While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
It is difficult to read these words without thinking about what we do, and hear, on Sundays when we celebrate the Holy Communion together. I am always struck at what we include, and exclude, from our Communion liturgies. In the Reformed tradition, generally, we use the passage from 1 Corinthians to introduce, and serve as a warrant, for what we do and so miss out Jesus’ words about not drinking wine again until the coming of the kingdom. We also miss out his harsh words: “you will all become deserters.”
Of course we do; those words were for the disciples. And yet we all are deserters. By our words and actions we all fail in our response to Jesus. We can all imagine situations where we would deny knowing Jesus. We all shrug our shoulders at some of his teaching – after all most of us haven’t given away all our goods to the poor and it is self evident that most Christians aren’t pacifists. Yet Jesus’ words shock us and we may, like Peter, protest our faithfulness and love of our Lord only to realise that we too fail.
As I write this a friend of mine is en route to Heathrow airport. Baring a legal miracle he is almost certain to be deported, this evening, back to Cameroon which he fled due to being tortured because of how he loves. He has had excellent legal representatives but the judge simply chose not to believe him and, despite making legal errors, it has not been possible in the time available to effectively appeal her decision. The judge was, previously, noted as a very effective barrister for asylum seekers. She has changed her position with her new role and, as my friend faces deportation I’m tempted to think of her as a deserter. Yet I wonder how easy I’d be seduced with a judge’s salary, public and media hostility to asylum seekers and an ever-more hostile culture in the wake of Brexit; it’s still government policy to repeal the Human Rights Act after all. So is the judge a deserter? Probably no more than the rest of us.
The deserters in the story, with the exception of Judas, became the pillars on which the earliest Church was built. They responded to the witness of their sisters and proclaimed the Risen Christ. We may desert Christ, we may deny him, but he’s always ready to see past our failures and use us to build his kingdom.
Lord Jesus, you forgave those who denied and deserted you and used them to build your Church. Forgive us when we deny and desert you and use us to rebuild your Church in these lands. In your mercy, too, bless those who are wounded by our sin and failure. Amen.
Andy Braunston is minister-elect in the Glasgow Southside Cluster of URCs and co-ordinator of the Daily Devotion project.