Jack Shelley is a parishioner of Christ Church and o member of our church leadership, the vestry.
As we reach the end of Lent, it seems appropriate to look back at what sort of Lent we’ve had and what we might have learned. I have been thinking how the life I lead on a daily basis matches up with the sort of life that God would want me to live. It also occurs to me that we are in a time where living our faith outside of church is more important and more difficult than it has been in a while.
Although I don’t need to tell you this, there currently are a lot of unchristian things happening in the world. The most vulnerable among us, refugees, undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, members of minority groups, and the poor are being mistreated:
These people are often suffering because of policies enacted by governments or, more insidiously, by those with political power or media influence to say things suggesting it is OK to treat them poorly.
Jesus calls us to serve people suffering the most in our current social and political climate. I am not a biblical scholar, so I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I know that the Bible commands us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome strangers. There is clearly a tension between much of the current zeitgeist and what we are called to do as Christians. The question is, what do we do? How do we convert our faith into action? How do we act as Jesus would have to aid those who are being increasingly marginalized?
As individuals and a faith community, we can help in numerous ways. We can donate money and time to organizations that help the homeless or advocate for LGBTQ rights. We can sponsor refugees or stand in solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. We can call and write to our elected officials and demand that they serve all Americans and oppose policies that cause harm around the world. These are all good things to do, but they are in some ways the easy things to do. Supporting an organization that shares your beliefs or working with people who think like you do can be rewarding and fulfilling, even if coming up with the time or money can be challenging. Calling or writing your government officials can be done from the comfort of your own home and there’s really no downside to telling people who work for you what you think. The hard part, especially for me, is saying or doing something when you come face-to-face with intolerance, bigotry, or callousness.
It is difficult to stand up to power and swim against the tide of popular opinion. At the same time, if we are looking to model our lives on Jesus’ example, that is exactly what we need to do. The story of Jesus’ life is so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how disruptive he was to the political and religious power structures of his time or how radical it was for him to spend time with and value the marginalized. Where does this leave us if we are not always able to stand up to power or defy public opinion? Would Jesus chastise us for our weaknesses?
Today’s readings answer some of those questions. For the longest time, Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus struck me as an odd part of the Passion narrative, but I now see it, in a somewhat roundabout manner, as evidence that Jesus understood what it was to be human.
Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus happened during a time of fear and uncertainty for Jesus’ followers. The full weight of the religious authorities had been brought to bear on Jesus and once he was arrested, his followers were on their own. They no longer had the comfort of Jesus’ physical presence and they knew how things were going to end. Simon Peter had the courage to follow Jesus to the high priest’s house, but when he was asked whether he was a disciple, he lied. He lied for the same reason that any of us might lie in a similar situation. If we feel our lives or our freedom hinge on giving the “right” answer, we’re going to tell our questioner whatever we think they want to hear.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ appreciation of what it is to be human? We have to look a little earlier in the story for the answer. Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus has its origins at the Last Supper. After Jesus tells his disciples he will not be with them much longer, he tells them that they cannot follow where he is going. No one else says anything, but Simon Peter responds to this news by saying “Why can’t I go with you? I’m ready to die for you!” There is no doubt in his mind, he’s a true believer. He’s sure he’ll never waiver.
Jesus says to him. “Are you really ready to die for me? I am telling you the truth: before the rooster crows you will say three times that you do not know me.”
We don’t know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment, but I can see him thinking, and not in a mean way, “Giving up my life is going to be unbelievably hard. You’re as ready to die for me as you think you are. I know that when you feel like your life depends on saying that you don’t know me, you will. You’re human and your life and your freedom are precious to you.”
If my interpretation is correct, Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus is not a story of Simon Peter’s failure to keep the faith or stand by his convictions. This is a story of what human beings do when they are scared. Jesus’ prophecy that Simon Peter would deny him three times is not a dig at Simon Peter, it’s Jesus knowing how we value our lives and saying to Simon Peter, “I know that you’re human, you don’t want to die any more than I do and you’re going to do whatever you can to stay alive.”
Keep trying to live as Jesus would want you to. Strive to help those in need and stand up to people and situations that are intolerant, bigoted or callous. Stand up to them even when it is difficult or uncomfortable to do so, but don’t beat yourself up if you fall short. Strive to do better the next time and know that Jesus understands our humanity and loves us because of it. As the reading from Hebrews states, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”