Servants of Christ in Relationship
What do we really NEED from one another? When you come right down to it—and this comes up again and again in our Servants mission group as we care for one another in the Body and Mind of Christ—what we NEED from one another is relationship. Connection and attachment to one another for the highest and best purposes but also for ordinary and extraordinary purposes. Friends, I encourage you today to do this! To be with and for one another in this kind of unity would make all of our joy complete.
In all the highs and lows life brings, may we hold one another, esteem and value one another in such a way that wonderfully keeps us mindful of how others are, in fact, better. How often do we actually SEE one another in our totality as "better"? Jesus did. Even his disciples, as he took leave, were left with many gifts of his presence and poise in the center of the most traumatic situations one can imagine. Jesus found ways to, directly and indirectly, relate to others for their relational responses, their connection to him and to his life's—and death's—ultimate meaning.
Our survival is based on how we are connected to one another. Animals, all mammals, including humans, have a core imperative to attach to one another as a primary way to adapt to stress, especially stress as bad as trauma. In his trauma research, Stephen Porges has identified that—to give a new spin on Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest"—"the fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation." I have been working with the imperative of dealing with trauma as a professional, not only for my clients but also in approaching the lectionary, the whole crucifixion narrative of Matthew. There are many traumatic situations and events here, and yet it would be an act of our faithfulness to consider the events in terms of the relational responses of Jesus. They shape the purposes and meaning of our servant responses today, in our community.
Jesus anticipates and predicts many of the traumatic responses of those closest to him: scattering of the disciples, the denial and anguish of Peter, especially the betrayal of Judas and his wishing he were never born. By any measure, Jesus' own abandonment, assault, bondage, emotional and mental as well as physical torture should have led him to respond as most humans do, with Fight, Flight or Freeze responses. But Jesus did not show this in the Matthew crucifixion narrative, remaining nonviolent, steadfast for mutual connection, cooperation and communication.
The concept of a "Gospel" telling the original story of the life of Jesus was inspired by the crucifixion narrative, the first of the oral traditions that existed after the life of Jesus. The crucifixion narrative was the first component of the gospel-writing formula. It wouldn't exist without it. What's exceptional is how many details there are that still reveal it to be primarily a spoken narrative first. So, let me also "tell the story," share the narrative, and consider in some detail the traumatic situations presented and Jesus' relational responses, based on communication and connectedness. Connection and community stands as the biological mandate for being a fully human. And, to follow-on what Fred said a couple weeks ago, "You cannot go further in solidarity than the cross." If that's true, then Jesus' relational responses to the trauma of facing imminent death make a difference for us: being betrayed, his arrest, trial before the religious authorities make a difference for how this solidarity is expressed here among us. Jesus’ loving presence through it all, knowing he will be denied and abandoned by Peter, face the scorn and derision of earthly authorities, and then be tortured to death, is the ultimate expression of the identity of the suffering servant.
"What would you give me if I would betray him to you," said Judas to the chief priests. With these words, the series of threats and traumas leading to Jesus death began. They didn't impact the twelve disciples until Jesus predicted betrayal at the Passover Meal, saying, "Truly I tell you one of you will betray me." Jesus had to be open with these friends he'd lived with for three years-plus, utterly transparent. With that they had quite an arousal response and were greatly distressed, saying one after another, "Surely, not I, Lord." So, I have to tell you today what Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray Jesus." When Judas hears the prediction that for one who betrays the Son of Man, "it would have been better for that one not to have been born," Judas asks, "Surely, not I, Rabbi?" Jesus replies, "You have said so." This is a confirmation by Jesus, a "Yes-remember-what-you said" statement, which comes up again in the crucifixion story, when Jesus is asked to swear that he is the Messiah before the High Priest of the Sanhedrin. "Surely, not I,” we say as Judases, and Jesus says to us, "You have said so." Jesus is saying, “You have said something that already puts me out of solidarity with you.” Surely, yes, one of us will betray Jesus, in some way this day or in the days to come. But Jesus gives us an out, like Judas, a way back, if you can own your words' impact: "You have said so." Now, Jesus gives you a way to follow and not betray him, to deeply consider the impact of our actions, thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs. How do we find our way back, after betraying Jesus?
When facing his betrayal, while eating, Jesus give the remembrance ritual we celebrate weekly here, the Communion. The suffering and sacrifice make a way, in the face of trauma and threat: the Way is fundamentally forgiveness of sins, coming to the Table of the Lord with the humility and spirit of confession which opens our hearts and minds to Jesus's changes in our consciousness and commitment. This may be the ultimate restorative act: it manifests solidarity on so many levels among us as we serve one another the communion. Eating together, sharing bread and drink, is a way to connect and mutually care for one another with good, nourishing things—both food and community. Blessing and giving Bread as symbol of his body and wine as a symbol of his blood, "which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins," was a profound communal connection with them at the very moment he was facing final separation from his most loved disciples. This may be the rite that kept the disciples' body and brains connected with one another and with Jesus, following the crucifixion, and it still does among us. They also sang a hymn at the close of their Passover Meal, which is another ritual but entirely counter-intuitive thing to do when you're facing a threat on your life. Singing together does also soothe and unite, help us to remember and connect with one another, and, yes, it slows our exhalations, resonates our hearts and bodies in one frequency and brings us a joy in solidarity that transcends the horror we may face, alone or together. We may all be singing for our lives.
A similar betrayal of the disciples happens in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus asks them to "Watch and wait. Sit here while I pray," and then departs to pray, "Let this cup pass. If it cannot, let your will be done, not mine." Three times Jesus returns to his disciples; all three times they fail him, cannot watch and wait. Now Jesus is so sad he feels like he's going to die, and the people he feels connected with most in ministry cannot remain with him, and he's facing the ultimate test, utterly alone. What would you say to friends who, although you were so sad you felt like you were going to die, could not watch and wait with you while you prayed? As I consider that question I know it would not be pretty. I don't think I would have a vision that sustained my concept of myself that wouldn't become angry, hurt enough to run, or shut down—in fight-flight-or freeze mode. But Jesus did: the suffering servant. He knew the strength of his relationship with God was so profound he could utterly depend on God. Jesus invites us to do the same—which is one of the prayers for me that came out of the weekend silently considering the question, "Who is God calling us to BE in this current time?" But in the context of the suffering-servant church, we are called to be what the Isaiah passage referred to as "not dismayed," those "who trust won't hide their face," and knowing that "God vindicates," "clears our life," so that we "shall NOT be put down to shame." (Do I hear an amen?) Jesus knew who he was, in face of such sadness, to the point of death, and knew his identity as a suffering servant to walk this path. The stance of the suffering servant could keep him in profound relationship with his disciples, and even us in the American Empire today.
Then, in the arrest of Jesus, Judas come in with a large crowd, swords and clubs in hand (read "lynching mob"). Before Judas can speak to him, Jesus says, "Do what you've come for," also translated, "Friend, why have you come?" This is Jesus' nonviolent connection with one about to get him arrested. Jesus "rolls with the resistance," inviting him to fulfill their relationship and purpose in betraying him with unexpected acceptance. With a "Hail, Rabbi!” Judas gives Jesus literally the "kiss of death." Ironically, Judas uses a sign of affection and attachment to utterly distance, disown and condemn Jesus. Then, “one of those with Jesus” put hand to sword, drew it, and struck the High Priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. Just when the melee could break out, Jesus has another nonviolent response: “Put your sword back in sheath, for all who take the sword perish by the sword.” Jesus continues to explain the nonviolence with a series of pointed questions and comments:
- “Don’t you think I can call on my Father at this moment, who will send more than twelve legions of angels?
- How would scriptures be fulfilled if it had to come to pass this way?
- Have you come with swords and clubs, as against a robber?
- After days teaching in the Temple area, yet you did not arrest me?
- All of this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.
Jesus has his eye on the scriptures and the fulfillment of God’s Word living within him. Jesus is taken and arrested. A lonely, terse sentence follows: “Then, all the disciples left him and fled.”
We don’t have time to look at the whole of the crucifixion narrative today, but, please, line up the traumatic events and the relational responses, one by one, and simply watch the life of Jesus come to its most loving crescendo, amidst utter suffering and the worst degradation the world could throw him.
To conclude, we need emotional and relational connectedness to survive, now more than ever. In our world, full of traumas past, present, and to come, we are primarily loving creatures, not thinking creatures. We are homo-agape, not homo-sapiens, and, therefore, unless we are thriving in a web of loving relationships, we cannot exercise the courage, self-control and love to make and keep four commitments: to our family and life partner, our profession, our faith, and our community.
[i] Ephesians 5:1-10
1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.[a]6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord.
[ii] Is 53:10-12
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
[iii] Psalm 31:15-17
15 My times are in your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
17 Let me not be put to shame, Lord,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and be silent in the realm of the dead.