It is not unlike us to stand or sit around a crackling fire with a group of friends, smoke wafting up and down and through the nostrils of each individual, sometimes one or two people at a time. And many times we are spending recreational currency with a group of people who may or may not care about Jesus or his death. There are people who stand at our side, or sit next to us drinking a beer or cooking a s’more, who care little for the things of God. In fact, it could and should be argued that as the church, our calling is not to sequester ourselves for the whole of our lives, inside of a group of people who all think and act the same – at least in public.
It is no problem to step outside of those guardrails and talk and be with the world. THe Atheist, the critic, and the skeptic all have something in common with us – we are all made in God’s image and we all are loved by the same God who gave his life for us.
But standing there at the fire, at the intersection of talking about weather and sports and fashion trends and Netflix, occasionally the conversation between the devout and the uninterested might delve into something real and authentic.
And we may be assaulted by the inconvenient accusation that we too, follow Jesus. But 2000 years later, we have an even more difficult question to answer than “Hey, you’re one of those followers, aren’t you?” We now must look at our family, friends, or co workers, and answer the question, “Why?”
Why do we read a collection of stories about a guy who was killed by Romans Millenia ago? And why do we bathe in that death as something as special as bubbles in a a child’s bathtub? Why do we sit in silence processing his horrific punishment and what it means to us, personally and as a “single body”?
It is in those most precarious moments of reckoning that we also have an advantage over the most talkative of Christ’s original 12: We have been given ‘parakletos’ by God himself – to advocate, and help, and guide, and to walk alongside us as we sit around a fire, or in our home, or in our schools or in our workplaces. When we are encountered with the question of who we follow, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, or can intercede for us, if we are open to such advocating.
Too often we are afraid of the consequences of saying “yes, I absolutely follow Jesus.” WE are afraid of answering the question why. We are afraid of dying to ourself or even dying at all, and so in our pitiful fear of what others will think about us and the direction we have chosen, we stubbornly look at those who dare to inquire about our allegiance, and we, not quite so boldly as Peter, push off the interrogation. Oh we don’t say things like, “Woman, I don’t know him!” Or “Man, I am not!” We’re much too Christianese and proper for all of that kind of denial. Our answers to such intense inquiries are somewhere in the neighborhood of feigning ignorance, redirecting the conversation back to surface level topics like how far that home run ball was hit, or worse yet, sharing the dates and times that our organizational church service meets each week. In short, we have developed amazing, incredible creative ways to deny who we follow and why we follow him.
Denial in the way we in the 21st century have shaped it is a much more palatable taste. It goes down easy, and tames the harshest of realities. Perhaps we are not really following the Rabbi as much as we think we are following him. Sitting here today, processing what the death of Jesus means is always difficult. I want it to mean something wonderful for me. I want to mold it into a view of heaven that allows me to someday launch 3 pointers from golden rims and bay windowed backboards with the likes of Steph Curry and Larry Bird, leaving all this messy earth stuff behind. But this type of “Send the earth to hell” philosophy denies what Yeshua stood for as he lived his actual life. It ignores his teachings, and simply creates a little club where we never have to answer for real “why” we follow Him.
What’s worse is our reaction to our own compromising denials. We continue on with our lives, hitting up church every Sunday and recreating the busyness of our schedules each week like we live in some sort of regurgitated Truman Show or Matrix cycle of life. It all seems real, but we are called by parakletos to “take the red pill” or step into giving our lives to this new King of the World.
Peter eventually steps into this new world, starting with his breakfast date on the beach and then on Pentecost. But in the darkness of the night of Jesus’ arrest, when it was all going down and stuff was beginning to get real, he lost it. Not once, and not twice but three times.
You might ask yourself, “Self, how could a hero like Samson tell his secret to Delilah several times even after he knew she was in cahoots with his enemies? or how could the Father of great nations , Abraham, lie about his wife multiple times, despite his already cemented faith that God would guide him and take care of him? or how could Peter, not even a day after his Teacher told him he would deny him, turn around and deny him just as he said he would?
Because denial, like most sins, doesn’t come out of the blue. It slowly mixes into our hearts with small amounts of doubt and insolence and independence that we as the creation have and always will have. It reminds us that pride will always attempt to break into our souls and replace the brittle trust we have in who we follow.
It reminds me of the time that as a 19 year old single boy, I drove a Grey hound bus from Tucson Arizona to Pensacola Florida. Destination: College. I know I’m a pastor, but please allow me a moment of authenticity and self deprication in my past to get across a greater point. The 52 hour bus drive felt like a forever journey in the heat of the summer, but I was prepared to make the trip as comfortable as possible. So I put on my most flexible pair of basketball shorts, white converse shoes, and a brand new crisp and clean “Jesus is my boy” T shirt. The bus was somewhat full except for a few seats, including the seat next to mine. At the stop after I got on in El Paso Texas, a lovely girl walked in and I prayed to Jesus, “Please, please, please let her sit by me.” It’s amazing the things we go to God about.
She sat next to me.
IN case you didn’t know, Greyhound buses stop every 30 minutes, or at least it feels like it. So at the next stop, I quickly went to the reroom and turned my t-shirt, yes the “Jesus is my boy” shirt, in side out. I wanted to garner all her attention for myself. I didn’t want “my boy” to get it. I laugh about it now, but whether it be Samson or Abraham or Peter or myself or you, we all come to a place where we must fess up to our own inclination to ditch following Jesus for a hopeless alternative – following ourselves.
We know that following ourselves doesn’t work. We’ve tried it a countless number of times, and yet, we will still try more, and no amount of trying and the miserable feeling that follows will stop us from trying again and again.
At least Peter understood the weight of his actions. Luke says, “Peter remembered…and he went outside and wept miserably.”
thankfully we need not be anchored down with our own fears and our own pride, but we can bask in the freedom that comes with parakletos. Oh we will be tempted to judge other Christians for the way they follow after our advocate. But beware, for they are only a different part of the one body that Christ has. One of the gravest sins a believer can make is believing that the Holy Spirit will move another believer the same way the Holy Spirit moved him or her.
But you decide today to walk in parakletos, and allow the Holy Spirit to walk with, to advocate for, to guide, and to lead you into all truth. And then you will not need to fear in such a way that you make multiple unwise decisions like Samson, or you will not be hindered by the false tongue of Abraham, or you will not awkwardly go so far as to turn your t shirt inside out so some girl who you do not know will not know who you know or you will not end up having a miserable, weeping night like the future spokesperson for the Jerusalem church.
Walk with Parakletos in the thickness of Christ’s death, and you will be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Years ago I read a story from Professor NT Wright about following Jesus in times of difficulty. he said:
“I was fortunate enough to be involved in a service commemorating the life and witness of Wang Zhiming. He was a Chinese pastor who, after maintaining a clear Christian witness in the days of Mao’s cultural revolution, was executed in front of a large crowd. He is one of hundreds of martyrs who, in recent memory, have given their life for the Christian faith. Among the things people saw in him, the things that made the authorities angry, was that he went on telling the truth even when it became first costly, then dangerous, and finally almost suicidal, to do so. Faith and truth, expressed with grace and dignity, are unconquerable. That’s why Wang Zhiming is portrayed in a statue on the west front of Westminster Abbey, while nobody today remembers his accusers or executioners.”
Sure, Peter was weak, and so are we. And it is just that sort of weakness that was the reason why we have been sent the Holy Spirit. “Faith and truth, expressed with grace and dignity, in the midst of your school, workplace, home or your backyard fire pit, are indeed unconquerable.