Sunday May 27, 2012
I felt honored and a bit nervous to have been asked to speak at one of these ecumenical Sunday services of the Dartmouth Christian Chaplaincy. I became even more nervous when I read the homilies that had come before me in this series on “courage.” Like Grace Johnson, I started from the point of view that I didn’t know anything about courage and was not myself particularly drawn to the idea of courage. When I read her remarks, she helped me warm up to the idea of speaking about courage through her connection of courage to trust and faith. I was similarly very moved by Michelle Domingue’s comments about the courage to love and the portrait of Mother Henriette DeLille he shared with us. I found myself continuing to shake my head in agreement as I continued on to read Kurt Nelson’s remarks on courage and ambiguity. All these great speakers left me in the position of not being sure I had something worthwhile to add to this exploration. With exemplary Christian charity, Kurt urged me to speak from experience and to widen the topic’s scope if I felt I wanted to. This opened up the deep desire in me to share with you something of the extended thinking I have been doing about mortality. Once I got on this track it felt like the appropriate one, even more so when I realized that Dartmouth and in specific Rollins Chapel have been the backdrop for some of my most difficult encounters with mortality. However, I get ahead of myself. Let’s go back to Peter.
Many of you will have recognized this passage as beginning where Michelle’s reading ended and you will remember the larger context for both as the Last Supper. John 13 begins with Jesus’ decision to wash His disciples’ feet; Simon Peter exclaims “you shall never wash my feet” and is immediately chastised by Jesus that “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Peter then requests to be washed all over. After the washing, Jesus tells His disciples many things concerning what is about to happen, including that where He is going they may not come. It seems important to me that it is precisely with this separation in mind, that Christ gives His followers the new commandment (verse 34): “that you love one another as I have loved you”; He makes the connection for them: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I’m not sure if Peter heard what His master was saying or not. He seems to be focussed on the announcement of a separation and hence where we picked up the scripture today, he wagers the question about where Jesus is going. This leads to some of the most beautiful and comforting verses of the New Testament, those about Jesus preparing places in His Father’s house for us and Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. What I most want to observe about the passage we read today is that one of Christ’s most direct statements of the promise of eternal life occurs in a context that I’d like to suggest is imbued with our denial of our human mortality.
To help you understand why I believe this, I’d like us to stay with Peter rather than with the promise of immortality. Peter does not want to be separated from Jesus; he wants to know more about where Jesus is going. He wants to follow Him now, promising that if he’s allowed to do so, “I will lay down my life for Your sake.” It would be very easy to hear Jesus’s response to Peter’s vow with the ears of our contemporary world; His tone would be sarcastic: “Hah! Will you lay down your life for My sake?” However, I don’t think that’s the tone Jesus used at all. I think with great sorrow He informs Peter that he will deny Jesus. At the same time, I would wager Jesus’s voice had a hint of joy in it, for Jesus knows that with God all things are possible. After the Resurrection, Peter will be given an opportunity to “undo” his betrayal (remember John 21:15-17) and he will indeed die for Christ’s sake eventually.
But again, I get ahead of myself. I want to stay with Peter a little longer. At this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus continues to instruct His disciples at length; if we had time to review it all here, we would notice that the Evangelist makes no further mention of questions or comments of Peter in the remainder of their time at supper. Rather, Peter is next mentioned in the scene in the garden where he draws a sword and strikes the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. Jesus must rebuke him again, saying “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” In the passage which follows the garden scene, Peter’s three denials are intimately interwoven with John’s narration of Jesus’s questioning by the high priest (18:12-27).
Having reviewed in brief this long and complex passage of Scripture, I am sure there are hundreds of lessons we could learn. I think what has most often struck me is the plausibility, the uncanny familiarity of Peter’s behaviour. He follows Jesus from the garden when it is clear that it is dangerous to do so, in other words, when Jesus is brought to the high priest. And yet, the Gospel specifically states that at first Peter stands “at the door outside.” Even when he is brought inside through the intervention of another disciple, thus having the opportunity to be close to the Master, to follow Him, as he had said he wanted to just a few hours earlier, he then denies his status as a follower of Jesus, not just once, but three distinct times. To look at this larger sequence, then, every time Jesus or Peter gets close to death, even by talking about it, Peter does something to put distance between life as he knows it and the cessation of that life. He simply does not (yet) have the courage to be mortal, the courage to face death. Of course extraordinary events are about to happen that will enable Peter to acquire that courage. I refer to Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, the time Christ spends with Peter and the Others until His Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that lead to Peter’s profound knowledge of Christ, to the level of knowledge that will lead him not only to proclaim Christ with his words: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), as he has already done, but also to act on that knowledge, to indeed lay down his life for Christ’s sake.
Why am I sharing these thoughts with you on this holiday weekend? What does it have to do with us? If Peter eventually learns to face mortal death, why review the moments when he could not?
As our other speakers in this series have pointed out so convincingly, it takes courage to be a Christian for sure. Even in our pluralistic society or on our open-minded diverse campus, it is not easy for most of us to answer the question asked point blank of Peter: “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” (John 18:17).
I’m going to switch tracks now and tell you that one of the hardest things about getting ready to speak with you today was figuring out how to keep my focus. In doing this exercise, I realized how intensely intertwined the tenets of my faith are and how difficult it is to speak about one without mentioning its relationship to all the others. But time demands it. So, I’m going to skip over dozens of steps in my thought process to tell you why it felt right to talk about this topic with you today. Come to think of it, it is Memorial Day weekend, when we do theoretically anyway, say we want to consider the topic of death. But it wasn’t really the secular holiday that propelled me toward this topic. It was rather my experience of time. When you get to be my age, it is downright scary how quickly time passes. An academic term used to seem like a long amount of time and now it goes by in a flash. I feel like I still have a lot to learn about being a true Christian and not much time to do it in, and similarly, I feel obliged to try to pass on to others as quickly as I can whatever it is I might think I sort of do know or understand.
One of those things that I think I know, is that even an average-length lifespan can go by very fast. Based on this, my hope is that you will feel the desire to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can and to put that knowledge into action immediately, that you will “be” the person you want to be starting right now. Another of those things I think I know is that we can’t be sure that we will have a “normal” lifespan to work with; we never know when we will be called to face our own mortality. This brings me very specifically to Dartmouth and even Rollins Chapel. In the course of one ordinary weekend in January 2001, I got a phonecall that would literally change my life, indeed how I think about life. That phonecall announced that two of my closest friends, Susanne and Half Zantop, both also professors at Dartmouth, had been murdered. It was about a week later that the larger College community came together to try to memorialize them here in this place, a place that has remained linked in my mind ever since to losing the Zantops.
One would of course prefer not to have tragedies, than to learn lessons from them, but given that tragedies are inevitably part of our experience on earth, I do believe one can and should learn from them. One lesson from that awful time for me was the forced confrontation with the reality that one minute you can be with someone and the next minute, they can be gone. I had a lovely conversation with Susanne on Friday afternoon and less than twenty-four hours later, she and Half were dead. What to do with that knowledge?! To be afraid, like Peter at the high priest’s? to deny that you love others, that that love connects you irrevocably to them, as Peter denied being connected to Jesus? Or to realize that our very mortality makes loving others now all the more imperative?
Let’s go back to today’s Scripture one more time: Jesus announces His separation “for now” from His disciples to them and the very next thing he does is give them a new commandment “that you love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus knows that Peter loves Him. I think God gives us this story, so that we are not afraid when we feel like Peter, because one other thing I think I know is that we are all bound to feel like Peter at some points in our lives. Knowing we are like him in our fear can also help us emulate him in the courage he eventually finds to affirm, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You” (John 21:15-17). Then it’s just up to us to make sure we keep feeding His sheep, with our love, our actions, our words, and our knowledge.
Praise Be to God for all things!
*Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow Me now, but you shall follow Me afterward.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.” Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times. [14:1] “let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.”