Does Forgiveness Require Me to Be a Victim?

Part 6 of the series “Questions of Faith
Rev. Mark Schaefer
May 24, 2020
Proverbs 25:21-22; Matthew 5:38-48

I. BEGINNING

Nobody likes being pushed around.  Nobody. It’s why bullies are so terrifying.  These tyrants who terrorize others into doing their will.  Who abuse, manipulate, and threaten others into submission.  We all know that there’s only one response to a bully or a tyrant or someone who’s hurt you: a taste of their own medicine.

We all know that the strong respect only those who are stronger.  A bully backs down when you demonstrate a willingness, even an eagerness, to fight.  Standing up for yourself.  Resisting. Fighting back.  We understand how that works and we admire those who do it.

Think of how many movies are about resistance to oppression.  And how many of them involve blowing things up.  We can watch a film like Schindler’s List and feel the agony and the horror of the persecution and suffering of the Holocaust. But when we watch a movie like Defiance starring Daniel Craig about Jewish partisans in Poland during World War II, we get a whole different level of emotional satisfaction watching the Jews fight back against the Nazis.  We may admire films like Gandhi and the portrayal of nonviolent resistance in it, but we really like it more when Sean Connery says in The Untouchables, “When he draws a knife, you draw a gun. If he puts one of your men in the hospital, you put two of his in the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way.”  We like that.  Standing up to the bad guy.  Telling him what’s what.

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How Is Jesus Both Human and Divine?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 5 of the series, “Questions of Faith
May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22–31; John 14:8–21

I. BEGINNING

There are a lot of things that people don’t understand about Christianity.

Do you really believe that you’re eating the flesh of Jesus when you have that little piece of bread? What does that rabbit have to do with Jesus coming back from the dead? What on earth is a narthex? But perhaps the biggest source of confusion is what it is we say about Jesus: How is Jesus both human and divine?

Of course, that’s not a question limited to people outside of Christian faith; plenty of Christians wonder this same thing. After all, that’s why it’s in a sermon series entitled, “Questions of Faith.”

And so, this is a question that both Christians and non-Christians ask and one that goes right to the heart of our faith. For, in can certainly be said that this is the question that divides us from the other Abrahamic faiths. This is the issue that separates us most profoundly from the other monotheistic traditions.  This is the one where our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters draw the line: the Divinity of Christ.

For our Jewish brothers and sisters, it is not just that we declare Jesus to be the Messiah; all manner of messiahs were proclaimed in First Century Judaism (and continue to be proclaimed). The mere declaration that any particular individual was messiah was not enough to be kicked out.  Declaring that person to be God Incarnate: that was a different matter.

In the same way, Muslims also reject Jesus’ divinity.  They accept that Jesus was the Messiah—in fact in the Qur’an, Isa ibn Maryam, Jesus son of Mary, is referred to as the Masih, messiah, and is even declared to have been born of a virgin. But again, Muslims draw the line with equating Jesus with God, or attributing to him divinity, or arguing that he is in any way God’s “partner” in salvation.

So, this is the one.  This is the issue around which is the most disagreement with our fellow members of the Abrahamic faiths. And it’s one of the questions that causes the greatest amount of confusion within the church.

So how do we begin to understand this question?


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Do Non-Christians Go to Heaven?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 4 of the series “Questions of Faith
May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55–60; John 14:1–7

I. BEGINNING

The best thing about having a club is who’s not allowed to be a member.  Little kids figure this out pretty quickly.  The first time boys get a tree fort or similar hideout, the first thing they do is hang a sign on it that says “No Girls Allowed.” Girls themselves have elaborate qualifications to join what secret clubs they have, usually requiring several oaths of fealty and pledges of the utmost secrecy.

As adults we still recognize the attractiveness of exclusivity. It was the initial appeal of Facebook—that it was limited to college campuses—that drove its early success. Its continued success is that it allowed limited access to view people’s profiles, creating a sense of being “in” that was coveted.  “Membership has its privileges” reads a famous marketing slogan from American Express, suggesting that belonging to this particular club (for which you even have to be willing to pay an annual fee), there is a benefit not available to just anyone. In fact, it is the exclusivity of clubs that makes them attractive. Clubs where just anyone can belong don’t hold the same appeal.  It’s why Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Sometimes it seems that the same phenomenon holds true with our understandings of heaven.  It’s the ultimate club, isn’t it?  It’s got all the best food, everyone is really happy, lots of celebrities like the Apostles and the Prophets.  Beautiful landscaping.  And soooo exclusive.  I mean, they don’t let just anyone in.  No, this club is reserved only for Christians and even then, we’re not sure it’s all Christians.  I’m reminded of the old joke where a man dies and goes to heaven and is given the tour.  The angel walks him past the grand halls where the Buddhists are meditating, the Jews study the scriptures, the Muslims are praying, until finally he comes across one room and the angel says, “Now, we have to be very quiet around this next room.  It’s full of Christians and they think they’re the only ones here.” 

Image courtesy Wordle

That joke wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t true.  In fact, the whole reason we talk about this issue today is because this question—what happens to people of other faiths—is one of those questions of faith that resurface time and time again.  And it does so because the presumption is that non-Christians do not have access to eternal life and instead are cast off into the outer darkness.  That presumption is shared by many Christians and non-Christians about what it is that Christianity actually believes.  But is it?  Need it be?

We’ll take a look at this issue using the time-honored Methodist tradition of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, exploring the question through the lenses of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.


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Why Does God Allow Evil?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
May 3, 2020
1 Peter 2:19–25; John 10:1–10

I. BEGINNING

Some years ago, I took a sabbatical to work on a book. During that sabbatical leave I planned on worshiping with a different house of worship every weekend. On my second weekend, I went to St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in D.C. where my friend and colleague Fr. Dimitri Lee was serving.

That day was September 13 and he noted that it was a Sunday that lay between September 11 and the elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14. He said it was a Sunday that lay between two days of great tragedy and violence. Between two days that raised questions like: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does such tragedy happen? Why does God allow evil? And he said, “A perfectly good answer to those questions is, ‘I don’t know.’” And then he left it at that.

I was astonished. Only the Orthodox, with their embracing of mystery, could pose the great question of theodicy—of the justice of God—and be content to leave it unanswered.

No Protestant would have done that, that’s for sure. Most of us would try to answer.

So, as a Protestant minister preaching this sermon, why does God allow evil?

Well, I don’t know, either. To tell you the truth.

I have an idea—but I don’t know.  Not for sure.

wordlesermon200503

Image courtesy Wordle

This is a question that has vexed theologians and philosophers for centuries.  It would be hubristic of me to say that I had the answer for this most difficult of questions: why is there evil?  Where did it come from? Why does God allow it to exist?  Why do the innocent suffer?  Why is there injustice in the world?  Oppression and violence? It is known as the question of “theodicy.” Quite frankly, answering these questions is above my pay grade.

Still, as with all good questions, there is virtue in asking it.  For a questioning faith is a living faith.  When your faith has run out of questions, it becomes not faith but dogma.  Not true religion, but merely a code of behaviors and a rigid set of understandings.  No, for us, we ask the unanswerable questions precisely because that is a vital part of our faith.  And while there are no easy answers, it’s not really about the answers, it’s about having the safe space to ask the questions.


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Is the Resurrection Real?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 26, 2020
Acts 2:14, 36–41, Luke 24:13–35

I. BEGINNING

When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of studying under a wonderful New Testament scholar, and current Dean of Perkins Theological Seminary, Craig Hill. Dean Hill is an excellent scholar, having written a wonderful book about conflict in the early church called Hellenists and Hebrews and a fantastic book on Christian end-times theology called In God’s Time. (Craig, if you’re watching, you can either Venmo me the endorsement money or just mail me a check.)

Nicolas_Lokhoff._Copy_of_the_picture._The_Road_to_Emmaus_by_Duccio_di_Buoninsegna

The Road to Emmaus by Ducio di Buoninsegna

When he was getting his doctorate, he had the privilege of studying with one of the great scholars of our age, E.P. Sanders, author of the landmark book Jesus and Judaism, which established the gold standard for historical Jesus studies in the late Twentieth Century. I had occasion to hear Dr. Sanders speak at Wesley seminary and there are things he said in his remarks that to this day stick with me. I’ve had occasion to read Jesus and Judaism as well as a few other books by Sanders and am impressed by the depth of his scholarship and his intellect.

As a scholar of the historical Jesus, Sanders was engaged in the exploration of the gospels to determine what facts, if any, could be defended from an objective, historical point of view. That is, what are the things from Jesus’ story that a disinterested, secular historian could affirm as accurate and credible? Sanders had fashioned a list of “several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt.”[1] They are:

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death, Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career.

Noticeably missing from this list is Jesus’ resurrection. My professor told me that he had wondered why Sanders couldn’t add that to the list, since it was attested in every single gospel, in the epistles, including the writings of Paul who declared that he had seen the risen Christ. Surely, that was just as attested as his baptism by John, wasn’t it? Why could his mentor and friend not make that leap?

“Because that kind of thing just doesn’t happen,” was the response.

If we’re honest we admit he’s not the only one. Our pews and often our pulpits are full of people who sing the hymns and celebrate the stories of Easter, but who wonder deep down: is this real? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? And if so, in what way?


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Am I Lost If I Have Doubt?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
April 19, 2020
John 20:19-31

I. BEGINNING

If you’re going to get a place in history, be sure you get a good epithet to accompany your name.  Like “the Great”, if you can swing it.  King Alfred the Great—the only “the Great” in all of English history—earned that distinction likely for his promotion of Anglo-Saxon literature.  Pope Gregory the Great earned that epithet for his guidance of the church into the post-Imperial world and his presiding over the collection of the Gregorian Sacramentary and Gregorian Chant.

You’ll want to aim high, of course, and go for epithets like “the Conqueror” or “the Magnificent” or “the Powerful”. And if they called you “the Fair” or “the Just” or “the Merciful” that wouldn’t be bad either. 

Of course there are other epithets you could earn like “Pepin the Short”, “Charles the Bald”, or “John the Theologian.” Those are mostly harmless. But definitely try to avoid ones like “the Accursed”, “the Impaler,” or “the Apostate.” You wouldn’t want to go through life with an epithet like that hanging over you.

Which is why I always feel so bad for poor Thomas.  Thomas the Doubter. Doubting Thomas. That’s a rough nickname to live down, especially in church, right?


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The Promised Land

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 12, 2020—Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1–10

I. BEGINNING

A number of years ago, The Simpsons had a special in which the Simpsons characters related a number of classic Bible stories. The stories included things like the Garden of Eden and King Solomon’s wisdom, wherein Homer Simpson played King Solomon deciding who was the true owner of a pie claimed by two men. (Homer’s decision: “The pie will be cut in half. The two men will be killed and I will eat the pie.”)

But the scene that sticks out in my mind today was their reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt. Nerdy kid Milhouse Van Houten plays Moses and in one particular scene after the deliverance through the Red Sea and the revelation of the Law asks Lisa Simpson to check the Biblical text she has: 

Milhouse says,
Image courtesy frinkiac.com

“So, Lisa, what’s next for the Israelites? Land of milk and honey?”

“Hmm, well, actually it looks like we’re in for 40 years of wandering the desert.”

“40 years?! But after that, it’s clear sailing for the Jews, right?”

“Umm, more or less… hey, is that manna?”

And the reason this particular scene occurs to me is that it reminds me a little of how I feel about Easter.

That seems like a strange thing to say, I grant you. After all, this is Easter Sunday.  We’ve made it through all the trouble.  The long wilderness of Lent and the suffering and sorrow of Holy Week have yielded to the Promised Land of Easter.  Christ is Risen and everything’s wonderful.

Why wouldn’t there be clear sailing? Why wouldn’t the arrival in the promised land be the happy ending to the story?


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To Crucify the King

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 10, 2020—Good Friday
John 9:9-16a

I. INTRODUCTION

John’s Gospel is full of irony.  It often has people saying things that have double meanings that they did not intend.  The high priest says, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than for the entire nation to be destroyed.”  He thinks he’s making a calculated political decision about life under occupation, but the reader understands it as a statement of Jesus’ atoning death for the whole world.

Cristo de San Plácido, by Diego Velazquez

But nowhere is the irony pitched higher than in the stories of Good Friday.  Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, with whom he has a very enigmatic and double-meaning laden conversation about kingship and power.  He presents Jesus to the crowds, saying “Here is your king!”  They shout out “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”  He asks them, “Shall I crucify your king?” And the chief priests answer, “We have no king but the emperor.”

And here is the irony: in the Jewish Avinu Malkeinu prayer are the words “We have no king but you (God).”  And here we have the high priests saying, “We have no king but Caesar.” The irony is that these words are spoken by people who should know better—people familiar on a direct level with what their faith requires.  A faith that declares that God is King, a faith that seeks to live out righteousness and justice as a way of demonstrating loyalty and fidelity to that king.  How could people steeped in their faith claim loyalty to the worldly power of the Emperor of Rome, a power that stands for tyranny, injustice, and oppression?  That stands against the poor and the lowly?

But is it really any different with us?


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If You Know These Things

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 9, 2020—Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I. BEGINNING

If any of you has ever traveled to England or become familiar with English place names, you’ve no doubt become aware that the English have a long history of wearing down their words to where their pronunciations and their spellings seem to have little to do with one another. A word spelled Featherstonehaugh is pronounced “Fanshaw.” Cholmondely is pronounced “Chumlee.” Wriothesley is pronounced “Roxlee.” 

Which is how we wind up with Maundy Thursday. Long ago it was known as Mandatum Thursday, from the Latin word for “commandment.” The Thursday in Holy Week is so called because it is on this Thursday that we read the story of Jesus giving to the disciples a “new commandment”: that we love one another as he has loved us. 

Jesus makes a very interesting observation when he speaks to the disciples. He says, “You call me your lord and teacher, and you are right, because that is what I am.” But then he goes on to describe what that means. What it means to call Jesus Lord and teacher. In the Gospel of Matthew a very similar statement that “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will see the Kingdom of Heaven but only those who do the will of my Father.” Here Jesus is making a connection between what it means to be saying “Lord,” and what it means to do the commandments of God and to live lives of faith.

By Ed88, CC BY-SA 3.0, Used with permission

This all takes place in the context of the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. There is no more humbling act in the ancient world than that of washing the feet of another person. It’s what servants do. It’s what household slaves do. In John’s gospel, Jesus is many things. He is the Son of God, the Messiah and God’s agent in the world. In the very beginning of John’s gospel, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And that the Word takes on our flesh and becomes a human being. What then does it mean that the Word of God in flesh, the Son of the Living God, should reach out in humility, should wash the feet of the one who would betray him? What does that mean for us, who proclaim Christ to be our Lord and our Teacher? If it does not mean that we turn around and we go back into the world as servants, in humility, in compassion, if it does not mean that we wash others’ feet metaphorically, perhaps even literally, if it does not mean that we are willing to serve one another, that we are willing to take on the burden that Christ bore for the sake of others, then what does it mean when we say that Christ is our Lord and Teacher?


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The Wilderness of Betrayal

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 5, 2020
Isaiah 50:4–9; Matthew 26:47–75

I. BEGINNING

If done right, Palm Sunday would be an awkward Sunday. Palm Sunday isn’t usually perceived in that way and that’s because Palm Sunday is often done wrong.   

Palm Sunday, the day we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  The culmination of a preaching ministry throughout Galilee: a year of teaching, healing, witnessing, and transforming.  A year of bringing to so many people a sense that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  A year in which expectations were so high that things were going to change decisively for ordinary people.

By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A Sunday, which unlike for us today, was not a day of rest, but as the first day of the week was a day of activity and excitement.  A day to begin the week during which the great Passover holiday would take place, a holiday celebrating freedom from slavery and oppression and God’s liberating power.  A Sunday in which all the hopes and dreams of so many are placed upon this one remarkable man—Jesus of Nazareth, whom some dare to hope is the long-awaited messiah, the deliverer-king who will free the people from their oppression under the Roman Empire.

And so as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, he makes conscious use of a prophetic symbol, riding in humbly on a colt.  The people throw down their cloaks in his path and cut leafy branches in the fields and shout “Hosanna!”  It’s a festive scene.

And so we in the church are fond of re-creating this scene.  We sing hymns with hosannas in them.  We hand out palms.  We wave them a bit.  We decorate the sanctuary with palm branches.  It’s all very festive and wonderful.  It doesn’t seem awkward at all.

But that’s probably because we’re doing it wrong.

See, we are aware of how this story ends.  We know that in a few days’ time, the crowds—the same crowds—will be shouting not “Hosanna to the Son of David!” but “Crucify him!”  Is there any reason not to greet this story with embarrassment for how we know the story turns out? 

This story ought to elicit the same gulps we get when we see Anakin Skywalker meet Obi Wan Kenobi for the first time and realize: this nascent friendship is doomed to end in pain, tragedy, and death.  We ought to have the same feelings when we get when we watch the hero meet the character that we, as the viewers, know will be the hero’s undoing, but the hero does not.  It should be hard for us to celebrate Palm Sunday without a sense that things are about to go very, very wrong for Jesus.

Now, there are churches (and many Christians) who simply go from Palm Sunday right to Easter.  And I suppose it’s easy to go from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia!” that way.  But not if you do it right.

For a recognition of the power of this story is a recognition that at the heart of it there is a tremendous tragedy. A tragic turn of events in which shouts of praise turn to shouts of condemnation and death.  If we, as the church, do it right, we cannot be all smiles and pretend that this story does not start in a promising fashion and yield to a bitter conclusion.  We cannot face the adulation of Palm Sunday without facing the reality that this story ends in betrayal.

II. THE BETRAYAL OF JESUS

And betrayal is at the heart of this story.  There are the obvious betrayals: Judas betrays Jesus’ location to the temple priesthood; Peter denies even knowing Jesus. The crowds that shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday are shouting “Crucify him!” on Friday.  The disciples who are scattered on Thursday night, are nowhere to be seen on Friday and Saturday, and are found to be in hiding on Sunday.  The leaders of the people, who ought to be protecting the innocent, instead hand over an innocent to the occupying power that will execute him.  There are so many betrayals at the heart of this story that it typifies the kind of tragic drama that we know so well.

III. OUR BETRAYALS

There is something about betrayal that goes right to the heart of us.  It is impossible to betray someone with whom you are not already close or with whom you do not have an intimate relationship.  We value faithfulness and loyalty in our relationships.  It’s what makes them work.  But in order to foster relationships, we need to take leaps of trust.  We make ourselves vulnerable to one another.  And betrayal cuts right at the heart of that.  We cannot be betrayed by one we have not first made ourselves vulnerable to.

The word “fidelity” is based on the word for faith.  Loyalty, then, is not just a personal virtue, it is at the heart of faith.  When we experience betrayal, it is not just an interpersonal infraction; it is a crisis of faith.  When one has been betrayed by someone trusted, it becomes hard to have faith in anything.  

There can be fewer experiences of raw pain than the realization that one whom you had trusted has betrayed that trust.  When we are the victims of betrayal, we find ourselves in a wilderness place.  We might wonder how God is known when we have experienced betrayal?  

In the gospel story, we see tremendous betrayal.  By Judas, by Peter, the disciples, the crowds, the leadership.  Even at one point, Jesus wonders if God has betrayed him, too.  

But again, we know this story’s ending.  We know that it does not end with the jeering crowds, or the denying followers, or the traitorous friend.  We know that it ends with new life.  With hope.  With the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.  Given that, we have to realize that God must be at work even in the midst of betrayal.

IV. FIDELITY IN BETRAYAL

Some have argued that betrayal can itself be an act of faith.

Indeed there are times when out of betrayal comes great faithfulness. There is a story that is told of an old man in a village who takes in a fugitive wanted by the government for being a dissident.  The priests of the village worried about what may happen to the village if this man is found, attempt to convince the old man to hand the fugitive over.  When he responds that his faith will not allow him to do so, the priests try another tack: they quote the scriptures that say that a faithful person should submit to the governing authorities.  The old man replied that the scriptures also command us to take care of the suffering and the persecuted.  The leaders then began to pray fervently, imploring God to speak to them directly so that they might know what to do.  The skies darkened and the voice of God is heard: “The priests and the elders speak the truth, my friend. In order to protect the town, this man must be handed over to the authorities.”  Whereupon the old man looks to heaven and replies: “If you want me to remain faithful to you, my God, then I can do nothing but refuse your advice.  For you have already demanded that I look after this man.  You have written that I must protect him at all costs.  Your words of love have been spelled out by the lines of this man’s face, your text is found in the texture of his flesh. And so, my God, I defy you precisely so as to remain faithful to you.”  With this, the story concludes, God smiled and quietly withdrew, “confident that the matter had finally been settled.”[1]
There are those who make the case that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was not an act of faithlessness, but an act of faithfulness.  The Gnostics (whom I am loath to look to for inspiration, generally) produced a 
Gospel of Judas in which Judas’ sacrifice of Jesus was required in order to liberate Jesus after death.  But aside from that, some have noted that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection would not have been possible had not Judas done what he did.  Others have noted that perhaps Judas was engaging in a willing sacrifice of Jesus along the lines of Abraham’s willing sacrifice of his son Isaac, expecting Jesus to be returned to him without injury.  In this line of thinking, the tragedy is not what Judas did, but that he did not wait long enough to find out how the story turned out, committing suicide before experiencing the resurrection.[2]
 
One philosopher has gone so far as to say that Christianity and betrayal are intimately connected, writing, “[While] in all other religions, God demands that His followers remain faithful to Him—only Christ asked his followers to betray Him in order to fulfill His mission.”[3] Indeed, Jesus says to Judas at Gethsemane, “Do what you came to do.”
 
We might see that in a paradoxical way, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is betray the very thing we’re faithful to, like when we are compelled to report a friend whose behavior is self-destructive.  The friend feels betrayed, but the betrayal is done out of love.
 
But in our circumstance, when we have been betrayed, where is God then?  Not out of any loving act, but the opposite?  Where can we find God in the midst of the betrayals that afflict us, those wilderness experiences in which we find ourselves, hurting and alone?
 
It would be arrogant and insensitive of me to say, “Well, that betrayal that you’ve experienced is analogous to the betrayal that Jesus experienced and therefore probably brought about some good.”  That’s a nice idea, but there are some ideas that work great as intellectual concepts but do not comfort us at all.
 
But perhaps there is something here of God that we can take with us.
 
Is there anyone who doubts that had Judas lived longer to be reunited with Jesus that the two would have been reconciled?  Is there anyone who doubts that Jesus would have forgiven Judas for the betrayal?  Does not Christ forgive his tormentors, betrayers, and executioners from the cross in Luke’s account by calling out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”?  Isn’t it far more probable that Jesus, in predicting betrayal, saying “It would have been better for him if he had never been born” is not pronouncing a curse but is reflecting with compassion on the tragedy that his betrayer will undergo? 
 
In the midst of betrayal that leads to agony and death, Jesus is able to pronounce forgiveness.  Perhaps God isn’t in the betrayal itself, but in the grace to respond to the betrayal with love.
 
That is not an easy thing, to be sure.  But there is much about Christianity that is difficult.  In fact, if Christianity seems to be an easy religion to do and to live out then you’re doing it wrong.  For Christian faith is the way of the cross, it is the way of challenge and difficulty.  But even more so, it is the way of transforming those challenges into something meaningful.  It is about responding to violence not with more violence, but with reconciliation.  It is about responding to hate not with more hate but with love.  It is about responding to betrayal not with more betrayal but with fidelity.  A fidelity to the betrayer that is transformative.  That has the ability to turn the world on end.
 
Now, this is not easy.  And Christian faith isn’t about being a doormat easily walked over.  But the God-moment in betrayal is in the transformation of the betrayal into something more powerful.  When Joseph was reunited with his brothers years after they’d sold him into slavery in Egypt, he says to them not to be angry with themselves for their betrayal because through that very betrayal that sent Joseph down to Egypt, God had been able to save them from famine.  
 
I am not going to say that every betrayal has a reason for it that God intended.  But every betrayal offers us an opportunity to do something so transformative that God can be known in the midst of the betrayal.  After all, isn’t that exactly what Jesus does?
 
V. END
 
Some years ago in a sermon, I pondered how it is that we could sing “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday knowing what we would shout in only a few days’ time. How is it that Palm Sunday is not more awkward and embarrassing for us?  It seems, as I reflected earlier, that Palm Sunday can only be celebrated with a deep sense of irony or by acknowledging the embarrassment and tragedy that will come.
 
Even more so because we’re not the only ones who know what’s coming; Jesus knows it, too.  He’d been predicting it for a while.  He knew Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, that the disciples would run away, and that the leaders would hand him over to their occupiers.  I wondered how those “Hosannas” sounded in Jesus’ ears, given what he knew was about to take place. 
 
For when we remember that Jesus went into Jerusalem likely know it would bring about his death, the fact that he did it anyway is mind-boggling.  Why?  Why would anyone do that for a bunch of faithless ingrates who are so fickle as to be on your side one moment and shouting for your death the next?  Why would you do that for your supposed friends who will all scatter and betray you?
 
But Christ goes to the cross to bring about the work of the Kingdom not unaware of the looming betrayal, but in order to transform it.  He is no weakling, no pushover, no doormat.  He is one who has his mind set on God’s purposes and seeks to transform betrayal by responding with a grace so profound that it is astounding.  
 
We are fickle.  We are often faithless.  We are often those who betray.  But out of a recognition of the astounding grace that can transform our betrayals into faithfulness, out of a recognition that the world itself is turned upside down by such love, we can, without a trace of irony, shout “Hosanna!”And we can take that grace into the wildernesses of our own lives, transforming the betrayals we have experienced into God-given opportunities for grace, that eventually the whole of creation can shout, “Hosanna!”

The Texts

Isaiah 50:4–9 • The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.   

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Matthew 26:47–75 • While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. 

       Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”

       Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.”


Notes

[1] Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal, Paraclete Press, 2008, pp. 1-3.

[2] Ibid., p 29.

[3] Ibid., p. 21, quoting Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 16 (italics in original).