I will never leave you
The third and last of three reflections for Passiontide, based around the stories of Peter, Judas and Jesus, based on reflections for Good Friday, delivered at St George’s Preshute in 2017.
Hearing the Passion Gospel read this morning, it is hard to deny here that Jesus is aware of his own future, his death, whether it is imminent or not. Is that then the way to look at the Passion story: God’s plan unfolding, as a script being performed, whilst people like Mary, Peter and Judas play the part they have been allocated? Are they, and we, merely doing what has to be done for God’s plan to be fulfilled? In a way one could say that both Mary and Judas prepared Jesus for his burial: Mary by anointing him, and Judas by handing him over to those who would crucify him.
Indeed, this is one way of hearing the story. Maybe it even inspires us to a certain faith, a faith that God is in control, that He knows the script, and that we play our role within it, without knowing what that role may be, or why.
But I feel that this kind of faith doesn’t do justice to our common human experience. Firstly, I find it hard to believe in a God who would give people a part to play that leads to eternal damnation. And also, because I think that we genuinely have a choice: a choice which part we play and how we do so. I wonder why Mary anointed Jesus with oil: what inspired her to do so? And if she had known that it would prepare Jesus for burial, did that mean he wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t done it? Did she regret anointing him after Jesus spoke those words, or as she watched him die on the Cross?
By hearing the actions of Mary, Judas and Peter, we realise that our freedom to choose comes with regret, with anger and frustration, and with guilt. Regret when we thought we did the right thing, but it turned against us. Anger and frustration at our inability to be faithful, true to ourselves and true to God. And guilt, when we knowingly have done something wrong and there is no way back, no way to undo what we have done.
We have also realised that in each of us is an anointer, a denier and a betrayer. It is not others who killed Jesus, but it is also us by whom he ended up on the Cross. Judas was probably the most obvious scapegoat, because he was so different from us. Or was it precisely because he is more like us that we would want? Because he represents that part of us of which we are most afraid? That part of us we most want to hide from others, and indeed, hide from ourselves?
In this Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, we realise that forgiveness does not mean that our actions do not have consequences. Jesus did die on the Cross, and we have played our part in it. The nails have left their marks, and these won’t go away. The Cross shows that there is no way back, but only a way forward. We cannot say any longer ‘It doesn’t matter’, because we have seen that it does. And trying to undo what we have done, or weeping bitterly is not going to change that.
The only thing we have to hold on to is a promise. The promise Jesus made to his disciples, and the promise he has made to us: I am with you always, to the end of the age. In the darkness of Good Friday, that promise is hard to believe. This promise is hard to believe not because God is who He is, but because we are who we are. Because, if we had been denied and betrayed to the extent Jesus was, we would have long given up.
When we see the Judas or Peter within ourselves, we know that we would have been capable to do what they did. That we are not that dissimilar from who they are. But when we see the image of Jesus in ourselves, we realise that we fall short. We cannot go where He went, and we cannot do what He did. We may be able to imagine some of it. Giving all that we have and all that we are for those whom we love. But would we do so for those who have denied and betrayed us? For those who walked away from all that we believe in?
Yet, Jesus did. God did. It is an invitation to a friendship that is stronger than any human relationship we can imagine. An invitation to a friendship that is extended to us because God is who He is, and because we are who we are. Frail, fallible human beings, capable of the worst, worth to be loved, precisely because we are created by the God who loves us.
What we see on the Cross is God’s infinite love for us. A love that will not go away. And in the breaking of the bread, Jesus shows that all that He is, he wants to share with us. His body and his blood, given for us.
The invitation to an everlasting friendship with God is always there. Every single moment we are invited to share, to share a meal and to share our life with Him. The reason that this is so hard to believe, is not because of God’s goodness, but because of our own frailty. It is hard at times to believe that God still wants to be our friend, despite our betrayal, despite our complicity in nailing Him to the Cross.
That is the paradox at the heart of our faith, at the heart of Good Friday, at the heart of the Cross. The Christian story accommodates both the painful limitations of what it is to be human, and the unlimited love of God. When we gaze on the Cross, we see both at the same time. In the Jesus’ cry: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, we hear our own despair, our own abandonment, the pain we have caused, and the pain we have suffered.
But we also see embodied God’s promise with us: I will never leave you. Do we dare to trust? Do we, despite our complicity, trust the promise and accept the invitation?