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A Priesthood of Healing

This sermon was preached on Maundy Thursday March 24, 2016.

Quintus tightly gripped the hilt of his sword. “I don’t like these night raids,” he thought to himself. “Too much can go wrong. And who knows if it’s a Zealot trap,” he muttered to himself as he walked single file with soldiers from the Third Italia Cohort and the Temple police. “I don’t trust the Temple guard as far as I can through them, and this Judas Iscariot, humph, I’ve heard he’s a Sicarii, a paid assassin.”

His best friend Sextus had told him as they put on their armor that for all the uncertainty of a night mission it was much safer than ferreting someone out of the overflowing warrens of Jerusalem in broad daylight, risking a riot during Passover. “There’d be hell to pay if a riot broke out,” Quintus thought. “Pilate was as likely to execute the soldiers who incited a riot as well as the Jews. The last thing he wants is for Rome to believe he can’t control his prefecture.”

The soldiers in full armor slowly made their way up the Mount of Olives, a light sweat breaking out despite the cool spring night air, their torches casting menacing, dancing shadows among the olive trees. As they neared the garden encampment, they halted and quietly reviewed their plan. Judas would identify the pretender to the throne by greeting him with the traditional kiss on the cheek. Quintus would lead the Roman soldiers on the left flank and Sextus on the right. The Temple police in the center would grab Jesus and occupy the rebels allowing the better trained and equipped soldiers of the Third Italia to encircle and to crush any resistors. Their orders were to capture Jesus of Nazareth, but Quintus doubted that would happen. “These insurrectionists either fought to the death or melted away to fight another day,” he thought. “Fine with me to kill him. One less trouble maker to deal with.”

As they entered the encampment, a couple of men who were talking softly shouted. One demanded to know the meaning of this incursion. Others began to jump up from where they were sleeping on the ground. Quintus looked intently in the confusion for any weapons. Judas, glanced around, as he walked nervously to Jesus, embracing and giving him a kiss on the cheek. Two Temple police immediately grabbed Jesus, who said softly, “Judas, do you betray me with a kiss?” In an instant, Quintus saw the glint of a blade in the flickering torch light followed by a flash by the head of the High Priest’s servant, who screamed a piercing cry. Quintus immediately readied his sword for a fight. Jesus yelled sternly, “No more of this.”

He reached his hand to the head of the sobbing servant, and immediately the gasping stopped. “What just happened?” Quintus wondered. In the darkness, with only torch light, it was hard to tell. “The servant must have panicked, since he almost had his head cut in two,” Quintus thought dismissively. He and the other soldiers stood taught, senses straining, eyes darting for the least sign of danger, swords at the ready.

Jesus, looking at them, said, “"Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour--when darkness reigns."

“Enough!” Quintus barked. “Search the rest. Seize any weapons.” Taking the sword of the one who had slashed at the High Priest’s servant, they found one other sword. A young man ran away into the darkness, a soldier grabbing his robe, while the rest of the soldiers roared with laughter at the sight of his bare backside disappearing into the darkness. “Let him go,” Quintus ordered. “We’ve got who we want. The rest of you disperse. If you attempt to interfere in any way, you will be put to the sword.”

Quintus walked behind Jesus, whose hands were bound, as they went down the Mount of Olives. “Odd,” Quintus wondered. “Jewish zealots fighting for freedom from Rome always fight or flee, but he didn’t do either. Why? This Jew might react differently if someone laid hands directly on him.” Quintus shoved Jesus hard. When Jesus glanced back, he hit him across the head with the flat of his sword, knocking him to his knees. “Go ahead and try something,” Quintus thought. “I’d as soon gut you here and now and save the court the trouble. Who’d say anything anyway?” After gasping several short, shallow breathes, Jesus slowly got up saying quietly, “Father, forgive him for he knows not what he does.” He staggered a short step or two, shaking his head, before regaining his balance. “Keep moving,” Quintus ordered.

The trip back through the labyrinthine streets of Jerusalem was uneventful. A few dogs running and barking now and then, a candle or small fire burning in a hovel, a person here or there furtively fading into the darkness on seeing their column. Quintus remained on alert the rest of the march, saying little. Only when he was safe in the Antonia Fortress did he relax, sitting on his bunk, talking to Sextus. “I can’t believe they didn’t fight or run” Quintus said. “They say this Jesus claims to be king of the Jews,” replied Sextus, “but he acts differently than any king I’ve heard of.” Octavius, another soldier of the Third Italia, said, “The Temple police say he healed the servant’s ear that had been completely cut off.” “By all the gods, that’s not possible,” Sextus interjected. Quintus shook his head and ended the conversation, saying, “Whatever game this Jesus is playing will get him killed if he isn’t careful. Let’s get some sleep. We’re scheduled to guard Pilate tomorrow and we need to be sharp.”

Today we continue our fictional retelling of Jesus’ last days from the point of view of a Roman soldier and our Holy Week sermon series, “Riding with the King” that explores the meaning of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for our lives. Sunday we saw that when Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, he initiates his kingship and prophetically proclaims peace for all the peoples of the world. Today we see Jesus institute his reign with the sacrifice of bread and wine, his body and blood, to bring healing for our broken and suffering world.

Psalm 118, which we heard Palm Sunday, was originally a psalm used for the consecration of Judean kings. After the end of the monarchy, it became a song sung by pilgrims to Jerusalem. The psalm thanks God for God’s deliverance. Verse 27 says, “God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.” This verse, according to biblical scholar Brant Pitre, means that the new king first goes up to the Temple altar to sacrifice and then ascends the royal throne.

Jesus instead goes to a simple upper room to sacrifice bread and wine with his disciples. This sacrifice, in some powerful and mysterious way, is healing for the whole world. We see this immediately after the last supper when Jesus heals the high priest’s servant, whose ear is cut off. We see Jesus throughout his ministry healing the lame, restoring sight to the blind, and even raising the dead.

Jesus’ healing continues through the sacraments. The Eucharist is one of three healing sacraments. The other two are the anointing with oil and the sacrament of reconciliation. Jesus himself invisibly presides whenever we celebrate Holy Communion.

If Jesus prophetically proclaims peace for all peoples when he rides into Jerusalem, he also offers, as the great high priest, a sacrifice of healing for all that divides, diminishes and destroys our lives in mind, body, and spirit. Whenever I am feeling dis-eased in any way, I envision God’s healing power pouring into me when I receive the bread and the wine, the healing body and blood of Christ. But it is not enough for us to receive God’s healing power for ourselves, Christ sends us, his followers, his body, into this hurting world to bring healing to all those in need.  We bring God’s healing when we visit someone in the hospital, when we listen to someone going through a difficult time, when we pray for those in need or when we send a message of support.

Today is the first anniversary of my brother David’s death. As is true for everyone going through the grieving process, I’ve thought a lot of him over the last few weeks as we’ve gotten closer to this day. I’ve prayed during this time for my sister-in-law, niece, nephew and all those who are mourning his passing away. This morning I sent an email to them, saying that I have been thinking of Dave and praying for them.

I was hesitant to send the email. Even though I’m a pastor, I didn’t really know what to say. I struggled with what to write. Perhaps, they would consider my email somehow inappropriate or inadequate in their grief. This afternoon I received an email back from my sister-in-law. Even though I had been hesitant to do so, she appreciated my reaching out to her.

In his first letter, the apostle Peter says, “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:6). In Jesus Christ, all his followers have become priests of the living God. We offer spiritual sacrifices when we work for the healing of those who are suffering. This is how we ride with the king.