Faithful Followers and Fickle Friends
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Palm Sunday is one of those Sundays of the Christian year we know best. Little children hear the story early on in Sunday School and, in many churches, they get to wave palm branches and imagine themselves welcoming Jesus into the holy city. Even we adults like to picture ourselves in the scene as Jesus rode the donkey down the hill and the crowd shouted,
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38)
We’d like to think that, had we been there, we would’ve taken off our cloaks, as well, and spread them out on the road for the king to ride over as he made his triumphal entry.
Of course, even as we cheer him on, we know where this is going: In less than a week, an angry mob will cry out to Pontius Pilate, “Crucify! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) But then, that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Or does it?
Commentators like to make a distinction between the crowd that welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday and the crowd that called for him to be crucified on Good Friday. Richard Donovan writes,
“Matthew says that it is the crowds who shout Hosanna (Matthew 21:9), and Mark implies the same (Mark 11:8-9). John also says that it is the crowd (John 12:9). Luke, however, specifies that it is the disciples who offer praise, rather than the people of Jerusalem. ‘This distinction anticipates the hostile reception of the Pharisees in v. 39 below and, perhaps, also clarifies why a crowd that so joyfully welcomes Jesus would in a few days’ time cry out for his blood (23:18, 23) (Evans, 293-294).” (SermonWriter, Volume 14, Number 31, ISSN 1071-9962)
In other words, we’re talking about two groups – Jesus’ faithful followers, who had come with him from Galilee; and his archenemies, led by the temple leaders and joined by those in town for Passover, who could easily be swayed by charges of heresy.
Knowing this gives me some pause for relief. I’d hate to think that it was Jesus’ followers who turned against him in the end. And yet, in a way, they did. At least they were nowhere to be found when the going got rough.
That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon today – how faithful followers and fickle friends often turn out to be one and the same – how each of has the capacity to be true to the teachings of Jesus Christ – and the capacity to speak and act as if we’d never heard of him before.
Fred Rogers used to ask the children on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood:
“Have you ever noticed
how the very same people who are good sometimes
are the very same people who are bad sometimes?”
We’re a curious blend of saint and sinner, and there’s no getting around it. We’re created in the image of God, yet forever marked by the stain of original sin. The bad news is we can never measure up to the righteousness of God; the Good News is we can choose to be more God-like and, by God’s grace, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Faithful follower or fickle friend – it’s up to us to make the choice, and the problem is little quirks of our humanness keep getting in the way. I’m sure there are many; I’ll name only three. The first is self-righteousness, the tendency to think that, somehow, we deserve special consideration.
This was the problem the elders in Nazareth had when Jesus preached his first sermon. According to Luke, he stood up and read from the prophet Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Luke says he sat down and said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. (Luke 4:21-22)
After all, this was what they wanted to hear. It spoke of the year of Jubilee, which came right out of the Law of Moses. (Leviticus 25)
But Jesus didn’t stop here. He went on to cite two examples where God had shown favor to the Gentiles – a widow in Sidon, and a leper in Syria. This was not what they wanted to hear. Why, they were God’s chosen people! If anyone deserved God’s favor, it was devout Jews like them, not some Gentile foreigners. And so, just like that, they turned on Jesus and dragged him out of the temple with every intention of stoning him to death.
Self-righteousness turns faithful followers into fickle friends every time. This is why those who have fallen from grace often make the best friends. They’ve been there, and they’re the last to stand in judgment over you.
I had an elderly man in my church years ago who had been to prison. As a young man, he’d been caught embezzling money from the bank where he worked. That led to the demise of his marriage and of his good reputation in the community. When he got out of prison, he got a job working for a nursery in Dallas. Turns out, he had a green thumb. He loved trees and plants and flowers. Everything he touched seemed to blossom and come to life.
In time, he retired and moved back to his home town, where I was serving. He showed up for worship one day and, afterwards, asked if he could help out around the church. He said the foliage could use a little attention. I said, “Sure,” and he went to work trimming the hedges and weeding the flower beds and planting bedding plants all over the place. By Spring, the church property was beginning to look like the Garden of Eden.
We drank a lot of coffee over the years and rehashed a lot of old history. Not once did he say a negative word about anything or anybody. On the contrary, he was thankful to be part of a church family, to be in reasonably good health and to be productive. He had a humble spirit. Consequently, he was one of the most devout Christians I’ve ever known.
Another quirk of human nature that turns faithful followers into fickle friends is self-preservation. That’s what drove Peter the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus had predicted earlier that evening that the disciples would run for their lives when the arresting party showed up. “Not I,” said Peter. “‘Even if all will be made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble.’
Jesus said to him, “Most certainly I tell you that tonight, before the rooster crows,
you will deny me three times.” (Matthew 26:33-34)
You know what happened: The temple guards arrested Jesus and took him to Caiaphas’ house, where the Council was assembled. Peter followed at a distance and, when he got there, he warmed himself by a fire in the courtyard. A woman recognized him. She said, “You were also with Jesus, the Galilean!” But Peter said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” A little while later, another woman said the same thing: “This man also was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And Peter said, “I don’t know the man.” But when a bystander heard him speak, he said, “Surely you are also one of them, for your speech makes you known.” And, for the third time, Peter denied Jesus. And when he did, the cock crowed, just as Jesus had predicted. (Matthew 26:69-75)
So, what was it that caused Peter to be such a fickle friend? Self-preservation, which is rooted in fear. That’s why the other disciples ran away. They were afraid that, if they stayed with Jesus, they’d put to death too. So, when the temple guards showed up, they fled like rats from a sinking ship.
I bailed out on a friend years ago. At the time, he was one of my best friends. We’d done lots of things together and had had a lot of fun. But he started getting involved in all kinds of illicit activities. When I heard about it, I confronted him. He got defensive. One thing led to another, and we went our separate ways.
Years later, we met over a cup of coffee. I told him that, at the time, I felt like we were in a ’55 Chevy racing toward the edge of cliff, and I either had to jump out or go over the edge with him. He said, “That’s a good analogy. You were right to jump when you did.” Still, I feel like I had been a fickle friend at a time when he needed me most.
When it comes to making life choices, self-preservation is a powerful force. When push comes to shove, most of us tend to look out for ourselves.
Another quirk that causes us to be fickle friends is self-interest. To put this way: When it’s all about you, friends come and go by the hour.
I had a church member years a few years ago who lived in a retirement home. I’d drop by to see her periodically. I never came by often enough – or stayed long enough – to suit her. That’s because I dreaded the visit and could hardly wait to leave. Visiting her was like going back to Junior High School. Her favorite pastime was to go through her list of friends. It was always changing. She’d say things like, “He brought me chocolate candy the other day; he’s my friend.” “She hardly ever comes to see me; she’s not my friend anymore.” Safe to say, my name was seldom at the top of her list.
There’s a long-standing theory in Bible study that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because he didn’t get what he wanted. He was a Zealot, you know, and the Zealots were a sect of the Jewish faith determined to overthrow the Roman government. The theory is that Judas became a disciple of Jesus in the hope that Jesus would use his divine power to topple the Romans and restore Israel to a great and powerful nation. When it became apparent that Jesus wasn’t going to do this – that he was willing to lay down his life for the sins of the world – that he loved his enemies and wouldn’t lift a finger against them – Judas betrayed him.
We’ll never know, for sure, what was in his heart. But this we do know: When someone’s greatest concern is, “What’s in it for me?” you can be sure their faithfulness as a friend doesn’t run deep.
In 1969, the rock group, Blood, Sweat and Tears recorded a song called, “God Bless the Child That’s Got His Own.” One of the verses goes like this:
And when you got money,
You got lots of friends
Crowdin’ ’round your door
When the money’s gone
And all you’re spendin’ ends
They won’t be ’round any more
No, no, no more.
Commitment based on self-interest is sure to be fickle and short-lived.
Well, let’s see if we can bring this home. When it comes to your relationship with Jesus Christ, are you a faithful follower or a fickle friend? I confess, I’m a little of both. I suspect many of you are, too. I’m like the Apostle Paul who said (and I paraphrase):
“I know what’s right, and I don’t do it;
I know what’s wrong,
and I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:15-23)
The Good News is: Like a loving parent, God loves us when we are faithful and when we are fickle. It may grieve God dearly to see the things we do, but God loves us anyway.
We’ll hear this story next week, but as a sneak preview, where did Jesus go when he was raised from the dead? He went back to the upper room, where his fainted-hearted, fickle friends were huddled together in fear of the Jews. And what did he say to them when he got there – “Why did you run out on me?” No, he said, “Peace be to you.” And what did he give them as a lasting treasure? … the gift of his Holy Spirit. (John 20:19, 21)