Years ago, when it looked very much like the boys and I would be relocating to midtown Manhattan to be near their mother, I was very apprehensive. New York City has a lot to offer, no question about it, but the idea of moving there with young sons who were accustomed to midwest living?? It didn’t feel right. I loved the idea of being a New Yorker all right, but only if I could do it part-time! I’d like it a lot better if I could just commute there occasionally instead of living that frenetic life full-time.
This is kind of what a lot of Jesus’ followers were feeling: when they realized that he expected them to accept his invitation to build the Kingdom of God with him AND that it could only be a full-time commitment to living in that Kingdom in the here and now….they weren’t ready to do that. If they couldn’t commute they weren’t going to commit to being part of it. There is a certain sad note to the way this Gospel ends, I think, because certainly Jesus had spent a lot of time refining his teaching over many months, maybe even years, and more and more he was getting more explicit about what the Reign of God was, and the more details he gave them, the fewer people were actually willing to continue following him. One by one they drifted away. And so, feeling sad and disappointed, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, “So, are you guys going to leave as well??”
And of course it falls to Peter to pipe up and say, “Look, Jesus, where else are we going to go? We might have some issues with some of what you say, but hey, we can see that you’re the Messiah and we are relying on your teaching to give us life.”
Good old Simon Peter. Impetuous. Excitable. Sometimes speaking before his mind was fully in gear. But Simon Peter was in for the long term. His commitment was no momentary, fleeting experience good only when things were going his way. Certainly, he got discouraged. After the crucifixion, he was ready to go back to his fishing nets. We totally get that! He was crushed, profoundly disappointed and grieving besides…but the commitment never failed.
As a pastor, I see the same thing. New people show up at church and they cry when they’re told they can receive communion no matter who they are, no matter where they are or where they’ve been on life’s journey. They hug me afterwards sometimes, and more than a few have told me, in the emotion of the moment, that they will follow me “to the ends of the earth.” And every time that happens, I now know what certainty what will follow: they may come once or twice again, but they will eventually disappear, never to be seen again. Or sometimes parents who are dedicated, regular attendees stop going to church as soon as the kids are raised and out of the house. I have known people who spent twenty or thirty years in their congregation, and suddenly have a disagreement with another member or with the pastor, and they disappear. So when people really are listening to the invitation from Jesus to be part of the community he founded, and they are willing to take the risks of following him, it is nothing short of a blessing! These people have a special kind of faith, a faith for the long run, a faith that will there for them in challenging times.
We have very few promises about this life, only that God will love us unconditionally and he will be with us now and in the life to come. Life is a marathon: it’s hard and the obstacles are many. Just because we get swept up in the emotions of the moment and declare our faith in Jesus does not mean God will make our lives any easier. We will still get cancer, have heart attacks, strokes, and type two diabetes. We will watch family members and the ones we love most go through terrible suffering. We will lose our jobs, our dignity and our most precious memories. The longer we live the more losses we will endure, the more funerals we will attend, the more grief we will carry. We’re not going to make it out of this life alive, and we’re certainly not going to make it out of here without a faith geared to the long term.
If you’ve ever watched even the CNN highlights of the Tour de France, you know something about life. The bikers who are in the lead at the start of the race are rarely the ones who finish first. Life is that kind of marathon, it’s a Tour de France, so how we begin is decidedly less important than how we finish.
Most of us are good starters: we have talent, we have enthusiasm, we start off with a burst of good intentions and probably some kind of strong emotion. But those intense beginnings can’t be sustained, and therein lies the problem. That’s true in all our commitments: to Jesus Christ, to our spouse, our partner, in our work, in our school work, etc…. How then are we going to finish? And what is the “second act” of the theatrical production of our lives going to look like?
That is the real test of any commitment. When the enthusiasm fades, when the passions cool, when the numbers drop off, can we maintain enough intensity to reach the finish? Think about running a marathon. There comes a point when we just want to stop the pain, to give less than our best, and to maybe hope that we’ll finish by luck or by other people doing even less well than ourselves. The truth is that unless we’re willing to push past our limits, past our hangups and our perceived limitations. Life is a marathon. Finishing is what it is all about.
So we come to the punch line for this sermon, and that is: faith is all about finishing, and it’s critical for us to see that clearly. It’s easy to believe in Jesus when the sun is shining and we’re healthy and all our bills are paid. Real faith becomes real when we are down and out, when nothing in our life makes sense, when we’re unable to find solace in reading the Scriptures or in any kind of praying, when we’re ready to call it quits.
Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman who spent months in prison and in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp for hiding Jews during WW2 found that kind of faith. Her experiences in the camp caused her to question her faith, and she often asked God to give her a sign that He was there somehow, and that somehow God was still in charge. Months and months went by with no sign from God, and many nights she fell asleep weeping in despair. Then one morning Corrie awakened to see a beam of light shining through a crack in the concrete ceiling, illuminating a few straggly blades of grass that were growing on the dirt floor.
“I knew without any doubt,” Corrie writes,, “that God was alive and that his light would shine again in my life in a beautiful and wonderful way, even though it seemed impossible.”
That morning Corrie found the faith that mattered most: her fundatmental trust in God and her renewed commitment to holding fast.
It’s not how we start, but where we finish. Real faith, faith that is far beyond emotional reactions or feelings, is about hanging tough. It’s about doing what we can throughout the race, and coming down to the finish line doing whatever it takes to see the miracles all around us. Revelation put God’s promise to us about finishing the race like this: “Be faithful unto death”, the writer of the Revelation writes, “and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). In other words, life is a marathon, don’t lose sight of the finish.