My daughter wanted to see the movie Love, Simon but couldn’t get any of her friends to see it with her, so my wife went with her. They had a great time and really enjoyed the movie, which had several parts that brought them to tears. In the course of talking about the movie, I asked my daughter which parts made her cry, and she immediately responded that the boy in the movie, when he came out of the closet as gay, had tremendous support from his parents, so when he came out to them and they loved him anyway, it moved her. She knows kids at school who wish they could be authentic with their parents but fear rejection from their family, so they hide parts of themselves, suffering without the support of those they love. She knows it would mean a great deal to those kids for them to know their parents have their back. As humans we long for support from those closest to us and are generally desirous to provide that support to others. We frequently fail at this, however.
Since this past Sunday was Palm Sunday (I attend a parish of the Episcopal Church), the lectionary’s Gospel reading was the Passion narrative, which essentially consists of chapters 14 and 15 of Mark. The various voices within the text (e.g., Jesus, Pilate, Judas, Peter, crowds, high priest) are read by different people. The entire congregation reads the part of the crowd.
I was struck by the deep desire of Peter and the rest of Jesus’ apostles to support and help him in his time of tribulation. They were certain they were going to be there for Jesus:
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
As we know from the narrative, not only were they unable to support Jesus while he suffered in Gethsemane, following his arrest Jesus’ disciples scattered like sheep, with Peter even outright denying that he knew Jesus:
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
In our parish’s Palm Sunday service, the narrative moves along, with the various people in the congregation reading their assigned parts. The person assigned to read Pilate’s part reads out, “Are you king of the Jews?” The congregational Jesus responds, “You say so.”
Again we move along, eventually coming to the crowd’s response to Pilate, “Crucify him!” Nearly 300 people say it loudly in unison, the words reverberating off the walls of the cathedral. I’m among them and I’m not going to lie, those words are incredibly difficult to say. I struggle to get the words out of my mouth, and I have to do so again. “Crucify him,” I shout a second time. This awful feeling – is it a glimpse into Peter’s shame?
It is easy for us to think that, were we faced with the same situation as Jesus’ disciples, we would have acted differently; that we wouldn’t have deserted our Lord. However, human nature being what it is, we almost certainly would have. In fact, we desert him in numerous ways in our daily lives, when we fail to love others like ourselves; when we participate in a rivalry for a promotion at work; or when we let judgement blind us to the pain of others. We are no different than Jesus’ disciples.
In the end, Jesus must forge ahead, on his own, doing the work for us that we are unable to do ourselves.
There is hope, however. Easter is just around the corner, and just as with Peter, Jesus will ask us to feed his sheep. Just like Peter, despite our desertion, he asks us to take an active part in his kingdom; to learn to love as he does; to be like the supportive parents in Love, Simon, functioning as the very body of Christ.
It is challenging, and we will desert our Lord again and again; however, we should take hope that, just as Jesus’ love and grace for his apostles in their weakness empowered them to move forward, his unmatched love for the deserted and deserter should empower us as well.