read John 18. For days after the Twin Towers fell, we could smell smoke all over the island of Manhattan. The burning rubber stench permeated Central Park so badly that we couldn’t take our children out to the playgrounds. The smell was worse, far worse, downtown.
Fire is a strange thing. It creates heat. It’s a chemical reaction that gives off energy. It destroys. Its smoke suffocates. It smells bad.
But fire also refines. It leaves rubble, and in its wake only new growth can occur.
We fear fire, and yet we also crave it. We light up fireworks on the Fourth of July and crane our necks to the sky, seeking transcendence. But what is it we really want? What are we really looking for?
I was once at a wedding where the bride had secretly organized fireworks for her groom. Just after they cut the cake, the boom sounded, shooting stars exploded above the tent, and everyone looked up to watch. It was as if she had lit a huge exclamation point of joy in the sky.
When Jesus was arrested, one of His followers warmed himself by a fire of coals and denied He even knew Jesus. Peter’s actions are a poignant image of what we all do all day long. We warm ourselves at other cheaper fires and deny we know God loves us.
Luckily for us, God loves us so much that He keeps wooing us. “Who are you looking for”, Jesus here asked the people who came to arrest Him. They came at him with weapons and flaming torches, and He responded with this question. His question burned like a fire in their hearts, just as it does in ours: Who ARE we looking for?
It’s as if Jesus used even His arrest as an opportunity to give. He asked the very people who came to kill Him what they wanted.
The answer, of course, is that we are not quite sure what we’re looking for. We live in a post-modern world. We’re brave. We’re willing to entertain the possibility that we don’t belong to anyone. We’re tolerant, open, and politically correct enough to wonder, as Pilate does here, if truth is relative. We can ask if there is no absolute right or wrong. We can fall silent when we hear other, more learned people, say that it doesn’t matter what you believe.
We can remain silent, and yet when a man in full riot gear slips into a movie theatre at night and shoots people, something in us cries out, violently. We smell the smoke from that kind of crime across the entire nation – just as when terrorists crashed planes into buildings in Manhattan, the rest of the nation smelled the smoke, too. When people hurt strangers, we all know there are things that deserve punishment. We react viscerally. We know there’s absolute wrong. We feel the heat of the wrongness in all our chests. It singes our hair.
But we have this kind of knowingness not just when people hurt strangers, but when they hurt people they love. When someone we love abandons or betrays us, we know that, deep down, we’re not brave at all. We cry because we know that being abandoned by someone we love is fundamentally wrong. We know, somehow, that these crimes are linked. We sense there’s a web of Truth woven into the very fabric of our world, in which it’s wrong to hurt those you love, and it’s also wrong to hurt strangers. It’s wrong to hurt anyone – and yet we all do it.
In those moments, we start to know that what we really long for is to belong to a world where people love each other. We long to belong to people who love us. And we long to love others, really love them, the way we want them to love us – and we know we fall short.
We can’t deny Truth forever. It rubs up against us. At some point, we have to admit that we’re all like Paddington Bear, stuck in the railway station of life, with a sign on our chest that reads: “please look after this bear. Thank you.”
When Jesus asks us who we’re really looking for, it’s because God wants us to recognize His answer. God wants us to have the humility to ask Him: “Please look after me. Thank you.”
In other words, God wants us to accept His gift. He wants us to know the thing He already knows: we belong to God. We belong to Him in such a fundamental, deep-down, existential, inside-out, unzipped way, that we literally can’t exist without Him. We belong, in other words, to Love. Our deep visceral knowing is right.
It’s poignant that Jesus asked even His would-be murderers if they wanted to trade their spears for joy. It’s poignant, in the same way that it’s poignant He was arrested in the very garden he retreated to “often” with His followers. Jesus’ garden of rest became, for Him, the ashes of pain. The cross is God’s way of lighting the sky with fireworks – with true fire – with an exclamation point of Love – with a sign that reads, for all the world to see:
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on July 23, 2012