On Taking up Arms – a Maundy Thursday Reflection

In the gospels Peter comes across as an enthusiastic blunderer.

He is the one who steps out of the boat and starts to sink. He wants to freeze Jesus as a museum piece and gets called Satan for his misunderstanding. He won’t have his feet washed and, although he swears loyalty, he denies Jesus three times.

One other incident stands out. In the Garden of Olives he does something so ridiculous you wonder where he got the idea from – he cut off the ear of one of those arresting Jesus.

Why on earth did he have a sword?

The answer to these questions is uncomfortable: Jesus told Peter to arm himself.

At the end of the account of the last supper in Luke Jesus focuses his gaze on Peter and humiliates him by saying he will betray him. Peter responds as we would have come to expect by angrily pledging his loyalty, even to death.

It is at this point that Jesus enters starts mumbling about the need for purses and then swords for the future mission. It is at this point the disciples offer him two swords and Jesus’ final words before leaving to pray is that two swords are enough. No wonder Peter is ready with a sword to defend his master.

Funnily enough those words rarely feature in sermons about the last supper and I am unaware if they have appeared in any liturgies. The breaking of bread and the pouring of wine are everywhere, but the command to buy swords and to bring them to the garden – not so much.

And this matters.

Those of us who care passionately about justice know there are times when the innocent need protection. Sometimes we accept, even demand, regrettable violent action against those who are murdering the vulnerable. When the unarmed are targeted because of their ethnicity or their gender, or because they don’t share the oppressors ideology we get really angry. We want ACTION. We have to stop genocide, we need to act against rape as an act of war, and we have to oppose the radicalised of any ‘religion’, be that distorted form of Islam, Buddhism, Communism, or – yes – Christianity. Sometimes it requires an army to stop an army.

But what is crucial here is that such armed responses are insufficient. Armed responses may save lives in the short term, but they never offer the hope of peace. UN peacekeepers provide sanctuary. For long term change we need peace builders.

Why does Jesus change his tune? The only answer can be prayer.

Luke’s Gospel emphasises the struggle Jesus faces. The prayer he enters into is so deep that he sweats blood. He knows he needs to resist temptation – the temptation to short term solutions. He has to face the ordeal of the cup and he needs strength from an Angel. When the time comes he is ready. He is ready to be a peace builder and not a peacekeeper. He is ready to suffer.

The disciples avoided the hard prayer. They slept. As a consequence they are not ready. Peter wakes with the same mindset he went to sleep with and he is spoiling for a fight. He takes up the arms and strikes out in anger.

Who is he angry with? Yes, he is angry with those who are arresting Jesus. I am sure he was furious with Judas as well. However, if he was anything like me, his real anger will be with the one he loves the most. His real anger may have been with Jesus for suggesting his disloyalty.

But this is not the way.

The way of reconciliation is well documented and it is very costly. It involves the oppressed walking alongside the oppressor and the oppressor accepting their guilt and handing over power. For the oppressed this is unbelievably painful and costly. it just opens up old wounds. Oppressors usually believe they are the ‘good ones’ and they run scared of changing systems they understand as ‘successful’. Hearing truth is always unpleasant. This means the way is unpleasant for all so who would embark on such a journey?

Successful reconciliation journeys are rare, but when they occur they are beautiful. This is the pearl worth everything.

The death of Jesus is the ultimate transfer of power. The most powerful person abandons privilege, embraces suffering, accepts anger and, in time, offers his Spirit to the poor, the disenfranchised and oppressed. This is the story of the Kingdom of God.

If we are to embark on such painful journeys we need to pray the deep prayers that move beyond the trivial hope for ‘world peace’. These prayers will challenge us to take impossible paths to bring about reconciliation. It will not be pleasant but it is our calling.