Archive for April 9, 2009

“Word for Today” – John 18 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

church-bell-11One of my favorite reflections of all time comes from the seventeenth century English poet John Donne. In his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, he pens these now famous words: “Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” These words, although they are sadly sobering, are also profoundly poignant. They come out of a context in which it was common to hear church bells tolling in order to announce a funeral to the surrounding community. Donne’s point is simply this: No matter how energetic, how vigorous, and how vivacious a person may seem, they are still a mere mortal. Death can come for them at any moment. And so, when a funeral bell rings, it does not just proclaim the death of some other person. No. For this bell has a strange way of drawing us into its peal and calling forth our own earthly transience. When the funeral bell tolls, it tolls not only for the deceased, it tolls for thee.

In our reading for today from John 18, the funeral bell is most certainly tolling. Jesus has now been arrested by a “detachment of soldiers” (verse 12). A “detachment,” by the way, consisted of 1,000 troops. 1,000 troops to arrest one man. These days, we would call that “excessive force.” Jesus is then bound and brought to the court of Annas, where he undergoes a sham of a trial, after which he is questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest at that time, and then is finally brought to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judah. His fate is sealed. He will be crucified. And the bell tolls.

Interspersed into this account of Jesus’ sentencing and immanent death, John shares another story: that of Peter and his denial of Christ. And it’s interesting how John tells Peter’s tale. The synoptic gospels all tell of Peter’s denials in single units (cf. Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:55-62). But John shares Peter’s sordid chronicle in two parts: verses 15-18 and verses 25-27. In between these two parts, we read of Jesus’ trial. And, as John notes with the temporal marker “meanwhile” (verse 19), Jesus’ trial is happening simultaneous to Peter’s denials. And the juxtaposition of these two scenes could not be more striking. While Peter is clandestinely concealing his connection to Christ (verses 17, 25-26), Jesus says, “I have spoke openly to the world” (verse 20). While Peter shrinks back in the face of questions from a lowly and powerless servant girl (verse 17), Jesus forthrightly and fearlessly testifies to the truth, even in the face of some of the most powerful and dangerous men of his day (verse 23). Peter, in the face of his trial, performs pathetically. Jesus, in the face of his trial, performs perfectly.

At Peter’s third denial, John makes this note: “At that moment a rooster began to crow” (verse 27). I like the ingressive translation of the NIV. The rooster not only crowed, he “began to crow.” And, in a sense, he’s still crowing. He’s crowing for us. Because, you see, Peter is not the only one who denied Jesus.  We deny Jesus too. We deny him in our thoughts, words, and deeds, by what we do, and by what we leave undone. We deny him every time we do not love God with our whole hearts. We deny him every time we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. We deny Jesus every time we do not forthrightly and fearlessly testify to the truth as Jesus did in his trial. We deny Jesus every time we sin. “Never send to know for whom the rooster crows; it crows for thee.”

John Donne ends his famous poem on death’s tolling bell with this invitation: “If by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, I so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.” Donne ends his poem with an invitation to hope. Even in the face of death’s bell, all is not lost. There is a place to which we can flee: God, who is our only security. For he has conquered death by his Son’s death. And the same is true when we are faced with our own sinful denials. Even when the rooster crows, and even when it crows for thee, all is not lost. There is a place to which we can flee: God, who is our only security. For he has conquered our sin by his Son’s perfection. He has conquered our denials by his Son’s suffering and death on a cross. At the same time the rooster crows to announce our sinfulness, Jesus dies to secure our forgiveness. And so, we rejoice at this promise from the cross: “Never send to know for whom Jesus died; he died for thee.”

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April 9, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment


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