Thursday, October 21, 2010

Making It Worse

It was not dogma that moved the world, but life. W. M. Ramsay

A.W. Tozer, one of the most gifted Christian writers, entitled his most famous work Following Hard After God. It’s a great title. It says it all. It is one of my favorite books and I can remember reading it some years ago. The book said it like it is, but in a gentle and beneficial way. It broke me down and yet it lifted me up. The best writing is remarkable; it not only speaks eloquently, but in an obvious way cuts to the heart with its nouns, verbs and prepositional phrases. However, in thinking about that title today, strangely enough, one can also follow too hard after God. A person can miss the point in why they follow Him at all.

We really can learn a lot by looking at the life of Peter. He is the disciple of disciples. Go look at the life of Peter in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the gospels, he’s passionate, conceited, arrogant, single-minded, legalistic, cruel, selfish, focused, foolish, long-winded, big-on-himself, and yet dedicated to Jesus big time. Can you see the hypocrisy and duplicity? Can you see the problem? On the one hand, he had it right (put Jesus Number One in your life) and on the other he had it all wrong (hot-headed and two-faced). Peter was two people—the passionate follower and the loose cannon. The central problem was that his passions were misguided. 

Here’s the key, they were based on rules and not relationship. Let’s say it one more time, Peter based his life on rules and not relationship and that’s where all that junk came from and why he nearly missed the point entirely. It just wasn’t in his heart--literally. All of this stuff came from what he knew—to know God meant to obey the rules, follow the instructions to a "T," to know the manual inside and out. This was the mode of operation found exclusively in the Old Testament and the kind of stuff that the Israelites got hung up on. Peter was just continuing the cycle.

It all began really well with Jesus when Peter met him fishing; but then Peter made it worse. He became a terror—mean-spirited, angry and entirely missed the point. He was becoming all that he wasn’t supposed to be. Let’s just give a few descriptors to who Peter was becoming: stern, hollow, had to follow all the rules at all costs, a mile wide but an inch deep, perfectly obedient, working only on his own strength, had all the answers, and hypocritical. That’s just a few. Jesus, however, was going to teach him something new. Jesus was going to move Peter to a place where he was supposed to be—into friendship. When he gets to that place, compare that same guy in the rest of the New Testament, beyond the gospels. He is a totally different guy in those other books, in particular through his own two letters (I and II Peter) we see this clearly. He’s slow with his words; he’s generous; he’s kind and patient; he puts others before himself; he’s got love by the horns. Peter finally became Jesus’ friend and it took a miracle unlike any other that Jesus performed, and it happened on a beach (read John 21).

Brennan Manning in his book A Glimpse of Jesus relates this story. He remarks that a well-intentioned friend offered a eulogy to someone recently deceased: “John was a wonderful Christian. He never missed church, was married only once, and never told a dirty joke.” Manning's point in this part of the book is this: is that what a Christian's main goal in life is to be—gets to church on time and never says a cuss word? This is what can so easily happen when one ventures on with Jesus. Let’s admit it; it’s so much easier to follow a bunch of rules rather than be in a relationship with the One who is bigger than big. Boxing ourselves in with a bunch of set of laws, conventions and systems seems like the most sensible way. It’s easier that way. But it’s not the best way.

Think of the Pharisees. In some ways, Peter was acting just like them. First, they followed a bunch of rules and regulations for themselves, and then, in the end, put all that junk on others. This was exactly where Peter was going in his own life, and Jesus had to stop him and quick. You might remember that Jesus had made Peter the go-to-guy, referring to him as the Rock (Matthew 16:18) and if he was going to lead his church in this manner—he could have really messed things up! If Peter had had his way, being a Christian would have become some warped version of what Jesus intended—it would have boiled down to just following a bunch of rules. Do this; don’t’ do that. In this, Jesus had to drive home his point in a very striking and painful way to Peter. You might even remember how Jesus made that point with Peter; he used a rooster and a teenage girl to teach Peter a lesson or two. After that incident, that following week for Peter was a very long one. Life was put on hold and he had no idea where he stood. It was a terribly humbling experience. But in the end, he learned something that just could never connect with him in the previous three years of learning from Jesus. Throughout those three years that Peter knew Jesus, he kept getting it wrong. Now all of that was about to change. Sooner or later, he would realize that being a friend to Jesus was even better than being his disciple.

A couple of questions to ponder:
  • What do you think is the difference between "being religious" and "being in relationship with God?"
  • What might be some of the clues that a person is just being religious?
  • How can one "be in relationship with God?" (read John 14, pay special attention to verse six)

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