I like to think I’d stay strong like Simon Peter. You know, recognising Jesus as God’s Messiah, walking on water, all that strong man stuff. A person of faith, bold- even brash- courage, answering questions and sticking with my excellent reasons for following Jesus. Who else has words of eternal life?
Hang on, though. It’s Thursday in a couple of hours: and that’s when it all went wrong…
Jesus mentioned being betrayed: well, it won’t be by Peter, that’s as sure as anything! I’m the strong, loyal one. But… didn’t Jesus say “Before the cockerel crows, Peter, you will deny Me three times.” Surely not, Lord, that’s as unlikely as Judas selling you out to the authorities! Must have misheard.
Peter, now in a cold sweat. So much happening, a cold garden, noisy soldiers, a slashing sword, and Jesus led away… “What are they doing to Him in there? I can’t go until I know… perhaps they’ll let Jesus go after all. Hot fire. I’ll just wait here. No, I don’t want to talk, just shut up. Leave me to my thoughts. Jesus? Did I hear His name? They’re talking about Him – Who me? NO, not me. Yes, the accent gives me away, I’m Galilean. No, I don’t know him. Will you just shut UP… For heaven’s sake… I never EVER knew Jesus!”
Talking Cockerel, stage left. “Pardon? O Peter, did you really… did you say you never knew him? Look at those flames, Peter. Burning like the garbage in Gehenna… bet you feel rubbish now, Peter. Hey, where are you going?”
Bystanders round the fire. “Yeah, he was a Galilean, I bet he did know him in there. Not got the guts to hang around, though! Not much of a friend… Where’s the Galilee man gone to, d’you think? That one in there, that Jesus, I heard he came to town like a king on a donkey… I heard him speaking once, seemed rather wonderful, but going against the establishment like that… wouldn’t want to be where he’s going…”
So I wonder. Would I have stayed by the fire? Would I have said “OH yes, I know Jesus, let I tell you what He’s like…”
Or just another betrayer doing a runner? Lord Jesus, forgive the feebleness of my heart… just as you forgave Peter…
It still is a stunning memory. I glided above the tops of unknown mountains. Far ahead, the sun rose splendidly, and it felt as though I was being kept in the air by God himself. According to my memory, I was about 12 and this is the earliest dream that I have ever remembered. What a psychologist might say about an interpretation is best left to the imagination!
Enjoying a lovely childhood in a loving family, with few things likely to cause lasting trauma, I suspect that I was as ordinary as most 12-year-olds. Perhaps a bit more imaginative and expressive than some, and certainly cheeky. This was the year when I made my first conscious choice to believe in Jesus Christ and begin a life as a follower of his Way.
If my dream was a kind of vision-dream holding out the prospect of a straightforward and glorious life full of beauty and wonder (and no problems) then it has failed. Life isn’t like that- at least in my experience. That doesn’t make it valueless.
Ever since that dream, I have felt drawn to mountains: photos or paintings, word-pictures in books of adventures, and even the black and white TV trying to do justice to a world inherently colourful. The first time I saw a real mountain was in my late teens when a group of friends travelled in a knackered old Commer minibus all the way to North Wales. Here we climbed through mist and rain up the slopes of Tryfan to the summit. Damp and weary we looked out and the clouds concealing Snowden unfurled.
The reality of mountains is far more awe-inspiringly wonderful than any dream.
In the same way, the reality of fulfilled faith will exceed my best hopes- even my best imagination. My faith isn’t built on that 12-year-olds dream, though sometimes I wish everything would go as smoothly as my first “flight…”
I dreamed I was flying.
The Apostle Paul made an obscure reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12 v2). Bible interpreters and scholars have been wondering about that ever since. Really, we don’t know what Paul meant or experienced: the most likely explanation is that Paul felt lifted into the very presence of God himself. (That ties in with the known beliefs of the period.)
Paul refused to boast about this revelation, even speaking in the third person as if it had happened to somebody else: and he even talks about being given “a thorn in the flesh” (v7) to keep him humble. Annoyingly, we don’t know what this thorn was either. Suggestions have ranged from some form of chronic illness right the way through to a crabby mother-in-law!
It seems the Corinthians were fascinated by visions and dreams, and Paul does his best to stop them from fastening onto an exciting tale. Paul uses his own experience to point them to an important truth. Whatever our knowledge, gifting, or experience, whatever our strengths or our weaknesses, we are called to be servants of Christ and to love others in every way we can.
When we are young, we often behave as if we were immortal, acting without regard to risks and dangers. Then comes that moment in life where the first serious illness, accident or loss invades our being. We suddenly must grow up. Christian faith isn’t a divine insurance policy against the unpleasantness of life. Knowing “God is with us” is not the same thing as saying that “only good things should happen to us.”
Since I started with my dream, I want to finish with a snapshot of my experience in Christian ministry.
As a newly-trained pastor I rather hoped the Kingdom of God would be demonstrated forthwith through me! I am glad that my first church was full of patient and kind Christians. During the 30 years of active ministry there were times of blessing, times of difficulty, and occasionally we all wondered where God had gone. Part of my life became learning how to deal with chronic illness, and how to develop a lifestyle that had some rhythm and grace evident in it.
Dreaming of flying is all very well, but there can be bumpy landings.
Without in any sense wanting to equate my life or ministry with that of the Apostle Paul, I think I have learned one of the lessons he did. Perhaps this will be an encouragement to some of you reading today: yes, “God is with us…” and the words of Jesus to Paul and the Corinthian church remain equally true now. Jesus said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (v9)