Texts: Matthew 21:1-11; 26:57-75
The NCAA basketball tournament may be my favorite time of year. There are such great stories. Georgia State won its conference tournament and got into the NCAA tourney for the first time. In the celebration after winning their conference tournament, their coach, Ron Hunter was injured – he tore his Achilles tendon. And so, he was sitting on the bench, not roaming the sidelines, at the end of their game against Baylor. It looked like a certain Baylor victory, but Georgia State scored the last 13 points of the game, capped off by the coach’s son hitting a 30 foot game winning shot, and the coach literally fell out of his chair and rolled around on the floor in celebration.
And then there are sad stories. ISU being a case in point, which we won’t talk about, but you also had #1 seed Villanova losing early. As the game wound down, the camera focused in on a piccolo player with tears streaming down her face, knowing that as a senior this would be the last time she would ever play with this group of friends in the Villanova pep band.
This time of year, sports fans can be celebrating one moment and in mourning the next. You can suffer a kind of emotional whiplash. But of course, it’s not just March Madness and it’s not just sports – it’s life. Joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, great victories and great losses, sometimes right on the heels of each other. That’s the way life is.
We have been journeying through this season of Lent and we come to a day known both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. And of all the days in the Church Year, this may be the day that most lends itself to spiritual whiplash. Our scriptures today make for an emotional roller coaster. The day begins with celebration and ends in depression. It starts out with triumph and ends with catastrophe.
Holy Week begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. He was entering the capital city, the center of culture and commerce – and the center of faith. A large crowd gathers. There was anticipation. There was excitement and enthusiasm. There were great hopes that Jesus would be the one to lead the nation to overthrow Roman rule, that he was the Messiah they longed for. The crowd welcomed him as a king and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
It was a great day of hope and expectation. But Jesus’ popularity and message threatened a lot of people. When you speak out for the powerless, you threaten the powerful. When you give hope to those on the margins, you irritate those at the center. The week started out wonderfully, but the good feelings did not last. There was increasing conflict. As he entered the city, everyone wanted to be with Jesus. As the week wore on - not so much. Jesus spoke of suffering and dying. He prayed and agonized over what was to come. Meanwhile the religious establishment plotted against him. After Jesus and his disciples shared the Passover meal, he was filled with spiritual and emotional angst.
Jesus asked Peter and James and John, his three closest disciples and friends, to go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He told them that he was “deeply grieved, even to death.” His anxiety and agitation were palpable. His friends went with him to pray. In his time of great need, they were there - but not really. Jesus prayed that this cup might pass while his disciples fell asleep.
Jesus had no more than said, “Could you not just stay awake for a few minutes?” when Judas arrived with a large contingent, a mob sent by the chief priests and elders. Jesus was betrayed and arrested and taken to the residence of the chief priest, Caiaphas. It was a stunning turn of events, coming so quickly after the joy and excitement of only a few days before.
As Jesus was taken away, Peter followed at a distance. He followed all the way to the courtyard of the high priest. Interestingly, he sat with the guards while Jesus was being interrogated. A servant girl approached Peter and said, “Hey, I recognize you – you were also with Jesus.” Peter denied it. Another servant saw him and said to some bystanders, “This man was with Jesus.” Peter said, “I don’t know the man.” And then some of the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you were with Jesus – your accent gives you away.” Peter and Jesus were from Galilee, but now they were in Jerusalem. If you have a Mississippi drawl, you might stand out in New York City.
At this point, Peter began to curse and swore to God that he didn’t know Jesus. And then the rooster crowed, and Peter remembered that after his bold claim that he would never leave Jesus, even if everybody else did, Jesus had said that before the cock crowed Peter would deny him three times. This conversation had taken place only hours before. Peter ran out and wept bitterly.
Through this season of Lent, we have considered ways of living and thinking about life that we might do well to give up. Today, thinking about Peter’s denial of Jesus, our theme is “Give Up Timid Faith.”
As you might imagine, if you plan a 7-week sermon series, you don’t necessarily have all the details worked out in advance. Working with the text for the day, “Give Up Timid Faith” seemed to fit – and it does – but now that we have got to this week, I don’t feel so good about throwing that label on Peter.
In the first place, who am I to call Peter a person of timid faith? It’s a little like questioning Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting, or calling LeBron James a weak rebounder or critiquing Warren Buffet an overly cautious investor. Who am I to talk, right?
But beyond that, I’m not sure that “timid” is quite the right adjective to describe Peter. This is not one of his better moments, to be sure. But let’s think about what really happens here.
When Jesus is arrested, Peter follows along at a distance. Why did he follow? Out of love, out of commitment, out of a crazy thought that somehow he might bust Jesus loose? (I’ve probably watched too much TV.) Or did he hope to have a chance to testify and vouch for Jesus’ character? The text just says that he followed to see how this was going to end – the implication being that he knew it wouldn’t be good. It comes across almost as morbid curiosity.
At any rate, Peter follows. He is there. He sits by the guards. And who else is there? John? Matthew? Andrew? Mary? Not. it’s just Peter. He alone follows right into Caiaphas’ courtyard. Peter was there, which is more than can be said for the other disciples. So we can give him credit for that. It may not have been the brightest idea he ever had, or maybe it was exactly where he needed to be, but either way, this was not for the faint-hearted. You wouldn’t call Peter timid. But then – out of fear or out of embarrassment or out of a desire for self-preservation, Peter lies and denies that he knew Jesus.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter, and maybe calling this an example of “timid faith” is not exactly the best way to describe it. But I think there is something here for us to consider.
We have been looking at the theme of “Give It Up” over these past weeks – taking off on the discipline of giving things up for Lent. But rather than state things as a negative – as giving something up – we could choose to describe things in positive terms – as taking things on.
Rather than “Give Up Impressing People,” we could think about “Living Authentically.”
Rather than “Give up Worrying,” we could think about “Living with Trust.”
Rather than “Give Up Going It Alone,” we could focus on “Living in Community.”
Rather than “Give Up Enemies,” we could “See worth in every person and want the best for every person, even those who may have it in for us.” (OK, that’s a little wordy; “Give Up Enemies” might be easier.
Instead of “Give Up Your Life,” we might think about “Live for Something Greater than Yourself.”
And the flip side of “Give Up Timid Faith” is “Live Courageously.”
When we look at Peter’s actions, he shows courage in being there. For sure. But his courage only goes so far.
If you think about it, this is absolutely in keeping with Peter as we read about him in the gospels. The disciples are in a boat, out on the lake. The wind stirs up, the waves are beating against the boat, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. Everybody is scared to death, but Peter says, “If it is you, Lord, ask me to come to you on the water.” Jesus does, and Peter walks on the water. He has courage, he has faith – but he remembered the wind, he takes his eyes off Jesus, and he sinks. He has courage, he has faith, but just up to a point.
Another time, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and follows up with “Who do you say I am?” Peter gives this powerful confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” He shows great courage and faith and wisdom, but right after that, Jesus speaks of having to suffer, and Peter says, “That can never happen, God forbid it.” Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter jumped right in, showed great faith, made this great declaration, but then it turned out he didn’t really know what he was talking about.
This incident in which Peter follows Jesus after his arrest, goes right into a place of danger, shows faith and courage - but only so much – before denying even knowing Jesus is entirely in keeping with Peter’s personality.
Like those instant replays at the end of basketball games where they review the play again and again, we can consider how much courage Peter did or did not show and how awful it may have been that he denied Jesus. But maybe a better question for us to consider is, what about us? How do we deny Jesus?
It’s a little more subtle for us than it was for Peter. Bystanders don’t approach us and ask “Do you know Jesus?” (Actually, somebody knocked at my door this week and asked if I knew Jesus, but that’s a different story.) We don’t say out loud, “I don’t know the man,” but it is certainly possible to deny Christ through the way we live.
Two weeks ago, an American pastor asked his congregation and TV audience to contribute $60 million so that he could purchase a new Gulfstream G650 jet - an essential tool for ministry. (And to think that I’ve been missing this essential tool for all these years.) In soliciting for this needed ministry tool, this pastor’s website said, “We need your help to continue reaching a lost and dying world for the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus apparently never owned a home. Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He ran his ministry on a shoestring and was much more interested in caring for those in need than in generating revenue for himself. He never bought a jet or even a fast camel. In light of Jesus’ life and teachings, to see the gospel as a means to wealth is to deny Christ.
But we don’t need to beat up on televangelists. When we put profit above principle, when we measure the worth of others – or ourselves - in terms of dollars and cents, we are denying Christ.
When we join in on putting down those who are outsiders or making fun of somebody who is different, when we heap abuse on those with whom we disagree, we are denying Christ. Jesus asked us to love our enemies. Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, gentle-hearted, forgiving one another,” but that can be awfully hard.
I was watching a CNN special this past week about atheism. They interviewed a college student who at age 16 told his parents that he just didn’t believe in God. This was a traumatic thing for his parents, who were very pious, very religious. They told the interviewer, “It is really hard because our son is dead.” They said that was not something they had decided, but according to the Bible, he was dead. To me, it was very sad, and hearing the way these parents spoke, it occurred to me that if my mom and dad had been like them, I might be an atheist too. We worship a God whose love will never let us go, but these parents had given up on their child, someone they readily described as a good kid, because of his beliefs. He was probably 19 or 20 years old. The weird thing was, hearing this son speak with grace and understanding toward his parents, he seemed to be acting more like Jesus than his very religious parents.
There are a lot of ways that through our actions or inaction, we may deny Christ. And often it can have to do with courage, or a lack thereof.
It can take courage to act differently than the prevailing culture. It can take courage to speak for justice in a world that is a lot more concerned about making money than it is in doing the right thing. It can take courage to value people and relationships more than image and appearances. It can take courage to care for the least of these when there are those who will dismiss our work as simply taking a political position.
It can take courage to pursue a vocation that uses your best gifts to make a difference in the world when friends and family may not be especially supportive. It can take courage to go to one who has wronged us and work for reconciliation. It can take courage to buck a me-first culture, get-ahead culture.
Courageous faith can be difficult. It can be costly. And as Jesus showed us – it might even get you killed.