Sunday, March 20, 2022

Phil Kniss: Deny or dissent? When empire and discipleship clash

Lent 3 – “Disciple turns Denier: Peter’s Betrayal”
John 18:12-27

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

Now we’re a little deeper into John’s passion narrative.
Last Sunday we looked at chapter 13, 
where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
Today we pick up in the middle of chapter 18, 
and Jesus is already on trial.

We can’t cover the whole text in a limited series,
so do spend some time reading the sections of John
that we jump over from week to week.

I want to point out an interesting feature
in John’s passion narrative.
If you have a Bible with you, open it to John 13.
Remember what I said earlier.
John is less interested in telling a chronological story, 
and more interested in telling a theological story. 

John 13 is mostly story. Things happen.
They are at a table for Passover,
and Jesus washes his disciples feet.
Peter objects, but ultimately allows it to happen.
Then Jesus says in v. 21 that one of them will betray him,
and an anxious dialogue ensues,
and Judas quickly walks out into the night, verse 30,
to get ready for what he will do.

Then Jesus starts talking, in a foreboding way, 
about how he’s not going to be with them much longer.
Peter asks, “where are you going?”
And Jesus answers without really answering, 
“Where I am going you cannot follow.”
Peter says, “Why can’t I follow you? 
I will lay down my life for you!”
Jesus says, “Lay down your life, will you? 
Before the rooster crows in the morning, 
you will have denied me three times.”

Peter figures large in this John 13 story.
So keep this bantering between Jesus and Peter in mind.
It’s essential background for today’s story.

But before we get there,
and before we get to any action at all,
Jesus turns to the rest of his disciples who stayed at the table 
and has a four-chapter-long conversation with them. 
Actually, it’s more speech than conversation,
but the disciples do interject a few times.

In John 14 to 17, we have four whole chapters of Jesus talking—
famous speeches that we know well,
but don’t often think of them as happening 
at the Last Supper table:
In my Father’s house are many mansions;
I am the Way the Truth and the Life;
I will ask the Father, and he will send you an Advocate;
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;
I am the vine, you are the branches;
This is my commandment, 
that you love one another as I have loved you;
No greater love has anyone than this, 
than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
(Which is a verse often quoted by our military leaders,
and was quoted by Russian President Putin
a few days ago at a huge rally
referring to what his soldiers are doing in Ukraine.)

These are Jesus’ most golden speeches.
Even if we do take his words and misuse and abuse them at times.
Then in John 17, Jesus looks into heaven and prays his 
famous prayer for his disciples,
“May they be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, 
that they may become completely one, 
so that the world may know that you have sent me 
and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

John puts all these words at this intimate moment at the table,
Jesus speaking, with his closest disciples leaning in.

Finally, the action picks up again, in chapter 18.
Today’s reading started at verse 12.
But some critical action happened right before that,
and, once again, Peter figures large in the story.

Jesus and the disciples got up from the table,
and went out in the night to the Garden of Gethsemane.
And Judas shows up, this time with soldiers, and religious leaders, 
in order to get Jesus arrested.
Peter bravely (or shall we say, stupidly)
starts swinging his sword wildly
to defend Jesus against the band of soldiers
and ends up cutting off the ear of high priest’s slave.
And Jesus reprimands him.

And then we have the story we heard today, of brave Peter—
the one who was going to lay down his life for Jesus,
the one who hours earlier was swinging a sword at soldiers.
This man of courage denied he knew Jesus, three times.

You know, as 21st-century disciples of Jesus in America, 
the land of religious freedom, 
it feels convenient to have a situation like this 
that’s so far removed from our lives 
that we can keep our questions theoretical and rhetorical.

How often have I heard us ask ourselves, 
“If I was Peter there in the courtyard, would I have denied Jesus?”

It’s an interesting question,
and a good question,
but a safe question.
We know the odds are pretty low 
that we will ever have to face off against armed soldiers 
or suffer a mock trial 
or nearly anything that resembles John 18, 
just because we identify as a follower of Jesus.

So let’s make this story real for us, shall we?

What this story is all about, seems to me,
is a dramatic collision between Empire,
and Kingdom of God.

We can see, with our 20-20 hindsight the disciples did not have,
that Jesus’ ministry is all about establishing an alternative politics.
A different way of being human,
and being in community,
and being in the world,
than what is offered to us by earthly empires and nation-states.
It is a kingdom of righteous, peace, justice, joy, and deep freedom.
It is not coercive, and greedy, and violent, and easily threatened.

Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was near.
And the nearer it came,
the more reactive earthly empires became.

And chapter 18 gives us two distinct examples
of how to function in this collision of Empire and the Jesus way.
Jesus dissented.
And Peter denied.

Let’s take a look.
In chapter 18 both Jesus and Peter get questioned
by representatives of Empire.
I use “empire” broadly speaking.
It can refer to Rome, of course, the literal Empire
who held the power of life and death over its subjects.
It can also refer to any human power construct
that operates by those values of control and coercion.
Such as . . . the religious leaders
who opposed Jesus and his followers.

So how did Peter respond when confronted by Empire?
He said he knew nothing about this Jesus.
He slunk deeper into the shadows, hoping to disappear.
He denied, deflected, and deceived,
in order to protect himself.

And how did Jesus respond when confronted by Empire?
He stepped forward, and dissented.
He begged to differ from the assumptions of the Empire.
He challenged the framework.
He creatively engaged.

In our story next Sunday, Jesus will be questioned by Rome.
But in our reading today, Jesus is questioned by the religious leaders,
Annas and Caiaphas.
There’s a little ambiguity in the text,
about whether one or both are high priests.
But either way,
Empire and the Kingdom of God are colliding,
Jesus is right in the middle,
and Jesus openly dissents. 

Look at his various answers to the interrogation.
I have spokenly openly to the world.
I have said nothing in secret.
Why do you ask me?
If I have spokenly wrongly, tell me what is wrong.
If I have spokenly rightly, why do you strike me?

Compare with Peter’s answers to his informal interrogation
in the courtyard.
I am not Jesus’ disciple.
No, I am not a disciple.
No, you did not see me in the garden.

Cleverly, John intersperses Peter’s Q&A,
with Jesus’ Q&A.
Like a movie,
the camera cuts back and forth
between these two scenes happening at the same time.

The one where Jesus confronts the Empire 
with an alternative and more truthful reality.
And the one where Peter tries to hide and blend in with Empire.

Now . . . if we think about ourselves again for a moment,
it won’t take a lot of imagination
to think of multiple ways that in our everyday lives,
the call to follow the way of Jesus,
collides with what Empire expects of us.
And it is always our choice how to respond—
to dissent from the claims of Empire,
to creatively confront Empire and its way
of coercive power over others,
or—in order to blend in—
to not mention that we answer to another Lord,
to essentially deny that we are disciples of Jesus,
that we are being formed to live in this world 
in a different way.

No, we may not have armed guards asking us to state our allegiance . . .
But don’t we already find ourselves 
in exactly the position Peter was in?

There are many ways we can bring this home right to where we are,
so do that, as you talk together about this.

But let me give you a striking example a little further away,
that was shared with us this past Wednesday from this pulpit,
when Drew Strait gave a public lecture on
the Bible and Christian Nationalism.
And I encourage all of you to go to our YouTube channel
sometime this week and listen to it.

He read a quote from a statement made 
by a group of Russian Orthodox leaders this past week,
in opposition to Putin’s war against Ukraine,
even while many of their Orthodox clergy colleagues
are supporting Putin.

Here are some disciples of Jesus choosing to dissent, rather than deny.
Just a few lines from their statement:
“We acknowledge the sole and ultimate authority
of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . 
We therefore condemn as non-Orthodox and reject any teaching
which would subordinate the Kingdom of God,
to any kingdom of this world seeking other 
churchly or secular lords who can justify and redeem us.
We firmly reject all forms of government that deify the state . . . 
We also rebuke all those who . . . replace their ultimate obedience
to the crucified and resurrected Lord
with that of any leader vested with ruling powers 
and claiming to be God’s anointed, 
whether known by the title of “Caesar,” “Emperor,” “Tsar,”
or “President.”

Powerful example of choosing dissent over denial.
A choice that is also in our hands,
nearly every day.
God, give us the power to dissent from the false claims of Empire,
and boldly proclaim our allegiance to you and your Reign.

Let us read together the confession, printed in our bulletin.
We will sing the Kyrie response twice through, 
two times, where indicated.
“Kyrie Eleison . . . Lord, have mercy.”
We begin with singing.

all [sing “Kyrie”]
one Sovereign God of all Nations,
we confess that when confronted 
with competing claims of earthly empires 
we disciples of Jesus do not always rise to the challenge.
all Forgive us for being mute.
Forgive us for retreating into silence.
Forgive us for our outright denials.
one We confess that our concern over what others think, 
and our impulse to guard our reputation 
and avoid costly consequences 
often keeps us warming our hands by the fire 
in the outer courts, 
instead of daring to confront injustice and oppression 
in places of power.
all [sing “Kyrie”]
one We are forgiven and freed by your grace.
Go with us, Jesus, as we continue the journey as your disciples
in a world that resists your kind
of upside-down power and love.

—Phil Kniss, March 20, 2022

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

No comments:

Post a Comment