Fight and Flight: A Sermon for Good Friday

Ecumenical Good Friday Service, April 3, 2015. Hosted by the Northbridge Clergy Association, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Whitinsville MA.

The Betrayal, Arrest & Crucifixion of Jesus: John 18:1- 19:42

Sung: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

~ Old Plantation Hymns’ 1899

Let us pray…

Tremble. It causes us to tremble, to look on that much suffering. It causes us to tremble, to watch an innocent person be tortured and die. We cover our faces. We cast down our eyes. Today, this Good Friday, we take the slow, long look at the suffering of Jesus.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Peter was there, for a bit. But then he wasn’t. He wasn’t there when they crucified Jesus, wasn’t there when they nailed him to the cross, wasn’t there when they pierced him in the side, and wasn’t there when they laid him in the tomb. Gone.

You know this Simon Peter. We’ve seen him all through the Gospel of John. He was there at the very beginning, joining the disciples with his brother Andrew (1:41-42). When the teachings of Jesus got hard, and others turned away, Simon Peter stayed and confessed Jesus as “the Holy One of God”(6:68). Peter, who at the Last Supper asks not just for his feet to be washed, but his whole body (13: 9). Peter has been with Jesus all along. Through the wandering, the healing, the teaching, Peter was with him the entire time.

But here, in the garden, it all becomes too much. The pleasant road for the disciples of healing the sick and feeding the hungry dead ends into a standoff with the authorities. Good Friday is not for the faith of heart. It asks of us more than a fondness for a moral exemplar, healing servant, wise man. It asks, will you go with me to the court, the cross, the tomb? Good Friday asks more questions than it answers. Good Friday asks “Were you there?”

Here, in the Garden, Peter fights. The Roman soldiers, and the chief priests come to

"Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?"

“Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?”

arrest Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus freely admits, “I am he” and asks to let the other men go. But Peter takes out his sword to fight the arrest and cuts off the ear of chief priest’s slave. But Jesus wants no fight; “Put your sword back in its sheath.”

Then, in the courtyard, Peter flees. Around a charcoal fire in the courtyard, they warm themselves, while the high priests interrogate Jesus inside. Three times, he is asked, “you are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Three times, Peter denies, “I am not.” And then he is gone. Not at the trial, not at the cross. Peter flees as his teacher and savior is tortured and crucified.

Peter’s not the explicit betrayer, the easy villain like Judas. Peter’s not the patsy politico who has power to end this torture but refuses to use it like Pilate. Peter’s not even the religious hypocrites like the chief priests getting in bed with the Roman police to protect themselves. No, Peter is utterly, simply human.

And in Simon Peter, we see two utterly human responses- fight and flight. In 1915 not far from here in Cambridge MA, Walter Bradford Cannon, the chair of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, coined the term “fight or flight.” In Dr. Cannon theory of “Fight or flight,” animals have a physiological reaction to an attack or a threat of survival, and because of secretion of certain chemicals, the body is then ready to either fight back the attack or flee. An “acute stress response” Fight or flight.

You know this fight and flight. You know this tendency in your own life. When someone insults you, you know the impulse to insult them back. When someone betrays you, you’ve felt the temptation to hurt them back. Or maybe you’ve felt that urge to flee, to flee the conference room when the divorce proceedings are too much, to flee to the other side of the street rather than look in the eyes the fellow human asking for loose change, to flee the hospital room when the suffering is to great, to flee the people who love you for the solitary company of a bottle when you cannot tell the horrors you have seen.

Maybe this is what makes Good Friday, “good.” Good in the sense that here we have a place to lay down our brokenness in the arms of our God. Today is our day designated for our deepest grief, our most entrenched hopelessness, our most intractable sorrow. Good Friday is where we place all of the broken relationships, broken bodies, broken world at the foot of the cross and weep. And maybe, just a little bit at first, we entrust this brokenness to our crucified God, who knew brokenness and rejection too.

The Gospel gives us an alternate example of what can be done in the face of fear and suffering. Not fight. Not flight. But abide. Abide with me. Stay with me. Remain with me. In Jesus of Nazareth, pinned to a cross, we see Our God so committed to be in solidarity with all who suffer as to endure the shame and humiliation of the cross. If our God would endure all that, surely our God will stay with us through the night of our darkest fear so that when we cry out “Were you there, Lord?” Jesus responds, “I am.”

The names of the author and composer of the hymn “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” are lost to history. The hymn was likely composed by enslaved Africans in the American South, a people who regularly saw their sons, their mothers, their grandfathers, scourged, tortured, and killed. Fighting back meant death. Fleeing near certainly meant death. And yet, for so many enslaved Africans in the Americas, there remained a bedrock conviction that the Son of God who was nailed to a tree, abided with them through their enslavement, their torture, and even their lynching. “Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?” And yet a faith so deep as to still believe that God abides.

Today in our prayer, we pray “that all who believe in him
might be delivered from the power of sin and death, and
become heirs with him of everlasting life.” So if there’s a small orange ember left in that charcoal fire in your heart that wants to believe, but isn’t quite sure- let the spirit blow through you this night and kindle it anew. Look upon the cross and try on the conviction that death does not have the final say. Look upon the cross this day and know the depths of God’s commitment to never leave you or forsake you, no matter how great the suffering. Look up the cross and believe, maybe just for a moment, the promise of our Christ- not that we will never suffer in this weary, broken world, but that we will never suffer alone. Amen.

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