March 25, 2016 | John 18: 1-11 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
Whom are you looking for? Not once but twice Jesus asks the soldiers and police from the chief priests and the Pharisees who came to the garden with lanterns and torches and weapons in search of him. Whom are you looking for?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself all this week. Just who am I searching for this day? Actually the question I’ve really been pondering is when did I first start searching at all? When did I start looking not just for Jesus but specifically for the Jesus we encounter on Good Friday? When did it become important to me to engage this part of the Jesus story not just this Good Friday but every Good Friday? When did the story of Jesus death, not just the story of his life really begin to matter for me?
I’m sure that as teenager, if not as a child, I attended a Good Friday service or two but I have absolutely no recollection of those services if I did. I do however remember the time in my life when I actually wanted to be in church on Good Friday. It happened when I was in my mid-twenties.
As a young adult, like most people growing up in the church and even for those who haven’t grown up in the church, I had heard that Good Friday had something to do with Jesus dying for my sins, but I had absolutely no idea what that really meant, and there was nothing about that statement that really resonated within my soul.
What did resonate with me, what sent me to the cross so to speak, was an experience of suffering I couldn’t make sense of, I couldn’t reconcile. Not my own suffering, at least not directly, but the suffering I witnessed travelling in developing countries: the disparities between rich and poor, the injustice of children begging in the streets some of them with missing limbs, the filth and stench of raw sewage running in the gutters.
As someone who grew up in a middle class Canadian home, I had no idea what to do with this kind of suffering and injustice nor how to address it. But I did know about church, the church I had left as an even younger adult because I had better places to be on Sunday morning. So when I returned to Canada from my travels, I went back to church, looking to see if the church could help me sort out and make sense of the suffering and disparity I had witnessed overseas.
Not long after I started going to church again, a young woman by the name of Karen Ridd came to speak to our congregation. That fall, Karen Ridd had gone to El Salvador as part of a non-violent human rights organization called Peace Brigade International. She went to witness the efforts of union leaders and famers risking their lives to gain their basic human rights from the military dictatorship that was ruling the country. While she was there she was imprisoned.
Thankfully the Canadian Embassy secured her release, but in a move that shocked everyone, as soon as she was set free, she walked right back into the prison refusing to leave until they released her El Salvadoran friend who had been arrested with her.
When I heard Karen Ridd tell her story that day of being arrested and then refusing to be released until her friend was also set free, something inside of me broke open. I remember weeping, weeping at the beauty and the amazement of someone who willingly laid down her life for the love of her fellow human being, for the love of justice and integrity and humanity itself. This was a story with which my soul could resonate.
I remember my mother who happened to be with me that day worrying that I was going to run off to El Salvador or some other country under military dictatorship so I too could lay down my life for another. Thankfully for the sake of my mother, I have never had the courage to do that.
What I have had since then, is desire, desire to have the kind of faith and the kind of love that was in Karen Ridd, the kind of faith and the kind of conviction that allowed her to risk her life. It is, I believe the same faith we see in Jesus, the kind of love that manifests itself in self-emptying and self-giving not just for the sake of the other but for the sake of one’s own integrity as well, the sake of being able to stand in one’s truth. No day of the Christian year speaks so clearly about that kind of faith, that kind of love, than this day that we call Good Friday.
What makes Good Friday good in part is the way it witnesses to the power we have been given as human beings to stand in our truth, to stand in love, despite the violence and the injustice that may be swirling all around us.
Good Friday 1990, that was the first time I remember seeking out and finding the faith and the love that I saw in Karen Ridd mirrored in the face of Jesus who gave of himself to the point of being killed for what he believed in.
You may wonder what does this have to do with the suffering I witnessed in my travels, the disparity, the injustice and the general state of despair of so many in the world? How does self-giving love makes sense of or redeem that kind of suffering?
I’m not sure that anything makes sense of the kind of violence we saw in Brussels this week or the injustice we all experience when victims of abuse are re-abused by our justice system or the despair that exists when first nations children living on reserves are covered in open sores.
This week I was reminded that the thing about self-emptying or kenosis as it is called in theological terms, is that it can’t be imposed upon us, it is a voluntary act. No one made Karen Ridd go back into that prison, she went there willingly. No one made Jesus climb up on the cross he went there willingly, not because he wanted to suffer but because he was willing to suffer, or at least to stand in the midst of suffering and be the face of love.
There is something about being willing to give of ourselves, to willingly empty ourselves of our need for self-preservation or control or revenge, risking the possibility of suffering ourselves that puts us in touch with all who suffer both willingly and unwillingly.
There is something about being willing to empty ourselves in the way that Jesus emptied himself and Karen Ridd emptied herself that opens the doorway for love to win over fear and compassion to triumph over violence and understanding to prevail over hatred. And in that there is redemption and there is also a call to action.
And so in a strange way although it looks to us like all is lost on Good Friday and we will have to wait until Easter morning for love to come again, what we see if we look closely enough to find it on the Jesus face, is the triumph of one who stands on the side of peace and love no matter what.
Let’s go back to the garden to seek out Jesus there. In John’s gospel in particular, the version of the story read for us this morning, Jesus is completely self-possessed as depicted in this painting by Valentin de Boulongne. In the reading, just prior to this scene we have before us, it is Jesus who makes the first move when the soldiers and police arrive. He doesn’t wait for them to arrest him, he steps forward and addresses them before they can say a word. Whom are you looking for? Jesus of Nazareth they say. “I am he.” His self- confidence is so unnerving the soldiers step back and fall down to the ground. Again he asked them “Whom are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth “ they say once more. “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these others go.”
That’s when Peter draws his sword and lashes out in fear, in anger, in self-defence. Once the violence begins, the soldiers are emboldened. They grab at Jesus’ garments, Judas moves in for the kiss even though no kiss is needed, Jesus has already told them who he is, there is nothing he has to hide.
In the midst of the struggle around him notice his hands folded calmly in front of him, his gaze firmly fixed on the friend who has betrayed him. It is as if he is completely unfazed. This is not a man defeated, this is a man so completely empty of hate and fear and vengefulness and rue and a need to control what’s going on around him, a man so completely devoted to a way of love and peace, to the God that he believes in and the mission that is his, that even in his darkest hour he is triumphant because he stands on the side of love and knows that’s where he stands.
I don’t know if the notion of Jesus dying for my sins will ever resonate with me, but what does resonate with me is the reality of sin and brokenness in our world, the reality that people and creatures and ideals suffer and even die. Good people, good endeavours, good ideas, life on this good and bountiful planet we call our home, is denied and betrayed and put to death almost daily. If we are looking for hatred and violence for bigotry, selfishness and fear, for revenge or the power of privilege and exclusivity to overcome our death wielding ways we not looking for Jesus to help us find a better way. But if we are looking for the power of love and grace we have come to the right place.
And it may be that in the face of the world in which these days, these days of much division and diminishment and despair the more important question for us to ask is this….
… when love comes looking for us where will we be found and what is it we are willing to offer?