“You have to keep going.”
This is the advice shared with children, parents and caregivers in the wonderful children’s book, Finding Winnie – an origin story of “Winnie the Pooh.” Before the popular and plush fictional character ever developed, there was an actual bear. In 1914, Harry Colebourn, a Canadian veterinarian who was on his way to tend horses in World War I, rescued a baby bear. Naming the bear after his hometown of Winnipeg, he called her “Winnie.” In the book, Colebourn’s great-granddaughter narrates the story of a remarkable friendship and a remarkable journey – across continents, through war and conflict, and after the war to the London Zoo, where eventually Winnie the bear made another new friend: a real life boy named Christopher Robin. Reflecting on the twists and turns that led this baby bear to inspire a timeless children’s character, the book says this: “You never know when one story ends and another begins. That’s why you have to keep going.”
Now that’s some Easter advice if ever we’ve heard it – “You never know when one story ends and another begins.” That’s resurrection advice – “You have to keep going.” And it’s also excellent advice for us any time we read the Bible. For instance, we come today to the start of John 14 and what feels like the beginning of a new story. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says with familiar, reassuring words in chapter 14, verse 1. But as you might know, the first versions of these stories didn’t have chapters and verses. These were added much later, after the texts had been written, translated, passed down, edited, which means that when we read our Bibles, we are effectively letting someone else decide when one story ends and another begins. And when we begin reading at Chapter 14 – “Do not let your hearts be troubled” – we might miss the fact that Jesus seems to be concerned about one troubled heart in particular: Peter’s.
You remember Peter. The one with all the fire and zeal. The one who was unafraid to box out the others and even throw a few elbows in order to get the prime seat, right next to Jesus. The one who had started to believe all the hype about himself – “That’s right Jesus, on this rock you will build your church.” Peter, the one so in love with the idea of ministry and mission. So ready to give all of himself for the cause of Christ. Itinerant, zealous, competitive Peter.
You remember Peter. The one so paralyzed by fear that he ultimately denied even knowing who Jesus was, not once, but three times. The one so overwhelmed by his failure, he returned to his fishing boat as though he had wasted his chances. Regretful, mournful, hiding-his-face-in-shame, Peter.
The loss happens suddenly for Peter, and we learn about it right at the end of Chapter 13. It was the night before Jesus died – the night Jesus knew he was going to die. In that upper room he had shared a meal with his closest followers, washed their feet to model love in service, he had described his coming betrayal and seen one of them slip out into the night, and then he had given them the commandment to love as he had loved them. It’s right around this time that Peter – ever the spokesperson – asked the question that was building in everyone’s mind: “Lord, where are you going?”
Frederick Buechner has pointed out that there’s a question within that question: “Where are you going?” is to ask “Are you going anywhere at all? Or are you just going out like a light?” (1)
Peter feared that Jesus’ story would end right there – with coming crucifixion, mockery and death. He worried that Jesus’ life would run out, and that his own life would, too. But Jesus assures him, “I am going somewhere, but you can not follow right now” To which Peter bows his back, shoots up from the table and plants his feet, “Lord, I will follow you right now. Just say the word. I will lay down my life for you.”
“You will?? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
This abrupt word from Jesus foreshadows Peter’s coming denial. Later that night, Jesus will be arrested and taken to the high priest. And Peter, wanting to be near and know what was happening, hovers around the edges. When he is recognized and given three chances to claim his allegiance and make good on his promise to follow and lay down his life, in each case he shrinks back under threat in self-preservation. “I’m not one of them… I don’t know him… I never loved him,” he says, only to hear a rooster crow. It signals an end for Peter, leaving him his denial and the haunting reality he is not who he thought he was. Not as rock solid as he might have started to believe.
So often we just let Peter’s story end right there and start a new chapter, forgetting what has come before.
So Chapter 14 in John starts clean and fresh – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms… I go to prepare a place for you.”
These words of comfort are most regularly spoken and heard at funerals and memorial services. I’ve spoken them countless times in this pulpit as we share memories of a good person – perhaps a beloved family member, or a foundational member of our church. We speak these words and remember that the person we love they are safe and whole in the love of Jesus.
But what if we hear these words as a continuation of the story that precedes them?
“Peter, very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied be three times… But do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, Peter, there is a room for you…”
These words are certainly true of those who honor Christ. But at the very first, they were true for the one who denied him.
It’s the confounding grace that doesn’t end with our mistakes. It’s not based on our claims, our courage, or anything we believe we have it in us to do. This episode sums up the “way” that Jesus talks about later in this passage: “You will deny me three times, and still I will prepare a place for you… still I will come to take you to where I am.”
We can’t seem to believe it. We’re always trying to put a break between the denial and the promise. We separate our failures from the grace of Jesus Christ. Whether we’re reading the Bible or just living our lives, we so often act as if such words of promise could never be voiced to those who have failed or denied.
Rev. Julie Pennington Russell is a friend and Pastor of First Baptist in Washington D.C. Years ago, she was a pastor in Texas, where she had a friend – a rugged, burly, brilliant guy that Julie said reminded her of the Marlborough Man. He studied at a prestigious university in the Eastern U.S. some years ago, and then he moved to Texas to work on his doctorate. But somewhere along the way he became addicted to cocaine. He tumbled into a dark hole. He lost his family, lost his place in graduate school, lost big pieces of himself. But somehow he washed up on the shores of a good church. And the people of that church put their arms around that man and slowly he started to heal, and eventually, miraculously, even reunited with his wife and children.
Julie and her husband, Tim, had this man and his wife in their home for dinner and the man began to talk about where his life was going. “I want to believe,” he said, “that my best days aren’t behind me, and that my life can still count, can still make a difference for God.” He sat at their table with his head in his hands. “I just can’t help but feel like I’ve blown all of my best chances,” he said. That’s when his wife, whom Julie describes as a “wonderful, Texas flower child kind of woman,” reached over and took his hands and said, “Baby, you’ve got to take your sticky fingers off that steering wheel. If God could yank Jesus out of a grave, I figure he can make something beautiful out of busted parts.”
Julie says “I tell you what, if I live a hundred years, I don’t expect to hear the gospel better articulated than that.” (2)
Father Henri Nouwen said it this way: “The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste. What belongs to God will never get lost,” including you and me. (3)
“There is a place for you,” Jesus says. Can we imagine this resurrection promise is true for those who have failed, denied, and seemed to waste their chances?
I hope so, because that describes all of us from time to time.
Fred Craddock tells the story of his seminary days in Tennessee in the mid 1950s. When he had a test he to study for, he would go up the hill from the seminary to a little all night diner. He’d sit at a table and order coffee and study all night. One night while he was studying for a New Testament exam an African American man came into the diner… in Tennessee back in the 1950’s. The man behind the counter said, “We don’t serve you in here. Take your business elsewhere.” Fred thought he should say something but he had a test to study for and so he kept reading. “I just want to buy something to eat,” the man said. “All right, tell me what you want but you’ll have to wait outside while I cook it.” Fred just kept studying. The cook brought the man his food and then told him to go out back to eat it. The man had to sit by the side of the busy street as he ate. Fred thought maybe he should go out and sit with the man but he had this New Testament test to study for and kept on reading. He kept studying well into the morning, long after the man was gone. In the early morning hours as Fred walked down the hill towards the seminary to take his test he says he heard a rooster crow. (4)
We’ve all heard it. We know the stories of our own denial even better than we know Peter’s enduring tale. Chances are we know what it is to feel like a shell of what we were, going back to pick up the pieces, and probably believing the story just ends right there. We hear the rooster crow so loudly we never tune our ears to the words of promise and grace for Peter or for any of our neighbors.
I heard recently of a tribe somewhere deep in the Amazon many years ago, that seemed to live by the kind of remarkable grace that Jesus embodies. Apparently in this tribe, if someone was known to have committed some moral indiscretion – some failure, denial, or waste – that person was to sit in the middle of town for three days, right where everyone would walk by them throughout the day. And when everyone from the community would walk by this person, they were to tell them every good thing they could think of about them. They were t stop and recite to this person – who had compromised in some way the social bonds that they lived by – all the things they loved about them, as a reminder to this person – and maybe to themselves – that all of us are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. This would continue for three days, and after that, the matter was done.
This practice was recorded by an anthropologist, who was amazed by the grace of it all. In his writings, he made an interesting aside: “I hope when the missionaries get here, they don’t change this.” (5)
I have my doubts. We do change it, don’t we? We followers of Christ so often let the story end in denial, waste, failure and shame. We let those who have failed us, or denied Christ, shrink back in embarrassment without hearing any words of grace echoed at our tables or in our lives. We proclaim a limited understanding of the love of God in Jesus Christ. We make it conditional, deciding who needs it and who doesn’t, who can receive it and who can not, who is worthy and who is wasted, when in fact the only calling we have is to receive the good news of God’s grace and to share it without condition, just as it has been offered to us.
Because this is the way that Jesus proclaimed. This is what he gave his life for. And when he finally breathed his last, you know what happened. They started to believe the story ended right there. They closed the book. They stopped following along in the story. They prepared spices for a burial as a testament to finality. Or they went back to safety. Or they ran off to hide and preserve themselves. They didn’t yet believe the promise that Jesus comes back explicitly for those of us who have denied him and betrayed him, who fall asleep on him, who turn from him. The resurrection of Jesus means that the story didn’t end. It never ends. And if we believe it about Jesus, maybe we can believe it for Peter, too. And if we believe it about Peter, I wonder if we can come to believe it about our own lives.
“Will I ever get another chance like that?” I asked my wife, Jenny, this question recently. It was about an experience of my own denial in the last year or so. I won’t tell you all the details out of respect for a friend, but there was a time recently when I was not as brave as I thought I was. Not as rock solid as I’d like to believe I am. Given the chance, it turns out I wouldn’t lay down my life at all. Hear me say, it was nothing destructive. I didn’t cheat or lie or steal. It wasn’t illegal. It was, in fact, a reasoned, rational decision. But I wasted a chance not long ago. I hurt a friend. Or I missed a chance to bless a friend, at least. And I swear it remains one of those moments in my life where I walked away and just as clearly as you hear my voice now, I heard a rooster crow in the early morning.
So, I know a little of what Peter must have felt: wasted, washed up, feeling the limits of what can’t be changed, wanting to go back, and knowing you can’t. Maybe you what that’s like, too. If we do, I hope we can come to hear what Peter heard at the table, if he was listening: that in the depths of denial and heartbreak and the harsh reality of failure, Jesus says, “I have a place for you.” And if he said it to Peter, maybe he’s saying it to us all.
Peter could never go back to that fire the night of his denial. If he was anything like me, he still woke with a fright sometimes at the loss. The denial was real. But it was not final, not definitive, not the end. The worst is not the last for those who follow the Resurrected Christ.
Jesus still had a place for Peter.
In fact, days later, after Jesus has returned and then ascended, promising his followers the Holy Spirit to come, on the day of Pentecost wind and flame form a new community of the resurrected Christ. And in the middle of it all, one disciple bows his back, plants his feet and stands up – the rock on which Christ could still build a church. No longer whispering of his regrets, Peter is described as raising his voice in center of Jerusalem. He speaks of visions and new dreams, repentance, renewed commitment, and the truth that all those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. He speaks as one who knows it’s true. He’s not speaking because he is honorable and courageous, without flaws or failings. He speaks as the one who once heard his Lord and Messiah say, “Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
When Peter heard that, he probably thought the story ended right there. Thanks be to God, Jesus knew that it was yet beginning.
- From “Let Jesus Show” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons.
- From “Our First Calling” on Day1 (September 7, 2008)
- In Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring
- In Craddock Stories
- A story Tom Long told during a workshop at the McAfee School of Theology Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga, TN, October 2015, shared by my friend, Scott Dickison of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, GA.