Isaiah 52:13-53:12 ++ Psalm 22 ++ Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9 ++ John 8:1-19:42
His name, according to John, was Malchus. He was a servant or slave of the high priest, not even worth naming in the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest. It’s interesting that John gives him a name but does not, as Luke does, have Jesus heal the ear that has been cut off by one of the disciples. Again, only John provides this disciple with a name: Peter. We all know that John took every opportunity to proclaim the divinity of Jesus, giving detailed accounts of the signs and wonders he performed. So why would he gloss over this, Jesus’ last healing? And why bother giving a name to the man with no say over his actions, sent by the high priest to the garden with the soldiers to bring back a first-hand account? This man, Malchus, who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I can’t help wondering what happened to Malchus after the night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Did he harbor anger at Jesus’ disciples because of the rash actions of the one who, with weapon in hand, lashed out in fear at the closest target? Or, if he was healed as Luke claims, was this brief yet painful encounter with Jesus a life-altering occurrence? Could he possibly have taken part in the momentous events leading up to the crucifixion and been unmoved, unchanged?
For those of us who have walked the road to the cross this week, shouting our hosannas on Palm Sunday, kneeling alongside Jesus as he washed the feet of his disciples on Maundy Thursday, and keeping vigil in the garden through the night, it is impossible to remain passive and unchanged. And it doesn’t matter how many years we have done this. The power of the story, the sacrifice, does not diminish, and I would say grows even stronger with each telling. Leave here unchanged? I don’t think so.
This is the story John is so intent on telling that he neglects to report that last healing. And in naming Peter as the wielder of the sword, he pounds home the message yet again that Peter and the other disciples still did not get it. Jesus’ proclamation of his identity – “I am” – is the central theme in John’s account of the scene in the garden. There is no mistaking just what Jesus was saying. It is no wonder that the gathering of soldiers steps back and falls to the ground at this godly utterance – Ἐγώ εἰμι, I am – the very words that Yahweh spoke in his encounter with Moses on Sinai. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying to them, “How many times do I have to tell you who I am? Ἐγώ εἰμι.” Yet even those closest to him did not fully grasp the meaning of that.
One can almost see John crafting this story as he makes his final case for Jesus’ identity. There is no kiss from Judas. In fact, Jesus approaches the soldiers, as if asking them to do what God had ordained them to do. This is Jesus in control, the master of his destiny, and John does not want us to miss this. It is not Judas or the soldiers or Pilate or even Caesar who is guiding this course of events. No, it is Jesus, willing the narrative forward.
Three times they ask who he is and three times he answers them. Three times Peter is asked if he is one of the disciples, and three times his denies it. And we all know that later, on the shore of the lake, three times Peter is asked if he loves Jesus “more than these.” John leaves nothing to chance – he drives the point home, and in nothing is this more poignant than in Peter’s denial. He is trapped. There were witnesses to his violence against Malchus. And now he finds himself in the courtyard of the high priest where people are sure to recognize him. These are Malchus’ friends and, chances are, they’ve heard what happened to him. So Peter becomes a target of their questioning. If he admits to being a member of Jesus’ band of followers, he could find himself the victim of an angry mob. So Peter does what any self-protective person would do – he lies. And not just one lie, but three lies, denying his association with Jesus with increasing vehemence. “I don’t know him!” he shouts. And here we sit, judging him for his weakness and lack of faith.
If your life was in danger, do you think you would hold firm and make a public declaration of your faith? I like to think that I would, but there’s a part of me that wonders about that. Maybe in our day to day lives we don’t deny that we are Christians – that Jesus is our Lord and savior. Yet there is so much more to the life of a Christian than words. How do we live the life of a Christian? Does our gratitude for our salvation through Christ lead us to live lives “worthy of the calling we have received” (Ephesians 4:1)? Do we really think that what happened on that Good Friday two millennia ago only requires us to say, “Yes, I believe?”
Maybe. But of what worth is a life of words alone? Love God and love neighbor. This ‘love’ is not passive, it is active. When we tell our spouse or partner or children that we love them, I’m sure they are glad to hear that, but it’s in the myriad ways we show our love that they really feel the love that we have for them.
On this day, this Good Friday, we remember how Jesus showed his love for us. He took all the evil we could come up with, all the hate we could muster, and took it with him to the cross. How can we ever be worthy of such grace? We can’t.
All we can do is joyfully accept that we are beloved of a God who became one of us and who died for us so that we might have life and have it abundantly. The only appropriate response to that is to live lives of gratitude, to follow in our often-failing human ways the path that Jesus showed us. There is no such thing as a perfect Christian, but God takes great joy, I believe, in those who turn their eyes upon the cross and live changed lives, each and every day.
Peter, Malchus, you, me. All of us have denied Jesus in some way. But Jesus always returns to us to ask, “Do you love me?” Our ‘yes’ to that question opens the gate to abundant life.