Over the last few months I have been working with some friends to put on a Passion Play, a dramatic retelling of the events of Easter, in and around Priorslee. Rather than doing it all live, as it was done in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday, we filmed it in advance. I played the part of Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends and, as we filmed one Saturday, three of the scenes that we were doing that day struck me particularly. In one of them Jesus tells Peter that he will desert him and deny that he even knows him. Peter gets angry and defensive, upset that Jesus could even think that he wouldn’t stick by him. The next scene takes place in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Jesus is on trial and Peter is looking on. Some of the servants in the courtyard recognise his northern accent and ask him if he’s one of Jesus’ followers. Again Peter gets angry, and denies knowing Jesus three times, and then he hears a cockerel crowing and remembers what Jesus had said to him, and runs off into the night, heart broken.
The third scene is the one that follows Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus has died, and been raised to life and now he has met with Peter and some of the other disciples at Lake Galilee and is sharing a fish breakfast with them on the shore. As they sit round the fire he asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. Three times Peter says that he does and Jesus gives him tasks to do, tasks to show that Jesus trusts Peter. Peter is a bit hurt and confused by the repeated questions, but the threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus echoes the threefold denial and completes Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus.
I have read this story many times, and seen it acted out in films and plays, but I think that it is the first time that I have really had to get into Peter’s shoes. It is the first time that I have had to really think through how he was feeling and thinking in order to try and communicate that in my voice and actions. I don’t know whether I’ve done it well or not, but the process has led me into a deeper understanding of the good news of Easter, of Jesus death and resurrection.
I wonder if there is a particular character in the Easter story that you might identify with. Maybe you hear Pilate, asking Jesus “what is truth” and feel like that is a question that you want to ask Jesus. Perhaps you are going through a hard time and recognise the confusion and grief of the disciples as Jesus dies and are left wondering what it all means. It’s even possible that you can identify with Jesus, having been betrayed and let down by people you hoped you could trust, your friends and family. However, I suspect that many of us are just part of the crowd, our eye caught occasionally by what’s happening, but not really engaging or understanding the significance of what’s going on.
There are three main characters in the reading that we heard this morning, apart from Jesus. We’ve already spent a bit of time thinking about Simon Peter’s experiences of Easter, so what about the other two.
The first one is a bit of a mystery, because he’s anonymous, he doesn’t have a name, just, “other disciple, the one that Jesus loved”. This description of one of the disciples is only found in John’s account of Jesus’ life, which has led to the majority opinion that it is the author’s way of humbly referring to himself. This seems quite likely from what we know of John from the other sources. He was one of Jesus’ closest friends and was often taken aside by Jesus, along with Simon and Andrew, when the other disciples were left behind. In the Easter story we see him reclining next to Jesus at the last supper, at the foot of the cross being entrusted by Jesus with the care of Mary, his mother, and here, at the heart of the discovery of the resurrection. However, there is possibly another reason that this disciple is anonymous, unnamed.
Have you ever been to the seaside and seen those big wooden murals of a seaside scene with comic figures on, with holes for you to stick your face in so that you can take a picture of you with an amusing bathing costume on. I’ve seen them at zoos as well, with pictures of animals on. You know the kind of thing I mean.
Well, this is a bit like that. The other disciple is a disciple with no face, inviting you to put your face in the picture. When we do it with the other characters we have to move them out of the way, but with the “other disciple” we are invited into the picture. We are invited to know ourselves as the disciple Jesus loves. In a while we will share in the bread and wine to remember that last supper, and as we do we can experience ourselves leaning against Jesus, as the beloved disciple. We are the ones who have been entrusted with the care of Christ’s mother, that is, with the care of all widows and those on the edge of our society. We are the witnesses to the resurrection and to the new life that Jesus gives.
The third character is the most important witness to that resurrection. She is the one who first saw Jesus after he was raised to life. The first person that Jesus showed himself to after defeating death wasn’t one of his core three male disciples, it wasn’t the religious leaders he’d proved wrong, it wasn’t the politically powerful, it wasn’t his family, it was the woman who was bereft, heart broken, sat weeping in the garden. He met her with a simple word of comfort, her name. He knew her and met her in her place of need.
More than that, he trusted her with a message for his other followers. As a woman in that culture Mary would not have been able to give evidence in court – women were not thought to be reliable witnesses. It is typical of Jesus that he turns the accepted social conventions on their heads. He chooses someone who society thinks is unreliable and worthless to carry the most important message in history – Jesus is risen and I have seen him.
Jesus is like that today. He meets us when we are bereft and grieving. He knows each one of us by name and calls us by that name. However insignificant we feel, and however much we are afraid that people won’t listen to us, he has entrusted us with the most important message in history. Jesus is risen and I have seen the difference he makes to life.
The astonishing significance of the Easter story is that at its heart is something that really happened that can make a difference to all our lives, wherever we see ourselves in the story. Now, some of the characters wouldn’t allow that to happen. Judas was overcome with despair, the religious leaders continued in their own power games, and many of the crowd just allowed it to pass them by. For those who were willing to believe and trust that the love that had taken Jesus to the cross and the power that had raised Jesus from the dead could work in them, it was truly life changing. His disciples: Peter, Thomas, John, Mary and others became powerful communicators of the good news.
As you reflect on Easter this year can I encourage you to take time to stop and ask yourself, where am I in this story? Do I believe that this can by my story? Perhaps you could even find time and space to sit with Jesus round a fire and talk with him about it, you might be surprised by what he has for you to do.