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The Silence That Slays by STEPHEN BRANSFORD

             "...we should not be surprised to learn that we too,
                       are in a seemingly unending conversion process."
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THE IMMORTAL WORDS OF JESUS recorded so unflinchingly in the Gospels never fail to provoke and disturb. But today I am cut to the heart, not by His words, but by one of His silences.

In an emergency, have you ever cried out to God, only to hear the pounding of your own heartbeat? A sudden dilemma seems like the perfect moment for God to speak up. But Luke chapter 22 tells us that in a moment of great crisis, in reply to a desperate question from his closest disciples, Jesus remained strangely silent.

Surprised and surrounded by a mob of armed Temple zealots in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas bestows the infamous kiss of betrayal. Suddenly, the other eleven disciples realize that an unthinkable evil is afoot. They cry out, “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” And the Lord answers with silence.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution speaks of “the right to keep and bear arms,” an idea conceived for just such a moment of supreme injustice. The disciples’ question seems perfectly legitimate.

“Lord, a burglar has broken into my house where my family is sleeping. Shall I smite with the sword?”

“Lord, that drug dealer is coming to kill me because I testified against him in court. Shall I smite with the sword?”

“Lord, a child molester is abducting that little girl. Shall I smite with the sword?”
But in the Garden, Luke tells us, there was no reply.

For this, among other reasons, I do not call Jesus a teacher. The teachers I have known love nothing more than to answer the question of the moment. And the more I study it, the more I see that this was the great question for the disciples in Gethsemane; “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?”

“No! Do not smite with the sword!” How difficult would it have been for Jesus to have said this? A straightforward pacifist’s “no”. What a Ghandi-like legacy he might have left the world. But he was silent.

Or what if he’d said, “Yes, slaughter the lot of them!” Jihad might then have become a Christian virtue.

An answer here, any answer, was destined to not only alter the course of events in the Garden, but to alter history itself. Any answer, that is, but silence. And Jesus was deafeningly silent.

Now, I can hear certain Bible scholars saying to me, “Son, you’re making far too much of a silence that isn’t really there in scripture. It may be implied in the text but it’s certainly not explicit, and woe be to one who reads too much between the lines of Holy Writ.”

But I would ask you to consider this: If Jesus had answered “no” to the question recorded so explicitly in the text--- “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” ---would Peter then have drawn his weapon?

If there is one thing we know about Peter’s character it is that he would never disobey a direct order from his Lord. No, Luke got it right. There was an urgent question in the Garden that night, but there was no answer. You can read it again in Luke 22:49-50.

Are we then surprised to learn that Peter took that silence to mean, “yes”? Oh, that impulsive Peter, we like to say, so easily moved from one extreme to another! We are all familiar with the famous caricature of the inept disciple smiting off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

But when I read the text honestly and carefully I do not see a cartoon Peter here. I like this Peter. My heart is with him. I would suggest, rather, what a good and decisive man he was! It’s the silence of Jesus that seems nearly impossible to explain.

You see, I am haunted by the fact that just a few verses earlier in Luke 22, at the table of the last supper, breaking the bread and pouring the wine, the Lord set Peter up for this bloody blunder in Gethsemane. The fact is, this violent incident that people often use to ridicule Peter’s character was not something he impulsively made-up on the spot.

Luke 22:36 records that after the Passover meal; … (Jesus) said to (his disciples), "But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one …”

What?! I can imagine a rustling of activity in the upper room as the disciples scramble for their belongings. Money bags are gathered, and coats. Then, Luke writes; They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords”. And He said to them, "It is enough."

What a stunning moment! At The Last Supper, Jesus, who had taught these men to “turn the other cheek”, recommends they buy weapons. And perhaps even more stunning is the fact that two of these guys are already packing heat. Without permits. (Rome would tolerate no Second Amendment to their constitution.) Furthermore, as the action in the Garden soon revealed, one of the armed disciples was none other than Peter.

Makes me wonder who carried the second illegal sword. Nathaniel? Philip? Matthew? John? The other Simon, Simon the Zealot? It occurs to me that it was probably Thomas. He had a sword but doubted that he would ever use it.
Whoever the second carrier was, like Peter, he heard Jesus say that everybody in the room should sell their coats and buy weapons. Along with Peter he had produced a sword in response to the Lord’s suggestion. But unlike Peter, he had decided that unless Jesus went much further and actually ordered him to draw out the blade and start slashing, he would sit on his hands. And that’s why we know so very much about Peter, and so little about the other swordsman in the Garden that night. We don’t even know his name.

Peter is our teacher. He teaches by bold example. And how we need his example if we are to make sense of Jesus.

At the Last Supper the Lord speaks of his disciples deserting him in the coming hours. Peter swears, “I’ll never desert you. If I have to die with you, I won’t desert you.” I tell you, Peter meant it. And he was good for it. He was a stand-up guy, not unlike the firefighters of September 11 who rushed up the stairs in the World Trade Center. The bible tells us the other disciples then followed Peter’s lead and declared their fealty to the Lord that night.

But Jesus was looking for something else. He provokes, he disturbs, he dismantles a hero. He tells Peter, and He tells us, that with the highest and best of our intentions we will merely deny him “before the cock crows.” We do not have what it takes.

Peter is our leader in this terrible revelation. We’re in his debt. Remember, it was to Peter, on this night, and to Peter alone, that the Lord said, “… when you are converted, strengthen your brethren”. (Luke 22:32) If Jesus addressed the importance of his leadership, even when rebuking him, we should do no less.
Jesus promised that Peter would pass through a terrible ordeal of unfaithfulness, and then be converted. “When you are converted,” he said, “strengthen your brethren.”

What sort of conversion did Jesus have in mind for Peter? What sort of strength would he be able to impart to us thereafter? Did it have something to do with that terrible silence in the Garden?

To understand, I try to climb inside Peter’s head. What do you suppose he was thinking after Jesus suggested his men buy weapons? Of course, no one can say positively, but indulge me for a moment--- I think I know. At Jesus’ words, hot blood surged to Peter’s brain with a triple shot of adrenaline. He didn’t need to sell his coat and buy a sword. He was ahead of the game. He had secretly packed a blade from the get go.

Peter, a man’s man, the Big Fisherman, had been waiting for action-orders from Jesus ever since he had first met him. Even before that famous day when Jesus got into his fishing boat, Peter had been stirred-up by that apocalyptic wild man, John the Baptist.

The Gospels reveal that Andrew, Peter’s brother and fishing partner, was with John the Baptist when he declared Jesus to be the One who was to come. Andrew immediately found Simon Peter and brought him to Jesus with the tantalizing promise, “We have found the Messiah.” It is most probable that both brothers had joined the throngs following the wilderness prophet until the time of Jesus. Because they were followers of John the Baptist, who had come to prepare the way of the Lord, Simon and Andrew were “sitting on go” for the coming Messiah.

The personal style of the brazen Baptist, however, suited a man of Peter’s temperament more than the kinder, gentler style of Jesus. It had not been an easy transition for the Big Fisherman. After following the sunburnt bellower in camel’s hair, Peter had struggled to fit into the entourage of the soft spoken man in the seamless robe; the Messiah who let John lay his head on his chest at dinner.

Shortly after their very first recorded meeting, Jesus allowed himself to be prodded by Mary, his mother, of all people, into performing his first miracle. It had been at a wedding feast, of all places. And instead of announcing John the Baptist’s hell fire, Jesus had turned water into wine so everyone could have a good time.

Peter must have scratched his head with puzzlement. Where was John’s holy abstinence? Where was the “brood of vipers” talk? Where was Isaiah’s promised “Day of Vengeance”? John’s “wrath to come”? Come on, Jesus, Peter thought, let’s get this last days show on the road.

Peter was also there when his mentor wavered in his understanding of the Lord. The Baptist had seen the sign of the descending dove, yet after months of seeing Jesus in action, had asked, “are you the one?” … and still being the guy in camel’s hair with grasshopper breath, had added the motivational insult (the hallmark of all true prophets) “…or should we look for another?” Pardon me, but this is tantamount to saying, “are you going to-----, or get off the pot?”

Peter and the Baptist were two of the same stripe. Peter, no doubt fought the Baptist’s battle to believe, as Jesus kept healing and teasing and exorcising demons and confusing everyone with parables, seldom giving a straight answer to a straight question, provoking, disturbing. And all this while the Greco-Roman world unambiguously trampled the Chosen people of God further into the dirt.

Then, suddenly, Jesus changed. At the Last Supper He quietly says, “now is the time to sell your coat and buy a sword”.

Peter knew Ecclesiates 3; “To everything there is a season ... a time to kill, and a time to heal ... a time of war ... ” He leaps from the table and ransacks his pack, returning tall before the group, a shining outlaw Roman blade held high in his fist.

Thomas, or one of the others, hurries to his pack too, returning with a rusty old Philistine relic, a bronze age beauty, a museum piece at best. He holds it up awkwardly, saying, “L-Lord, h-h-here are two- uh, yeah, we got two swords here, Lord.”

And the Lord replied, “That’s enough.”

What was enough? Ever put yourself in these guys shoes? What did Jesus mean, two swords are enough? If you had been there, what would you have made of that remark?

I think the difference between Peter and the second swordsman, and most of us, is that Peter started doing some good Old Testament math. “Two swords are enough.” He recalled Joshua 23:10 “One man of you shall chase a thousand: for the LORD your God, he it is that fighteth for you, as he hath promised you.” Yeah, thought Peter, two swords are enough.

read part two of The Silence that Slays