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Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday was a great day for Peter. Jesus was making a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was going to be part of that. He was amazed at how Jesus knew the colt would be where he said it would be and the owners would release it. He was really pleased at the crowds welcoming his Messiah. Peter put his very own cloak on the colt so Jesus could ride into town. Jesus, who was going to be the Davidic king. Jesus, who was going to rout the religious and political authorities and make things right in Israel again. Peter praised God joyfully with the others and marveled at Jesus’ words that if he silenced the crowds as the Pharisees asked, the stones would start to sing. Clearly, all that stuff about suffering and crucifixion had gone away. Then Jesus goes straight to the temple and turns over the tables of the animal sellers and the money changers, angry that the temple has been turned from a place of prayer to a place of profit. This was the strong Jesus he wanted to see.

Jesus did some more teaching about the kingdom of God and then came the Last Supper. Jesus started talking again about betrayal, even from Peter. Peter, who was a favored disciple that went on special missions with Jesus. Peter, who was the spokesperson for the disciples, declaring Jesus the Messiah, even though he did not know what that meant. Peter, who was considered a strong and faithful follower of Jesus. Of course Peter denies that he will betray Jesus. He says he will go to prison and die with him. But Jesus says no. Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows. Peter does not like this at all. Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse and he does not like it, even though he proclaims his loyalty.

Jesus has prayed that they will be able to resist temptation, but they are asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, not asking this for themselves. It does not look good and when Jesus is taken, they all flee. All except Peter. Peter is terrified at Jesus’ arrest, but he is able to stay with his Lord, though his relationship is changed. He follows Jesus at a distance, the story tells us. That distance is physical, emotional and spiritual as Jesus is led away to the high priest’s house for a trial. Peter doesn’t want to get too close to the mob. We can see him as he trails the group down the Mount of Olives, wondering what is going to happen, a lot less eager to be close to Jesus than he had been on Palm Sunday.

Peter is emotionally distant from Jesus too. He doesn’t know what Jesus is going through inside the high priest’s house. He doesn’t know what Jesus is feeling. He knows what he is feeling. He is afraid for Jesus. He is afraid for himself and all the other disciples. He is afraid that association with Jesus is enough to get him arrested as well. He is not at all sure of a Jesus who offered weakness when he let himself be taken instead of strength. He does not trust the authorities who have been negative toward Jesus from the start and he is feeling pretty hopeless.

But Peter is brave enough to go into the courtyard to make sure he can keep up on the latest news. As he is warming himself by the fire, he is challenged three times about being a follower of Jesus because he is a Galilean. Every time he is challenged, he denies it. And his spiritual distance from Jesus grows. He has not been the faithful disciple he has been before. When he is tempted, his failure is drastic and complete.

Peter is holding on to Jesus by a thread. He has drawn closer in physical distance, but his emotional distance and spiritual distance from Jesus are grave. And worst of all, Jesus hears him deny his master. The one whom he had been so close to is now someone he does not know and is not close to. Jesus is truly betrayed by someone whose support he needs. The cock crows three times and Jesus looks at Peter. We don’t know what that look said, but given Jesus’ faithfulness to God and God’s mercy, it was probably a look of pain and forgiveness all in one. Peter was cut to the heart and he went out and wept bitterly (for some reason, this is not in our reading).Jesus’ look at Peter was what made Peter recognize his sin, come to himself and turn back to the Lord in repentance through his tears. Forgiveness is a strong power, and Peter went on to become a faithful disciple, a leader of the church.

Peter’s story is our story too. We are all disciples and we are all closer to Jesus at some times than at others. We all celebrate Jesus at church, we celebrate Jesus when we experience a miracle, we celebrate Jesus when something we cannot do by ourselves alone turns out alright in the end. Then we feel close to Jesus. Then we want to lay our cloaks on the colt and praise him for his glory. We are caught up in the moment.

But we can and do distance ourselves from Jesus too. We let our lives get in the way of a close relationship between ourselves and the One we love. We are so busy, we don’t think often about God or take the time to be near him in whatever way works for us. We are physically distant from God. We let a bad experience get in the way of our lives with Jesus, not because we tell God what is going on and how upset we are, but because we don’t. We separate ourselves emotionally from God. We ignore God, we engage in self-pity, we stop looking to God for help. We become masters of negative thinking about how God is working in our lives, forgetting that God has a plan for us that will lead to our joy and that God can work for good through anything we are going through.

Finally, we betray Jesus when we do not walk in the way of faithful discipleship. We ignore something Jesus wants us to do. We do not share our faith with others. We do not serve the community as he did. We do not follow the commandments. When we neglect to act on our call to discipleship, our spiritual lives suffer and we become distant from Jesus.

But the good news for us and for Peter is that Jesus loves us. Even during the most painful time in his life Jesus loved and forgave Peter. He forgave his killers and all of us betrayers from the cross. He even loved and forgave the second thief and promised him paradise.

Jesus is not the Messiah Peter thought he was. But he is the Messiah we need, a Messiah who preached God’s kingdom of peace, love and mercy. A Messiah who was betrayed and killed for love of us. And a Messiah who rose from the dead, bringing to all people the possibility of reconciliation with God.’’

This is the beginning of Holy Week. We have services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Attendance is usually slim, but I urge you to make these services part of your Lenten observance. Looking squarely at what Jesus went through for our sakes will lead to repentance and a promise to be open to new life, one that is close to Jesus, physically, emotionally and spiritually. A life of love and forgiveness. A life of wholeness and reconciliation. A life of faithful discipleship.


     -- Rev. Ann Barker