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When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’
Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.
And all of them said the same.
Every one of them who had so recently cut the palm branches from the trees, waved them in the air,
and sang alleluias!,
every one of them who had so recently gathered in the upper room, sat at table with him,
and dipped their bread into the same bowl as his,
every one of them who had heard him teach so many times,
who had seen him heal the sick and give sight to the blind,
who had heard him confound the righteous Pharisee and the pious Sadducee,
every one of them made a false promise that night.
“Surely, not I Lord. I will not desert you, not me. I will never deny you.”
But they all did, every last one of them. They all deserted him, just as he said that they would.
Judas sold him out for thirty pieces of silver.
Peter, brash and bold Peter, the Rock, fearfully denied him three times that very night.
The rest of them scattered like scared sheep once their shepherd was in the custody of the guards.
I sat in that same garden at the base of the Mount of Olives,
among gnarled olive trees whose trunks date back to the first century.
Our pilgrimage group gathered there on a dark and foggy afternoon,
and I distinctly remember sitting with my back against a cool stone wall, reflecting on these very verses,
wondering what it must have been like that fateful night for those first disciples.
Jerusalem can be a scary place, especially at night time.
The tide can turn very quickly – from palm fronds waving to swords being drawn.
The power structures, then and now, are subtle, everpresent, and unyielding.
One wrong step and someone gets “disappeared”,
knocked over the head and tossed into the Kidron Valley, never to be heard from again.
What can one person do against this power structure?, the disciples must have thought.
I am only one person; we are only a few together.
Strong and violent forces surround us. I could lose my life!
We are no different from them, those early disciples. Our fear crowds out our faithfulness.
Self-preservation eventually takes the place self-giving love.
The denial and betrayal of each of us takes on many forms.
One of the basic tenets of Reformed faith is “total depravity”,
which recalls the ancient scripture: “no one is righteous, no, not even one.” (Romans 3:10)
Isaiah 53:6 declares: “All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”
All we, like sheep, go astray. We go astray every day, even the most righteous among us.
This is why our denomination and our nation never couches too much power in one person.
The Declaration of Independence of the United States is founded upon Scotland’s declaration
of independence from England, written by early Presbyterians who took seriously the power of sin.
The Scots had learned the hard way what happens when one person has too much power.
The balance of powers between the legislative, administrative and judicial offices is, at heart,
about total depravity, about the reality and pervasiveness of sin,
the reality and pervasiveness of denial, of betrayal.
This is why Presbyterians make so many decisions by committee.
This is why the pastor only moderates the session and is not the boss of the church.
This is why our church and our nation both have a representative democracy,
instead of a monarchy or dictatorship.
We dare not couch too much power in one person – not in the pastor or the pope,
not in the President or the Police Chief,
not in the pied piper or the powerful internet troll.
When they gathered at the Mount of Olives after dinner, Jesus said:
You will all become deserters.
He was not necessarily talking here about the moral sins of the flesh that the Church has often derided.
He was talking in this context about denial and desertion,
about what we fail to do for the sake of the common good.
All of us deny and desert our Lord and Savior –
every time we allow unrighteous gossip to continue without interruption,
every time we do not follow his way, but turn and go our own way,
every time we pay the bills, taking care of all our needs and wants,
but fail to return anything to God,
every time we fail to speak up when someone needs to take a stand for what is good and true.
Yesterday, some 30,000 souls marched in the streets of downtown Atlanta,
as many as 100,000 in Washington, DC.
You may agree or disagree with their political positions,
but you have to respect their passion and commitment.
Young people are stepping up to make public statements about what they deem is important.
We have not seen anything quite like this since the 1960’s.
The forces aligned against them are powerful, and well-heeled.
Their fight will be an uphill battle, a struggle against the powers that be, against the status quo.
Throughout the course of history, those without official power have often felt,
in the face of perceived injustice or oppression, like scattered sheep,
as if their shepherd had been struck down.
Even in this nation, many have often felt like they had no voice, and had no choice but to turn tail and run.
But someone told me recently that when our state legislatures get just three phone calls about an issue,
they pay attention. When they get 10-15 phone calls, they begin to manage what they consider a crisis.
You may have more of a voice about issues that matter than you realize.
All of us are fragile beings. We are no different than those first disciples.
Unless we recognize our own sin, unless we confess our proclivity to turn tail and run,
unless we admit the possibility that we could break our most sacred promises,
we will never learn to receive grace.
Why do we think we are special? Why do we think, “I’ll never desert or deny him”?
The good news is that grace is freely offered to us, even in our weakness, because of our weakness.
The one requirement to join the Presbyterian Church is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,
to confess that Jesus is our Savior, the One who saves us from our sin,
and that he is our Lord, that we will trust him to guide and direct our daily lives.
The confirmation class is at the retreat center this morning talking about what that question means.
Rev. Allysen Schaaf is preparing them for Confirmation Sunday next month,
when they will be publicly asked: Who is your Lord and Savior?
It is important that our confirmands learn both the possibility of changing the world as faithful disciples,
as well as the inevitability of sin.
Vernon Gramling made the point in his blog this week that
“Jesus knew that the capacity to betray and desert was as much a part of us as is faithful discipleship…
every one of us has it in us to desert him.
Though Jesus could see the capacity to betray and deny, he did not hold it against his disciples.
He shared a meal with them and he promised… after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee…
The disciples’ goodness (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with Jesus’ care for them…
We find this nearly impossible to believe –
that God will love us even, or especially, when our shortcomings are exposed.
Vernon wrote: “You will fail. You will do harm. Do not imagine otherwise.
I know this about you, Jesus says, but none of this will separate you from my love.’
This is truly amazing grace which is sometimes very difficult to believe…
(Vernon Gramling blog, 3/23/18)
Every time we gather at this Table, we hear the words:
“On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread…”
On that very night, he dipped his bread in the bowl with Judas who had already betrayed him,
with Peter who would deny him three times,
and with the other disciples, who would all turn tail and run
as soon as the soldiers surrounded Jesus in the dark garden.
Where do we go to confess our own faithlessness?
Where do we go to receive new strength after we have failed?
Where do we go to receive the inspiration to seek boldness and courage,
even in the face of great opposition?
Where do we gain the wisdom to give up what is good for the sake of what is best?
There is no better place than at this Table, among friends, in presence of our risen Lord.
Here we are fed by grace, strengthened for Christian service.
Here we discover inspiration to do what love requires.
Here we are reminded of the one whose body was broken and blood was shed for you and for me.
Here, at this Table, nothing can separate you from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ.
Come to this Table, not because we are worthy, but because we are unworthy.
Come, not because we deserve to God’s grace, but because we desperately need God’s grace.
Come, and receive again amazing grace – grace that sets us free from a past we cannot change,
and opens to us a future in which we can be changed.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030