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I feel like I can go long stretches of time where my faith is based on this idea of Jesus, but not really the person of Jesus. As if who he was was this wonderful collection of love and peace and wisdom. A formless mass of goodness. And then, someone will say something or I’ll read something or I’ll get a really vivid picture of a story in scripture and suddenly, Jesus is real. He is still love and wisdom and peace, but he is also flesh and bones and particles and molecules. He is human.
Today our pastor talked about Matthew 16. In Matthew 16:21, Jesus begins telling the disciples what would happen to him, that he would have to go to Jerusalem. That he would be crucified. Our pastor explained that the disciples would understand the implications of crucifixion much more than we are able to. They had seen it done. They had seen what happened to bodies subjected to the cross.
This is why, he explained, Peter was so upset when Jesus began describing his fate. “This shall not happen to you!” Peter cried (Matt. 16:21). Something about Peter’s response, the desperation, the determination, humanized this passage for me for the first time.
Imagine meeting someone who quickly became your best friend, and not only that, but someone you greatly admired. A mentor, but on steroids. Someone whom you so completely trusted that you believed every word he said. Your gut, heart, mind and soul—they all told you this person was goodness through and through. You could trust him with your most precious pain, with your most secret secret. If he told you he was moving cities, you would move too because you could not imagine your life apart from him. He changed you.
This is how I imagine the disciples felt about Jesus. I am sometimes frustrated that scripture doesn’t explain how everybody was feeling about everything. It can feel very emotionless to me, but I suppose scripture does what all good writers are supposed to do—show and not tell. This is what Peter’s exclamation does. This shall not happen to you!
If a friend told you, “I know how I’m going to die and this is how,” would you not say the same? Especially if it was the type of person who had had such an impact on you that you could not imagine your life without him?
It is moments like today—when Jesus moves from idea to flesh—that I am so astounded by the story of this faith I believe in. Jesus was a person, with friends. This group of people with whom he spent the better part of three years. And he had to tell them, “I’m going to die, and this is how.” How impossibly difficult. How very heartbreaking.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Flesh Jesus versus idea Jesus. Concepts of love, wisdom and peace versus a man who shared his love, wisdom and peace with actual people.
This Thursday night I’m going to be teaching on the topic of Immanuel. God with us. I get to use my favorite verse in all of scripture, Matthew 28:20: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
These are the last recorded words Jesus said to his disciples. In light of this human Jesus I’ve been thinking about, I realized it is in this moment that the disciples had to say goodbye to their friend.
Have you ever said goodbye to someone who you knew, deep down, you would probably never see again? Those are the hardest goodbyes. Really, nothing is harder than when you can’t say when you’ll see somebody next. When you both know it will be a good long time, if ever.
I think it may have felt this way for the eleven that day, on the mountain in Galilee. We’ve been through a lot together, Jesus tells them. You are my dearest friends. And it will be a long time before you see me again, but I am with you always, until the very end.
Only he could promise such a thing. Only he could say it and mean it. He couldn’t say, “See you next week…month…or year.” But he could say, “I’ll be with you always.” A moment of such sadness and such hope for the disciples. Saying goodbye forever, but also being promised their friend was forever with them.
I’ve felt so grateful today for this Christian story I’ve been invited to be a part of, a story that’s about an actual human flesh person named Jesus, who had friends, who had hard conversations, who had to say goodbye. When Jesus is all ethereal, he’s a good idea I like to think about. But when Jesus is an actual person, that’s when I can feel him with me. That’s when I can really believe what he said, that surely he is with me always, even to the end of the age.