Can I make Holy Week about myself for a second?
I know, I know.
It sounds really narcissistic, but most of us do it anyway. Heck, your pastor will probably do it tonight if your church has a Maundy Thursday service. Maybe not himself, exactly, but there’s a good chance he or she will do what pastors and laity alike have done for millennia and try to guess who they would be if they were one of the characters in the Passion narrative.
Peter usually gets most of the attention in this sort of endeavor.
His story has everything you need for a great sermon: close follower of Jesus, scandalous denial, and chicken.
A cock is a technically a chicken, right? It’s like a rooster? Maybe?
Anyway, this week as I was rereading the story of Jesus’ final days on earth and trying to figure out who I might have been had I been an original character, I tried to avert my gaze from Peter and look elsewhere. Not that I’m in any way incapable of doing what Peter did, I just like to mix things up a bit. You know, to keep things interesting and see if maybe, just maybe the gospels have more than one lesson to teach.
I know. Crazy talk, but stay with me.
In my quest to deny my solidarity with Peter (See what I did there? DENY. When you become a dad, the dad jokes just flow right out of you. There’s no stopping them. You just have to lean into it and hope for the best), I went searching for someone else’s shoes to slip into.
I found 12.
Well, 13 if you count Jesus and they were probably Birkenstocks, not shoes. But still. Plenty of space to narcissistically squeeze myself into the story.
And what better place to squeeze myself into the story than the most famous part of the story of Jesus’ final days: the Last Supper.
I mean, if you’re gonna make Holy Week about yourself, you might as well do it right and put yourself in the best scene, am I right?
Anyway, as it turns out, I didn’t know this story quite as well as I thought I did. Or, to be more precise, I didn’t know the ending at all. I’m so used to reciting the “This is my body…This is my blood” part when celebrating the eucharist that I honestly forgot how the story actually ends. In my mind, the bread is broken, the cup is drained and oft they all go to the Mount of Olives.
But it turns out Jesus and his disciples did something interesting before they left.
Grab your hymnal and turn to page…
It was probably a psalm. Actually a set of Psalms, Psalm 113-118 that my admittedly not-time-consuming research tells me are and/or were traditionally sung during Passover.
Although we tend to imagine the Last Supper as a somber moment – and in many respects it was – the psalms Jesus and his disciples sung that night are actually full of hope and praise. To be sure, there’s some downer moments in there too, but overall Psalm 113-118 celebrate the faithfulness of God.
Which is why I like to picture myself in this moment of the passion story. It’s a moment of moment of celebration in the midst of looming darkness. And I like to imagine myself there because I also like to imagine Jesus and the disciples singing the psalms in the style of Jimmy Fallon and the Roots when they have a musical guest on The Tonight Show and all squeeze into that little room playing children’s instruments in a moment of pure joy.
I can just see Jesus strumming on his ukulele, Peter buzzing away on a kazoo, and John rocking out on a toy xylophone. It would be the viral video to end all viral videos.
I like to imagine that moment that way and myself in it because who wouldn’t want to share in that sort of moment but the reality is, I’m probably a lot more like the streaker in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Oh, you didn’t know about the streaker?
No one ran across stage naked during your church’s Easter pageant this year? Well, they should have and for the sake of biblical fidelity, you should probably talk to your pastor about that and make sure the pageant is more faithful next year.
I’m not making this up, by the way.
There really was a guy running naked through the Garden of Gethsemane the night Jesus was arrested.
If you don’t remember that part of the story, you’re forgiven because I confess: I didn’t either.
But Mark didn’t forget.
As Jesus is being led away by the angry mob, Mark records this peculiar moment…
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
We’ve got no more information about this certain young man than that. No real clue to his identity, where he came from, or where he ran off to. None of the other gospels even mention him.
So who was he?
Some speculate he was one of the apostles, others that he was the same young man who appeared in Mark’s account of the empty tomb, and still others think he may have just been some sort of literary device.
But if I had to wager an educated guess, I would guess he’s me.
Not because I enjoy running around naked, but because if I’m really being honest with myself even though I wish I would have been table side with Jesus rocking out on my toy piano to the Passover hymn, there’s a halfway decent chance I would have been the certain young man who abandoned Jesus when it mattered most to save his own skin.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be that guy, but how often have I really sacrificed anything to follow Jesus, let alone my own safety?
Oh, I can talk a big game – most of us can – but if push comes to shove and following Jesus means it will really cost me something, not just an hour on Sunday morning or a couple of bucks begrudgingly tossed in the offering plate, but something I truly value like my reputation or my safety or even my life how would I respond?
Would I defiantly stand up and declare “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.” or would I abandon everything and everyone to save myself?
I can tell you what I hope I would do. I hope I would stay and remain faithful. I hope when it comes to time really following Jesus I would really follow Jesus. But real sacrifice is painful and the prospect of death terrifies me. I’ve got a loving wife and two wonderful little girls at home. The idea of not being around to see them grow up is a nightmare that haunts me every time we’re apart. Faced with the choice between walking my daughters down the aisle and walking with Jesus to the gallows, I honestly don’t know how I would respond.
I can only tell you what I hope I would do.
And so as easy as it is to judge that certain young man for abandoning Jesus that night, more than anything, I feel sympathy for him. Maybe it’s because I hope others would do the same for me if I was in his shoes.
Or maybe I sympathize for him because I’ve abandoned Jesus before in the face of far less than an angry mob.
Or maybe I sympathize for him because I hope that’s what Jesus would do, I hope that’s what Jesus did because if he did, then maybe he’ll have the same sympathy for me when I let him down.
But I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t.
Because when I stop making the story about myself, when I stop wondering where I would be in the story and how I would react and instead try to imagine how Jesus must have felt that night, the pain and embarrassment become too much to bear.
You see, not only was Jesus unjustly arrested and abandoned by those he thought loved him the most, they were so desperate to save themselves they were willing to leave not just him, but everything they had to save their own skin.
It’s a truly sad irony when you think about it.
Not that many chapters before, Jesus is telling a rich young man that if he wants to be his disciple he must first give up everything he has, then he can come and follow him. Of course, he declines to do so and leaves in shame. It must have been a proud moment for the poor, powerless disciples who had done the very thing this rich, powerful man could not.
And yet here in the garden at least one of those once proud disciples did what not even the rich young ruler could be accused of doing.
So desperate to flee and save himself, one of Jesus’ followers literally gives up everything he has to abandon him.
On a night of total betrayal, this otherwise peculiar episode may have been the most painful.
It’s a moment I’m sure Jesus wishes he could forget.
But we won’t let him.
For for every time we abandon the least of these to suffer at the hands of their oppressors, every time we strip away the gospel in the name of “safety and security,” every time we flee from sacrifice to save our own skin, we reenact that night in Gesthame.
And abandon Jesus all over again.