Offered Wednesday evening, February 17, 2016
Luke 22  While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him,  but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”  And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?”  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.  Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?  When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”
A few months ago there was quite an online dust-up between two Christian scholars and pastors on the subject of Christianity and self-defense. As gun control was in the news for some reasons – I believe President Obama was eyeing some kind of executive action in the wake of a mass shooting – theologians felt the need to chime in.
On the one hand was John Piper, a well-known pastor in the Reformed camp, who essentially argued against the owning of guns and even against the use of guns in self-defense. Quoting exclusively from the New Testament, he argued that Christians are to be willing to suffer at the hands of their enemies as a testament to the world that we care more about our heavenly home than our earthly lives. To quote him, he asked the question, “A natural instinct is to boil this issue down to the question, ‘Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?’” He gives a long answer that begins thus: “This instinct is understandable. But it seems to me that the New Testament resists this kind of ethical reduction, and does not satisfy our demand for a yes or no on that question. We don’t like this kind of ambiguity, but I can’t escape it.”
Now given John Piper’s relative fame, his article attracted a lot of attention, including a response from another well-known scholar, Dr. Joel McDurmon. McDurmon argued that in citing only the New Testament, Piper left out the necessary Old Testament passages and context for the New Testament passages. There are passages, for example, that indicate God will not impose bloodguiltiness on you if you harm a thief breaking into a house (Exodus 22:2). Indeed, McDurmon argues that you can’t pretend the New Testament offers some markedly different ethic regarding self-defense from the Old, because many of the New Testament passages about loving your enemy and letting vengeance be God’s are from the same Old Testament that argues for self-defense.
In other words, as Christians, we do not ignore the teachings of the Old Testament because we believe in the New, everything is radically different. That would be playing God’s Word off of itself. Rather, it is our task to see the way the Old Testament – at least parts of it – remain true, even while we come to love the ethic of Jesus to love our enemies and to be willing to suffer for the faith.
Now, I bring this up because our reading for tonight includes one of Jesus’ disciples striking the servant of the high priest and cutting off his year. Jesus says the violence must end. In the Gospel of John, we learn the disciple was Peter and the servant was Malchus. In Matthew, Jesus adds “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” This is an important passage in understanding just what we are to do in the face of persecution, but it is a poor passage to justify passivity in the face of immanent violence.
The fact is that as Christians we do live in a world hostile to our faith. We will likely face increasing financial, political and even legal scrutiny and challenges. Worse than that, though, is the apathy with which Christianity is greeted. We are to absorb those challenges with grace and increase our efforts to demonstrate love for our neighbors. When the laws turn against us, and we cannot obey them without a seared conscience, then we resist, but we do so peacefully thereby demonstrating the injustice of the law. Just as it would have been foolish for Peter to also get arrested or even executed for using his sword in that moment, and just like it would have been foolish for a tiny band of persecuted Christians to do anything but live peacefully within the Roman Empire, so too, would it be foolish for us to try to resist with arms our own state when it turns against us.
But that does not mean that we should stand by and idly watch as a family member is harmed or that we should not resist crime in our immediate surroundings. To defend yourself and your family is not to “live or die by the sword”; rather, it is in almost all cases an act of love for neighbor, especially if they depend on you for protection. Therefore, Peter was wrong to try to protect Jesus from arrest with violence; but he would have been justified in using that same violence to fend off a thief.
Of course, the sad fact is that we will even end up in situations where we have to make these hard choices. But it is a fallen and sinful world, and violence and crime are parts of it. Therefore, we need to know how to live a life within it that protects those who we love and still honors God. Let us at least join together in prayer to God that the violence, warfare, and persecution all over this globe might cease, and that confession of Christ and the peace he offers might become a living reality for more and more. For in the end, that is our only real hope. Amen.