Luke 22:35-38, 47-53
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Some four hundred years before Jesus there was an unhappy tyrant named Dionysius II. He ruled Syracuse, Sicily, with an iron hand. So afraid of would be assassins, he slept in a bedchamber that was surrounded by a moat of water. Now in his court was a young man named Damocles who was trying to curry favor with the king. Once while extolling the king’s greatness, the old tyrant out of the blue offered to switch places with Damocles for just one day. And of course, Damocles quickly accepted and took his place on the king’s magnificent throne.
But then Damocles noticed something unnerving above the throne-a huge sword hanging by a single hair of a horse’s tail. In dismay Damocles asked why the king allowed such a weapon to hang so precariously above him. King Dionysius explained that the sword reminded him daily of his constant fear of assassins. With that explanation Damocles admitted, “So I wish to be no longer so fortunate to sit upon your throne.” The moral of the story? We all live under the sword of Damocles, hanging above us by a single thread.
The Biblical narrative in Genesis 3 provides a variation on this theme. Adam and Eve, having eaten of the forbidden fruit, are clothed with animal skins and escorted out of the garden. No longer will they have access to the tree of life. They will now deal with the threat of the serpent, pain in childbirth, and thorns and thistles. And most significantly they will now be subject to death: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” And the text says, “God drove them out and at the east of the Garden of Eden God placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.” Now there is no return to Paradise, no going home again, at least, not to that primal home. So we wander East of Eden prey to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.
Because the sword hangs over us, preventing our return to Eden, we have entered the “age of anxiety” where we dwell even to this day. And so it was with Jesus, from the day he was born to the day he died. Soon after his birth, according to Matthew, King Herod’s soldiers used their swords on the infants of Bethlehem. During his ministry that “fox” Herod Antipas used the sword to sever the head of John the Baptist. Regardless, Jesus sent out his followers to announce the coming kingdom with this warning, “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Lk. 10:3). Living in occupied territory, Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples that he himself would one day face the Roman sword in Jerusalem.
Which brings us to the last night of Jesus’ life. In a passage unique to Luke, Jesus reminds his disciples they were earlier sent out to announce the kingdom carrying nothing with them. Now Jesus sends them out yet again, but this time they are to go equipped with a purse, a bag, and even a sword. A sword? Why? Because now they have become associated with Jesus, the one the Romans branded and executed as a criminal. Guilt by association, I suppose. When the disciples hear this new charge, they reply, “Lord, look, we have two swords!” Jesus seems flustered and replies, “That’s enough!”
Such an odd exchange, nowhere else referred to in the entire New Testament. In fact, we have no evidence that his disciples ever went out armed; rather they went out like “lambs among wolves”. So what did Jesus mean by this enigmatic suggestion? Did the disciples misunderstand their Master yet again? Is this a literal sword or a metaphorical sword? At the last supper, the issue is not resolved. Later in the garden of Gethsemane the matter of the sword will come up again, quite literally. In the garden Jesus prays passionately that the cup of suffering be removed from him. In a disputed text Jesus is said to “sweat great drops of blood” in anxiety and fear, even as an angel strengthened him. Ultimately Jesus embraces God’s will for him-a spiritual act of submission over mere survival.
So when Judas stormed into the garden with the crowd bearing swords, Jesus asks his friend, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” Then Jesus’ startled followers ask, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” No doubt, the sword they had proudly displayed earlier. Before Jesus can answer one of his disciples, whom the Fourth Gospel tells us was Peter, struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. Jesus’ response to this violence? “No more of this!” A firm rebuke. We learn from Matthew, that Jesus emphatically rejects such violence: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take the sword will perish with the sword. Do you think I cannot appeal to my Father to send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Instead of tit for tat, Jesus offers the touch of healing for the slave’s ear.
But then Jesus also rebukes the crowd who have come to arrest him. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour and the power of darkness.” The dark forces of violence with its clubs and swords! Rather than resist, Jesus allows himself to be taken into custody. He rebukes the violence of his own disciples and the violence of those with Judas. And thus Jesus is swept up into this hour of darkness.
So what to make of Jesus’ telling his disciples at the last supper to take with them a sword? Was it a solemn warning to brace themselves for future difficulties? It is hard to see how he meant it literally. Otherwise, what Peter did was appropriate, an act of self-defense, especially against an aggressor. Didn’t Peter just stand his ground, indeed, protect an innocent third party-Jesus himself? Surely Peter would not have been indicted by our courts, would he? But he was indicted by Jesus. “No more of this!”
Such a night! A night like no other, when the sword of Damocles fell upon Jesus! And yet he did not resist. He fell into the hands of angry men led by one of his own and was then led away bound. And the worst was yet to come.
Now let me be clear about two things. One, what happened in Gethsemane was Jesus’ calling and vocation, his own submission to the will of God. I would not pretend to suggest that his vocation is always identical to ours. How we would respond in such a situation is for us to decide. Your following Jesus is your journey, with all the variables and complexities that life can offer up. This is not necessarily a “go and do likewise” sermon. You alone are responsible before God for your decisions, especially under duress.
Second, nor is this a sermon to settle all our many disputes regarding the sword in our time-that is, guns. Those disputes are too numerous to list but here are but a few: Second Amendment rights and responsibilities, background checks, semi-automatic rifles, legal immunity granted to gun manufacturers, mental health care availability, internet hate speech, concealed carry permits, gun free zones, stand your ground laws, use of deadly force by law enforcement, Second Amendment Sanctuary cities, etc. Now as a concerned citizen, I have opinions as you do about all these crucial issues. And our voices surely need to be heard in the public arena in such a time as this.
In our own congregation we have recently declared ourselves a gun free zone. Our safe church policy seeks to ensure that we are alert to any danger while maintaining a welcoming environment. It cannot be denied that we live in an era of unprecedented violence here and abroad. Just this past week more deadly mass shootings in a school in Brazil and in two mosques in New Zealand. God have mercy! Our own state has suffered school shootings in Aztec and Rio Rancho and a library shooting in Clovis. People have died and people have been injured. That is what East of Eden looks like in our times.
So is there a word from the Lord today for our “age of anxiety”? First of all, we need to admit that at times we are anxious. Jesus himself faces his imminent execution with fear and trembling, even sweating blood. His disciples were also clearly afraid. I suspect even Judas and his armed crowd had some fear and trepidation. And after seeing what Peter did with his sword, I suppose their fears were justified. We too feel vulnerable. That is what living East of Eden involves. We hear the voice that reminds us, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” The sword of Damocles can fall suddenly and without warning. And so we need to simply acknowledge the obvious-we live in anxious times.
Second, can we ever move beyond anxiety and fear? How did Jesus cope? In the garden he engaged in passionate prayer most of the night. He prayed repeatedly for strength and courage to drink the cup of suffering. And he did it alone, his disciples asleep on the ground. “Your will be done”, not mine.” Did he quote to himself the words he had prayed all his life: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear…The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” Did he recall his own words: “Do not worry about your life…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life…strive first for the Kingdom of God…and do not worry about tomorrow.” In passionate prayer Jesus placed his life in the hands of God. In fact, his last utterance, according to Luke, was a prayer, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, in this moment of worship, we lay before God our anxieties and fears. And we lift up our prayer, “Be still, my beating heart. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” This is our prayer and this is our hope-a love that will not let us go! Amen.