Narrative Lectionary, Lent IV
Gospel of John 18:12-27
As we near the cross and crucifixion, the sacred texts offer us the opportunity to examine ourselves. Self examination is not about despising ourselves nor about judging a neighbor's actions against our own. Self examination is learning more about ourself and how we can continue to grow as healthy individuals. In doing so we continue to ask questions about God and how God manifests in our lives and situations.
The narrative lectionary readings gives us the opportunity to consider what character we might find ourself to be in the "Greatest Story Ever Told,” (the story of God and people-kind) and what does that character mean for me and those around me? Our Scripture readings today paint two very different possibilities for how we might interact with the Divine in our lives. Honestly, I'm not sure either are the healthiest of possibilities but both are authentically human and therefore we can find ourselves in both.
Our first possibility is shared with us in Psalms 17. This Psalm was originally composed by David as a prayer of protection from his enemies. He was likely fearing for his life, believing the current king wanted him dead. This Psalm reminds me of a child seeking out a parent's good favor in a dire situation. You remember those times you ran up to one of your caretakers and said something, like, "I have been so good today and I didn't do anything wrong but everyone, I mean everyone, really hates me and I need you to make it all better." David prays like this today asking God for help. It's always good to ask for God's assistance. However, while doing so he offers up an endless litany of all the reasons why God should and must help him.
David reminds God that his lips are free from deceit, something doubtful for such a prideful little piece of work who had multiple siblings. He proclaims his actions are free from evil and he has never, ever, in a million years slipped into incorrect actions or deeds like all the "other people" do. I'm sure he slipped a time or two, even as a child. David might have been an extremely well behaved teenager but he isn't fooling us with this poetic dialogue. I doubt God was fooled either.
Actually while you read this Psalm out loud today, did you pause and think, "I'm not so sure I should even be saying this?" If God strikes people down for being full of themselves, we are all going down tonight, no doubt! Let me say, just in case…It has been fabulous knowing you all.
The Bible refers to David, more than once, as a "man after God's own heart." We could be very annoyed with this. You are allowed to be annoyed. After all David was also very good at murder and adultery. However, there is something comforting about the realization that even an individual who was a chief mistake maker could still be found in God's heart of love. It gives hope for the rest of us. Doesn't it?
So our first possible interaction with God is one of the juvenile child. It's an attempt to manipulate and assert our will into the Divine's grand plan. David had no issue telling God, plain and simple, "you WILL answer me." We have each interacted with God in this way. Sometimes we like to barter with God, we want to trade good behavior for a quick fix or a miracle moment. Sometimes it seems to work out, whether it has anything to do with God or not, I leave for you to decide. Other times, we accept the fact that life will happen and no matter how perfect we are or claim to be, life moves on. Therefore, our best prayer is one of understanding, acceptance and seeking out new possibility.
We will all have David moments in our life. Those times we inform God of our grandness and we expect God to do our bidding. While it is the inevitable, I encourage you to start to notice these annoying prayers and start moving your communication with God in a new direction. A direction that admits you aren't perfect, and perhaps in some ways even God isn't always perfect, at least not from where we stand. That isn't an easy thing to do or even comprehend, we want perfection all around! However, true beauty, even the beauty and awe of God, is often found in the imperfections. Imperfection is okay, God doesn't count it against you or I. David had yet to learn this lesson when he wrote the 17th Psalm, I doubt by the end of his life he would have used the same elitist monologue. Have we learned this lesson or are we still annoying Sunday School children parading around in hypothetical perfection with juvenile ideas of ourselves and God?
Our second possibility for interaction with God is found in the Gospel reading from John. Here we come face to face poor Peter. Next to Judas, no one in the crucifixion story gets as much bad press as Peter. I once heard a sermon that declared Peter's sin was the worst in the Bible and it was surprising Jesus ever gave him a send chance. I'm pretty sure that preacher had a David complex going on.
It is very easy for us to condemn Peter for his "lack of faith" but then we would be forgetting that each one of us denies God on a daily basis. Each time we cooperate with systems of injustice, which we do so knowingly and unknowingly daily, we have denied and distanced ourselves from God's ways of equality and peace.
We are all Peter at times, when I read this Gospel passage I see a lot of myself in Peter. I believe most of us do.
This story however, has a lot more to it than just Peter's denial. Unlike most sermons on denial, I am not going to ask you to create a litany of all the ways you have failed Jesus. We don't have time for that, my list alone would keep us here all night. Today, let's look at the dynamic between Jesus and Peter in the story. I believe we might find a lesson for our own interactions with God.
Imagine today's Gospel like an interrogation happening at a police station. We have Jesus in room one and Peter in room two. As with all good police shows we wonder who will give in first to the pressure? Who will give up the other person in order to save themselves? Of course, it is Peter. A maid in the courtyard, let’s say a police station custodian in room one, asks Peter if he is a follower of Jesus. Peter simply responds, "I am not." Meanwhile in room two Jesus is being slapped around by the police and the main detective asks him to explain himself. Jesus responds by saying, "Why do you ask me...ask those who heard what I said to them because they know what I said."
This is earth shattering. While being denied by his own followers Jesus tells others to not ask him for the answers but to ask his followers. Jesus knows that he will no longer carry forth his message of God's love in the same way he had for the past three years; it is know up to those who will come after him. God expects you and I to answer the questions this world seeks to understand. God does this knowing that we essentially suck at times, that we mess up, that we deny giving love freely, we hate, we judge and yet it is us who are to answer the tough questions! How is that for interaction with God and we have Peter to thank for making this known to us. Yes, God does indeed work in mysterious ways, as we are often fond of saying.
Our interrogation scene continues in room two with Jesus asking a question we all ask at some point in life. Why are the non-guilty often treated as guilty by the powers of this world? Jesus’s exact words are, "If I have spoken rightly, who do you strike me?" Jesus didn't get a good answer and neither do we typically. Injustice has been rampant for as long as human history has been recorded and probably before then too. Hopefully, we can find some comfort, and just some is ok, in the knowledge that even a man who loved others more than anyone else still suffered abuse. We do not suffer injustice alone, God suffers with us. Jesus stands as a reminder that God feels our pain and anguish, even our anger, over the atrocities we witness in this life.
Meanwhile back in room one Peter denies Jesus a second time, this time when a guard (or you might say, a detective) questions him. A nearby eye witness is watching the interrogation and is appalled that Peter has twice lied of his association with Jesus. And so he speaks up and basically says, "I know you are with that guy Jesus, you cut my relatives ear off!” Peter still denies.
Peter denies his interactions with Jesus even when an eyewitness was present. We have each denied our interaction with God when we didn't understand what was happening in life or when fear consumed us. While God asks us to be strong in faith, God also feels fear and bewilderment with us and therefore doesn't count it against us. Both men in room one and room two felt fear and anguish that night. The greatest truth of this passage is the realization that even in the midst of being denied and slapped and threatened with death, Jesus remains faithful to his followers and has faith they will continue in his footsteps. God does the same for us. Even when we stray, even when we are too embarrassed to even acknowledge that we believe in God, God still has faith in us and calls us to keep spreading love.
God doesn't count our denials against us, just as Jesus didn't count them against Peter. God doesn't count our prideful pompous words against us, just as God didn't count them against David. God simply says all of creation, “Talk to my followers, they will tell you about who I am.” God asks us to be honest with ourselves and to interact with the Divine and the world around us as authentic human beings. We mess up, we thrive, we weep, we laugh, we believe, we doubt, we deny, we stand strong, we run away and still God says, "those are my people." Regardless of our ability to interact well or poorly with the Divine, God continues to have faith is us. Imagine that...God has faith in you and I in the midst of all our mistakes and imperfections. Perhaps, we can find a little faith for God too.