Whose story is it, anyway?

Last week’s scripture passage was the foot anointing /foot washing story and Jesus’ commandment that we are to love as he loved us. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” That intimacy and foreboding is the introductory scene of Jesus’ passion – or rather, his hour. Strictly speaking there is no passion story in John – if passion is defined by his suffering and death. That isn’t what this gospel depicts, but repeatedly makes the point that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, who does the Father’s bidding, speaks the Father’s word and is the good shepherd who willingly lays down his life for his flock – a life he will take up again with the Father. No one takes his life from him. Jesus is in control. The story picks up with two betrayals. This from chapter 13:

21 Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples was last-supperreclining next to him; Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus.  “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered him, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into Judas. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

No one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night.”

I want to point out that in John’s gospel at least, it is clear that Judas is chosen for this task. It is not greed or anger or impatience that steels his heart. He isn’t paid 30 pieces of silver. He isn’t given a motive. John doesn’t allow us to make it Judas’ story: It is simply betrayal. We are given room to grapple with why an insider chose to leave the flock of Jesus’ shepherding. Judas was one of the beloved, had a place at the table, received the same teaching, his feet, too, were washed with servant love, and yet he chose to get up from that meal and go out into the night, to stand with those opposed to Jesus.

Near the end of his farewell prayer Jesus says of his disciples, “I have guarded them and not one was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” Judas is assigned a necessary role in the play of God’s salvation story. And I think the story would not be the same if it had been an enemy – the betrayal needed to be one whom Jesus loved, one of the inner few. It had to be, in order to account for our betrayals and our steeled hearts. The Greek phrase translated as “the one destined to be lost” is literally “the son of destruction.”

The child of destruction could be the name of our evil twin, our shadow side, perhaps the flip side of our intelligence and creativity. Self destruction is something we’re pretty good at. From addictions and abuse, to lifestyles and entitlements that are not economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable – we’re quite good at playing in deep shadows. The part of us that is stubborn, fearful, greedy, too wounded to trust, too accustomed to the darkness gets snow blinded by the Light of the world, so we create blinders.

I said early on in the gospel, that the characters depicted here are not intended to be accurate descriptions of real people. John is written theologically, not historically, in order to tell the truth about who we are and who God is for us in Jesus. Judas brings us to the precipice – just like Adam and Eve – he is a character of The Fall. Once this act of betrayal is accomplished, Judas disappears from the scene. John, as the one telling the story, isn’t interested in what became of him. We don’t hear anything else about him in this gospel, his purpose in the story is accomplished: he is to bring down the curtain of darkness: And it was night…the night in which Jesus was betrayed.

In the dark, Jesus and his disciples make their way across the Kidron valley to a garden where they had often met together. Judas knew the place.

Chapter 18:  “Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with temple police, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”    Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.   Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”  So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.”

First they took him to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard, but Peter was left standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple went out, spoke to the slave girl who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. But the slave said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter joined them and warmed himself.

Inside, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about
his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas.

peters_denial.Rosann-Casco1Meanwhile, Simon Peter was standing outside and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am
not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it …  and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Of all of the boys in the band, Peter comes the closest to being a faithful disciple. That’s not saying much at this point.

The rest of the disciples disappear after Jesus’ arrest – it’s just the two who follow him now. Peter has been following Jesus since the beginning. When others are offended by Jesus’ claims to have come from God, Peter declares, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  At the last supper, Peter objects when Jesus washes his feet, but then asks for a complete bath if that is what it takes to be one of his own. Peter vows that he will follow Jesus anywhere, lay down his life for him.  Instead, contrary to Jesus’ commandment to love, he pointlessly brandishes a sword in the garden. Jesus has already stepped forward to surrender himself and knocks all the armed soldiers off their feet with a word. The sword was not needed.

But fear has settled in under Peter’s collar.

In the courtyard of the high priest, when a young maid at the gate asks whether he is not also a disciple, Peter says, “I am not. I am not with him.”

Jesus, at his arrest in the garden, says three times, “I am.”

Peter, in the high priest’s compound, three times says, “I am not.”

While he waits in the tension of an unknown outcome, warming his hands around the charcoal fire, maybe the reality – the gravitas – of his situation standing between soldiers and slaves in the courtyard of the high priest sinks in. Maybe he began rationalizing … what help would he be if he were also arrested. Maybe the maybe’s turned his resolve into smoke. Peter is asked a second time if he is Jesus’ disciple.  “I am not. I am not who you think I am.” Then, as if to make it impossible for Peter to deny his relationship with Jesus, a relative of the man whose ear Peter lopped off in the garden asks whether he isn’t the one who was there beside Jesus. Peter says it a third time. “I am not. Wasn’t there, don’t know him. I’m not who you say that I am.”

And in that moment, the cock crows.

We try to shape our identities so that people see us in certain ways. We market ourselves a bit. The way we arrange items on our résumés or Facebook pages creates an image of ourselves we would like others to see.  The way we dress and do our hair. The way we introduce ourselves. The vehicles we drive. The stories we tell about ourselves or our abilities. The stories we don’t tell, the humility we assume  – all of that is chosen to make an impression. For the most part, we try to show our best sides: noble, intelligent, peaceful, funny, strong, capable, soft-spoken, loving… Whatever matters to us at the time. The good things we are and do is what we present, what we want the world to know about us.

In silent confession, in support groups, with trusted friends we might admit to some of the other stuff – some of the things we try to keep hidden.  Pretensions, pretendings have a way of coming to light in the presence of trust – like shrapnel, they work their way up through layers of skin – tough and thick skinned or tender, what is buried tends to work it’s way out. We need our failings and flaws. They also make us who we are,  and we need to have them known. Speaking them brings them out of the dark, allows them to teach us what it is to be forgiven. We need to know that – that we are accepted, tolerated, loved. The reality is that we are not the people we pretend to be. And we don’t need to be.

At some point we have to come to terms with ourselves. That’s part of our calling. For most of us, it’s not an easy or painless task. It begins with letting go of assumptions we hold of who we are. We market ourselves so convincingly that we kind of believe it, too.

“I am not who you say that I am – I’m better than that, you just don’t know me, or understand me, or listen to me.”

“I am not who you think I am. Don’t be fooled. I can’t be forgiven or loved, if you really knew me you would see that I am useless, of no account.”

Finally we get to this part – “O Lord, – I am not who I thought I was. Find me.  Forgive me.  Re-form me.”

We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and as Christ has loved us, even if it means seeing ourselves for who we really are.

Some of us might talk to therapists, or share within an AA or Alanon group, some practice daily confession as a spiritual discipline, some use activities as self-reflective meditation like picking rocks, or splitting wood, or kneading bread, or preparing fields for seed, or folding laundry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. That presupposes an inner knowing of our core, true self.

What did Peter experience when that cock crowed? What knowledge of himself dawned bright and clear, and unwanted? Where did he go? He disappears from the story at this point. He won’t be there when Jesus drags his cross up the hill, he won’t be there at the foot of the cross with the women and the other disciple. When the going gets tough, Peter gets going — but not in the right direction. He denies, then deserts his friend, his lord.

Is it fear? Is he questioning the truth of his own experience? Is he wondering whether it has been worth it? Is he in despair over events that he is powerless to stop? Is he railing against God for not stepping in to fix it? Is he overcome with guilt? Would our responses be any different?

In John’s gospel, Jesus knows all that will befall him; what Jesus said would happen does happen. The rooster’s crow confirms this. So, when Jesus tells the high priest, “Ask those who heard what I said to them,”  he knows that the time will come when those who heard him will proclaim it. Jesus knows that the betraying, denying disciples will, in turn, teach his teaching. Even more importantly, these failed and refurbished disciples will be able to speak of Jesus’ unconditional love for them, and how Jesus made God known in that love.

Jesus seeks Peter out after the resurrection. We’re jumping way ahead here, but the next time Peter finds himself around a charcoal fire, the risen Jesus will be there. Three times Jesus will ask Peter if he loves him, once for each of these three denials. Each time Peter says, “Lord you know everything, you know that I do,” Jesus will instruct him, “feed my sheep, tend my sheep.”

The good news of this part of an awful night is that it isn’t Judas’ or Peter’s story. They fade into shadows. The good news is that it’s Jesus’ story, and in this gospel, he’s got it all in hand. What we are to believe, to really trust from this whole passage, is that Jesus knows who we are – like he knows Peter through and through. He knows that we are sheep, easily led astray, tempted by fresh clover, we easily loose the path. And that Jesus loves us anyway – or exactly because of that: Jesus happens to love sheep  …   more than roosters.

That is finally the hope for Peter and for us, and perhaps for Judas in his end…we aren’t to know. But what we do know is that love is the lasting word.