Warden Sermon: Failing Followers

A sermon by Mr James Lee (PhD candidate, Political Science, Princeton University)

The Third Sunday of Easter
Year B, RCL
Acts 3:12-19 ~ Psalm 4 ~ 1 John 3:1-7 ~ Luke 24:36b-48

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We have come to the end of a dark moment in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Earlier in the Gospel, Peter made a solemn vow. He said, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death.” But when that hour came, when all the might of Caesar was leveled against the Church, when Peter was given the chance to bear witness to his own words and prove himself a disciple of Christ, he failed. And Jesus knew that he would. Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times when he was brought before the Romans; and when that eventually happened, we are told that “the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord...and Peter went out, and wept bitterly.”

Now, in the passage that we have heard this evening, the disciples once again find themselves in the presence of Christ – but now the Christ who has suffered betrayal and conquered death. They are probably afraid of what Jesus will say, and it’s not difficult for us to understand why. Many centuries may have passed since the age of the apostles, but many of us would be terrified to hear these words, “I remember a time when I had faith in you, when I thought that you could do what no one else could, when you were my hope, when I trusted you; but in the end, you failed, just like the rest of them. I don’t know what I saw in you.” The disciples have every reason to believe that Jesus will say something along those lines, that he will condemn them for their failure to stand by him in the hour of need.

But Jesus doesn’t say any of that. He simply asks them, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?” Other manuscripts add the greeting, “Peace be unto you.” There is no condemnation, no vengeance, no wrath. The Gospel of Saint Luke doesn’t tell us how Peter reacted to all of this, but amid the wonder and amazement of seeing the risen Christ, he must have remembered what Christ had said to him before he declared, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee.” In that moment, Jesus had said, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Peter probably cherished those words for the rest of his life, and he probably remembered them when he was martyred in Rome as the man he had always wanted to be – a true disciple of his beloved teacher.

Many of us are terrified of failing as Peter failed. We are afraid of disappointing other people – our friends, our family, our professors, our advisors. This fear is only natural, but when it gets carried away (as it all too often does in a place like Princeton), when we define our self-worth in terms of our achievements, we run the risk of committing the sin of idolatry. Our idol is not a golden calf, but the Golden Me, the artificial image of who we are and what we are supposed to be – the Golden GPA, the Golden Job, the Golden Marriage, the Golden Publication. It is an image that we have created in our own minds, an impossibly high standard that admits of no failure.

When Peter said to Christ, “Lord, I am ready to go with thee,” he was probably thinking of himself as the Golden Disciple – perfectly faithful, virtuous, and brave. He eventually did go on to achieve great things – to spread the Gospel to Rome and establish the Catholic Church. But it would take a long time for him to get there, and Jesus knew that. When Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, he wasn’t saying, “You are a liar, a fraud, and an imposter” – which is how we often think of failure. He was simply saying that Peter’s hour had not yet come, and that Peter should trust in the grace of God rather than his own perfection: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”

It’s unlikely that any of us will live up to the example of Saint Peter. Our goals and our dreams seem mundane by comparison – getting a good grade on our next exam, getting a job, publishing our research, applying for law school, et cetera. We might even feel guilty about praying to God for help with these things because it seems to be too self-serving; and because we don’t feel like we can ask God for help, we find ourselves in a state of profound insecurity. But I think it would be a mistake to believe that a deep commitment to Christian discipleship forbids you from devoting yourself to your career. The question is whether or not the career that you have chosen is a vocation in the true sense of the word – a calling; and a calling requires a process of discernment.

For some of us, that means pursuing ordination, but you don’t have to be a priest in order to fulfill your vocation to God. If you pursue a career in consulting or finance, you’ll make a lot of money, of course; but what will you do with the wealth that you’ve acquired? Will you give generously to the poor and the needy? Will you give back to your church to help it carry out its mission? Churches don’t live on manna from heaven; they rely on the gifts of their members to sustain the cause of their ministry. We all have a way of serving God with the gifts that he has given us. Some of us have wealth – I most definitely do not. Some of us can sing – I most definitely cannot. Some of us are good with incense – that I can do. There is no single path to discipleship, and if we truly believe that we have found our vocation, the calling that God has given us, then we should feel confident in asking God to help us succeed.

But it’s not that easy, of course. In devoting yourself to your profession, there’s a fine line between serving God and serving Mammon. We don’t have a formula for defining where that line exactly is, but I think there’s a simple test that we can use, and it comes back to the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ: what if Christ appeared to you while you were working in the library? Would you be ashamed to admit that you were absorbed in work that was contrary to his will? Or would you be able to honestly say to him, “Lord, I am doing the work that you have given me to do; what shall I do next?”

Peter failed to live up to his discipleship when he denied Christ three times, but he never abandoned his mission. He may have been lost, broken, and defeated, but he kept the faith and went on to achieve marvelous things in the name of the Living God. Through faith we have the promise of eternal life – and I’m sure that “eternal life” doesn’t actually mean unending life. Can you imagine what it would be like if Jesus gave you unending life on an unending ride on NJ Transit? “The next station stop will be...Kingdom of Heaven. When leaving the train, please watch the gap.” Lord, have mercy. When Jesus offers us eternal life, he is promising us unlimited life – a life not limited by time, not limited by fear, not limited by doubt, not limited by our own weakness. It is the offer of a glory that is greater than ourselves, a divine purpose recorded in the historic witness of the Church and written in the words of the Psalm: “thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” That is the hope that we have been given, and it is ours if we choose to take it.

So where will you meet Jesus Christ? Where will you encounter the risen Lord? It may be tempting for us to think that we will meet God in a time and place of our choosing, but Jesus could appear to us at any moment. He appeared to the disciples even when they thought he was dead and buried. I myself have been in Christ’s physical presence at only one point in my life – unless you count Holy Communion, but that’s for a different sermon. I once had a dream that I was awaiting judgment at the gates of heaven – and heaven, it turns out, looks a lot like a blend between my office in the Woodrow Wilson School and the reading room of Firestone Library. There was a receptionist at the front desk who told me, “Please have a seat. Jesus will be with you in a moment.” But it wasn’t a “moment,” thank you very much. It took forever. While I was waiting, I found myself thinking, ever so sinfully, “Lord, what is taking so long? Don’t you know how busy I am? I have a paper to write!”

And in that moment I felt Christ standing behind me, waiting for me to turn around and face him. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know what I could say that would be appropriate for that kind of meeting. I didn’t have a set of answers prepared for that interview.

The truth is that I didn’t need to have a set of prepared answers, and none of us do. We don’t have to appear before God in our Sunday best, presenting our most confident and shining selves. Christ appeared to the disciples even when they were broken and defeated, disappointed in themselves and despairing of their future. He didn’t appear to them to condemn them, but to commission them to achieve great things. And he will appear to you and bring his light to shine upon you in the midst of your doubt, your perplexity, your fear, and yes, even your failure. Amen.