On April 12th, 1963, while Martin Luther King was in the Birmingham jail because of the demonstrations against segregation, eight prominent Alabama clergymen (including the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama) published a letter in the local newspaper. The letter urged people to cease their support of Martin Luther King as he was inciting violence, despite the peaceful intent of the protests. Four days later, on Good Friday, Martin Luther King wrote a lengthy response to these clergy men. The letter is referred to as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It would be impossible for me to summarize it as the letter as it is approximately 7,000 words, and they are all important words.
The letter was critical of what King referred to as the “White Moderate”—those who supported desegration but wanted to wait until a more appropriate time. King was also critical of the white churches. He wrote: “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
It is not a coincidence that he wrote these words on Good Friday, a day when the church talks the most about Jesus’ sacrifice, a day when we are reminded of the betrayal of not only Judas, but Peter and the other disciples who abandoned Jesus when he needed them the most. At my last church we always did a drama for Palm Sunday. As the assistant, it was my task to cast the drama. There were of course a few people who I called on several times. At one point one man said to me, “How come I always have to be the bad guy?” I responded, “The only good guy in this story is Jesus and no one wants to play him either.” It’s true. If you look at all the people in the story that we hear every Palm Sunday and every God Friday (which includes Peter, the chief priests, Pilate, the soldiers, the crowd), no one ever comes out looking good. Only Jesus, and he gets crucified.
Of course the biggest betrayal comes from those closest to Jesus–his disciples. We all know about Judas and his outright betrayal. We know about Peter’s denial. Yet there were 10 other apostles. Where did they go? Where were they during the trial? Where were they at the crucifixion? The Gospel of John mentions that one of the 12 apostles was at the foot of the cross. The Gospel does not name the disciple. It only refers to the “beloved disciple.” I sometimes wonder if that was done so that we could all see ourselves in that spot. There were some women (including Jesus’ mother) who were at the foot of the cross, but the other 11 disciples were missing.
We can’t be sure why they are missing, but since the Gospel tells us later that they went into hiding because they were afraid, I assume they were trying to save themselves. They were afraid that if people associated them with Jesus, they would either be arrested or crucified. I do not blame them. They were terrified and I would have been as well. They were not ready for this kind of sacrifice.
I often wonder if I would have been brave enough to support Martin Luther King as a white pastor at that time. I just heard a pastor talk about the experience of having to flee in the night because his father had the audacity to work with African American pastors in the 1960s. His life was threatened. The life of his family was threatened. His father risked a great deal to stand with African American pastors and he paid a price. I am not sure I would have been that brave. I would have almost surely been part of the white moderate.
In the quote I read at the beginning of this sermon, King said that we need to recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church. Yet we can see that before the early church was born, the leaders of that early church made a lot of mistakes. They weren’t ready to sacrifice, not until after the resurrection. They needed to witness not only Jesus’s sacrifice, but his triumphal re-entry.
It’s hard to reclaim that sacrificial spirit because we have been comfortable for far too long. Most people don’t come to Holy Week service. Sometimes it is because work or family makes that difficult. But sometimes I think it is because we would really rather just skip over the sacrifice and rejoice in the triumph of the resurrection. We feel that the sacrifice already happened and now we can just enjoy the benefits of that sacrifice. Unfortunately, without the sacrifice, as Martin Luther King said, we forfeit our authenticity. If we cannot stand up for unpopular truths and marginalized groups, then we are no longer the church that the early apostles created and ultimately died for.
I am not going to tell you what sacrifice looks like for you. Only you can know that. But for me, it means that I can no longer let fear determine my actions or reactions. I cannot constantly worry about what other people will think. Good Friday asks us all to consider what sacrifice looks like for us. If you are already the kind of person who likes to “tell it like it is,” then doing that more, isn’t really a sacrifice. For some of us sacrifice will look like more listening and less talking. For some of us, it will be about speaking out more. Only you and God can know what sacrifice looks like for you. But I can tell you one thing, if the sacrifice feels good and is easy, it’s not sacrifice. If it makes you a little sick and anxious, it just might be.
While sacrifice is not easy, it is not the end. At the end, we have resurrection. Martin Luther King never gave up on the church and Jesus never gave up on his disciples. He forgave them after his resurrection and they were transformed into a new p eople—a people bold enough to proclaim the Gospel in a hostile environment. The last line of Martin Luther King’s Letter was: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” That is what Christian hope looks like.
****I encourage you to read the full letter: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html