John 18: 1-27 tells the story of Judas betraying Jesus followed by Peter denying Jesus. Three time over, Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples denies that he knows Jesus. It was an intense scene that was escalating – Jesus was being questioned by the high priest and started being beaten by the police. To claim to know Jesus was to welcome trouble. Peter decided to avoid conflict by distancing himself from Jesus, the one in the center of the storm. “Nope, I don’t know him.”
I looked at this passage with a group of high school students. The young people identified with Peter.
“It’s way cooler to be an atheist than to believe in Jesus at my school,” one young man admitted. “A lot of the kids who say they are atheist don’t really know what that means. They just don’t want people to think they are religious and go to church.”
Another added, “Yeah, the vocal Christians at our school are homophobic, and that just isn’t cool. I don’t want to be grouped with those kids. It’s easier to pretend to not believe in Jesus at all.” (“Nope, I don’t know him.”)
Our context was public high schools in Minneapolis, but they also saw themes reflected on the national stage.
On March 20, Fred Phelps died. Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church is most famous for picketing more than 53,000 events with signs that say things like, “God Hates Fags.” Phelps rose to national notoriety in 1998, when Westboro members picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man who was tortured and murdered because he was gay. He claimed natural and human-made disasters are God’s punishment for the acceptance of gay people and thought homosexuals should be put to death. His recent death brought his legacy back into the media. People responses were polarizing: silence, anger, sadness and joy.
On March 24th, World Vision announced it would begin to hire people in same-sex marriages. The announcement caused a backlash among conservative donors. On March 26th, World Vision reversed its decision. Richard Stearns asked donors who had pulled their funding to “forgive our poor judgment in the original decision. We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.” The initial decision and the decision to reverse the policy was polarizing. Who is right? Who loses? What would Jesus say? The name calling, divisions and anger from all sides on social media were deafening.
In a recent post, Jon Huckins writes, “I’m not against healthy dialog, disagreement or even conflict. I’m actually quite for it. The mission of God is reconciliation and the vocation of God’s people, the Church. When we spend more time attacking each other rather than attacking the areas of brokenness in our world, we become a reflection of anti-kingdom.”
Today, Christianity is getting press for publicly fighting about gay marriage maybe more than any other thing. The high schoolers feel it. I feel it. And we were all a little sympathetic to Peter, who just wanted to side step the controversy through denying his love for Jesus altogether. What I heard from the students is a desire to exist in a world beyond black and white, beyond right and wrong, bigger than this one issue. They wanted to be able to claim their faith without being put in a constricting box. They want to change the discourse and ask a whole new set of questions that reflect the ministry of Jesus. Where some of their friends have given up, they are hanging on, but often in secret. Our work continues to be creating space for people to read the gospel together and form subversive community that are committed to the truth. To be brave, claim Jesus, and address the areas of brokenness in our world. To seek to know Jesus and be able to say, “Yep, I know him.” For Peter and for us, it’s hard work, it’s a little scary, but it’s also good.