Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI
I’m a sucker when it comes to certain books, movies and TV shows. We know that show-runners and writers include certain scenes and present them in ways meant to have an emotional impact, and I admit, most of the time, I get swept right up.
Often, it has to do with the music. The musical cues that play when both Yoda and Darth Vader die in Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi get me every time. The moment in Disney’s Inside Out when the character of Sadness finally gets to take control, allowing Riley to express her grief at having moved across the country, makes me tear up too. When President Laura Roslin utters the words “So much life…” in the last episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, I lose it. And yes, I will always cry when Mufasa dies in The Lion King, the greatest Disney movie ever made (and I will fight you on that!) It was even on TV this afternoon, and of course, I watched most of it.
It’s not just the sad scenes though. How can I not cheer when the eagles swoop down to help the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? Or when the horn of Helm Hammerhand blows through the fortress of the Hornburg?
Then there’s the same feeling of excitement during a scene in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in the second book, The Subtle Knife, when Dr. Mary Malone manages to communicate with sentient dark matter through a simple computer chat program. Or the feeling of dread and terror reading, well, all of George Orwell’s 1984. Or the feeling of apprehension as the story of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno unfolds, the entire time thinking, “Something here isn’t right…”
Stories, when written well, draw us in to the point where we can imagine ourselves as actors and characters in the story. That’s what I love about my favorite books and movies and TV shows—they draw me in.
I must confess though that for the longest time, I did not feel that way about the Passion story. I’m not really sure why. Like many of you, I grew up hearing the story every year during Holy Week. There are other stories I love hearing over and over and over again and never get sick of, but the Passion story just didn’t click with me. I didn’t feel apprehensive when Jesus was arrested. I didn’t feel angry during his trial. I didn’t cry when he died. I just… I’m not sure why, but the story never really moved me like I know it moves other people.
Somewhere along the line that changed. I don’t exactly know when. All I know is that as the years went on, and I kept reading the story, I started to react to it. And my emotional reaction didn’t come when Jesus was beaten, or killed, or mocked. In fact, my emotional reaction came at a place that really surprised me: Peter.
Now, you’ve heard me talk about Peter. Not my favorite guy. Most of the time I’m thinking to myself, “You dunce, what’d you go and do that for?” Peter is not the model of discipleship, folks. When I read about Peter, I usually have a really tough time mustering up any sort of sympathy or empathy for him. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t pay attention, he flaps his mouth before he thinks, every time he gets the smack-down from Jesus he deserves it–there’s just not a lot of sympathy in my heart for Peter.
So then I read the Passion story, and get to Peter’s part. Not the part about him pulling his sword and cutting off Malchus’s ear—idiot. Typical Peter. No, I mean the later part.
The part where Peter, one of only two disciples who followed behind Jesus after he was arrested, gets to the gate of the high priest’s house and waits. And there, while he waits, he’s identified as one of Jesus’s followers not once, not twice, but three times, the last time by a witness who places him right there in the garden. Each time, he denies the accusation, most likely in an effort to avoid getting arrested himself as a co-conspirator with Jesus.
The last time he does so, he hears the rooster crowing. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the morning. In other versions of this story not from the Gospel according to John, Peter realizes what he’s done and flees the scene, weeping. He doesn’t do that here, but, after this point, Peter disappears from the story, only to reappear after Mary Magdalene finds Jesus’s tomb empty. While Jesus is put on trial, beaten, tortured, mocked, killed, and buried, Peter is nowhere to be found.
And every time I get to this part of the story, I choke up. Maybe it’s the way it’s written, the threefold point and counterpoint, the rising tension, the upping of the ante. Maybe I just feel sorry for Peter, who once again screws everything up because of his pride.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my reaction to this part of the story has nothing to do with Peter and everything to do with me. I think this part of the story chokes me up for the same reason that other stories affect me emotionally—because it draws me in, puts me into the story. I find my place in the story. And here, tonight, I find my place in the Passion story: it’s in the place of Peter.
In Peter, I see my own pride and my own belief that I’m such a good follower of Jesus that nothing could ever change that.
In Peter, I see my own willingness to jump to the nuclear option (like cutting off a servant’s ear) instead of a more reasonable one.
In Peter, I see my own selfish desire to follow Jesus from a distance, just in case I get too close and have to pay the price for being a follower of Jesus.
In Peter, I see my own all-too-willingness to deny Christ when it’s more convenient to do so, or at the very least, not make a big deal out of it.
In Peter, I see the ever-present possibility that I’ll turn around and run away, abandoning Jesus, even if only for a time.
We all have a place in the story. It pulls us in because we can see ourselves in it. We can place ourselves right in the middle of it because we identify with it. Where do you see yourself in the story?
Are you Annas, the deposed high priest who can’t let go and still influences events from behind the scenes?
Are you Caiaphas, the current puppet high priest, who is so worried and obsessed with keeping order and not upsetting the balance that he thinks executing an innocent man is an acceptable price to pay?
Are you Malchus, just a soldier doing his job?
Are you one of the slaves, oblivious to events, just trying to keep warm in the cold?
Are you the relative of Malchus, angry at the man who cut off your relative’s ear and are calling him out on it?
Are you the police who brought Jesus to Pilate, but wouldn’t set foot in the palace, because you didn’t want blood on your hands before you went to celebrate the Passover with your family?
Are you the priests who, when asked what Jesus has done to deserve being arrested, evade the question by saying, “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, or we wouldn’t have brought him here, duh!”
Are you Pilate, the ruthless governor for whom order and submission is everything, and deviating from that order earns one a ticket to execution?
Are you the priests who, in order to get what they want—Jesus dead—are willing to give up everything they believe in, everything they are, and submit themselves fully to a tyrannical government?
Are you the crowd who, instead of saving a man dedicated to love and peace, demands the release of a terrorist who glorifies violence and armed uprising as the only solution?
Are you the soldiers dividing up Jesus’s clothes between them, before he’s even dead?
Are you the faithful women, Mary, her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, or the unnamed disciple, who are the only ones at the foot of the cross, staying with Jesus while he dies?
Are you Joseph of Arimathea, the respectable leader who has to follow Jesus in secret, because he’s afraid if people knew, his career would be over?
Are you Nicodemus, who goes from confused by Jesus’s words to a follower, and one of the few who is there to take care of his body after his death?
We all have a place in the story. For though it happened 2000 years ago, it happened for that time and for our own. The hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” puts it this way:
“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my teason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”
We all have our places in the story. One of the remarkable things about the story is that not only is it because of all of us, but it is for all of us. Good Friday is for Nicodemus. And Joseph. And Malchus. And Mary, Mary, and Mary. And Pilate. And the crowd. And the high priests. And the soldiers. And Annas. And Caiaphas.
And Peter. And Me. And You.
Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?