April 2, 2023

  “Up, Down, & Sideways!”

(Matthew 21:1-11 & Matthew 26:20-35, 57-75)

Matthew 21:1-11:
 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”  This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew 26: 20-35; 57-75:                                                                                                                                                               When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”  And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”   He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”  Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”  While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.  Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’  But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”  Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.”  Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”  Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered.  But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.  Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'”  The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?”  But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”   Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy.  What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.”  Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”  Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.”  But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.”  When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.”  Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.”  After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”  Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.  

    When I was about 13-14 years old, some of my girlfriends and I wanted to go to a drive-in movie with one of the girl’s older brother and some of his friends.  They were all 16-17 years old.  When we girls asked our parents for permission to go to the movie with this group of boys, they all resounded with a hard “No!”  Even the mother of my friend with the older brother refused to give this crazy “escapade’ of ours her blessing.  Of course, we were all affronted by our parents’ lack of trust and respect for our plan; and I can recall saying to my parents, “I will never, ever, treat my children the way you are treating me!”

     Well, as the fortune of life would have it, my stepdaughter was invited to go on a similarly ill-conceived jaunt with some of her friends and their older brothers.  “Good Heavens no!” was my immediate and very vocal response.  It was then that I heard the voices of my parents denying me the same permission I was now so quick and adamant to deny.  For, with age, time, and experience comes the reflection that brings wisdom and a clearer understanding of circumstances we sometimes cannot see when we are living them “in the moment”.   Time and life experience had taught me that teenage boys are not always as trustworthy and well-behaved as naïve young teen girls would like to believe about them.  Nor are they as cautious and safety-conscious when driving as a group as with their parents and families.  I had now gained clarity and wisdom about the folly of my youth, and I even apologized to my parents for doubting their better judgement all those years ago.

     This story is a common example of our human nature.  We can see things as we want them to be, and talk ourselves in the moment into believing that is the way they should be.  Our emotions, especially when we feel threatened or challenged, can make us mule-stubborn and fixated on seeing only one storyline, the one with the good and positive outcome that supports our own point of view.  I believe this description appropriately describes Peter’s words and actions, as they are revealed to us in our lesson today from the Gospel according to St. John.

     Peter is hands down one of my favorite characters from the Bible.   He is truly a man after my own heart, experiencing some of the highest highs and lowest lows of any biblical character.  His genuine humanness, with all of its warts and scars, is put out for all the world to behold.  That is what makes Peter such a rich character for me.  It is Peter who, when Jesus asked the Disciples to tell him who they thought he was, answered Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  “Blessed are you, Simon-Bar-Jonah,” Jesus replied, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but God in heaven.”

     It is also Simon-Peter who, when Jesus walked out upon the water to a boat in which the Disciples were traveling, asked Jesus bid him come out upon the water.  “Come,” Jesus proclaimed.  Peter immediately got out of the boat and began walking to Jesus upon the water.  He was doing fine, until he looked down at the way the wind was agitating the water.  Then Peter became afraid and began to panic.  Down he sank like a stone. “Lord, save me!” he cried out to Jesus.  Jesus stretched out his hand a caught Peter safely in his grasp.  “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked Peter.  As Jesus got Peter back into the boat, the wind ceased, and the other Disciples there with them worshiped Jesus for performing this great deed.  Yet, for Peter, it was another tumultuous day of experiencing the highs and lows of a Disciple of Jesus, the Christ.

     From these stories, we can gather that Simon-Peter was a man of strong faith, and also a man driven by a great sense of emotion in the moment of his life experiences.  Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ of God, a testimony to his faith.  Yet, he also panicked in the face of the gathering winds when he tried to walk out on the water to meet Jesus, a sure sign of one also driven in the moment by emotion.  This very duality in his personality is what makes Peter so rich and believable to me.  I, and I suspect each of you, can be given to moments of great wisdom, inspiration, and revelation.  These are often followed close behind by moments of which I am certainly somewhat less than proud.  That is why I can relate to how it is that Peter, in a moment of dread panic for his own life and safety after Jesus was arrested, denied not once but three separate times, even knowing Jesus.  Jesus predicted that Peter would react this way.  When Jesus finally disclosed to the Disciples that he would be taken prisoner and sentenced to death, and then raised again to meet them in Galilee, Peter was greatly disturbed.  In a bold and emotional moment, Peter proclaimed to Jesus, “Even if all are made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble.  Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!”  Yet Jesus, knowing all things, sadly replied, “Assuredly I say to you that this night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.  And assuredly, Peter did exactly what he said he would never do when he felt that everything was going sideways.

     The moral, or major takeaway from this story about Peter’s denial of Jesus is actually a cause for me to have great hope.  Jesus knew Peter well, and he knew Peter would panic when the chips were down.  He had seen Peter do this on other occasions many, many times.  Yet, Jesus still loved Peter.  Jesus did not give up on Peter, even when Peter lost heart and, in the moment, gave up on him.  Church, this shows us how powerful and unconditional is the love of Jesus for us.  As our Hymn of Preparation for today reminds us, his grace is greater than our propensity to sin.  And just as Peter, with the help of the Spirit, overcame his panic and fear to become a leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem, we too can overcome our fear, apathy, frustration, and any other block to our full obedience to the will and the way of Jesus.  We do this through remaining in constant prayer and connection to the Spirit working in, with and through us.  Jesus so loved and believed in Peter, and despite his human weaknesses, Jesus never abandoned him.  Jesus loves and believes in us still today.  Although our human promises can be less than fully reliable, we can trust Jesus’ promise never, ever, to abandon us, leave us, or forsake us.  And so, as The Apostle Paul shared with the Church at Rome, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  Nothing can separate us from that love, even if we, like Peter, sometimes fall short when our life’s circumstances take us up, down, and sideways.  Thanks be to God for this gift of unmerited love and grace!  Blessed and happy Palm Sunday—Hosanna to Christ Jesus, our Lord and King.