I don’t need to try to explain to you what hard times, fear and death are like. We are in the middle of them at the moment. It is tangible, you can almost smell it. We have been fortunate. For most of us here, the danger and the death is out there. Close, lurking, but not in our own homes. On this Friday, almost 2000 years ago, there were a great many people experiencing the same fears. The enemy was different, but the fear was the same. Perhaps today we are in a better place to appreciate the actions of Jesus’ disciples than we have been in the past.
When we left our story last night, Jesus was having dinner with his closest companions. It is Passover, an important religious feast that they have gathered to celebrate together. One of them has walked out. It may have seemed odd, but to all but one, probably not threatening. Only Jesus knew why he left. Jesus has washed their feet, proclaiming them servants of the Lord and commissioning them to be slaves to the servants of the Lord. He has taken the Passover Seder, which they celebrate in the same way every year, and he has altered the meaning of some of the familiar actions, calling the wine his blood, the pierced and stripped unleavened bread his body, and proclaiming a new commandment and a new covenant.
While the disciples are still trying to process all that Jesus has been saying he decides to go to the Garden of Gethsemane and pray. They are tired. Their stomachs are full. They have drunk several cups of wine. It is time to settle down on the couch and watch a ball game or a movie or just take a nap. We have all been there. The party is coming to a close and as much as we enjoyed it, we just need a little me time, and Jesus is asking us to watch and to pray with him.
They go, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is week and they keep falling asleep. Jesus keeps waking them up. He needs their companionship tonight more than ever, but they are out of reach, mentally if not physically. We understand what it means to need someone and know they are close but just out of reach. You can see their faces on your phone or computer. You can hear their voices, but it is not enough.
Suddenly everything changes. Judas arrives with Roman soldiers and the temple authorities. The adrenaline kicks in. They are no longer sleepy. They are confused, they are frightened. Peter grabs his sword and slashes out at the closest thing to him. The ear of a slave. Hardly a life saving action. Jesus bends down, picks up the ear, and restores it to the man. The disciples watch as Jesus is taken into custody and marched off. They should be doing something to help him, but some are frozen where they stand, some have already run in fear, hiding in the shadows.
Peter and John summon up enough courage to follow a safe distance behind. John has connections and gets them inside the gate where they separate and try to look nonchalant. The evening is cold and Peter trys to join a group around a fire to keep warm, but they keep asking him if he was a friend of Jesus. Frightened, Peter keeps insisting he doesn’t even know him. The sun is just beginning to peak out at the horizon and the rooster crows twice to welcome the morning and Peter sobs. Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself. Under all that bravado, he is just as scared and frightened as the others and three times he denied his Lord, just as Jesus had said he would.
While a great number of people seem to want to be rid of Jesus, no one wants the responsibility for doing it. Jesus is moved from place to place – before the Sanhedrin, before the Roman prefect, before Herod, back to Pontius Pilate. At each stop he is beaten, spit on, ridiculed and accused of crimes he did not commit. No one can find him guilty, yet the torment continues. Finally, wanting to be done with this mess and wishing the crowds to dissipate before a riot breaks out, (Pilate fears the people he governs more than this man before him), Pilate consents to have this man Jesus crucified.
It is now about the time the lambs are being slaughtered in the temple for the Passover. Jesus is being slaughtered just outside the city gates. Not a quick and relatively painless death, but the slowest and cruelest death Rome can devise, saved for rogue slaves and traitors.
Nailed to the cross Jesus begins to repeat Psalm 22 which we read last night. “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” Perhaps there are days when you understand that lament, but Jesus did not just think of himself, even at this dark hour. John and his mother Mary have found their way to the foot of the cross. Jesus gives them to one another and asks them to love and look after each other, just as they had loved him. To one of the thieves hanging beside him, he offers hope and reconciliation. To all the people who put his there: his friends who denied and abandoned him, the Jewish and Roman authorities who refused to see who he was and were afraid of him, the people in the crowd who got caught up in peer pressure and loved their own reputation more than him – to all of these, Jesus forgave them.
Today, liturgically, we leave Jesus hanging on the cross until shortly before sundown, but as awful and as painful as it is, for the moment we need to embrace death, acknowledge the fear, fear of getting caught up in the destruction, fear of what an unknown future will look like, mourn the loss of one we love, of the life we love.