  And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  But he said vehemently, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.

And they went to a place which was called Gethsem′ane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.”  And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.  And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.”  And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.  And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.”  And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?  Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.  And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to answer him.  And he came the third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come; the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.  Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.”  And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said, “Master!”  And he kissed him.  And they laid hands on him and seized him.  But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.  And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?  Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”  And they all forsook him, and fled. And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him,  but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

And they led Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes were assembled.  And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, and warming himself at the fire.  Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.  For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree.  And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying,  “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”  Yet not even so did their testimony agree.  And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”  But he was silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”  And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  And the high priest tore his garments, and said, “Why do we still need witnesses?  You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.  And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came;  and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”  But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway.  And the maid saw him, and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”  But again he denied it. And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.”  But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”  And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Mark's story of Jesus' last week moves towards its climax. On Wednesday Jesus had been anointed for burial by a woman disciple and betrayed to the authorities by one of the twelve men closest to him. On Thursday, the events set in motion by Wednesday unfold. Holy Thursday is full of drama. In the evening Jesus eats a final meal with his followers and prays for deliverance in Gethsemane; he is betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and deserted by the rest. Arrested in the darkness he is interrogated and condemned to death by the High Priest and his council, the local collaborators with imperial authority. All of this happens before dawn on Friday.

Details of this passage recall the preparations for Jesus' entry into the city on Palm Sunday. In both cases Jesus sends two of his disciples, tells them what to look for and instructs them what to say. In this case the preplanning has to do with secrecy: Mark has Jesus withhold from Judas the precise location of the meal so that Judas can not tell the authorities where Jesus is during this meal. This meal matters and Judas must not be allowed to interfere with its completion.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus knows what will happen. How could he not? He must have known that the noose was tightening, that the cross was approaching. He was not oblivious to the hostility of the authorities and no doubt saw his arrest and execution as inevitable.

With the arrival of evening Jesus and the disciples come to the upstairs room where the arrangements have been made. This final meal has multiple resonances of meaning: it projects backwards to the public activity of Jesus and forward into his death and the post Easter life of Christianity. Jesus' Last Supper will be the First Supper of the future.

We need to remember that Jesus had been repeatedly criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The issue is that Jesus eats with undesirables: with the marginalised and outcast in a society which had sharp social boundaries. It had both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the Kingdom of God and political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.

As Mark narrates what Jesus did at the meal, he uses four verbs: took, blessed, broke and gave. These four words take us back to an earlier scene concerning food in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with two loaves and three fish. Mark's emphasis on a just distribution of what does not belong to us links that event to the emphasis on the loaf of bread and the cup of wine that are shared amongst all in the New Passover meal. Once again Jesus distributes food already present to all who are there and we might even assume a wider group of followers than the inner twelve.

As a Passover meal, Jesus' Last Supper resonates with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, his people's story of their birth as a nation. A story of bondage, deliverance and liberation, it was their primordial narrative, the most important story they knew because it was, and remains, the celebration of God's greatest act of deliverance.

Mark's version of the Last Supper leaves the connection to Passover implicit. What makes it explicit is the connection to Jesus' impending death and it does so with the "words of institution", familiar to us through their use in the Eucharist. The language of body and blood points to a violent death and without that it would not have been possible to talk of Jesus' death as a blood sacrifice. A correlation between Jesus as the new Paschal Lamb and this final meal as the New Passover becomes possible. The point is neither suffering nor substitution but participation with God through gift or meal.

Earlier in Mark (10.45) Jesus had said The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. That liberation, redemption or salvation is echoed here in Jesus' statement "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." What is not immediately clear is how that is accomplished for many until we recall the challenge (8.34-35) If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it. In other words it was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his followers were to pass through death to resurrection. It is to be noted then that all of the twelve, including Judas partake of the meal: participation in Christ not substitution by Christ.

Turning to Jesus' arrest: again we have the theme of failed discipleship as the disciples, seemingly untouched by Jesus' agitation and distress, are unable to support him through that night. Of course Jesus does not want to go through with it. Who would? Yet he gives himself over to God - "Not what I want but what you want."

I think we need to be clear that Jesus' death was not the will of God: it is never God's will that the righteous suffer. The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances as a forerunner to Peter, Paul, Thecla and Perpetua and to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the nuns of El Salvador.

Judas now knows the plans for the rest of the evening. He has already left the meal and now Jesus can be arrested in the darkness away from the crowd. He leads the crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the limited paramilitary force allowed to the temple authorities by the Romans. This is not the group Jesus has spent the week in conflict with, merely their enforcers so Judas has to identify Jesus for them to be able to effect an arrest. Why would they know which one Jesus is? He does this with a kiss of greeting and betrayal. There is a scuffle and one of Jesus' followers uses a sword against the temple police. Is this another example of the failure of the disciples in Mark's eyes? In any event Jesus isn't standing for it in his name. "Put your sword back; for all who take the sword will perish by it." In the general mele the disciples flee the scene anxious not to share their leader's fate, not to be heard of again until after Easter with the exception of Peter who at least follows the arresting group, presumably at some distance. We hear of Peter next after the trial in his famous denial "I do not know this man you are talking about!" We shouldn't be too hard on Peter. In our own ways and with our own words and actions or, indeed, in our silences, we too have denied Jesus or played down our association out of expedience. But we jump ahead of ourselves.

Neither do we hear of Judas again: it is left to the other gospels to explain that Judas has an attack of conscience and tries to return the blood money the religious authorities had paid him to betray Jesus. It is left to Matthew to introduce Judas' suicide.

So we reach the trial. We need to remember that according to Mark there were no overt followers of Jesus there. Is the account of the trial a Markan construct or can we surmise a sympathiser at the trial who later reported back? We also need to remember that the Sanhedrin, made up of collaborators as it was, didn't represent the view of the people who so far had been on Jesus' side.

It is not a good start to the trial from the perspective of the authorities: the witnesses lie and disagree amongst themselves. It says something about the Sanhedrin's "commitment to justice" that the trial went ahead from this point. However, in the absence of the three adult male witnesses who needed to agree for a charge to progress, the High Priest goes for a direct confession and challenges Jesus one to one. In response to the question Are you the Messiah, the son of the blessed one? Jesus responds, we are told, quoting Daniel with "I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power." On this basis Jesus is found guilty and the High Priest tears his robe as a sign that blasphemy has taken place. Jesus is condemned to death and the emotional and physical abuse begins. He will now be handed over to Pilate. It is not yet daybreak. The end - and the beginning - are near.

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