Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” has worked to free 115 wrongfully condemned people from death row. He says that if you want to change a problem, you have to get up close to it, like Jesus does. “To me, the Great Commission is a call to get approximate,” Stevenson said. Although he experiences the presumed dangerousness and guilt of being a black man in the mess of racial injustice, he stays in the struggle and responds to the call. He asks for faith over fear.
Fear is the great distancer. When we are afraid, we are tempted to run, to isolate, to hide. After Jesus was arrested, one of his closest friends and most serious disciples ran away. In my reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s painting, you can see the fear in Peter’s eyes: he is coming between Jesus and the guard to protect him. He draws his weapon and fights. When Jesus is taken away, Peter is left without control and without the person who had come to mean the most to him. Fear gets the best of him, and he denies that he ever knew the one he loves.
Peter is not there for Jesus in his most difficult, dying moments on the cross. He is off somewhere turning his weapons inward, jammed up with regret, confusion, and fear. I imagine that he feels lost. He had been such a loyal, eager follower and great leader among the disciples. Now he has no idea what’s next.
Instead of distancing himself in betrayal and abandonment, the risen Jesus goes to him. He shows up at Peter’s old jobsite, and in a way that only the two of them fully understand, he lets Peter know that he is known not for his worst mistakes but for who he really is: loved, trusted, called. Jesus is not worried about what happened before; he is wondering what is next. He calls Peter to greatness with mercy. And the greatness is in extending mercy to others, and leading the church in the way of mercy.
The mercy of God is not aloof like pity, or sentimental like sympathy, or even merely understanding like compassion. It takes action on behalf of the suffering. It covers the distance. It demonstrates love and calls out the best. It gets close and stays, beyond requirements. It is not hanging on to yesterday, it is expectant for today. It is Jesus for each of us. Like the song written by my friend Angie that we sing in our Sunday meetings:
Your mercy instead of my battle/ Your love instead of my fight/ When I’m broken and sore, Your grace gives me more/ I’ll lay down my weapons tonight.