A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Going Where We Don’t Want to Go
April 10, 2014
Obedience is not simply doing as we are asked, but doing so when it’s something we’d rather not do. It was precisely in this sense that Jesus was “obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8) It was a death he pleaded to avoid. (Luke 22:42)
Ten of Luke’s twenty-four chapters cover Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, from the Mount of Transfiguration to his “triumphal entry” on the Mount of Olives. He has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), and his followers discover that he cannot be dissuaded. Even the Pharisees try in vain to divert him from a sure destiny with death. (Luke 13:31) John’s Gospel records different events, but the same pattern. As Jesus prepares to go to Jerusalem, Thomas mutters to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:17)
As he approaches Jerusalem, Jesus weeps sorrowfully, first at Lazarus’ grave, then again amid the shouts of praise along Palm Sunday’s fronded pathway. Later the writer of Hebrews will say that he stayed the course because of the joy his obedience would ultimately yield (Hebrews 12:2), but as he enters Jerusalem, he’d rather be anywhere but on that hill of Hallelujahs.
Of all the characters in Jesus’ inner circle, I find myself especially drawn to Thomas. Though we don’t know much about him, he is mentioned by each of the Gospels, and is one of the few disciples who has several speaking parts in the Gospel story. He is with the twelve from the beginning to the end, while others in the group come and go. He is a model of long-haul faithfulness, yet his words are almost always marked by their lack of faith.
We sometimes call him “doubting Thomas” because of his initial disbelief of Jesus’ resurrection. But I’d like rename him “obedient Thomas,” the guy always ready to do what he doesn’t want to do, for the sake of his Lord. Thomas speaks up again during Jesus’ final night with his disciples, confessing that he has no clue about Jesus’ real program, despite their years together. (John 14:5) Even though Thomas always speaks from a place of misgiving, Jesus never scolds him. Not once. Not for his doubt, not for his ignorance, not for his hopelessness.
Jesus singles out other disciples for rebuke, especially Peter, James, and John. He reprimands them collectively more often than most folk would take it. But Thomas is notable for at least one thing – he stays with the program even when he is sure it’s going to hell in a hand-basket. He keeps walking with Jesus even when he’d much rather go another direction.
At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus has a poignant interchange with Peter that ends with him offering Peter these far-from-soothing words: “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.” (John 21:18) In other words, Peter, you’ll end up going down the pathway I have had to travel.
As Jesus ascends the Mount of Olives on the back of a donkey, as the crowds make way for him and festoon his pathway with palms and cloths, he is heading in a direction he’d rather not go. And he often calls his followers to do the same.
I sometimes hear folk saying some variation of this: “I’ll walk with this congregation (or this denomination, or this pastor) so long as they say or do things I like. But when they say and do things with which I disagree, I’m out of here.” I don’t mean to trivialize their convictions, or to suggest that we ought not stand up for what we believe. But there is something salutary about staying the course when the pathway we are given is different from the one we’d choose for ourselves – it gives us opportunity to follow the way of the one who climbed a despised hill on the back of a donkey, as a dress rehearsal for taking his place on another despised hill a week later on the back of a cross.
As I ascend Palm Sunday hill in Jesus’ company, shouting God’s praises, am I ready to follow him into the valley and up the next hill, no matter how much I’d rather cut and run elsewhere? He stays on a course he doesn’t want to take, out of devotion to his Father. So does Thomas. How about me? How about you?
On the road with Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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