Thursday, March 20, 2008

Good Friday Homily: Who Are You After?

scripture: The Message version, John 18:1-11

Who Are You After?

Jesus says, at that moment in the darkness, who are you after? who are you looking for? Who are you coming for? As if Jesus doesn't already know. Maybe there is a hint of vulnerability there, in that question, a final staving off, a desperation, but the story has him being the proactive one, the victim refusing to play the role those in power tried to enforce.

Everything has been leading right up to this moment, the moment when freedom, as the world views freedom, gives way to bondage, captivity, death, as the world sees those things. Jesus turns toward those coming to him, toward the real emblems of oppression and imperial power, turns toward what he has to face, the real cup he has to drink now.

He hasn’t sought the cross that marked the Great Empire’s power, but he has risked it for something greater, his true passion, showing a way of living a life of love, justice, and mercy that are the marks of a truly eternal empire. He doesn’t go to the cross in place of anyone else, to save anyone else from the cross; in fact he says if you are a real follower of God’s way, then you too have to be willing to confront the crosses of your world. It is not God’s will that nails him to the cross, but the very normal official ways of how society functioned, functions. Still, with such knowledge, and even when God kept turning away from him, he kept turning toward God.

And so too at this time of year we turn toward the story, toward Jesus. Today again this year, as people are doing around the world, as they have done for centuries, for millenia, people are turning this day toward the story, participating in the story, and opening themselves up to let the story into their lives. And to let the story eventually ask of us: who are we looking for? Who is looking for us?

This is a question Jesus asks those around him throughout John's gospel, the particular version being used during this holy season in the common lectionary. Jesus asks this of potential disciples in the very first chapter of John. He asks it here in the Garden of Gethsamene at the pivotal moment of his arrest, and it is asked of Mary Magdalene when she is the first to enter the empty tomb. The story of Jesus asks us still today, especially in our moments of fear and doubt and crisis and pain, in long nights when we can‘t sleep and it seems everyone around us can: Who are we after? Which path will we take?

Too often I take the path of Peter. He is our stand-in. We who think we know who we are after, what we are after, who we are serving, but when we get into our crisis times, we fail ourselves, our beloveds, our God. Too little, I believe in re-telling the Good Friday story, do we dwell on Peter. Maybe it is easier to dwell on Jesus, especially in John’s gospel, where he seems a little too godly; maybe it is harder to sink into Peter’s skin; for he is very human, very real.

Peter is full of uncertainty about what is happening, what it all means; no surprise, the gospels always have the disciples getting Jesus wrong, but they are the ones ultimately lifted up; all but Judas, the story says, who is the one who was the most certain he had it all figured out, he is the one who turns away and ultimately fails. We, like Peter, follow Jesus to the garden; though we fall asleep, though we don't respond the way we should, reacting, betraying our mission, denying our truth even, still like Peter we are there, just outside, we can’t go all the way with Jesus but we can’t leave him either. The other disciples fled, but Peter didn’t; he remained on the edge of the story; at any minute maybe he would find the trust that would go deeper than his fear of the cross.

Peter is left, at this point in the story, standing by the fire outside the gates, trying to warm himself. He has denied and broken all that is most important to him; I am sure he is as surprised and shocked by that as by anything else; it must have seemed like an unstoppable force that swept over all his will toward goodness and his loyalty and what he thought he was like, all his ideas. In the days to come after the resurrection he will again be beside a fire beside a sea when Jesus appears and truly warms Peter's soul, giving him the chance to repeat three times that he loves him, just as he denied him three times. But for now, Peter too is having to face his Gethsamene, he can only try to warm himself by the fire. Throughout his relationship with Jesus he has been getting things wrong, and here at his one shot at proving himself, he fails again utterly. Not only does he deny he followed Jesus but in trying to take up arms he shows he has absolutely no idea of the kind of Messiah Jesus actually is.

Still, as we are here, so Peter remains, on the edge of despair and hope. He hangs in there by facing the despair but not letting it control him, as it would Judas, he hangs in there by being open to God still hanging in there with him. Like Jesus, like Peter, we always stand on the edge between freedom and captivity, between despair and hope, surrounded by crosses, by betrayers, by our worse selves, by powers of oppressions of many sorts. And at that moment, though it is impossible to see, touch, feel, know, or even imagine, at that moment we are surrounded too by a Spirit of Love so strong that it can make even this Friday God’s Friday. End.