They didn’t think it would ever happen to them.
That was why they were there, in Jerusalem. Pilgrims had gathered from all around the world for the Passover feast, a celebration of God’s enduring faithfulness. As they packed their animals, as they walked and rode from all corners into the Holy City they told and retold the stories of slavery in Egypt, of Moses fumbling his words before Pharaoh, of the plagues, of locusts, the rivers of Egypt turning to blood. And that final night, as the Israelites gathered their belongings, baking unleavened bread since they didn’t even have time for the yeast to rise. And of their desperate escape as God brought the powers of Egypt to their knees. When they were hopelessly enslaved, God had delivered them, brought them out, made them a nation and a people.
But in the midst of the celebration we always forget the hard parts. As they gathered, my guess is they were talking about the glory of the escape through the Red Sea, of Miriam singing her song of celebration on the other side. My guess is they talked a little less about the ways they grumbled in the wilderness, the complaining, the lack of trust in the One who provided food when they were hungry, water when they were thirsty. The people kept whining, and God kept being faithful. They would lean into God’s grace – celebrate it well – but they forgot how hard it was. How many leaders put in countless hours; how God remained persistent, pushing them, shaping them, making them a family.
I am sure they lapsed into that same narrative that week, those disciples did, caught up in the drama of the Passover. It was a bit confusing, as they tried to figure out what Jesus was doing. He rode in on a donkey as folks laid their cloaks down, waved branches in from the field (Mark 11:1-11). He turned over tables in the temple, talked about the resurrection and the temple being destroyed, pointed them to a poor widow putting two small coins in the offering as a model for their generosity. None of them knew about their brother Judas, the deal he had made with the chief priests to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
And they had gathered that evening we now call Maundy Thursday to eat the Passover meal. It was clear from the beginning that Jesus was orchestrating every detail, as we see earlier in today’s text, as he sends them in, as they follow the man carrying the jar of water to an upper room that was already prepared. As they came in and sat around tables when Jesus drops the bomb in the middle of the meal that one of them, one of THEM, would betray him. In the midst of the chaos of the city they thought they were a group that had it together, that at least they would follow their Lord to the end. And the anxiety began to ripple through them, infecting them with doubt. Who would it be? Matthew, he’s new to the crowd with a shady past. James and John were just asking who would be the greatest; maybe their jealousy got the best of them. Instead of being a community they looked at each other with suspicion.
But that anxiety disappeared as He took the bread, tore it in half, and shared it. Take; this is my body, broken for you. This cup; drink of it – it is the cup of the covenant. They stared deeply into his eyes. "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." Then they sang the hymn, and walked out towards the garden. Tapping their fingers on their thighs, humming the words as they walked…
But he kept pushing them. ‘You will all become deserters.’ He quotes Zechariah, saying they are the sheep that will be scattered. But after I am raised up, he said – and they had no idea what that raising up would mean – first on a cross, then from the dead, I will go before you to Galilee, leading you to faithfulness. But none of that made sense to them now. They were anxious, and Peter, the patron saint of well-intentioned extroverts, blurts out: No. Maybe everyone else will desert you, but I will NOT. Jesus responded by predicting his denial, to happen in only a few hours, that we will spend time with week after next. And Peter responds vehemently, he cannot imagine it, he is passionate in his love for Jesus. "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And ALL of them, Mark writes, ALL of them said the same.
I think this final verse is at the heart of this text. It is easy to point to Peter, knowing that he will deny Jesus three times before the night is over. It is easy to point at him, passionate and impulsive, trying so hard but weak in a crucial moment. But by having an object like Peter, someone else to point at, we forget that this text is about US. Not some, not a few, Mark says, but all of them agreed with Peter. No, Jesus. We wouldn’t do that. We can’t imagine not putting you first, regardless of the risks. We would never do that.
More than a decade ago, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam in his book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," chronicled for us what has been happening over the last generation. He draws on evidence including nearly half a million interviews over 25 years, to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone – that’s where his title comes from. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.1 We are doing fewer things together, increasingly going our own fragmented ways. We expect more than ever before – goods and services and opportunities. Most of the time we are willing to pay for them. But we seem less and less willing to invest, as a people, in deep community, so we might be a part of something truly important, together.
I am becoming increasingly concerned that we are a society that is losing its sense of commitment to anything. We’ll join groups when they serve our purposes, but when they don’t we ignore the emails they send. It bleeds over into all of our relationships, and with that mentality churches are no longer communities of disciples seeking to follow Christ in the world, but are simply dispensers of religious goods and services. We come to church, hopefully hear something interesting, soak in the music, check in with our friends, and go home. Another thing done, another box checked. But that is not the kind of community I believe we are called to be. As more families come, we can’t just expect we can drop our kids off at MP2 and someone else will provide it for us. We can’t just assume that our marvelous choir will remain strong, in a world where more and more churches are going the way of three guys with guitars. We have to be a part of things that matter, even when it is inconvenient, even when we are busy, or it just feels like we are. We say things are important. We say we would never step back from our commitments, even our most important ones. I am sure those disciples believed they would step forward when they needed to. No, Jesus, we will never forsake you. Certainly not US. And all of them said the same.
We do it each day. Poor families struggle for access to the opportunities our kids have. Gay teens get bullied and we shrug our shoulders. Children go hungry around the world. Certainly these problems exist because of complex social, political, and economic circumstances. But, even below that, I wonder if it is a matter of will, of deciding that certain kinds of suffering are intolerable. That we will NOT allow people, when so many of us have so much, to go without. That we won’t give our discipleship lip service, as we stand there with Peter and his denials, and join in – No, Jesus. We wouldn’t ever step back. We are here, with You, to the end.
In the introduction to this season’s Journal for Preachers, Walter Brueggemann writes, "Lent is when we in the church do our heavy lifting and our hard work…The church is forever re-deciding about following…or not." We know the end of the story, what happens on Easter. "But clearly, knowing the outcome of the narrative does not lessen the risk or the threat of the decision. It turns out, as Bonhoeffer said so famously, ‘he bids us come and die with him’. I think I would not mind that so much [Bruggemann writes]. What I really do not want to be is inconvenienced."2
Discipleship is surely inconvenient. But, the good news of this season is that Christ goes ahead of us, as he suffers, and in the glory of the resurrection. This hope frees us to risk the Lenten journey, to risk reflecting on what matters to us, to risk deep and true commitment. May God guide us, and change us, as we journey this season.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Learn more at www.bowlingalone.com
2. Walter Brueggemann, in the Lent 2012 Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXV, No. 2, p 1.