Once when I was a teenager, I was a witness to a crime.
A small one on the scale of things, to be sure; nothing more than petty theft – an act of shoplifting at a record store – but it was a crime and I saw it happen… and here’s the thing: I did nothing to stop it.
To this day, I’m not sure why that was. Part of it probably had to do with shock and disbelief, because I’d never seen anyone actually steal something before; and yes, fear more than likely factored into it since, as I recall, the thief in question was not only a stranger, but also clearly older and much bigger than me. Who knows; but I do remember, very well, that at the moment this older kid slipped those 8-track tapes in his jacket pocket and rushed out the door a chill went through me; and it wasn’t just because I’d just seen someone break the law. It was the stark realization that in that split second I could have done something that might have made some kind of difference in the situation I just stood there motionless and silent; pretending not to have seen what I just saw.
I remember this because, friends, I wrestled with the memory of it for a long time after that. Hey, I was 14 years old; but I’d been raised to know the difference between right and wrong; I knew about honesty and integrity; surely I’d had some responsibility to stop that kid from shoplifting, or at the very least to tell the cashier what I’d seen! And besides that, at that time I was just coming to a real awareness of my own faith in God, and I was plagued by the thought that what I’d done (or more accurately, what I’d not done) went against everything that I’d ever been taught in Sunday School, and all the things that I’d come to believer were true about my own life as a person and a Christian. There must have been something I could have said or done; something, anything that could have brought the love of God into that situation and change what happened.
Or maybe not… but it didn’t because I didn’t.
Suffice it to say that afterward, for a while there I was not feeling quite as, well… faith-filled as I did before. You need to understand that even back then I always found a lot of strength, purpose, and joy in my faith; and in a time of life such as adolescence, when identity is everything, my faith in God defined who I was. But now, you see… well, I didn’t commit that crime, but I have to tell you I felt as though I’d somehow had a part in it; that I’d betrayed myself, my values and my God all at the same time! All because at the moment when it truly counted, I denied that which I truly believed.
Now, I’d like to tell you good people that by virtue of that experience I never, ever did that again; that I have always spoken up and spoken out as God moves and my faith demands; I would love to tell you that since that day so long ago in my youth I have always at least sought to have done in a given situation what Jesus Christ would have me do.
But I can’t… oh, there have been times in my life that I have indeed done “the right thing” where faith is concerned, and even a few times when doing the right thing got me in a lot of trouble! That said, if I’m being honest, then I have to confess that the story of my life is also filled with a great many denials of God: instances both large and small, personal and corporate, in which staying silent and inconspicuous in the background simply seemed like the easier and more prudent thing to do; and rationalizing that whatever the problem was, it was for someone else to solve, not me. I know; these may seem like small matters on the face of it, and they are; but taken as a whole, it ends up a rather sobering thought, especially when one considers something that the Rev. Martin Luther King said many years ago, a quote of his that has long been one my favorites: “We shall have to repent in this generation not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
I don’t like to think of myself that way; but again, being honest, I have to confess that’s who I am… at least sometimes. And unless I miss my guess, maybe it’s the same for you.
I guess this is one reason that of all the disciples, I’ve always identified with Simon Peter most of all. Peter, among the first of those who left everything to follow Jesus; Peter, bold and impulsive, speaking out to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah when none of the others dared to do so; Peter, who didn’t always understand what he was saying or asking of Jesus – never mind comprehending what Jesus was teaching – but who never let that keep him from opening his mouth up to ask; Peter, who would not concede that the Son of Man would be killed; nor believe that anyone could ever betray his master Jesus. Peter, who promised to be with Jesus to the end and moreover, meant it: this was the same one who, on that fateful night of betrayal and desertion denied he even knew the man. And the thing is, Peter didn’t simply do this once; an unfortunate misunderstanding or momentary lapse of judgment; he did this three times… just as Jesus said that he would.
An expert in Greek literature, Eric Auerback writes that in the whole lexicon of Greek storytelling there is really nothing to compare to this one scene described in our text this morning. Greek literature is full of tragedy, you see, but tragedies are usually reserved for kings and queens and mythical gods; high and mighty heroes struck down by forces way beyond their control. These stories almost never involve common people, people like you and me.
But here in the gospels you have something different: while Jesus is up in Pilate’s palace being interrogated by the authorities, standing up to Caesar and his legions, making true confession and suffering, serenely, the taunts and blows of the soldiers; there, at a distance is another drama unfolding, and it is indeed a tragedy. Peter, who had just a few hours earlier at the table had fairly well crowed to Jesus and all the others that “even though all become deserters, I will not;” is also facing interrogation: not by Pilate but rather by a servant girl who was working the night shift; followed by some random bystanders who were pretty certain they’d seen this man before, and in the company of Jesus. Aren’t you a Galilean, they ask. Certainly you’re one of that group that’s always following him around! And it’s right here that Peter loses it – and loses himself – as he begins to curse and swears an oath (!), “I do not know this man you are talking about.”
Auerback writes that this is the moment that in the classical sense Peter becomes the tragic figure: a person suddenly made fearful for his life; caught completely off balance and wholly knocked off the lofty perch of everything he held to be true. But what sets this moment apart is that Peter’s tragedy is our tragedy, because Peter is, in fact, us. He’s you, friends, and he’s most certainly me.
Peter represents every one of us good, believing Christian people who have promised ourselves (and others) that we’re going to live unto that role; that we’re going the walk the way of Christ in our lives; to do good, to love others and to set the world aright with bold words, righteous acts and equally righteous indignation… only to go scurrying into the night when it turned out that “walking the way” of faith meant having to take some risk?
How many times, I wonder, have we stood by idly as an injustice was being perpetrated, or someone was being demeaned in our presence? When have we failed to stand up and be counted in matters of love and justice because we knew that such a conviction would be unpopular or politically incorrect? How many instances have there been when the prayers of our hearts in this place are pushed aside out there for fear of our being labeled as some kind of religious fanatic or worse, “one of those people?” And how many times has someone, by virtue of their presence and conversation with us sincerely has wanted to know who Jesus is to us; and by, say, our silence, or awkwardness, or perhaps a quick little joke to ease the tension we ended up effectively changing the subject and in the process… denying him?
I know this sounds harsh; and I do not wish to suggest that any of us are bad people for having had moments like this. Because understand, Peter wasn’t a bad person. Remember that at the very end of our text for today, we’re told that Peter, suddenly overwhelmed by the enormity of what was happening, “broke down and wept.” As is typical of Mark’s gospel, that’s all that’s said; but you have to believe that Peter’s weeping was the direct response to realizing just how very far he’d fall from where he’d been. It wasn’t a calculated betrayal of Jesus, like that of Judas; it wasn’t the politically motivated actions of the local powers that be, the scribes and Pharisees; it wasn’t even a conscious effort to run as far away from the situation as possible, as seemed to be evidenced by his fellow disciples. Peter… well, Peter had just tried to do the right thing where Jesus was concerned – he always tried to do the right thing where Jesus was concerned – but now, as much to his surprise as anyone else’s, he was completely lost.
It’s a hard place to be; and for me, one of the worst parts of this story is that where Peter is concerned, at least for now, this is where it ends, with him weeping over missed opportunities to do the right thing. We know, of course, that there’s more for Peter; we know of that moment on the beach with the risen Christ, when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” We know there will be a moment of redemption for Peter; but right now, Peter knows nothing of that. For the moment, at least, there’s nowhere for Peter to go… except, of course, to stand “Before the Cross of Jesus.”
And so it is for us. It seems to me, beloved, that a life of faith, far more than mere philosophy, is a journey of the soul, a lifelong endeavor in which we travel from the places where we think we dwell to the place where we really are; and, then, carried by the grace of Christ, being brought to that place where God intends for us to be. In and through our lives, despite our best efforts (and sometimes because of them) we simply find ourselves overwhelmed by the enormity of life’s uncertainties and complications; we catch ourselves in the act of being far, far less than what we’ve been created to be, and at the end of it all realize in our despair that we have nowhere else to go.
But the good news is that there is indeed another part of the journey; and the cross, you see, is where the next part of the journey begins; it’s where grace, salvation and new life is to be found. It happens at the cross. The cross is the place where God takes us with him to where we are meant to be… and that is why we must go.
It’s fitting that we pause on the journey to come to feast at the Lord’s table; for it is truly in the broken bread and shared cup that we get a foretaste of God’s graceful intent for us So, friends, may this meal serve to strengthen us on the journey ahead; helping us to go to those places within ourselves we’d rather not go, reminding us of who and whose we are; truly, that our lives might be judged well, and that we might always take our stand… BEFORE THE CROSS OF JESUS.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry