Getting Off the Fence

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For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter.  Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.

People who live in a consumer culture tend to be fence-sitters. 

Waiting for the next sale just makes sense.  Tomorrow might bring a better deal or a bigger coupon.  If you’re really into change, you can constantly keep your eyes open for a more rewarding job or trade up for a more fascinating life partner.  Why make a final commitment when something else might show up on life’s smorgasbord? 

The crowds who gathered to hear Jesus speak twenty centuries ago weren’t so very different.  They were thrilled to receive his healing touch.  They were stunned by his miraculous gift of “dinner for 5,000.” 

But then Jesus began to get specific about spiritual commitment.  You could embrace him as the ultimate expression of God’s presence on Earth, or you could walk away.  Fence-sitting was not an option.  According to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, myriads of listeners decided they had heard enough. 

“On hearing it, many of his disciples [that is, would-be disciples] said, ‘This is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60).  The word “hard” here, by the way, doesn’t mean hard to understand.  The crowd knows exactly what Jesus is claiming.  This is simply outrageously hard to accept.

These days, significance is often equated with crowd size.  Who’s able to draw the most people to the next big concert, televised inauguration, or Easter service? 

The Bible doesn’t flinch at reporting that no one knew how to get rid of a crowd faster than Jesus.

“At this point, many of his disciples came out from behind him and never walked around with him again” (6:66).  The language is telling.  An apprentice’s place is behind the master, so he can follow in the master’s footsteps.  This crowd, so recently filled up by five loaves and two fish, is now eager to find a more suitable teacher and miracle-worker – someone who won’t make such heavy spiritual demands.

“So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘You don’t want go away too, do you?’” (6:67)  Bible scholar Dale Bruner points out that John puts Jesus’ question into a Greek grammatical form that expects a “No” answer.  In other words, we could accurately translate Jesus’ remark as a statement instead of a question:  “You don’t want to go away too, do you.”  But the fact that Jesus even raises this issue is deeply poignant.  He’s just had a crowd of 5,000 literally eating out of his hand.  But now they’re gone.  Do only twelve remain?  Bruner writes, “Jesus wants his people.  And he wants their answer.”

Peter is the one who answers.

“’Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of deep, lasting Life, and we have come to believe and so to know that you are the Holy One of God.’”  To which we can only say, “Way to go, Peter!”  This time when he opens his mouth, deep wisdom comes out – evidence that a miracle has indeed taken place. 

This is entirely consistent with the other Gospels, by the way.  When given the chance to jump off the fence, Peter always goes first.  He is eager to stake his present and his future on Jesus. 

Generations of disciples have resonated with his words.  To whom else shall we go? 

Without exception, every human being has to make a choice.  We all have to believe someone’s words about the meaning of life.  You can believe Socrates, Aristotle or Voltaire; Buddha, Muhammad or Sun-Myung Moon; Dr. Phil, Dr. Spock or Dr. Seuss.  Or you can believe the gurus and pop psychologists who urge you to believe your own voice, since you speak with the authority of the divine spark that dwells within.  History is largely a record of the sadness and confusion that come from people listening to the words of the wrong leaders, the wrong teachers, and the wrong geniuses. 

Jesus claims to have the words of deep, lasting Life. 

Peter believes it.  Therefore he proclaims it.    

The power of getting off the fence is embodied by Henry Stanley, the American journalist who is chiefly remembered as one who, in 1871, having walked into a jungle clearing in central Africa, spotted a single, pale-skinned man and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

In his own right, however, he was also an explorer of uncharted territory in Africa.  Until Stanley’s extraordinary 1876 expedition, it is believed that no one – either inside or outside Africa – had ever been all the way down the treacherous Congo River, with its canyons, gorges, and cannibals.  His trip took 999 days and was filled with unimaginable hardships.

One night was so difficult that Stanley realized he had to make a choice – either to keep going forward into the unknown, or to head back toward security.  That night he approached his friend and helper Frank Pocock.  “Now Frank, my son, sit down.  I am about to have a long and serious chat with you.  Life and death – yours and mine – hang on the decision I make tonight.” 

What should they do?

Pocock and Stanley decided to flip a coin – an Indian rupee.  Heads they would go forward; tails they would go home.  The coin came up tails.  Disappointed, they flipped the coin again.  Tails.  “How about three out of five?”  Once again it was tails.  The coin, in fact, came up tails six times in a row.  The two men decided to draw straws – long straw to go forward, short straw to go back.  Every time they drew, however, they picked the short straw.

Stanley and Pocock quickly realized that they had already made their decision.  No matter what the coins or the straws “told them,” in their hearts all they wanted to do was head down the Congo River into the Great Unknown.  And so they did, making history in the process.

Peter didn’t have to flip a coin or draw straws to determine whether or not he would follow Jesus.  That was already settled in his heart. 

“Lord, where else could I possibly go?  The alternatives don’t hold a candle to you.  Count me in.” 

Way to go, Peter. 

And may we be led to make the same choice.