From time to time, I get the wonderful honor and invitation to participate in a larger conversation happening in the world.
One of those revolves around a topic asked by TIME Magazine: What did Jesus ask?
I, along with 70 others, was asked to write an essay for a book on the questions Jesus asked and recorded in the Gospels. Others included people like Amy Grant, Marilynne Robinson (who is on my personal bucket list to meet), Lecrae and James Martin. Too fun!
Here’s my own contribution, written from the perspective of the Apostle Peter, and centered around one of Jesus’ most haunting questions of all: “Will you really lay down your life for me?”
The way the week began, none of us would have predicted how it ended. The events of the days preceding our auspicious entry into Jerusalem were like a storm gathering together massive apocalyptic clouds. Each of us could feel it, and we were willingly carried along by its rising swell.
Jesus, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, was now like a massive trumpet blast awakening the twin terrors of religion and politics as well as many hopeful hearts. It rippled out from Bethany like a wind-driven inferno.
We knew the tide was changing and began jostling for places and positions that would soon be assigned to those who had been most faithful, namely the 12, especially me. It was infuriating when James and John got their mother involved in the debate over who would sit at Jesus’ right hand in the coming kingdom, the politics of preference, probably because the rest of us hadn’t thought of it first.
As much as Jesus resisted the surge, it appeared to be too much even for him, and we were glad of that and thought it best.
Somewhere in all the activity and excitement, the reasons we first followed him dissipated; his simple invitations, the kindness and laughter and word-stories that spilled from his lips like a living river stirring places in our hearts that seemed long dead.
Instead, we now lusted for attention, recognition and the embrace of any and every prophetic anticipation that might justify our violence against the enemy. God was on our side and this moment our destiny. The ages would honor us as men of might and valor, so we strode confidently into the city, accepting the adoration of the crowds.
I’ve heard stories about the conquerors of Rome returning to their city—magnificent parades surrounded by the adulation of worship and the powers bestowing gifts of nobility, wealth and position. And now, with God’s help, we were going to overthrow Rome itself and reap the benefits.
And then he turned his back on all of this. He walked away.
I was utterly crushed and undone, furious and fuming, internally a mass of accusations and despair. What was he thinking?
I left everything to follow him to end with nothing but broken dreams and no consideration or appreciation for what I have given up? For more than three years I had wandered with this gang of misfits, mocked and ridiculed. I gave up generations of security and risked my family relationships, for what? For nothing!
Why in that moment King David came to mind, I don’t know. Perhaps because we were standing in his city, close to Mount Zion. What would he have done? He spent years wrongfully pursued and somehow stayed a man after God’s heart. David, who blistered the ears of God with his rage and vengeance—we all knew his songs. In my imagination I was David telling Jesus how I felt.
“Jesus, I don’t know if I trust you anymore. I thought I loved you and you loved me, but I don’t think that’s true. You are walking away from everything I hoped, as if I don’t matter. You’ve taken years from my life and left me, what, a handful of dust and dreams, embarrassment and fear. This is your fault. I am so disappointed and so I furious that I could …”
Did I tell him? Did I speak of what was in my heart? No. Instead, I buried it as deep inside as I could dig and then tried not to let it show. I am not a king, after all, only a stupid fisherman. At the time it didn’t cross my mind that David was a shepherd.
Over years I have learned that concealing such things never turns the ashes cold.
Any passing wind ignites these embers into flame and burns anyone nearby. I was adrift in a tangle of heaving emotions underneath a placid sea, caught between the need to be important to this man and the desire to run away or die.
Everyone was irritable, our words tipped with thorns to cut and hurt. I wasn’t about to raise another finger to do another thing, and then he picked up the basin and one by one began to wash our feet. A simple act of kindness, a gesture of grace cut through all of our self-pity and offered an invitation to honesty. I didn’t take it.
Instead, I smothered the opportunity under a humble-sounding but self-serving command. I bluntly told him not to touch me.Another invitation and another chance to come clean, but instead I acted self-righteous and pious, almost as if it were his privilege to wash my feet. Then he talks of a betrayal, and it felt like all eyes were turned in my direction. I deflected such glances with my best nonverbal accusations, but in my heart I wondered, Is Jesus talking about me?
Once more I refused to be authentic and tell him of my heart.
Instead I declared my boldness and my willingness to die on his behalf. I desperately wanted him to put his arm around me, to turn and face the others and hear him say, “Here is a true friend and brother, a man I can count on. To have such a gift is worth more than countless stars. Peter is someone I can depend on, an example to you all.”
He didn’t. A sad smile before he responded, “Really? Will you really lay down your life for me?” He let it hang, this final invitation, and then added, “You won’t betray me only once, but three times.”
It was never my intention to deny Jesus. I would have sworn I was incapable of such a deadly act. When we hide, we often act from the pits of undisclosed emotion rather than choosing what or who is important. For me, it took only one question from a child—“You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?”—but her little insinuation tore open all my darkness, which then exploded. Cursing, I swore an ugly oath, that I never even knew him.
What do you think Jesus meant by “will you really lay down your life for me?” How would you answer that question?
I’m thrilled to announce that TIME has published all of our essays in a book called What Did Jesus Ask?: Christian Leaders Reflect on His Questions of Faith. To read all the essays (including the full text of the one I contributed), be sure to pick up a copy today.