Every year I read Harvard theologian Harvey Cox's prediction titled The Secular City, written in 1965 as a prelude to post-Christian America (MacMillan Company, 1965). Cox was anticipating a whole new world of secularization and urbanization, cultures characterized by mobility and anonymity. It seems to be an accurate depiction of our times, especially when assessing the spiritual landscape of this age. The fastest growing spiritual cohort in the American population are the "nones", those with no religious affiliation. Another group to note are what the researchers at Pew Research identify as the "nominal Christians", believers in name only without corresponding spiritual disciplines or church preferences. These new categories reflect, at least to some degree, the mobility and anonymity desired by so many citizens of digital times.
Identifying with Christ has been costly in human history and is life-threatening in certain outposts of the kingdom today. Even in our own nation several terror attacks targeted individual believers who would answer to the name "Christian". A bloated government leaning decidely left in recent years has further placed Christians in the cross-hairs of absurd scrutiny and biased treatment. More and more people, especially in those not convictionally drawn to piety and devotion relish the anonymity of being blended into the greater melting pot of our diverse population.
There seems to have been three primary groups close to our Lord's public ministry. There were his adversaries, visibly questioning him, plotting against him in more removed behind-the-scenes places, and raising doubts among the throngs of people who gravitated to him. There were a group of followers, often called disciples, who were present in much of his public teaching, when he performed miracles, and as he traveled in Galilee and Judea. Then, of course, there were the twelve, the ones he had chosen for kingdom assignments and who were learning in his most intimate circle. They were usually on the edges of his public ministry. But, at times he called them forth for special purpose, like the feeding of the 5,000 or when he sent them out on mission. They were often highly visible, the ones most closely identified with him.
But, there was a time during Passion Week when anonymity was their chosen path. Matthew had recorded their group dynamic when he recorded their response to the Lord's warnings about their coming denial. Matthew wrote,
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is
written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him,
“Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to
him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me
three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”
Matthew 26:31-35, ESV
Matthew added a declaration attributed to them all.
And all the disciples said the same.
How bold and ready they appeared with these words of identity with Christ. But, you know there is more. As the mob arrived to arrest Jesus Matthew added another note to their public display of support and willingness to follow him. He wrote---
Then all the disciples left him and fled.
Several of the versions translate the phrase in more definitive terms. One reads, "Then all the disciples deserted him and fled". Their identification with him dissolved in the heat of the hour. Now their passion for anonymity was most visible.
There are a lot of angles on what happened that night. Of course, they assumed a backdrop to his triall and death so that they could survive the ordeal and fulfill the kingdom assignment that would perpetuate faith in the New Testament church. Just as clearly, as Jesus had told Peter on that night, they could not go with him at that moment because they weren't ready at that point. Yes, indeed, God was in control of those events and preserved them for encounters with the resurrected Lord.
But, in those intense moments of accusation and trail, they slipped into anonymous mode. A little later, when Peter entered the courtyard he was recognized as having been with Jesus. But, he denied it, even claiming that he did not even know Jesus, or, the man, in Peter's own words. Anonymity pushed him farther away.
Passion Week calls forth the followers of Christ. We are to be known as belonging to him, living for him, and bring glory to him in our mission. But, for many, it is passion weak, a time to be anonymous.
To know him and make him known is a simple statement of faith. It defies the spiritual anonymity of these times by being clear about whose we are.
Passion Week, or passion weak?