Mark 14:26-28, 16:7
Pastor Beckie has shared with me that you’ve been in the midst of a worship series focused on “Discipleship by the Sea,” and she invited me to take up this week’s theme: encounter. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a language nerd - I’m really fascinated by the meaning of words and how words can have similar meanings but with slight differences that communicate a different tone. And so when I read this week’s theme: Encounter - I was intrigued. I think of “encounter” as a simple meeting between different people or groups. An encounter. But I looked up different meanings of the word, and indeed, there are some nuances that set the broader word apart from the word “meeting.” Although “encounter” can mean just a casual meeting, it often has the sense of unexpectedness. If you encounter someone in your travels, the implication is that the meeting was unexpected or unplanned. The movie Close Encounter of the Third Kind might pop into your head - encounters with alien life would certainly fall for most into the unexpected category. “Encounter” can also imply an unexpected situation that is difficult or in some way hostile. For example, “we encountered an issue” suggests that this unexpected issue is not good, not a desired encounter. (1) Have you had these kinds of encounters? What comes to my mind is a time I was walking at Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville, and I encountered a porcupine, walking directly on the footpath coming toward me. This encounter met all of the potential meanings - an unexpected meeting that was difficult, perhaps hostile. To make things worse, a runner coming from the opposite direction failed to notice the porcupine, and kept barrelling closer to me, completely oblivious, which in turn was causing the porcupine to pick up its pace. Thankfully, at the last minute, the porcupine veered off the path and into the woods. Phew! An unexpected, undesirable encounter.
So what does it mean when we think about encounters in our life and discipleship with Jesus. Hopefully, something less prickly than a surprised porcupine! Our scripture texts, short snippets, give us just a glimpse at encounters. In fact, both texts primarily refer to anticipated but not yet actual encounters. In Mark 14, we find ourselves in the midst of the passion narrative - during what we call Holy Week. It’s what we call Maundy Thursday. Jesus and the disciples are at the Mount of Olives. They’ve shared, earlier, in the last supper. They’ve sung a hymn together, possibly a traditional Passover Psalm, like Psalm 114 that talks about “the seas turning back, rivers fleeing, rocks turning into pools of water, and flint becoming springs.” (2) And now, Jesus says to them: “You’re all going to desert me. It’s like what is written: When someone strikes the shepherd, the sheep scatter.” This time, this encounter with Jesus takes an unexpected turn. The disciples are undoubtedly shocked at Jesus’s words. We should note, too: although Jesus eventually singles out Peter and Judas for their impending denial and betrayal, Jesus calls out all the disciples, suggesting none of them will stick by his side consistently. But still, despite Jesus’s words, the most shocking part of all, perhaps, when we really let sink in what Jesus has just said to them is what he says next: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” There’s a future encounter that Jesus is planning, despite the fact that the disciples are about to abandon him now and he knows it. When things get hard, the disciples will not stick with Jesus, and he knows it, and still - he’s looking forward to what comes next, what comes beyond their darkest moments, to a season of return and recommitment. They’re about to abandon Jesus, but what is on his mind is a future encounter, where they will understand better what he’s been talking about, and where, in some ways, their true discipleship will really begin.
I don’t know about you: but I’ll confess that when I think I’m about to be deserted, betrayed, abandoned by people, the last thing that’s on my heart to do is tell them how great it will be when we meet up in the future. This year was my twenty-fifth class reunion. I couldn’t attend, but it made me think a lot about how I feel when I run into various people from my past, people I haven’t seen in decades. Have you had that happen? You notice someone in the grocery store or on the street that you haven’t seen in years, and you have to decide: do you go over and say hello, or do you pretend you didn’t see them? Your response might depend on what your last interaction was like. I have some high school classmates where I’ll admit, I’d probably skulk away and try to remain unnoticed if I saw them!
But that’s not the way of Jesus with his disciples. Hours before they leave Jesus devastatingly abandoned, he’s already planning on when he’ll see them next, promising a future encounter. And then this promise is echoed again at his resurrection. The women, encountering the unexpected - the empty tomb - are greeted by messengers in white who tell them to let all the other disciples know that they’ll be encountering Jesus again, in Galilee, just as he promised. In their darkest moments of grief, just like in their darkest moments of desertion and betrayal, Jesus makes sure the disciples know that what seems like the worst thing isn’t the last thing, it isn’t the end at all. There are future encounters with Jesus yet to come. What a relief! What a comfort! What a promise!
Friends, there are so many places where we encounter messages like, “Last chance - act now” and “Time’s running out” and “Once in a lifetime opportunity.” Maybe there are some things where those dire messages are true, and we’ll never have the chance again to take some opportunity or make things right. But that’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus says, “I already know you’re going to desert me. Not just Peter, not just Judas. All of you. And even so: this is not our last encounter. We’ll meet again. There are more encounters to come. I’ll extend an invitation again.” Of course, even though Jesus promises more encounters, we don’t have to keep taking the second chance. We can act now. We can show up for Jesus right now, commit to discipleship now. A life lived as a follower of Jesus - that’s an abundant life worth living. But if we’ve had some encounters with the living God where we weren’t our best; if we have promised to follow Jesus with our whole hearts only to abandon him when things were hard; if we’ve missed out on Jesus’s call to us, then take heart. Even at our worst, Jesus promises we’ll meet again, and again, and always. Amen.
Definitions from google.com
Imagery from Marcia McFee, Worship Design Studio (designer of the sermon series of which this sermon is part.)