Holy Week this year has much in common with that first Holy Week, over 2000 years ago, when Christ turned his followers’ attention toward the inevitable. His disciples had been filled with hope that he could change the world for the better. After all, they’d seen him turn water into wine, feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, heal the sick with the touch of a hand, raise the dead with the power of his voice.
Then came the loud, menacing crowd with their swords and clubs, accusing him of heresy and blasphemy. They were a mob armed more with weaponry than reason. Peter drew his own sword in self-defense, cutting off the ear of a slave to the high priest. But Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its place. “No more of this!” he commanded. And telling them all to put away their swords, he touched the ear of the enemy and healed him.
Frightened by the chaos, his most loyal disciples deserted him. One of his followers was so terrified that when the crowd caught hold of his linen clothing, he ran off naked, leaving his attacker holding only his garment. Peter denied even knowing Jesus—even cursed those who said they saw him among Jesus’ followers.
Whatever hope those early Christians had seems to have lost itself in the dark evil of that moment in time, when the force of anger seemed greater than goodness and grace.
We, too, have had hope. We, too, are frightened by the menacing mobs in the world around us. We fear terror in places that we once took for granted as safe, and the terrorists, like that angry mob that threatened Jesus, are incapable of reason in their belief that we are infidels and blasphemers. We want to draw our swords to defend ourselves—to fight back in the only language our enemies seem to understand.
We, too, need someone to tell us to put away our swords. Instead, we listen to the angry rhetoric of our politicians, who sound more like those who wanted to put Jesus to death than like the Christ by whose name we Christians are called.
Even though we can piece together the narrative of Christ from the four Gospels, so much seems to be left out at times when we need concrete answers. What happened to the man whose ear Jesus touched, returning compassion for enmity? Did that moment turn the man’s life around? What happened to the follower who left his clothing in the hands of his enemies? Did he turn away in disgust that following Jesus had cost him even the clothes on his back, or did he, in his most vulnerable moment, find his way back to Jesus?
But among those unanswered questions, Jesus teaches us how to be—how to live in a world where uncertainty and fear can paralyze us or, even worse, cause us to become the people who hate us. We sometimes miss the wisdom of Jesus’ last days by focusing solely on the hope of Easter morning.
We Christians are in need of resurrection. But not the kind that we hope for after we die. We need the resurrection and the grace that comes through committing ourselves to follow the example that Christ set for us. When we reach the point where we’re so fearful we might run away, naked and vulnerable, we are called instead to stand with dignity in the face of even the greatest evil. When we might be tempted to listen to politicians who want to waterboard and even torture our enemies, we need to remember the example Christ set for us. We are called to do our best to offer compassion and grace to the enemy whose ear we want to slice off to protect ourselves and the people we love.
The time is here when many of us want to strike out at our attackers. Our fears are real. We can imagine ourselves and our loved ones standing in a ticket line in an airport or riding the subway like those innocents in Belgium whose lives were lost in an instant at the hands of zealots.
So what are we to do? Don’t we have the right to protect ourselves? “Jesus,” we say, “these people don’t just have swords. You don’t know what it’s like to worry about a bomb in an airport. That kind of weapon didn’t exist when you walked this earth!”
No one would say that we should walk, like lambs to the slaughter, into the hands of terrorists. But we are called, as much as it depends on us, to live in peace.
The time may come—may even be here—when we might wish to deny Jesus as Peter did—to curse and strike out at those who threaten us. But if we believe that our holy texts still speak to us today, then we have to hear the voice of Christ commanding us, “No more of this!” And Peter’s life after the Resurrection tells us that it’s never too late to start anew—that even the giants of the early Church faltered in their faith and in their commitment to a Christ-like life.
Perhaps, like Jesus, we may turn some lives around before they commit evil by offering compassion and grace. Perhaps, like Jesus, we may even lose our lives to our torturers. But if, as we say we believe, our hope is in the resurrection to eternal life, then we must follow Christ into the darkness, trusting that we will come out into the light.
For that is what it means to be Christ-like—to follow his example, to offer his love, to work for change while we live, and, if all else fails, to hold firm to our faith in the meaning of his Resurrection.