4th Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2013
Mark 14: 53-55, 61-68, 70-72
Here we are at the beginning of the end. In the last few weeks, we have watched as Jesus prepares his disciples for the brutal end that awaits him, and as he poured out his heart to his Father in heaven. We have heard him set his face like flint as the prophet says, to make it through the harrowing time ahead. And then, in today’s reading, we see the beginning of the physical pain and suffering that go along with the psychological agony as Jesus is jailed and tried by the religious authorities and the last of his disciples betrays him.
In our DVD last Wednesday evening, we saw the stony path up to Caiaphas’ house from the Kidron Valley where the Garden of Gethsemane is. Jesus was shackled and led up the path barefoot, says the tradition. We saw the dungeon where prisoners were tied up with their hands in shackles overhead. And we saw the pits that were used as cells, into which prisoners were lowered by ropes to wait as long as the authorities deemed necessary before trial or sentences were carried out. It was a haunting picture, and it makes me hurt just to think about it.
The most shocking thing was that the people who arrested him were the people who should have embraced him first. This was the religious hierarchy of his day, those who actively looked for the Messiah to come. And here they are, working hard to make a case against him, slapping and tying him up to beat him in that cell with the shackles overhead. How could it be that the brightest theologians of his own faith could miss his message and his ministry? Could not see that what he preached was the very scripture that had sustained their people for thousands of years? Did they forget that God is a God who welcomes sinners and strangers? That God is a God who lifts the lowly and fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty? Did they forget that God’s people are measured by how closely they follow God in the ways of love and mercy? Did they get so comfortable in their own theology that they lost track of the needs of ordinary people to be assured of God’s love rather than scorned for not meeting the church’s demands?
I am afraid that the example of how the Church can get so caught up in it’s own need to exist that it loses track of what it means to be God’s hands and heart is much too close to home for us. As church membership declines could it be that we have lost our focus on being Jesus and speaking of his love? Could it be that we have set up a structure that effectively gives us permission to keep our religion something that makes us feel good instead of worrying about where Jesus would be at work, healing, feeding, teaching, and raising the dead. It’s a scary thought, but I don’t think we can read this story and dodge the question of whether or not we would embrace Jesus’ ministry if he came to live among us today. I am not so sure that we would welcome Jesus any more than the faithful did in his own day. The fear that he aroused then is the same fear that would marginalize him today. Jesus was never politically or religiously correct.
And so we meet the other character in the story: Peter. Struggling still to be faithful, he shows up in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, trying to get a glimpse of the proceedings. But he chickens out. He can’t really own up to being one of Jesus’ supporters in such hostile territory. This night trudges on, as the dawn draws near. Everything is in its place for the final accusations. There is no one to speak up for Jesus, no one to watch with him, everyone has fled, and he is on his own as the wheels of the law grind on to their conclusion.
What does this story have to teach us, as we watch from all these centuries later?
Is it pointless to ask ourselves where we would have been on that fateful night? Probably not, except to ask ourselves where we are today as Jesus’ witnesses and as God’s people. How do you measure whether you are being true to the religion of the prophets that Jesus lifted up and that called Caiaphas’ and his cohort to account? How do you witness to Jesus in a world that disregards so much that is at the core of who you are and what you trust? For one thing our testimony is most effective when it tells of our own experience of God’s grace and of God’s promises being true for us. When we can share how our trust in God sustained us, or how our love for God is the reason why we serve or share, we are the witnesses that Peter was not able to be. When we take literally the stories of God’s love and salvation to slaves and widows and exiled Jewish girls and other unlikely people, we see that God’s love is meant for the humble and hopeless. We begin to understand that our call as God’s people is to be part of lifting, healing, feeding, raising the dead, as we ourselves have been lifted, healed, fed, and raised. When our ‘religion’ becomes anything more than a continuous opportunity to give thanks and be loving as we have been loved, then we, too, have missed the mark.
We aren’t really any different than Jesus’ disciples or than the church of his day. We are just as fearful, just as confused, just as torn apart by misunderstanding. Because we are imperfect, sinful humans, just trying to do the best we can, we make the same mistakes as those disciples and those religious leaders. But the difference is that we know that we are forgiven, and that we are loved anyway. We trust God’s love to keep us mindful that in the pain and suffering of Jesus, we see straight into the depth of that love for you and for me. We will struggle to be faithful, we will fail to be God’s people, and we will offer our hearts and souls to continue to work that Jesus has left to us to do. We will get lost, and we will help each other find the truth of our mission and ministry. And Jesus will be there in us and with us, urging us on and lifting us, healing us, feeding us, and raising us to new life, as we are at work doing the same in the world God loves. Amen.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.