Every year as I reread the story of Jesus final day I am haunted by that phrase that says that Peter “followed at a distance.”
It seems that at this point in his life Peter wanted to follow Jesus from a safe distance. He wanted to be close, but not too close, to Jesus. He wanted to be close enough to hear what Jesus had to say, close enough so he could see what Jesus was doing but far enough away that he wouldn’t be seen by others as a Christ follower, far enough away so following Christ wouldn’t cost him, endanger or inconvenience him too much.
There is a long but not proud tradition of following Jesus at a distance that stretches back to Peter. I know, there have been times in my life when I have followed at a distance.
Following Jesus at a distance is about wanting discipleship with no cost and not much discomfort. Its about wanting a form of discipleship in which we never hear Jesus calling on you to pick up your cross and follow him. Following Jesus at a distance is about wanting to live a Christianity with no personal cost, no real danger and no sacrifice beyond a little inconvenience. Social distancing might be good for our physical health but distancing ourselves from Jesus is never good for our spiritual health.
David Watson, a British Anglican wrote of the Church in the 1980s that
‘The vast majority of Western Christians are church members, pew fillers, hymn singers, bible readers, sermon tasters, even born again believers or Spirit filled Charismatics, but they are not true disciples of Jesus Christ’.
I’m not sure that “the vast majority” is entirely fair or accurate today but there is no doubt that there are still sufficient people who want to follow Jesus at “a distance” to make it a significant problem for the Church in the West today.
You probably know by now that one of my personal heroes is Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German pastor and theologian. Bonhoeffer when Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power refused to follow Jesus at “a distance.” Despite knowing all about the Gestapo and Concentration Camps, Bonhoeffer did everything in Nazi Germany that Peter didn’t do in our passage. Bonhoeffer publicly identified with Christ, he defended Christs cause, he spoke out against injustice. The result was that it eventually cost him his own cross. In the dying days of WW2 the Nazis hung this disciple who would not follow Jesus silently from a safe distance and who willingly accepted the cost of discipleship. There was no denial of Jesus by Bonhoeffer.
Before he was martyred Bonhoeffer wrote one of the all time classic Christian books, a book whose title was to be prophetic for this shy academic, it was called in German “Discipleship” (& in English ” The Cost Of Discipleship”) In it Bonheoffer attacks what he calls “cheap grace” which he describes like this “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” He attacked the majority of German Christians of his generation who would only follow Christ from a safe distance, who wanted a Christianity with no cross for them to have to pick up and follow Jesus with. Who like Peter were silent when they witnessed injustice and brutality.
I don’t know about you but I have discovered that the temptation to “follow at a distance” and to want “cheap grace” are perennial problems in the church ………… And in my heart.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. Unlike so many others Peter learned from his previous failures. Peter eventually came to the point in his life where he too followed Jesus closely whatever the cost. Its fairly certain that he followed Jesus to the cross in Rome after being sentenced to death by Nero (although tradition has it he said he was unworthy to die like Jesus so they crucified him upside down)
This Easter weekend maybe its a time for us all to recommit ourselves to following Jesus from the distance that Bonhoeffer did and Peter eventually did, to follow him where ever he leads, whatever the discomfort, the inconvenience, whatever the cost.
Can I ask you, what distance are you following Christ from? Where would you place yourself on the scale right now?
1 (I would deny Jesus if it cost me) _________ 11 ( I would follow Jesus whatever the cost)