by Daniel Harrell
This is my last look at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in John’s gospel. You’ll remember from my last look, before this last look, how our Lord magnanimously restored Peter the black sheep into Peter the able shepherd. The passage crescendoed with Jesus’ imperative: “Follow me!” Because of this imperative, and others like it, many Christians have taken to calling themselves “Christ-followers” instead of Christians. It also has something to do with the perception that the noun Christian has become trivialized and besmirched due to negative associations and many believers’ bad behavior. To be a “Christ-follower” erases any ambiguity as to one’s primary allegiance. To be a “Christ-follower” is to take seriously one’s commitments to the counter-cultural commands of gospel and practice all that it preaches. To follow Christ is to trust the Lord wherever he leads, no matter the road, whatever the cost, no turning back, no turning back.
This is why I’d rather just call myself a Christian. I’m not opposed to a little ambiguity. The gospels paint a daunting picture of what following Christ looks like. A man comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” To whit Jesus replies, “Are you sure about that? Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Somebody else says, “I’m in Lord, but first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus says, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” To the rich man Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor in exchange for treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And then to everybody, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross to do it.” For the original hearers, taking up a cross was not some metaphor for bearing life’s difficulties. Jesus said, “…you’ll be handed over to be tortured, and will be put to death and hated by all because of my name.” Jesus said that only those who lose their lives will find their lives. By which he did mean losing your life—a reality he made clear in predicting Peter’s own martyrdom.
However, according to this morning’s passage, following Christ need not always mean losing your life to martyrdom. Peter would be executed for his faith, but apparently John would live to a ripe old age—at least long enough to write his gospel. Both were faithful in their following. Not that this makes things any easier. In fact if you live a long time, it may make things harder. The admired Catholic author Henri Nouwen once wrote, “The movement from illusion to [truly following Christ] is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender….” Nouwen’s faith forced a dramatic surrender later in his life. He gave up an acclaimed career as an Ivy League lecturer, best-selling author and counselor to the powerful in order to take up residence at a community for people with mental disabilities in Toronto. He devoted the remainder of his life in relatively quiet service to those with great need. It was a move many admired, but few emulated. Following Christ is hard to do.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a grocery store cashier in small town Georgia who wore a Roman’s 1:16 tie to work: I’m not ashamed of the Gospel was writ large all across it. (It was a necktie I presume.) You’d push your cart into line where he’d greet you with a wide, generous grin and then, showing genuine interest in how you were doing, he’d chew the fat while scanning your groceries (in big contrast to typical grocery clerks who mostly just chew their gum). After he’d totaled your bill and figured your change without the computer’s help, he’d bag your groceries, reach into his pocket and hand you a singularly wrapped lifesaver candy. Then he’d say with a wink and a tug on his tie: “You know who your lifesaver is, don’t you?”
Barbara Brown Taylor recalled how the clerk was dear, how he was earnest and how the next time she went back to the store—he was gone. She wrote, “I’m pretty sure that no one asked him to renounce his faith. The store manager probably just asked him to keep it to himself, or to save it for church where people couldn’t become so irritated by it. The man was not a threat, only an embarrassment. The tie, the lifesavers, even the unusual cheerfulness—these were too much for people who just wanted to get through the line and get home. A man who is not ashamed of the Gospel is out there somewhere looking for work which I imagine he’s done a lot of in his life. His following Christ, such as it is, takes the form of chronic unemployment.”
Granted, it’s not exactly what Jesus warned us about when he said, “you’ll be handed over to be tortured, and will be put to death and hated by all because of my name.” That would be in a place like Syria, where hundreds have given their life in opposition to the oppressive regime of President Bashar Assad. Up to this point, many Christians have been hesitant to enter the fray. While they oppose the ruthlessness of the Syrian government, they fear that the police state will be replaced by an Islamic state. They worry about a repeat of Iraq, where the Christian community has basically disappeared as a result of both persecution and exile. And yet, as one Syrian Christian has put it, “To follow Christ, to be a good Christian you have to side with the oppressed and not with the oppressors. It is scary,” but obedience often is.
Of course she and other Syrian Christians could simply deny their faith. Forsake Jesus and save their necks. Like Peter did so shamefully as Jesus stood trial and was sentenced to die, in effect double-crossing his crucified Lord. On the other hand what was Peter supposed to do? Jesus was convicted of crimes. He didn’t defend himself or refute any of the charges. Though we was able to change the weather and defeat the devil, he nevertheless let government authorities string him up. He acted as if he were guilty! He did say that once he rose from the dead they’d meet up again in Galilee, but what was Peter supposed to do with that? Rising from the dead is crazy talk. Which may explain Peter’s denials. Maybe he thought Jesus had lost his mind.
But then Jesus gets raised from the dead. And he meets Peter in Galilee. He has breakfast with him on the beach and finally gets around to discussing those denials, a topic Peter surely knew was coming. Risen and vindicated, Jesus confronted Peter with the obvious: “Do you really love me?” he asked, not once, but three times so that Peter couldn’t miss the connection. Peter replied in the affirmative each time, the third time grievously so, knowing his word meant little when his behavior hadn’t matched up. But Jesus gave him another chance. He always does. He said to Peter: “Follow me!”
Yet even on the heels of this most amazing grace delivered in a most amazing fashion, Christ’s call to follow still shook Peter a bit. It probably had something to do with Jesus predicting Peter’s own crucifixion. It is much easier to be on the receiving end of Christ’s mercy than it is to live out its implications. Peter turned and saw the beloved disciple whom tradition identifies as John nearby. “Lord,” Peter asked, “what about him?”
Scholars split over Peter’s intent. Some, pointing out how Peter and John were intimate friends, attribute anxiety to Peter over John’s prognosis. Since following Jesus would prove deadly for Peter, he naturally was concerned for his friend. That’s why he asked Jesus about him. The problem is the sharp nature of Jesus’ reply: “What’s that to you?” he said to Peter. “You follow me!” Such a rebuke presumes a different set of motives. Did Peter feel unfairly singled out? Did he want to make sure he wasn’t the only one having to sacrifice his life? Was he afraid?
Whatever it was—whether chafed at being set apart or just plain old scared—we can all relate. It is much easier to be on the receiving end of Christ’s mercy than it is to live out its implications. To follow Jesus is to trust the Lord wherever he leads, no matter the road, whatever the cost. It means losing your life—be that your literal life or your literal lifestyle. It is a move from false certainties to true uncertainties, from easy support systems to risky surrender. Henri Nouwen was right. It’s hard to do—even when you do it.
Soon after arriving in Toronto, Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled In the Name of Jesus which focused on Jesus’ restoration of Peter in John’s gospel. Transformed by the community he served, Nouwen wrote, “The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking of me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, my books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.… Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could no longer be counted upon. This experience was and, in many ways, is the most important experience of my new life because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” This love, Nouwen wrote, was none other than the love of God in the name of Jesus.
While out at a pastor’s conference in San Diego several years back, I heard the late Mike Yaconelli describe how his life and ministry to teenagers was deeply influenced by Nouwen’s writing, especially this book, In the Name of Jesus. Yaconelli had this cheeky practice of tracking down authors who had impressionable impacts on his spiritual life (if they were still living) and paying them a personal visit to say thank you. So he located Henri Nouwen at his Toronto residence and made an appointment. Unfortunately, Yaconelli’s flight was delayed, he missed a connection, and was unable to let Nouwen know he’d be late—something to do with misplacing a phone number or something. He arrived at Nouwen’s home three hours late.
Having read many of Nouwen’s other books, Yaconelli was fairly familiar with what he could expect as he approached Nouwen’s door. Henri Nouwen’s grace and magnanimous love were legendary—I experienced it myself in a class I took with Nouwen in seminary. Though a class of 400, he took time to meet with each of us individually. Yaconelli would have rather been on time, but at least this way he’d get to see Nouwen’s godly love in action. Yaconelli knocked, not really expecting that Nouwen had waited around. But it turned out that he had. Toward the door came a dramatic stomping followed by a violent ripping open of the door that revealed not the love of God but the wrath of Henri. Irate, Nouwen lit into Yaconelli without mercy, without worry, without even asking what happened: “Where have you been!? Why didn’t you call?! Don’t you know you’re three hours late?! Have you no respect of others’ schedules?” A shocked Yaconelli could only yell back, “HEY BUDDY, IN THE NAME OF JESUS! OK?”
Nouwen fans will be relieved to know that he apologized and went on to share a memorable visit. But for Mike Yaconelli, it was that initial, stressful encounter that proved most memorable. Not because it tarnished Nouwen’s reputation, but rather because it reinforced how hard following Christ truly is—even when you’re doing it.
I bought a pair of shoes a month not so long ago that I thought fit but didn’t. I wore them a few times thinking I could break them in, but they were just too small. I was so frustrated because I’d paid $40 for shoes that retailed for $60 but were now going cost me $80. The store wouldn’t take back shoes I’d already worn, so I’d have to buy a second pair. I went back to the store, one of those big box shoe warehouses where the shoes are strewn all over everywhere, and found a replacement pair that fit just right. I put them on my feet and put the ill-fitting pair in the new shoebox the others had just come out of. I sat there for a moment and said to myself, “You know, these ones I’ve worn don’t look that bad. I’ve only worn them a few times. What’s really wrong with just putting them back on the shelf and calling it even?” But then my other self said, “You can’t leave them here and walk out! You’re a Christian for Christ’s sake! Go pay for the shoes!”
So I halfheartedly walked up to the cashier and told her what happened. She said, “Wow, this means you’ll be paying $80 for a pair of shoes that only costs $40. You know you didn’t have to tell me you’d worn these other ones. They don’t look that bad. Besides, nobody ever checks.” I wish I’d had a lifesaver in my pocket.
It is much easier to be on the receiving end of Christ’s mercy than it is to live out its implications. To follow Jesus is to trust the Lord wherever he leads, to the point of losing your life—or losing a measly 40 bucks. It is a move from false certainties to true uncertainties, from easy support systems to risky surrender. Following Christ is hard to do even as we do it. So why do we do it? Jesus wondered himself. Earlier in John’s gospel, after many had abandoned him because of his difficult demands, Jesus asked his disciples, “Wouldn’t you all rather go away too?” To which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. You have the words of eternal life.”