“On Warming Ourselves by the Fire”

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A Good Friday Meditation
John 18:15-27

by Steve Kindle

 

FireIt must have been a cold evening in Jerusalem the night Jesus was taken before “the powers that be” for interrogation and trial. The text lists three occurrences of people warming themselves by the fire. Two times Peter is singled out as among them.

But this is not a story of inclement weather and how to escape the chilling cold. It’s an escape story, all right, but an escape from the obligations of following Jesus.

All four of the Gospels record Peter’s record of denials, but only John adds the detail of warming by the fire, twice. Are we to think of this as adding atmosphere to the narrative, or providing an eye–witness report to the events? I think not. So, what is John up to here? Or Peter? Better yet, since Peter is but a stand-in for a certain kind of disciple, what are WE up to?

The first thing that strikes me is that Peter is following Jesus as he is led away to his execution, “from a distance.” Peter is keeping his distance. Peter is playing it safe. I kind of get the feeling here that we all have when we’re working with live electricity or drying off very sharp knives: better be very cautious, and not be too quick to move ahead.—Danger feels very close at hand.

Just like Peter in our text, when it comes time to “put up or shut up”, we, too often, choose to warm ourselves by the fire.

Warming ourselves by the fire means:

Surrounding ourselves with creature comforts rather than living simply that other may simply live

Sending checks, not investing our lives while letting others do the heavy lifting

When we reduce Christianity to a belief system of the head rather than a trust relationship from the heart

Our focus is on getting to heaven and not on relieving the hellishness found here on earth

When we warm ourselves by the fire, we remain at a safe distance from the total commitment that Jesus requires of those who would be his followers.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him ‘Come and die!’” Today this is probably not a major motivation in being a Christian. Yet, you cannot come away from the Gospels with any other conclusion.

After 2000 years, Christianity has settled into a comfortableness in America, as we join Peter around the warming fire.

One of the most memorable stories in the Gospels is Peter’s “great confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Having made this pronouncement, Jesus feels he can now deliver to Peter and the disciples the precise meaning of messiahship: “I must go to Jerusalem and die!”

Peter, acting on behalf of the disciples (and ourselves), is bewildered.

“We will never let that happen to you, Lord!”

Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that when Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem,” he knew his life would soon be over.

Mark especially emphasizes that to be a follower of Jesus means we risk having the same fate as his. He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

We think of Good Friday as centering on Jesus death, but it really should be centered equally on our own.

As Paul put it: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:19-21)

Now the man who wrote these words did not die in the physical sense. Not just then, anyway. No. He was speaking of a spiritual death. Death: a metaphor for spiritual transformation.

It is a dying of the self as the center of one’s concerns and preoccupations. It is a dying of the world that beckons us to exploit each other and live as enemies to one another. It is a dying of a life of meaninglessness and rising to a life of purpose.

Isn’t this dying, after all, what baptism is all about?

Paul wrote to the Roman congregation, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Our metaphorical deaths are the path to a new life—a life centered in God. It is a life of new priorities.

Jesus went to the cross because it was the inevitable outcome of one who lived his life, again to quote Bonhoeffer, “as a man for others.”

Because Jesus challenged the oppressive domination system of his day and taught his followers to do the same, he and they could expect the worst.

Jesus, Paul, Peter, James—all were executed at the hands of those who would rather be served than to serve, who would rather live for themselves than follow in the footsteps of “the man for others.”

These martyrs prayed for and worked for the day that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

If you don’t know how that can get you killed, you are warming yourself too often by the fire.

Therefore, the apostle Paul writes, May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)

Just imagine a new advertising campaign for your church: “Our congregation helps crucify the world to you and you to the world.” If we step back from the warming fire, we just might see again a church that turned the world upside down!

Bonhoeffer’s last words may have been those he spoke to a Flossenberg inmate as he was on the way to the gallows. “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”

The good news is that we don’t have to wait until our bodies perish for us to “go to heaven.” When we are transformed by dying to ourselves and raised to newness of life, eternal life begins now.  Right now, right here.

So, on this Good Friday, when we remember how Jesus went resolutely to his death, we are afforded an opportunity to step back from the warming fire and rejoin Jesus on the way to Golgotha.

After all, this “is not the end, but the beginning of life.”  AMEN

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