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2nd May 2021

What about him?

Passage: John 21;18-22


“YOU are the Architect of your own life” reads the text on inspirational posters and the title of a self-help book by David Worthy. Very good, except, of course, that we are not-quite-the architects of our own lives, are we? There are generally at least two potential saboteurs waiting to change our plans.

The first is “events.” We are not always in control of what happens. Pandemics happen. Economic crises happen. Ill health happens. We “happen,” in simply being ourselves. Many of us come to a point when we have to concede that we are just not strong or gifted enough to be the person we planned to be.

The second saboteur is people. We fall in love (love changes everything), we have children, our parents grow frail and need care, our colleagues inspire us; our colleagues undermine us. Every time we think we have our life map planned, somebody pops up on our route and heads us in a new direction.

So, what we end up with is very seldom the blueprint we started out with. That is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it is a very good thing. It’s just “life.”

Did you notice how this “tail end” of the final conversation recorded between Jesus and Peter, takes note of both saboteurs. First Jesus warns Peter that he will not always be in control of his own life. There will be times when he will be taken to places that he has not chosen to go. Second, when Peter asks Jesus- what about him?- pointing to his friend John, Jesus tells him that John will have his own story which might or might not impinge upon Peter’s. And both comments end with the same command: no matter what happens, “You must follow me.” What do you make of that?
On the one hand, Jesus was very much for allowing people their freedom. He never tried to coerce you into belief. Nine times out of ten he would ask you to make up your own mind- what do you think about this?
But, on the other hand, Jesus also accepted that there would be times when you were not free. He spoke of “events’ such as storms, famine, war which would have a dynamic effect on your life, and not be of your choosing.
He also spoke of the ways in which people could change your plans- look at his story of the Good Samaritan stopping to pick up that wounded Jew: that Samaritan may have been hurrying to work, having been threatened with the sack if he was late or may have promised his wife to be home by six in order to take tea with his mother in law. Stopping to help may have changed the Samaritan’s plans, long as well as short term and Jesus knew that.

So, Jesus upheld human freedom, whilst also admitting the limits of that freedom. Yet his final command to Peter was still “whatever happens, you must follow me.” Is there a hint of control-freak here?

The law of Moses, under which Jesus had grown up, had started out as a fairly basic set of rules: the Ten Commandments. But of course, ten basic rules are never going to cover all the complexities of human life, so generations of clever, devout men had worked on interpretations of each law with sub clauses and sub-sub clauses to cover every possible eventuality. You would need to spend all day every day reading them to get your head round it, which of course is precisely what some highly religious people did.
And although Jesus admired their devotion, he did question whether all this was actually bringing them closer to God and making them better people. The command to follow him “no matter what” was not, I think, about an unbreakable code of conduct but more about an unbreakable bond of friendship.
In the film Sliding Doors, Helen discovers that her partner has been cheating on her and she collapses in humiliation and despair. Her best friend, Anna first allows her to weep and to drink copiously; second takes her to the hairdresser for a new image; third collects her stuff from the flat Helen previously shared with the boyfriend; fourth lets Helen move in with her; fifth, encourages her to meet new people and find a new job. Anna cannot wave a magic wand and make the pain go away; nor can she enforce a reconciliation with the boyfriend; nor can she prevent Helen from making more mistakes or experiencing more distress. But we do see that, whatever happens, Anna finds a way of being a true friend. There is no set plan for the bond of friendship, is there? You more or less make up the plan as you take the action.

I once heard an army chaplain say that he told the men for whom he was responsible that, whatever happened, he would never leave them. He could not promise them that everything would be OK and nothing bad would happen. They were on active service in Afghanistan…. He did not know what each day would bring or what would be expected of him. All he could promise was that he would not leave his men. That was his unbreakable bond.

And actually, that is freedom, isn’t it? To keep on being a true friend no matter what the situation. That is what Jesus is asking of Peter. That is what the prophet Hosea had written of God centuries before: when God’s people had turned away from him and got themselves into the most appalling mess, God said, “How can I turn my back on you? I gave you life. I taught you how to walk. I cannot desert you because I am God.”
God was freed to keep loving his people no matter what. This same freedom has been given to us. No matter what happens we are free to remain true to Jesus Christ. Changing situations will demand changing responses from us, yes, but there will never be a situation in which we cannot choose to keep following Jesus.

This is a message I, for one, need to hear right now. Because, like many of you, I look at an uncertain future.
Yes, I am excited at the thought of being able to go back into church for worship and fellowship again. But I also know-as I am sure do you- that our church will never be the same as it was. Social and cultural changes were already taking the Christian church in this country a long way from the church people of my generation grew up with. Now the pandemic has more or less blown it all apart.

That does not necessarily have to be bad. It could be the start of something new. But that does not stop us worrying about whether we will have the vision, the strength, the resources, both in terms of people and of money, to make our church what we really think it should be.
“YOU are the Architect of your own church!” Yes…. No…don’t know.

OK, what do we know?
1.We know that each one of us has the freedom to follow Jesus no matter where we are in our lives because we know that there is no set plan as to how we do this, only a requirement to commit ourselves day by day. Even if we feel that our faith is now so low as to be virtually undetectable, remember what Jesus said about faith as tiny as a grain of a mustard becoming strong enough to move mountains? Just a commitment to hold on in there, to give ourselves a chance to learn to pray again, worship again, think again, mix with other equally anxious Christians again is enough for now.
2.We know that God’s ways are not our ways and that what looks like “success” to us is not necessarily how God sees it. “God did not call me to be successful but to be faithful,” wrote Mother Teresa. You see, once our notions of “success” creep into our religion, so do pride, arrogance, anxiety and sense of failure. Jesus is not asking us to be successful followers but faithful ones.
3.We know, wrote St Paul, that when we love God, all things will work together for good. Nothing we do in love for Jesus Christ will be wasted effort.

So let’s celebrate Communion together -that great sign and sacrament of Christ’s unbreakable bond with us and ours with him.
Every day we eat and drink; every day things in our lives are broken and things restored. Every day there are opportunities to give something of ourselves in the hopes of healing the world; every day there are failures and every day there is forgiveness and yet another chance to get things right. Whatever happens, you will always be free to follow me, says Jesus. And whatever happens, I shall never leave you.
And let God’s people say Amen.