Friday, August 7, 2009

Put Your Sword Away!

Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

                        John 18.11

Mossy and Out of Touch

Peter’s been on my mind lately—not the scruffy disciple or the bold Apostle, but the one in between, the Peter who joins Jesus for dinner on a Thursday evening that kicks off the worst weekend of his life. A plan is place and everything’s going accordingly. But it’s not Peter’s plan, nor one he’s privy to. This vexes him. He’s always been The Guy in Jesus’s ministry—the one who pays the bills, screens the appointments, and asks the questions. Christ calls him “The Rock,” for goodness sake, and when it seems Peter’s never been needed more, he doesn’t know how to help. At every juncture, his compulsion to do something gets him in trouble. The Rock looks a little mossy and out of touch right through here.

It starts over dinner, when Peter recoils from Jesus’s offer to wash his feet. His counteroffer to wash Jesus’s feet gets him told he doesn’t know what’s going on. Before leaving the table, it’s clear nothing can be the same. Judas storms out and Christ mentions He’s leaving them very soon. This is news to Peter. “Where are you going?” he asks. Jesus won’t tell, other than it’s nowhere Peter can go. He asks the Lord, “Why not? I’ll die for you.” In his mind, Jesus must be headed into danger He wants to keep from the disciples. “Really? You’d give your life for me?” Jesus asks. “Before sun-up you’ll deny even knowing me three times.”

Double Vision

What a wreck Peter is. Everything he suggests gets vetoed. He’s desperate to know what he can do; Jesus keeps telling him what he can’t do. After-dinner conversation goes on a long time. (John transcribes five chapters’ worth.) While Peter listens for answers, Jesus’s statements grow harder to decipher. By the time everyone repairs to Gethsemane for evening prayers, Peter’s beside himself. He feels shoved aside with no idea what’s next. Jesus indicates He’s taking a passive stance about His situation and the volatile cocktail of loyalty, confusion, and panic brewing in Peter creates double vision. His focus on obedience to Christ blurs into his impression no one’s in control. When he should let God’s plan run its course, he insists on inserting himself into the process. When he should be the epitome of trust and calm, he’s apprehensive and jumpy. When he should act and think soberly, his rash behavior looks drunk and disorderly.

Jesus parts company with the disciples to speak privately with His Father. Peter, who just an hour or two earlier begged to follow Jesus, doesn’t think to find a spot within earshot of Christ. He hangs back with the others. What happened to all that curiosity and concern? After Jesus prays, He returns to find Peter, like the others, sleeping like a rock. He directs His disappointment at Peter: “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Matthew 26.40) Within minutes, the garden swarms with soldiers and officials looking for Jesus. As Jesus surrenders, Peter slowly wakes up to what’s taking place and decides to seize control. He draws his sword on a servant of the high priest and slices off the man’s ear. “Put your sword away!” Jesus scolds. “Don’t you know this is supposed to happen?” These are Jesus’s last words to Peter before He dies.

Lose Control

It’s easy to forget how we follow Jesus differs from how Peter followed Him in only one respect: Christ’s physical presence. On one level that’s an enormous difference, but on the level that counts it’s immaterial. How Jesus taught them to believe and behave is how He teaches us to believe and behave. And while having Christ in the flesh gave them uncommon advantage, we have an advantage they didn’t: we can learn from their mistakes. Peter’s frustration with unanswered questions, feeling shut out, and compulsive need to take control may be understandable, but they’re inexcusable. Hadn’t he followed Christ long enough to know he wasn’t in charge? Couldn’t he see he needed Jesus more than Jesus needed him? How could he mistake his compulsion to save Christ with his desire to serve Him?

We periodically enter benign, predictable situations—a Thursday evening dinner with friends, say—that lurch into life-changing events. We don’t understand what’s going on. We feel underappreciated and ignored. Anything we say is the wrong thing to say. In our confused panic, we ignore opportunities to understand things more clearly. Instead of positioning ourselves with earshot of what Jesus says, we hang back and doze off. When we come around, our worst fears stand before us. We draw weapons and slice into our problems, thinking it’s time to do something. But rash efforts to take control only contribute to the chaos. Christ commands us, “Put your sword away! Don’t you know this is supposed to happen?” We learn from Peter. We listen to Christ. We don’t take control for our sake. We lose control for His.

Our compulsion to take control creates chaos. Losing control for Christ’s sake creates clarity. (Sadao Watanabe: Peter Cut Ear of Soldier; 1963)

(Tomorrow: Vertically Challenged)

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