Asking Jesus the Tough Questions
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 22, 2020
Reading: John 13:31-38
I want to take a moment to thank those who are making this service possible today –those who have come in and are working in our radio room, doing both sound and visuals, our musicians, and those who have kept this building stay safe and clean – my gratitude. We know that on the frontlines of this current situation, there are many that are making personal sacrifices for us and I want to address those who right now are working in hospitals. We know that this is a difficult time for you, and you might not have the opportunity to hear or watch this service, because of the work that you’re doing, but we hope that others will tell you how grateful we are for the risks that you are taking for the sake of others. May God, in all his grace, protect you. Let us pray.
Oh Lord at times like this, we turn to your Word to help us. We know that alone – with all the wisdom and cooperation that we can muster – we still need the guidance and the strength of your Holy Spirit. May your Spirit envelop us now, whatever room or home, whatever hospital bed, whatever garden we might be sitting in, with the peace of your Spirit. And may my word, speak your Word to us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I was in an antique bookstore in London, a few weeks ago and on the shelves, I saw a book that I really wanted. It was Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, but it was leather bound, and it too expensive. Nevertheless, I thumbed through it and as soon as I got back to my room, I went online, and I started to read it again. I can’t think of anything in this current context that could be more fitting than a word from Daniel Defoe.
As many of you know, Defoe grew up in the 17th Century and wrote in the 18th Century. But as a young boy, he grew up during the plague in London. In 1665, many thousands of people died as a result of that plague. A year later, there was the great fire. Defoe wrote from a deep pool of experience. When he came to write the magnificent Robinson Crusoe, there were things from his livelihood and his own convictions that came through loud and clear. It was written in 1719 and has been translated more than any other book in the world, with the exception of the Bible. It is that popular. It’s the story of a young man who grew up in wealth and privilege, but ended up living a life of profligacy, of ease and of self-indulgence. Through a series of business deals, traversing Brazil and Africa, ending up selling slaves, he was in a boat that capsized and forced to live on an island, in isolation, where he remained for some 15 years. He wrestled with his faith in God: One of the few things that came ashore, was a copy of the Bible. He tried to live as the Bible taught him, but of course, he was all alone.
Then one day, out of the blue, he saw some footprints and he realized they weren’t his own. He had heard that there had been cannibals. There were all kinds of myths and legends about this island and he was worried for his life. To make a long story short, as many of you know, those cannibals were there, but there was also someone else who similarly had been left on that island – and that he rescued – his Man Friday. Friday, who ironically had been a slave, became someone who worked and lived with him, until eventually returning to civilization.
Daniel Defoe was a Christian, a Presbyterian, a dissenter. He even spent time in prison for his convictions and his beliefs. But Defoe was trying to make some very profound statements in all of this – that even in isolation, Robinson Crusoe was able to be productive. Even in isolation he was able to strengthen and develop his relationship with God, who became his companion. And finally, when he found somebody, developed a relationship of affection and trust.
It is even more pertinent, not only in our own context, but also in the light of our passage from the Gospel of John, because there is a symmetry between Robinson Crusoe and our passage today. In it the disciples had a crisis of faith. They lived a life with a nice easy set of rules in their religion – a very nice, almost cozy relationship with Jesus. They believed that Jesus would be triumphant, that the Kingdom would be restored to Israel, that there would be a mighty awakening of the Nation from its slumbers and that Jesus was the Messiah. And as his followers, they would become people of importance, maybe even of privilege. But Jesus shatters their world. He tells them in John’s Gospel – and he has told them in all the Gospels – that he is going to go away, that he is going to leave them, that he has to do what he has to do, to glorify God. Then he shocks them and says, “But where I’m going, you can’t go. You’re not allowed to come with me.” Then he says, “But in the meantime, I give you a new commandment – that you love one another, as I have loved you.” He then prepares to leave.
Peter, forever the interlocutor for the disciples, and the self-assessed spokesperson for them, challenges Jesus. He does not want to hear this but out of these very questions as the great John Marsh, the New Testament Professor from Mansfield College, Oxford, says, “Out of these very questions – arise questions that we in time in memorial – should be asking ourselves.”
One of them is simply this and that is, what did Peter want to know from Jesus? He asked Jesus a very simple question. He says, “Lord, where are you going?”
Peter does not like being out of control. He wants to know what is up. Some scholars have suggested what he really wanted to know more than anything, is not just where are you going? But why are you going? That was really at the heart of what Peter wanted to know. Why are you going? Essentially, the why was because he had seen Jesus doing so many great things. He had seen Jesus perform the Wedding of Cana, feed 5000, heal the sick. He had witnessed what in the Gospel of John are called the signs and the wonders. He had done all of these things but now he’s starting to question, why would you possibly need to go? What is it Jesus, that you need to do and why can we not know about it?
Essentially, what Peter wanted, was self-centered. He wanted to know what Jesus knew. He wanted to put himself on the same level as Jesus. Where are you going? Why are you going? Out of this desire to know things, out of this self-centeredness, there is this sense that he wants to control the situation. He even says to Jesus, in one of the greatest texts in the New Testament, “I’m willing to die for you.”
He put himself on the line. You can understand that sense of grief that he must have been feeling. He must have been feeling not only that Jesus was going, but that everything that he loved so much had gone with him. It was as if everything was now standing still and dark.
Jesus challenges and is straight-forward with him and says, “By the time the cock crows three times, you will deny me.” So, Peter not only doesn’t have control of the situation, doesn’t know what Jesus is doing, is unaware of what the plan is – he is grieving at the loss of the loved one. He’s even being told that he probably won’t live up to all the expectations of what he is supposed to do.
I think he felt a little bit like W. H. Auden, when he lost his very best friend. I read this piece of poetry at a committal service this last week. Believe you me, doing a committal service when there are few people who can come to a service, is profoundly difficult.
The famous poem that I read was Auden’s, Stop the Clocks.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Peter was mourning. Everything he had was lost. Everyone he loved seemed to be leaving. Jesus, the Lord, was departing. Where are you going? Why are you going? He wanted to know. But Jesus wanted Peter to know something, that it actually wasn’t about him at all, it was about the work of Jesus himself. He wanted Peter to burst out of his self-centeredness and to think about what Jesus was doing.
Jesus was letting him know that I have to go and do my Father’s will. I have to die on the cross. I have to give my life. I have to do this to glorify God. I have to do this to save humanity. I have to bear the sins of the world. I have to await and trust that I will be raised from the dead. Peter, this is not about you. This is about me and you have to change the way you’re looking at this and reorient yourself in every way, from the depths of your grief. You have to turn around now and you have to trust me.
In the words of Robinson Crusoe, “You might be looking at those footprints and wondering where they’re leading. But as in the great story of the footprints, maybe you have to trust that I’m the one who’s going to carry you.”
My friends, if Peter had to learn that lesson, do we not also? In this encounter between Jesus and Peter, is there not a lesson for our hearts, our lives, and our world? I think there is. I think it goes right to the heart of faith in a time of crisis and uncertainty and even death. For Peter, Jesus said, “You are not to know now, but you will know later. You cannot follow me now, but you will be able to follow me later.” He gave him a promise and the promise is that where he was going, Peter would go also – and is that not really the heart of faith?
When we’re living in this unprecedented time of uncertainty and fear, I see it on people’s faces when I go for a walk at night. I see fear etched on the faces of those across the street because of fear. There is a deep sense of concern and it’s hard to be patient when you’re living in a room, on your own and you’ve no idea when this is going to end. It’s hard to maintain your faith in those moments. But patience is perhaps the first thing that Peter had to learn from Jesus. “Not now Peter, but later.” I think for our culture this is particularly hard. I’ve never been the greatest fan of Richard Nixon – and I do not usually quote him but there were things that Nixon has said over the years that are absolutely right. He was a clever man.
In an interview in 1986 he talked about North American culture and said the following: “As Americans, we have great strengths, but one of our weaknesses is impatience. The Russians think in terms of decades. The Chinese in terms of centuries. Americans think in terms of years, months, or even days. If in the quest for a realistic lasting peace, we expect overnight success, instant gratitude, we are bound to be disappointed.”
One of the great gifts of patience is that it can be reinforced by the power of the Holy Spirit. It can be a gift. If right now you are tormented by a lack of patience seek that notion of God’s time that Jesus wanted Peter to have. But faith is not only about that. It is especially about compassion. Jesus said – and he said it very, very powerfully – “As you wait, love one another, as I have loved you. This is my commandment.”
We often wonder – especially living in isolation – how do we love one another? How do we do that when we cannot make contact? We have virtual hugs, virtual waves. We pass each other by. How do we find compassion?
How do we love one another like this? Well, by using every mode of contact that we possibly have, by praying for one another, by connecting with each other through the Church. But also, I believe connecting ourselves with God, in a deep-seated life of prayer.
My friends, you now have the time to pray. You have this opportunity to meditate, to read scripture, to seek God’s solace, to reflect on life. You might feel right now that you have seen some footprints in the sand. You have no idea where they’re going. I commend and I applaud those who within our political realm of all parties and all levels of government, who are trying their best. Can you imagine what this is like for them? They have no idea, because they see the footprints and they do not know where they lead. But while we do not know where those footprints in the sand lead – just like Peter did not know where Jesus was going, just like Robinsons Crusoe thought only terrible things were at the end of it – may we also learn what they both learned – that there is always, not only now, not only as the Alpha, but also at the end as the Omega – someone who goes with us – the Risen Christ Jesus, our Lord. May he walk with you, sit in your room with you, embrace you today. Amen.