Text: Mark 14: 43-53; 66-72 (Peter denies Jesus)
Four weeks ago on the first Sunday in Lent, we heard Jesus describe a path to healing. Before he began his journey to Jerusalem, he said that those who tried to save their lives would lose them, but that those who gave their lives up for the sake of the Good News would gain new life.
Self-preservation is a natural instinct. But natural or not, Jesus says that following it is a sure way to lose one’s soul; and that when we ignore this instinct and throw our life away, we can be saved. Jesus then models this path for his friends by walking with them to his fate in the capital city of Jerusalem.
Today on the fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear a story that shows the disciples unable or unwilling to follow this path. When thugs associated with the religious elite arrest Jesus, his friends flee in fear.
Alone among them, Peter follows the mob to the courtyard of the High Priest, where Jesus will be tried. But when Peter is accused of being a friend of Jesus, he denies it. When Peter realizes that he has fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that he would deny Jesus three times before dawn, he breaks down in tears, This is the last we hear of Peter in the Gospel of Mark.
Do Jesus’ words about giving one’s life away suggest that Peter should have been arrested in the Garden? Do they mean that he should have acknowledged his friendship with Jesus in the courtyard even if it led to his execution alongside Jesus?
I don’t believe so. The spiritual truth that healing comes from giving our lives away does not mean we have to be reckless in the face of mob violence and state oppression.
Instead, I see Peter’s fears, misunderstandings and denials as a reminder of how difficult it can be to follow the path of Jesus.
Lent is a church season in which we focus on following Jesus. This is not the only time of the year in which we do so. But the 40 days and six Sundays in Lent offer us many chances to remember the costs and joys of the Way of the Cross.
Various practices reinforce the focus. During Lent, we are asked to symbolically pray with Jesus during the 40 days and nights he spent in the wilderness following his baptism. We are called to walk with him on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. On Good Friday, we sometimes mark the stations of the cross as though we were stumbling along the Via Dolorosa with Jesus on the way to his crucifixion.
The most common spiritual practice of Lent is giving something up. While I don’t do this myself, I can see why others do. Abstaining from alcohol, meat, or sugar for the 40 days of Lent may remind us of the difficulties of the path and of the costs involved in rising to a new life closer to Love.
Instead of giving something up for Lent, I focus on illusions. Peter and the other friends of Jesus follow him from Galilee to Jerusalem. But they do so with illusions in what the movement can accomplish and what the end result will be.
The illusions they confront are similar to those that many of us struggle with today. Peter and the disciples are blinded by tribal ambitions.
They worship Jesus as a new tribal king like David and a new incarnation of the tribal God YHWH. Jesus agrees that he is both god and king, but not a god or king for just one tribe. He is a divine sovereign who lives and reigns in the heart of people from any tribe or nation who follow the Way.
Just as it was in the time of Jesus, today many voices call us to retreat to our tribe. Politicians run for office with slogans like “Italy for Italians” or “No refugees.” Religious leaders call other faiths unacceptable as was the case last week when the German Christian Social Union leader and Interior Minister said that Islam does not belong in Germany.
Of course, we suffer from many more illusions than just tribalism. At different times, we may worship peer groups, sports teams, or substances like alcohol. We grasp at them to find relief from fear and pain.
But even though tribal passions are not the only illusions that bedevil us, they seem to be perennially powerful. I am struck that the desires of Peter for a tribal king and god are similar to the illusions peddled by many misleaders of our world today.
In troubled times, misleaders claim that if we could somehow return to the so-called good old days in which people of different languages, creeds, and races lived apart from each another, then chaos and confusion would wither away. They ask us to imagine tribal utopias in which we would finally be able to relax.
Such dreams are illusory not only because they can’t be realized. Even if a country could manage the evil deed of expelling people of the “wrong” colour or “wrong” religion, the pains of life would remain. People would still get sick and die too young. Boredom or depression would still afflict us.
Fortunately, tribal or national nightmares rarely come to fruition; and even when they do, healing and freedom do not result.
Jesus challenges the tribal dreams of his friends. But it is only his execution that most of them transform their illusions into something more loving.
The same thing may be true for us. Words from a pulpit can remind us that some of our dreams are illusions. But it is the ups and downs of life that expose our false hopes and open us to deeper love. Happily, those ups and downs happen to everyone.
Peter’s tribal illusions begin to burn away when Jesus is arrested. Out of the ashes of his illusions, he is offered the joy and mystery of resurrection.
Today’s tribal passions can also be challenged by defeat, but at great cost. So, we build communities of faith that value diversity, justice, and peace and in which we preach resurrection. We pray that this will be enough.
On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the joy that follows disillusionment. Jesus is raised to a mysterious new life. While this new life is a far-cry from the tribal glory longed for by Peter, it is both more realistic and more loving.
Today as followers of Jesus, we retrace Peter’s steps during Lent. We gather in community to support one another. We preach, teach, and pray. We confront injustice. We encounter illusions; and with Grace we rise to new life.
This path is a never-ending one, whether for individuals or institutions.
Two thousand years ago, tribalism was a common pitfall for many people. Today it continues to impact our culture and our hearts.
The Good News is that disillusionment is guaranteed. In life’s many Lenten crises, we receive the Grace to die to old ways and rise to a new life. This new life is not just for one tribe, but for all people. It is not about power, but compassion. It not about the gods of warring tribes but about the One God who is Love.
Two thousand years ago, Peter ended his Lenten journey in denial and tears. This year as we near the end of Lent, I find it easy to identify with him. Fortunately, neither his story nor ours ends in death. They end with an empty tomb on Easter morning with its promise of a life that moves beyond our illusions into the heart of the God.
May it be so. Amen.