This homily was given by our Chaplain, Luther Zeigler, at Morning prayers in Appleton Chapel on the morning of Maundy Thursday.
A reading from the 22nd chapter of the gospel of Luke: “While Jesus was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. Judas approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22:47-51) Here ends the reading.
On Monday of this week, I traveled to our Nation’s Capital along with twenty Episcopal bishops and hundreds of fellow Episcopal clergy and laypeople from around the country to participate in a “Stations of the Cross” pilgrimage that started in Lafayette Square across from the White House, winded its way down Pennsylvania Avenue, and ended on the steps of the Capitol. Organized by the Bishop of Connecticut in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, this Holy Week pilgrimage was intended to be a public witness against an American culture of gun violence that claims too many lives each day across this country, including not only the children and adults who were massacred last December in Newtown, Connecticut, but also the 2,244 Americans killed by guns in the three months since.
Through this pilgrimage we hoped, among other things, to persuade Congress to inject some sanity into federal gun control law so that weapons of death are not so readily accessible to those prone to misuse them. Our public witness was designed, in the words of National Cathedral Dean Gary Hall, to demonstrate to our nation’s leaders that “the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”
We are not naïve. We know what we are up against, and we are mindful that the sources of violence in American society are myriad and run deep. We understand that limiting access to guns is not, by itself, enough. Any comprehensive response to this epidemic requires, among other things, improved mental health care for our most vulnerable citizens, an assessment of the economic and social conditions that often spawn the resort to weapons, and a critical look at all aspects of our culture’s glorification of violence. With our presence in Washington we hoped to shine some of God’s light on these issues as well.
At bottom, though, what distinguished our pilgrimage from other demonstrations in Washington was that our primary motivation was not political but religious. Our witness against violence was embedded not in the rhetoric of public policy but in the narrative of the Passion. For those of you unfamiliar with the “Stations of the Cross,” it is a dramatic liturgy commonly practiced by Christians during Holy Week in which participants prayerfully re-enact the biblical events that comprise the final moments of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. Stations of the Cross are usually observed within a church or in some other sacred setting. Our pilgrimage, by contrast, was quite intentionally a public one, with stations set along the iconic landmarks of our national corridors of power.
In this setting, we sought to juxtapose Jesus’ life and death at the hands of a ruthlessly coercive Roman empire against the lives and deaths of all the innocent ones we Americans each day allow to be victimized by our own obsession with guns. We came not sanctimoniously to condemn our legislators, but to confess our own sin of complacence in not doing more to stop the violence in our own neighborhoods, and to invite our representatives to search their own hearts in a similarly penitential spirit.
The Christian faith is unique among world religions in that we worship the victim of a murder. Jesus of Nazareth was viciously put to death by a society deeply threatened by his willingness to speak out against injustice, by his unrelenting commitment to the vulnerable, and by his unconditional love for all those persons unloved by the world. The evangelists make clear, however, that in facing his accusers, Jesus never himself responds with violence of any sort. Although his cause was pure and his arrest and conviction unjust, he refuses to retaliate. Jesus knows only acceptance; he does not condemn, resist or exclude.
As we see in our text from Luke today, when Jesus’ followers understandably react to his betrayal and arrest by brandishing the sword against those who would harm him, Jesus rebukes them, reaches out to heal the wounded ear of his oppressor, and responds unequivocally to all who would hear: “No more of this!” No matter how just the cause, no matter how pure the victim, Jesus’ response to the violence of the world is never counter-violence, but always loving protest: No more of this.
The Christian faith rests on this seeming paradox: God’s chosen one is the crucified one, the purest and most innocent of victims. And yet, Jesus is no mere martyr. By the resurrection that is to come three days hence, we are assured of the Father’s refusal to permit the hatred of the oppressor to extinguish the life of love embodied by the Son. Rather, God stands with and vindicates the Son, just as He stands with all victims. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once put it, what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us is that “it is with the victim, the condemned, that God identifies, and it is in the company of the victim . . . that God is to be found, and nowhere else.”*
This is why during Holy Week we turn toward the Cross. In a relentlessly violent world, our only hope lies in facing the victim. It is there that we confront not only the consequences of our own complicity in the harm that has been done, but also the possibility of forgiveness by a God whose mercy will not permit our brutality to have the last word. But our redemption can begin only by first facing the victim who bears the marks of the hurt we caused, or at least allowed to happen.
Ultimately, then, this is why we went to Washington this past Monday: to stand with all the victims, and to do so in the name of the One whose love overcomes all the hate the world can muster, and whose healing presence never abandons those crucified by its violent ways. With Jesus, let us say: No more of this.
*Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1982), p. 5.