It was the early 1970s. I had just begun to seriously follow Jesus. I was toggling over from a simple cognitive belief in Jesus to actually desiring to figure out what it meant to be a follower.
Late one evening, sitting in my living room, I was reading the Gospel of Mark in my new-found JB Phillips New Testament translation. As I read, I found myself immersed in the story – watching and following Jesus’ movements from the periphery. Why was I following Jesus? I couldn’t NOT. There was something about this man.
Reaching Mark 14-15 (the Passion narrative), which I was so familiar with that I didn’t know the story at all, I witnessed Jesus’ capture. I stood outside the High Priest’s house where Jesus was being questioned by the religious leaders. Watching as a bystander, I saw Peter interact with a young woman. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could see that he was getting agitated – agitated to the point of cursing at her.
It was dawn. The eastern sky was starting to take on a bluish hue and the roosters were crowing in the distance. A crowd began to gather, asking and wondering what was happening. Suddenly they brought Jesus out of the house and the crowd started to move, so I followed. We ended up in the Praetorium, the common courtyard connected to the palace of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. I was in the back of the crowd, straining to see and hear what was going on.
Pilate seemed confused. What had this man done? Why had the religious leaders brought Jesus to him? He apparently offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas, who was in jail because he had led a failed insurrection against the Roman government. People around me started to chant Barabbas’ name, they wanted him released. Made sense – he had the guts to act on his nationalistic beliefs. Pilate then hushed the crowed. “What shall I do with Jesus, the so-called king of the Jews?” I could hear some people in the front yell “crucify him.” Then it became a chant. “Crucify him! Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar!” The chant filled the Praetorium courtyard. People around me were chanting, staring at me with a sort of patriotic contempt. Not having the courage to stand my ground, I yelled “Crucify him!”
Suddenly I was aware of my surroundings – my living room with my Phillips New Testament in my hands. I was fully aware that had I been there that day, I would have yelled “Crucify him” because I didn’t have the backbone to stand against the crowd. I suddenly felt like Peter must have felt. And I too, wept bitterly. And for a long time, till I fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning with sadness and a fair amount of self-abasement. I remember the feeling lasted several days. As I kept reading, the crucifixion took on a whole different meaning for me than ever before. I had called for his death. I was part of an insurrection against God’s own son. I would have yelled “crucify him!” I had followed the crowd, inflamed by people with an agenda that didn’t serve God’s purposes – people that had no personal care for or interest in the crowd. That realization increased the sadness and abasement.
A few days later I read the account of Peter’s denial in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 22:54-62), again from the Phillips translation. After Peter’s predicted third denial, the narrative says:
The Lord turned his head and looked straight at Peter…
Prior to my “Crucify him” experience, I think I was a bit judgemental of Peter’s denial. Serious, Peter? Jesus even warned you, yet you still denied him. From that perspective I assumed Jesus’ “look” might have communicated, “This is what I warned you would happen.” Not now. My perspective had changed! I envisioned Jesus’ eyes full of compassion as if to say, “It hurts, Peter, doesn’t it?” Feeling the same compassion, I was able to leave the sadness and self-abasement behind and follow Him anew, for which I will be forever grateful!
A prayer from Walter Wangerin’s Reliving the Passion:
Oh Jesus: you gazed into the hundred hearts amassed before you, thick with fear and fury. Was mine among them? Yes. Mine was among them. I have desired your death in order to preserve my life, my way of life, my fulfillment, and my own control. But you, like me, desired your death too! By a mercy I cannot comprehend, you accepted my evil intent even to save my own life! Well, I am therefore my own no more, but yours – no more an enemy, a friend to you forever. Lord Jesus, how I love you! Amen.