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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Ten
That night, four of the apostles have nightmares.
In his dream, Matthew is running down an alley toward the setting sun, his heart pounding so hard he can feel it in his temples. He knows he has to get to his office before they come. He needs to protect the names written in his ledger. The slanting light half-blinds him and he trips on one rock, falling hard and cutting himself badly on another, but he gets up and he finds the book and he’s relieved to see how many names are still written there.
He can hear shouts in the distance as he uncovers the hiding place he prepared for a time like this. He hears the mob getting closer as he lowers the ledger down and covers it. His pursuers are almost at the tax office when he steps outside and gives himself up: they drag him to the brow of a hill he’s never seen before, and he looks down. He’s imagining the way his body will break against an outcropping of rock below when he wakes.
Thomas also dreams of danger, but he can’t tell what it is he’s afraid of in the overwhelming dark—it’s a new moon’s night and almost nothing is visible, though he can feel someone or something near. Thomas reaches out for the presence, and it pulls on him, and suddenly they’re wrestling. As he shifts his weight and grapples with his opponent, Thomas’s fear gives way to a strange familiarity. He used to wrestle like this with his twin sister in the few years when she was bigger than him, spending all his strength just to keep the fight going. Back then, he didn’t need to win, only to hold on until her anger broke. Now he’s losing his grip and his leg hurts, but Thomas is sure he’ll be blessed if he can only keep wrestling through this darkness until the coming of the sunlight.
But when the sun rises in his dream, he still can’t see who he’s wrestling. And the struggle doesn’t stop.
Peter dreams a longing so intense he leaves his boat on the shore and walks up into the hills until they grow into mountains beneath his feet. He walks beside a clear stream: when a voice says “Drink,” he cups his hands to lift the cold water to his mouth and laps it up.
That’s when he catches sight of the golden calf. Seeing it shining there fills him with a sudden shame. Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one! he thinks, and turns away. But he knows nothing can still his longing to worship more than is allowed.
Then the snorting and galloping of warhorses fills Peter’s ears, and he starts to shake because he knows that soldiers are coming to destroy everything and everyone in their path. It’s his fault. He’s brought this punishment down on them. He wants to run down the mountain and confess everything to warn the others while there’s still time—only the ground is so covered in snakes and scorpions there’s nowhere safe to run. For a moment he freezes, but then he remembers: I give you power over them. Wherever you walk, nothing will harm you.
He takes the first step.
Judas can’t tell if he’s awake or asleep when his sister walks in with a scrape across the left side of her face and a cut on her lip. There’s a tear at the neck of her tunic. Judas realizes he can’t possibly be awake as she walks slowly across the room, her shoulders turned in slightly as if she’d like to fold in her arms and draw in her chest, her gait awkward under hidden pain. A pain no one should ever have to suffer.
Her eyes are blank; the jar she’s carrying is broken.
Judas can’t tell if he’s asleep or awake when he notices the angel.
“Were you with her?” Judas says. “Why didn’t you protect her?”
“I wasn’t there,” says the angel. “I’m with you. Now. It’s too late to change what happened.”
“Why weren’t you there, then?” says Judas, “Why didn’t you protect her?”
“The world is too bad,” says the angel. “We can’t protect everyone.”
“But you could have saved her!” says Judas.
“You think so?” says the angel. “Then whose sister should this have happened to?”
“No one’s,” says Judas, and his eyes feel so heavy he must be awake, though he’s fairly sure he isn’t.
“Who should suffer for this world’s sins?” says the angel.
“No one,” says Judas, more tired than he’s ever felt before. “This world needs to end.”
“We’re waiting,” says the angel. “Legions of us: we’re just waiting for the sign to come and we’ll end it.”
Judas’s sister puts down the broken jar gently by the door. She goes and she lies down and she doesn’t say anything. Judas wants to scream, but the air is trapped in his chest. If Judas doesn’t drown in his own trapped scream, he’ll suffocate in her silence.
Judas turns to the angel. “How much longer?” he says.
Night isn’t over when Jesus gently shakes everyone awake and says he’s had a dream, and they need to leave now. He tells the seven to go warn the other disciples to be careful for a few weeks, then asks them to care for everyone while he and the apostles leave Galilee. He doesn’t say where they’re going or why and no one asks as they make their way out of town by lamplight.
When the first streaks of dawn cross the sky like feathers, soldiers come to Jesus’ hosts only to find the man they’re looking for has taken flight.
After they’re walked deep into the hills, Jesus finds a place to sit and talk with the twelve and Mary.
He closes his eyes. “The time hasn’t come yet, but is close,” he says. “Next time, I’ll let them arrest me. This time, we need to escape before they come.”
Matthew thinks of his dream. He’s been worried about mobs for so long he’s forgotten that as one of Jesus’ disciples, he might also need to be afraid of prisons and soldiers.
Peter remembers his dream: has Jesus just avoided the same danger Peter sensed?
Neither of them asks a question, though, they just watch their Master and wait. Jesus takes a little dirt—so dry it’s practically like sand—between his fingers. He rubs it back and forth so that it falls a few dozen grains at a time, blowing this way and that, spreading in every direction.
“I want to see my mother again before the time comes,” Jesus says, and he asks Mary, the little James, the big Judas, and Matthew to go west to Nazareth, traveling quietly and telling no one who they are, to find her and invite her to return with them.
He addresses Thomas, Philip, and Nathanael next. “After I’m gone, an age will come when our people need a refuge,” he says. “Best to find a man to care for it now.” And he tells them to go east to the ten cities to bring back a certain young merchant from among his followers there.
Then he turns to Judas and Andrew, “Like your old Master, I need you to prepare the way before me.” He turns to Simon, “Go with them, and talk about me with your friends in the south.” He tells them which route to take to Jerusalem and where to make sure there are people ready to greet him when he comes that way again.
Jesus looks to Peter, James, and John. “I don’t want to be alone yet,” he says. “Stay with me.” He says they’ll travel north into Herod’s estranged brother’s kingdom, that there’s something they need to see there.
When he’s given each group its assignment, he speaks again to the twelve all at once. “The day will come when you sit on thrones in the kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. So be faithful, and learn to serve them now.
“Think of me, and I’ll be with you,” he says. “I’ll protect you in the places you go, until your work is done and it’s time to meet again in this land.”
And—though their bodies are exhausted from the short and unsettling night, though they’ve been half-asleep for most of the morning’s long walk—the twelve are all wide awake now because they can feel God in this ordinary-looking place. Yes, God is unmistakably here, and it surprises them.
But even God’s presence doesn’t keep them from feeling a little afraid, from having an odd sense of dread at the strange things Jesus told them.
On the road north, Peter, James, and John learn this: you can flee from trouble, but not from the things that trouble you.
If anything, their worries grow worse in the isolation of their journey out of Galilee. Though it’s harder going, Jesus travels mostly through the open hills instead of the lakeside roads to avoid being recognized. So Peter, James, and John are each trapped in their own recurring thoughts.
As he struggles up slope after slope, Peter can’t help thinking about the golden calf and the shame he felt in his dream. Each time they come within sight of the lake, James wonders how much more he really knows than he did before he left home. And whenever they see a soldier in the distance, John wonders what Jesus meant when he said, “Next time, I’ll let them arrest me.”
But things get easier on the other side of the river, when they’re safely out of Galilee. Jesus no longer avoids the roads, and they teach and heal people in the tiny villages they pass through as they make their way north. Work is a soothing balm for Peter, James, and John: being able to serve drives the doubts from their minds. When they pass through the marsh country, James thinks again of Moses and wonders if Jesus is the prophet he predicted, but there are so many fevers and sick children here, he can’t focus on the question for long. When, still further north, they leave the road to avoid Philip’s pagan capitol, John wonders what will happen to the people there when the kingdom of God comes, but he doesn’t dwell on that question for long, either.
And then they reach the northernmost tip of old Israel, where Peter looks up at the same mountains he saw in his dream, walks beside the same stream he drank from in his sleep. And his questions come back, bringing with them a mixture of shame and awe.
Peter, James, and John almost run into Jesus when he stops walking all at once. He stares up at the mountain in front of them.
Then he turns around to face his three followers. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks.
“At first, most thought you were a great sage or a saint,” says James. “After John died, some saw him again in you. Others said you were Elijah returned to fulfill Malachi’s words, or some other prophet.”
“But who do you think I am?” says Jesus.
“The Messiah,” all three say at once. And they wait for his response.
But Jesus doesn’t say anything.
“And more,” says Peter, his voice trembling a little. He needs to say it out loud. He needs to confess. “You’re more than our promised King.” He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes: this will be easier if he doesn’t have to see Jesus react. Then he gives the full strength of his breath to the thought he’s kept hidden in his heart: “You’re more than any man—you’re the Son of the Living God!”
That’s it. That’s what he’s come to believe. He knows Jesus won’t have him stoned, but if he’s wrong Jesus will look at him in a way that will make him wish he could pull down the mountains onto himself.
“Blessed are you, son of Jonah,” says Jesus softly. Peter falls to his knees. “No one on earth would tell you that: only my Father would have.”
James stares and John nods, but Jesus just goes on. “You had ears to hear my Father this time. If you can accept all the truths he will place in your ears and in your mouth, the forces of darkness will never overcome you. I named you Peter so you’ll remember a stone cut without hands will smash into pieces all the kingdoms of the earth.”
Peter thinks of the horsemen in his dream, the horsemen who ride down from the north.
“When will that happen?” asks Peter, “What’s the stone?”
“You’ll understand,” says Jesus, “three days after my death.”
What’s harder: for a good Jew to believe that a living man is somehow also a God, or for the man who makes that leap in belief to hear his God is going to die?
The next day is the Sabbath, and Jesus is invited to preach in the congregation of a village that stands at the base of the mountain, built on the ruins of what was once an important city. He takes the scroll gently in his hands, opens it slowly, and reads:
I will sing to my Beloved a song of his vineyard. My Love had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He plowed the land and cleared it, and planted good vines; he built a tower and a winepress for the harvest that would come. But when he gathered the grapes, they weren’t sweet but sour. Though he’d tended the vines well, they bore wild fruit. Judge, men of Israel, between my Love and his vineyard! What more could the Keeper of the Vineyard have done?
“I knew a man once,” says Jesus after he rolls up the scroll and sits down, “who tended a fig tree for his father. For three years, the father waited to taste the tree’s fruit, but for three years it produced nothing. ‘Why are we still waiting?’ said the father of the man I knew, ‘The soil is good: if this tree gives us nothing, why don’t we cut it down?’ But the man asked his father for one more year. ‘Let me care for it a little longer,’ he said. ‘If it bears fruit, we’ll rejoice together. If not, we’ll cut it down.’”
Jesus stops there and closes his eyes. It’s silent in the assembly for a moment.
“What happened to the tree?” says someone from the back.
Jesus opens his eyes. “I don’t know,” he says. “Before the year was up, some of the father’s servants killed his son.”
The next morning, while James and John are teaching a group of villagers, Peter pulls Jesus aside. He’s been looking for a chance to talk to him alone.
“I don’t understand you,” Peter says.
“But you understand so much,” says Jesus. “More than almost anyone else.”
“I mean I don’t understand why you keep talking about dying,” says Peter.
“The wind blows where it wants to. You have to know the wind to know where it’s going next,” says Jesus.
But Peter is not in the mood for puzzles. “If you have power over life and death, why would you let someone kill you?”
“Because there are things more important than staying alive,” says Jesus, and he starts to walk away.
So Peter reaches out and grabs his arm, pulls him back because he can’t let go now, he can’t go on without an answer. People in the distance are starting to stare, so Peter leans in close and his whisper comes out harsher than he intends: “Then what’s the meaning of this scripture? I call heaven and earth to testify this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: so choose life! that you and your children after you can live.”
“Don’t tempt me,” says Jesus. “You’re not the first one who’s tried to trap me with a question, but it’s harder when it comes from you.”
“Then stop talking that way,” says Peter, and he tightens his grip on Jesus. “If you have the power to choose, choose life! Nothing is simpler than that.”
But Jesus tears his arm away. “Get away from me, Satan!” he says. “Whose side are you on?”
Jesus walks over to James and John, who are talking with some of the villagers about faith. “If anyone wants to follow me,” says Jesus, “he has to forget his own needs and be prepared to die.” Jesus pauses. A villager shifts his weight from one foot to the other and looks at the ground.
“Can’t you see?” Jesus says. “If all you think about is how to keep living, you’ll find one day that you’ve lost your whole life. But if you lose your life for me and my teachings, you’ll find a life that no one can take from you, not even the grave.
“Sometimes,” says Jesus, “your life is the price of your soul.”
Jesus leaves town then and heads toward the mountain. Only James, John, and Peter follow.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.