You make it through the first five periods without doing anything horrifically embarrassing, like going into the wrong class or getting toilet paper stuck to your shoe. And then the bell rings for that terrifying lunch hour. You walk into a giant room full of five times the number of students you knew from elementary school. Everyone else seems to know where they were going and the lunch tables are filling up.
At first you don’t see anyone you know. And then: two girls you ate lunch with every day the year before. Relief. You scurry across the room, trying not to bump into anyone or make eye contact accidentally. Because buying lunch meant standing in line next to perfect strangers, you brought a bagged lunch, which you slam down on the table as you sit down. “Hey!!!!!” you say to your friends, ready to swap stories about surviving the first day of middle school.
There is an exchange of glances and a pause. Something itchy like fear begins to eat away at the relief you felt upon sitting down. “Actually,” one of them says, “we’re saving these seats for the rest of the cheerleaders.”
Only then do you notice the difference between their starched blue and gold uniforms and the simple jeans and shirt with a designer logo you picked out weeks ago. Your best simply isn’t enough for these former friends. There is nothing to say, so you slink away to a table nearby that thankfully has two friendly faces. They don’t mind that you don’t have a uniform and that your cheeks are flaming red from humiliation. You spend the rest of lunch pretending to eat a sandwich, not watching the table of cheerleaders a few feet away.
Oh, that wasn’t your first day of sixth grade? Guess it was just me.
But I bet you have a similar story. We are all a bunch of turds in sixth grade. Every one of us. Even after I knew how horrible this felt, I did something similar the very next year to other girls, maybe even the same girls who took me in that first day. The thing is that I don’t remember. But I bet they do, just as I remember the hurt of being kicked out of the cheerleader table. Good thing we all grow up, and recently I got to have a delightful coffee with one of those cheerleaders who was passing through town. I’m so very glad we are in touch now, with no weirdness between us from that first day of junior high. Because it was junior high.
When I think of Easter week, one of the things that makes it real to me is this remembrance of rejection. Not rejection from enemies, but rejection from friends. The holy week begins with a chorus of “Hosanna!” and ends with shouts of “Crucify!” Some of those same lips that called Jesus king demanded his death, while a murderer named Barabbas found himself suddenly and undeservedly free.
I don’t always relate to the events of the Bible. I read them and they are to me like those stories in textbooks for school: a history so long in the past that it has no emotional context for me today. And yet, none of these stories of history should be so far removed. Blood has been spilled for me to sit freely on this couch and write these words about a man named Jesus. This, though free to me, was not free. Someone paid the price. Men and women bled that I might have this freedom and this opportunity. Though in the distant past, it should matter to me. These are not words on a page.
The same with Jesus. When I think about the way adoring crowds turned angry mob in a matter of days, I relate more when I think of the sting of rejection I have felt. “Sting” is too light a word. Rejection is like a cool fire, turning and churning in your gut, its icy fingers needling a blue flame into your heart. My rejection has been slight, but Jesus came to his own, and his own did not receive him. (John 1:11)
That verse makes me think of our visit to Lynn’s mother this summer in Kansas. We had four generations in her small bedroom: Charlotte, her daughter Lynn, Lynn’s son Robbie, and all three of Rob’s and my children. Her voice trembled when she spoke: “What am I supposed to do? Who are you?” The visit, so important and beautiful to us, frightened her because she did not know us. We understand that this happens with age and that lessons the pain of unknowing, at least some. It is not intentional in that case, but it is always hard to know and yet be unknown.
I titled this post a little oddly and you may be wondering where idea of “Petering” comes into play or what it even means in this context. If there were such a title, Peter would be perhaps King of Rejection. So thorough was his rejection of Jesus that he called down curses while close enough that Jesus could meet his eyes across a courtyard.
Peter, the one who swore he’d die with Jesus.
Peter, the one who cut off someone’s ear during Jesus’ arrest.
This Peter swore he did not know Jesus not once, but three times. And after his resurrection Jesus, ever more gentle than we deserve, gave Peter three chances to proclaim his love. “Feed my sheep,” he charges Peter, as though the rejection never took place. Those rejections, now redeemed.
You and I do a lot of Petering. Maybe I should take the “you” out of that sentence, because I don’t know you, not really. I don’t know if you are, in fact, like me—a person who Peters on a daily basis. From my lips come praises and cursing, promises and denials. From my actions, often a denial of the words spoken. One moment I am cutting off ears for the sake of Jesus and the next I am running in some other direction, moved by fear or desire. Maybe you don’t, but I do a lot of Petering.
But Easter week is made for Peters. The cross raised for those who were his own who did not receive him. The blood a one-time gift, even for all our many-time failings and rejections and denials and desertions. His death covers all the Peters and all the Petering. “Have mercy on them,” he said, all the while they mocked. Mercy enough for you and for me.
And like the freedom I have in this country that cost (and costs) the lives of many, my freedom from the crushing weight of guilt was costly. Not to me, since I couldn’t earn it and don’t deserve it. The cost was paid by the one who came to his own, who did not receive him. To his own creation who did not recognize their creator.
Easter week is a beautiful and powerful time of remembrance. True beauty and true love does not come with out cost. And this, the most beautiful gift for all of us Peters, comes at an ugly and cruel cost. I know the cold flame of rejection in my life, yet I have known nothing close to the rejection he faced from those who called him friend. Even more—the wrath of his Father poured out on him while he, still innocent, bore our guilt in his body.
Easter is not some boring history text, far removed. It is not a fairy tale. It is not something “religious.” Easter reveals our Petering and shows us the cost for it. Real blood was spilled, flesh was marred and bruised and battered.
This week I hope the words of an ancient text become more than words to us.