One hot morning in Richmond Hill, Georgia, in 2004, a Burger King employee took some trash out to the restaurant’s dumpster and there she found a naked, sunburnt, middle-aged, Caucasian man who was covered in blood, sweat, and fire ant bites. He had no ID and no memory of who he was. Paramedics kept asking him for his name and he had no answer. They called him “B.K. John Doe” because he was found beside the Burger King. Eventually, the man began calling himself Benjaman Kyle so he had answer when people asked him his name.
The way that Hollywood portrays amnesia is very different than the way that the real and rare cases of amnesia happen in real life. In the movies, amnesia is portrayed as a loss of memory that begins with one bump on the head and ends with another bump on the head when all the lost memories return. In real life, amnesia is very painful, and the lost memories are often gone forever.
Without ID, Benjaman could not get a job or stay in a shelter, so he was forced to live on the streets. Some people helped him get an operation for the cataracts in his eyes and tried to find out who he was through by running his fingerprints through the FBI database. They even helped him get on the Dr. Phil show. No leads turned up.
In 2012, a Florida State University student created a documentary called “Finding Benjaman” which portrayed the difficulties Benjaman faced with no memory of his past. The publicity from this documentary led to Benjaman getting a legacy ID from the state of Florida and he was then able to get a job and live in a home.
In 2015, a genealogist named CeCe Moore who had been working on Benjaman’s case for two years was finally able to crack the case. Benjaman was from Lafayette, Indiana, his real name was William, or “Bill”, Powell, and no one knew had heard from him since 1983. He had been missing for 32 years and the years between 1983 and 2004 remain a blank slate, a mystery that may never be solved.[i]
So why am I telling you this story about Bill Powell and his real-life experience of amnesia? It is because our actions flow out of our identity, and sometimes, especially when we do things that we later regret, it is because we suffer a form of amnesia, we temporarily forget who we are, and we do something totally out of character for us. So how do we find our way out of this dilemma of reoccurring temporary amnesia that keeps leading to regretful actions? That is the question that we will be thinking about this morning and to guide us in our reflections, we will have in view before us Mark 14:53-72. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Increasing Conflict and Seriousness
In the chapters leading up to our passage, Mark reminds us that Jesus’ journey to the cross is drawing ever closer. At the start of chapter 11, we have Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. During these precious days between what we call Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we find increasing conflict between Jesus, on the one hand, and the Sadducees, scribes, and Pharisees on the other, and we also encounter increasing seriousness in the teaching of Jesus. If we were sum up what Jesus taught during this time, perhaps we would say, Know what it is important, know the times, and know who you are following.”
Now we come to the start of chapter fourteen, and the first few verses set the tone for what is to follow: It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” (Mark 14:1-3) A conspiracy to kill Jesus is afoot. There are men with evil in their hearts who seek to do Jesus harm, and through no fault of their own, Jesus and his followers are going to get caught up in their wicked scheme. In the turmoil of all that happens, people will be forced to make very difficult choices with very weighty consequences. What kind of choices will they make? Will good win out over evil in the end?
At a feast in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman lavishes adores Jesus by anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, an act that some consider a waste, but Jesus declares righteous. Judas responds by choosing to betray Jesus.
At the Passover Meal that they celebrate together on Thursday, Jesus tells his followers that they will all abandon him in his moment of greatest need. Peter chooses to respond by saying to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” (Mark 14:29) Even though Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before morning, Peter insists, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mark 14:31) and all the other disciples said the same thing.
Many of you have likely heard the expression “Pride comes before a fall” but you may not have realized it comes from the Bible. In Proverbs 16:18 we read, Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)
So why is pride such a large problem for humanity? It is because pride is essentially faith in ourselves. Pride says, “I can handle all the challenges that come before me, and I don’t need anyone to help me do it.” Pride says, “I know all the things I need to know, and I don’t need anyone else to tell me what to do.” Pride says, “Others may fail in similar situations, but I never will. I am better than and above all else, including God.”
Most of us don’t go walking around with our chests puffed out saying, “Look at me, I am so proud because I am better than anyone else.” What happens for most of us is our pride gets pricked when someone tells us that we are going to fail in a way that will show that there is something wrong with us. We can say that pride is a shame response. We use it to cover over the brokenness we would rather no one else see. At this point, Jesus’ teaching in the hours before his crucifixion becomes personal. Not only is Jesus telling us, Know what it is important, know the times, and know who you are following.” He is also saying, Know yourself. If you and I don’t become intimately aware of the depths of our own personal brokenness, we will never grab hold and live by the greater life, the new life that Jesus wants to give to us.
Actions Flow From Identity for Jesus and Peter
So let’s turn to our passage. There we find that Jesus has been arrested and taken to the home of the high priest, where all the chief priest, the elders and the teachers of the law have gathered. Jesus is essentially on trial for his life, so the stakes are very high for him. Peter followed Jesus and the soldiers who arrested him at a distance. When they came to the home of the high priest and Jesus was taken inside, Peter stayed out in the courtroom and warmed himself by the fire. In comparison to Jesus, the stakes for Peter were low. He would only be in danger if others found out he was connected to Jesus in some way.
This whole council of religious leaders, called the Sanhedrin, did not gather because they wanted to decide if Jesus was guilty or innocent based on the evidence. No, they got together because they wanted to condemn Jesus to death and they were looking for evidence that would allow them to do that. But they couldn’t find any. Some people came and made false statements against Jesus, but their statements didn’t agree.
The high priest demanded that Jesus respond to the accusations against him, but Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Jesus was secure in his identity as the divine Son of God who came to this world to become one of us, and he didn’t need to waste words to protect his reputation before these murderous men.
Then the high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)
With his words, Jesus sealed his own doom. He said that he was the Son of God which was considered blasphemy, that is, showing contempt or disregard for God, and the penalty for blasphemy in that time was death. And it would have been blasphemy for anyone else to say what Jesus said, but in his case, it was true. Even as he spoke those fateful words, Jesus knew that he was going to die. But he also knew that there are some things that are more important than avoiding death. Knowing who you are and being clear about your identity with others is one of those things that is more important than avoiding death.
All of us are going to die, but who are you going to be when you draw your last breath in this world? What kind of things are going to be most important in that moment? What kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind? Nobody wants to be remembered as a coward, no one wants people to say after they are gone that they were a someone who could not be trusted when times were tough. What happens is that our fears get the best of us, and then we start making our decisions based on what we think will help us to avoid our fears, instead of standing up for our values.
That’s what happened with Peter. When a lowly servant girl and others accused Peter of being with Jesus, he denied three times that he knew Jesus, and he called down curses and solemnly swore an oath to emphasize his point. Peter’s fear of death caused him to forget who he was. His old name was Simon, son of Jonah, but Jesus had given him a new name, Peter, the Rock, the steadfast one, the faithful one. Peter was the one who recognized and declared that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, which is exactly who Jesus said he was before the high priest. But in these moments of great fear, Peter forgot who he was in Jesus’ eyes and went back to letting the world define him.
A book I recently picked up contains this startling sentence: “In 1902, the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley wrote: ‘I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.’”[ii] Let’s pause here for a moment and think about what those words mean. It is as if all the people around us are mirrors and we determine our own identity based on what we think we see in those mirrors. But the people around us will never really know who we are because they cannot see our inner being. And our interpretation of what we see reflected back to us from others will never be correct because our perceptions are always colored by our fears, our pride, and our quest for self-preservation. There is no hope for the world if human beings continue to derive their identity, the source of all their actions, from what they think they see in the faces of other human beings.
That is why Jesus came. With absolute clarity about who he is and why he came, Jesus willingly went to the cross to pay the full cost of forgiveness for everyone for all the times we operate out of our old identity and hurt ourselves and others in the process. Then, by dying and rising again from the dead, Jesus has created a new humanity where people’s identities are not based on who they think other people think they are. Those new identities are based on who Jesus says we are: beloved, forgiven children of God who represent Jesus in the world and serve in his mission of love to redeem and restore all things.
In John 21, starting at verse 15, John records for us the way that Jesus restored Peter. Three times he asked Peter if he loved him, and each time Jesus used Peter’s old name, Simon, when he did it. Twice Peter replied that he loved Jesus. Jesus responded with, “Feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep”. When Jesus asked Peter a third time if he loved Jesus, Peter was grieved by Jesus’ words. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter to hear his resurrected Lord and Savior question his love three times, one for each time that he had denied Jesus. Jesus was bringing Peter to the end of himself, to the end of his old identity as Simon, to the end of his pride, and to the end of his fear.
Peter said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:17-19)
What does all this mean for us? You and I do not get a choice about whether or not we will die. But Jesus has given us the opportunity to choose how we will live. Are we going to keep living as the person that we think the world sees us? Are we going to cover up our shame and brokenness, and respond with shame and fear when it looks like it will be exposed?
Or are we going to become aware of the many ways in which we are fearful and broken so that we can die to those things and live more fully in the new identity that Jesus has given us?
The Resurrection of Jesus Changes Everything for Us
This year, April 9th is the date when we will observe Easter Sunday and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But what does the resurrection of Jesus mean for us in practical terms? After two years in various Nazi prisons, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sentenced to die at Flossenbürg concentration camp for his association with conspirators who had been plotting to get rid of Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hung on Sunday, April 9, 1945, which will be 78 years ago on Easter Sunday. On his way to the gallows, right after completing a Sunday worship service, Bonhoeffer said to an English prisoner, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”[iii] The resurrection of Jesus means that we do not need to be afraid of anything anymore.
Therefore, the challenge that I want to leave with you today is this: Dig down and uncover your deepest fears, bring your fears to Jesus, and then live with no fear because of the new identity you have in him. There is nothing, not even death, that can separate you from Jesus and his great love for you. Amen.
(This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on March 19, 2023. For more info about WGLC, please go to wglc.org.)
[i] Nicholas Conley, “The Crazy True Story of the Guy Who Lost His Memory,” Grunge (Internet; available at: https://www.grunge.com/97171/crazy-true-story-benjaman-kyle-lost-memory/; accessed February 20, 2023).
[ii] Jay Shetty, Think Like a Monk (London: Thorsons, 2020), 3.
[iii] “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Internet; available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer; accessed March 16, 2023).