Friday, 18 April 2014


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
Good Friday, 10.30am, 18th April 2014

John 18:10-11  Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus.  11 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?" 

Today could just be the day when violence wins.

Our reading from John’s gospel provides us with a narrative loaded with tension,
            which ends in bloody murder.

And I want us to spend a few moments now with one small part of this story,
            a cameo of violence that one could so easy lose sight of,
                        in the midst of the chaos surrounding it,
            just as one person punching another might fade into the background
                        if it happened in the midst of a war zone.

The moment I’m thinking of, of course,
            is Peter drawing a sword and cutting off the right ear
            of the high priest’s servant (Jn 18.10).

In a story dominated by terror and death,
            this was hardly the worst thing that happened that day,
and if Luke’s version of events is to be believed (Lk 22.51),
            Jesus immediately reached out and healed the man’s ear.

But it is one of the relatively few stories
            to appear in all four of the gospels (cf. Mk 14.47; Mt 26.51)
and the way John tells it,
            it is laden with significance
            for the terrible events that follow it.

Firstly, John’s gospel is the only version of the story
            to give us the servant’s name – he’s called Malchus.
In the other gospels, he is just a ‘servant’ or a ‘slave’,
            a lowly, insignificant human being
            fit only for identification by the role he plays
            in other, more important, people’s lives.
He is a nobody, who is simply caught up in violence
            that is not of his making:
He doesn’t ask to go to the garden to arrest the leader
            of a group of armed and volatile revolutionaries,
he just has to go where he is ordered,
            at the command of his master.

Just like the Tommys of the first world war,
            he served, and he paid the price.
But, thanks to John’s gospel, we know his name!
            He is not simply ‘a servant of the high priest’,
                        he is Malchus!
            He is a man with identity, with human dignity,
                        not simply depersonalised cannon fodder,
                        or collateral damage.

And this simple act of personifying the recipient of violence
            is one which speaks very powerfully to those
                        who continue to take up their swords in our own time,
            striking out against those who represent the feared threat
                        that unifies us against a common foe.

The Joint Public Issues Team publication,
            Drones: Ethical Dilemmas in the Application of Military Force,
points out that those who operate Armed Unmanned Aerial Devices,
            or ‘drones’ as they’re more commonly known,
flying them by remote control
            from a command base potentially on the other side of the world,
might develop
            ‘an unhealthy familiarity with killing by remote control’.
They become detached from the violence,
            removed from the consequences of their actions.

One British pilot interviewed for the Radio 4 programme ‘Drone Wars’
            acknowledged what he called the ‘strangeness’
            of being involved in killing
                        and then going home to his family at the end of the day.

The naming of Malchus by John
            reminds us of the need to keep in view the innate humanity of the other,
                        and of the ease with which
                        depersonalisation creates opportunities for violence.

But let’s stay with this story for a little while longer…
            because it’s not just Malchus who John names,
                        it’s also Simon Peter.
            The other gospels simply say that
                        the person who drew his sword on Malchus
                                    was ‘one of those standing by Jesus’,
                        but John tells us that it is none other than Simon Peter himself.

And the thing that jars for me in this story,
            is the fact that Simon Peter had a sword with him at all!

I don’t know how you normally picture Simon Peter,
            but I’d bet it isn’t usually an image of him
            tooled up and ready for a night of serious fighting and blood-letting.

Simon Peter the fisherman, yes.
            Simon Peter getting out of a boat and walking on the water, yes.
Simon Peter the disciple who denies Jesus, yes.
            Simon Peter the rock on which Jesus will build his church, yes.
Simon Peter the great preacher of Pentecost, yes.
            Even Simon Peter the first Bishop of Rome, if you like.

But Simon Peter the armed and dangerous revolutionary?
            Ready to draw his sword and take aim at another human being’s head?
It just goes to show
            that you never can really tell what depths of violence
            lie in the human heart waiting to be unlocked by anger, fear, or hatred.
Peter finds himself controlled by the events unfolding around him,
            and draws his sword accordingly.
He does that most human thing in the world,
            and reaches for violence as the solution,
            hoping that somehow his embracing of anger
                        and his harnessing of fear
            will somehow make the situation all right again.

In a week where the news headlines have been dominated
            by the escalating tension and burgeoning violence of the Ukraine,
            and by the trial-by-media of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius,
one cannot help but be brought up short
            by the human capacity to resort to violence
            as the solution to problems
                        from the international to the intensely personal.

I also find myself despairing about the proliferation
            of personal ownership of firearms,
as if this is ever going to be anything other
            than an invitation for evil to enter the human heart
                        and open the gates of hell.

If Peter had not come to the garden armed for the fight,
            he could not have taken aim at Malchus’s head.

And then there’s Jesus.

He knows what’s coming;
            the violence that awaits him is written on the wall, so to speak,
            and he tells Peter to put his sword back in its sheath (18.11).
The cause of the coming kingdom of Christ
            is not one that will be furthered by violence.
The revolution that brought Jesus to Jerusalem
            will not be fought with swords.
Rather, Jesus goes to his cross
            to take into and upon himself
            the violence of the world.

As Jesus says to Pilate, the capricious representative of the ruling Roman Regime,
            ‘My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world.
            If my kingdom were from this world,
                        my supporters would have fought…
            So then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.’ (18.36)

Rather, the kingdom that Jesus brings
            is a kingdom symbolised by a cup.
As he says to Peter,
            ‘do you imagine I’m not going to drink the cup
                        my father has given me?’

Although John leaves the story of the last supper to the other gospel writers,
            the cup that Jesus speaks of here is the cup of suffering,
                        it is the cup of the last supper,
                                    the cup of his spilled blood,
                        it is the cup from last night’s meal,
                                    still unfinished on the table,
                        it’s wine turned bitter,
                                    still waiting to be consumed.

The cup of the kingdom is the hour of suffering and death,
            and Jesus consumes it in all its bitterness
            as he embraces the cross and takes to himself all the violence of the world.

From the garden of Gethsemane,
            to the trenches of the first world war,
                        to the mountains of Afghanistan,
                                    to the plains of the Ukraine,
                                                          to a bedroom in Pretoria.

All the violence of the world finds its focus on the cross of Christ,
            in the death of the revolutionary without a sword;
who died to break the power of death
            and to open the path to a new kingdom of peace.

It was a turning point for Peter;
            he put away his sword, recognising at last the futility of violence,
            and eventually found his way
                        through shame, and cowardice, and fear
            to a new life in the kingdom of Christ.

And so too for us, today:

as we come for our Good Friday worship,
            we find ourselves face to face with the cross of Christ,
and we hear the words of Jesus spoken to Peter,
            echoing down the centuries to us,
inviting us to look within, to recognise the darkness of the human heart,
            and to learn from the prince of peace
                        a new an non-violent way that transforms,
                                    not just the world,

                        but the very nature of our own humanity.

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