The theme for my devotional readings last week was “Taken Where You Do Not Want to Go.” I was struck, thinking about that idea, by how many stories there are in the Bible of God taking people where they did not want to go. Abraham was taken to the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac. Moses was taken back to Egypt to bring Israel out of captivity. Elijah was told to go back and face Queen Jezebel, after she had threatened his life. Jesus was led by the Spirit from the waters of baptism to the dust of temptation, as well as from the cheering crowds of triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the jeering mobs of crucifixion on Golgatha. Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus led him in the exact opposite direction from where he had been going. For none of these people, and many others like them in the Bible, was this necessarily the desired direction they wanted to go. All of them, however, recognized the necessity of following God’s leading.
There are also times in life when it may not be God taking us where we do not want to go. I’m sure very few of us were hoping that sometime in our life we would get to isolate ourselves at home, and wear facemasks and keep 6 feet distance from others when we went out. Few of us ever dreamed that we would not be able to go to church for several months (see our bishop’s extension of the suspension of worship until at least June 15, below). Yet, we have been taken there. I don’t believe God brought about this death and disruption. I do believe that in the midst of this death and disruption, God is with us.
At the end of John’s gospel, Jesus and Peter are eating fish cooked by a campfire on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him, and Peter responds that he does each time. After the third response, Jesus says to Peter, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (sounds like our experience today!). John then inserts a parenthetical comment that this was to indicate the way in which Peter would die. Jesus then goes on to say to Peter, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19, NRSV)
I have always heard this “Follow me” in the same way as when Jesus called his disciples at the beginning of his ministry. “Follow me. Be my disciples. Travel with me. Learn my teachings. Ask me questions if you don’t understand something, and I’ll explain it to you.” But this time, and in this time, when I read those two verses, I heard “Follow me” in a different way. Much like the children’s game, Follow the Leader, where everyone lines up behind the leader and does whatever he or she does (the leader skips, they all skip; the leader raises a hand, they all raise the same hand), Jesus is telling Peter “Follow me. Teach what I have taught. Heal the sick. Feed the hungry. Cast out demons. Calm the sea. Raise the dead. Follow me. Do what I have done. I have died and I have been resurrected. Follow me, through death and into resurrection.”
Jesus called Peter, and through Peter, each of us, toward death, and through death, into resurrection. Jesus has already done this ahead of us, and will be there with us as we go through it ourselves. This Lent and Easter, we have experienced the death of our lives as we have known them. Many in the world have experienced physical death because of the virus. We grieve the loss of those people, and the loss of our previous way of being. As Easter people, though, we know there is new life ahead. We know that many of us will be forever transformed by this experience. We know that, even though we have been taken where we did not wish to go, God is with us in this dying, ready to raise us to new life.