It was too difficult for some. The commitment was too high. The weight too much to bear.
“Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?'” (John 6:66, 67).
Peter speaks up. He acknowledges that there are some things in life worth sticking around for. Some things more important than popularity. Some things more important than the easy road.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life,” Peter replies (John 6:68).
Peter found someone worth following. He found a cause greater than himself. He found a purpose beyond popularity, success, and the easy road.
2017 graduates, don’t be afraid of the commitment. Don’t run from the difficult. Commit to a purpose greater than yourself and go all in. Some things are more important than the edited perfection behind an Instagram photo or 30-second glimpse at life on Snapchat.
And when you fail, cause you will, remember God is a God who sticks with us even when there’s nothing in us worth sticking with.
Class of 2017, my prayer for you is that you will never be caught off guard by your own success or knocked down by your own failure, but that you will stay true to the person God is at work shaping you into.
At the end his book, What Jesus Meant, Gary Wills writes, “Dark and mysterious as the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a single thing can help us think of them.” He then shares a personal account of a conversation that he had with his son. His young son woke up one night crying. He had a bad dream, a nightmare. When Wills asked what was troubling him, the little boy said that a nun in his Catholic school had told the children that they would end up in hell if they sinned. “Am I going to hell?” the little boy asked his father. Wills writes, “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly announced what any father, any parent would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.’”
In the silence of Holy Saturday, Jesus says, “There is no place – no hell, no suffering, no threat, and not even death that if you are going, I am going with you.”
An artist who completes a painting can declare, “It is finished.” A carpenter who builds a house can assert as the new owners move in, “It is finished.” A writer who pens the last sentence of her debut novel says confidently, “It is finished.” A teacher who turns out the lights of her classroom after a long school year affirms, “It is finished.” “It is finished” are powerful words that speak of accomplishment and fulfillment.
They can also be words that speak of defeat. A spouse who walks out of a relationship declares, “It is finished!” A business owner who flips over the closed sign for the last time says, “It is finished.” A report that the cancer is inoperable sounds like “it is finished.” “It is finished” speaks to finality. It is complete. Nothing else is left to be done. It is finished.
On this Friday night that we call good, we hear, “It is finished” as some of the final words of Jesus on the cross. However we decide to take those words, defeat is not an option. The cross is not a defeat. His whole life leads up to the moment of him being lifted up and being able to declare in the affirmative, “It is finished.” We are told that when just like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness as a sign of salvation for the people, Jesus will be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life (John 3:14). It is only when he is “lifted up” that we will begin to understand who he is and who sent him (8:28). After he rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus pronounces, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified” (12:23). He continues, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (12:32). When Jesus states boldly, “It is finished,” he is not crying defeat but words of affirmation for a life lived on purpose.
On that cross we see through the window on the very heart and character of a loving God. It is finished. Peter sobs. Redemption found. It is finished. The women wail. Love fulfilled. It is finished. The crowd stands in silence. Heaven and earth clash. It is finished. The veil in the temple is torn. All are accepted. It is finished. Earth quakes. Heaven weeps. It is finished. The power of sin is destroyed. Satan has lost. It is finished.
Jesus finished so that we can begin. Our guilt he nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). He took upon himself our shame (Gal. 3:13). His death opens up the way for us to God (I Peter 3:18). His death on the cross shattered the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). It is finished, done, completed, accomplished, and fulfilled, so that; we can live fully, abundantly, and eternally.
True friendship is life-giving. It is life-sacrificing. True friendship is willing to be wounded for the sake of the other. Hours before he would be betrayed in the garden, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this; that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).”
Jesus was a friend of sinners. Jesus loves even when he is not loved back. A friend who ask nothing in return and yet, is willing to give all for our love. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because of whom he chose to call friend (Matt. 11:19). When Judas, the betrayer, shows up with a legion of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he responds, “My friend, go ahead and do what you have come for” (Matt. 26:50). The one who betrays, Jesus calls friend.
Jesus lays down his life for his friends. He bears the sins of his friends. Toward the end of his life, he says to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants . . . Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). The cross is his claim that he has not given up on his friends. It is on the cross that Jesus befriends humanity. On the cross, Jesus dies a friend of sinners, so that we may become a friend of God. On the cross God battles for those he longs to call friend.
Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One of those criminals ridiculed and mocked Jesus. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” He refused to see the possibility that this man hanging limp on the cross between him and his accomplice could possibly be the savior of the world. He refused to see that this man who had become the scapegoat for the religious leaders and the government officials could possibly be the one who will usher in God’s reign on earth.
Of course, we can’t be too hard on this criminal. Would we have noticed? Would we have picked up on the fact that this crucified man was the hope of the world? If we had witnessed this act, would we have claimed to see God’s very best?
I don’t think so. Why? Because this is outside of the way we have come to think about God. This would require us to move our God-defined boundaries. If we were going to see God in this, then we would have to re-define what we think about God, the world, and us.
It seems that God is rather fond of wrecking a perfectly good, normal life. There is no pattern to God’s wrecking ball. Fishermen trying to make a living, tax collectors working collecting their wages, zealots trying to start their revolution all have their lives wrecked when Jesus comes walking into town and invites them to follow him. So, move over Miley Cyrus, there is a new wrecking ball in town.
C.S. Lewis describes this idea as God’s Beautiful Wrecking. In Mere Christianity, he says, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
God is perfectly okay with wrecking a perfectly normal decent life because God knows that we were made for something more than just normal and decent. Jesus is okay with riding in like wrecking ball because he knows that in order to make something beautiful the old has to be torn down.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9: 57-62.
Inside St. George’s Church after the deadly explosion on Palm Sunday in Tanta, Egypt. Credit Khaled Elfiqi/European Pressphoto Agency
On Palm Sunday two separate suicide bombings tore through Coptic Christian churches in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, where at least 27 died, and hours later in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where the death toll reached at least 17.
While we are at ease, they are in exile of pain and isolation. While we are feasting on the good things around us, they are slowing dying. While we claim our best life now, they don’t know if they will be alive tomorrow. While we wear the cross as a piece of jewelry, they carry it daily as an invitation to die with Christ.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
In our baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross. We have accepted the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We oppose the violence done to fellow believers. Today, we are invited to remember and stand with brothers and sisters living under persecution.
Proverbs 31:8 says, “Speak out for those who cannot speak.” If you want to raise the voice of persecution, then raise it up for those who have been killed living out their faith.
God of the suffering, we lift up our brothers and sisters who are living under the weight of persecution. May they experience your presence in their oppression. Give courage to those who stand in danger due to their faith. We remember their pain. May they not be forgotten. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.