A Well-Worn but Necessary Word

I was a not a very good Boy Scout, but I do remember “Be Prepared.” I was also a member of the duck and cover generation. We were taught in school what to do in case of a nuclear attack, so that, when or if that circumstance arose, we wouldn’t have to think about what to do but could just do it, which was to get under the desk and assume the position. (For more detailed instructions see the little video at this link.) Once we figured out how pointless that was “in case of a nuclear attack” and were old enough to appreciate such humor, we added “and kiss your ass goodbye.” (Living in Anaheim was supposed to add to the risk because of factories making military stuff there. I saw people making crates intended to carry napalm bombs whenever I bicycled downtown.)

    But there is a point to being prepared when the stakes are high. And that leads us to think about one well-worn word that has to come up when we talk about being disciples of Jesus, even at the risk of boredom. That word is “commitment.” It signifies the state of having decided ahead of time. It means that I have seen the instructional film and been through numerous drills with the teacher poking me if I wasn’t quite in position and that I am, therefore, prepared. If I decide ahead of time what I will do in a possible situation and have drilled that into myself, then, if or when that situation arises, I won’t have to think about what to do because I’ve already done the thinking. I can proceed directly to the doing.

    Many of us have heard evangelists preaching “commitment to Christ.” Other Christian traditions express it differently but preach the same thing. It means that I have decided to do what Jesus says to do before I have heard what he says to do or before I get the better understanding of what he is asking for that I might get six months or sixteen years from now. The one thing I won’t ever have to do again is make that fundamental decision. At least that’s the theory. But I have to check in with myself repeatedly to see if I’ve changed my mind. Consider an analogy of marriage, which is the other context where that word “commitment” has been worn thin: words of love and other expressions of love do not end after the honeymoon because I need to ask myself: Do I still love? If not, I have to do something about it.

    Jesus lost some disciples with some difficult teaching:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This message is hard. Who can listen to it?” But Jesus knew in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this and so said to them, “Are you offended by this?…”…. From that point, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:60-61, 66)

What Jesus had been teaching had become an “it” or “this” that did not need to be named, apparently something so imposing (like the pachyderm on your patio) that it needed only oblique mention. Apparently what Jesus had been teaching was that strong, weird, or horrifying, even if it  (what precedes in John 6:35-59) has now become so known to us and overinterpreted by us that we don’t get the problem at all.

    But others of Jesus’ disciples, when asked what they would do, responded through one of their leaders with something that sounds like “Are you kidding? We’re solid with you, Jesus,” as if they were offended by the very question:

So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to bail out, too?” Simon Peter answered, “Master, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have put our faith in you and have come to understand that you are God’s Holy One.” (John 6:67-69)

But Jesus was no fool. He knew this wouldn’t be the last test.

Jesus answered, “Didn’t I choose you, you twelve? But one of you is a devil,” speaking of Judas…. (John 6:70-71)

He could just as well been talking about Simon Peter himself, who would, in another situation of crisis say “Jesus? What Jesus? I don’t know any Jesus!” (John 18).

    The well-worn nature of the word and the pious associations that might be attached to “commitment to Jesus” can be a problem. We might take it for granted that “committed to Jesus” is what we all want to be because we are, after all, Christians. Perhaps Christians with some additional qualification, such as “born-again” or what-have-you. We might even be offended a little by the question. But we need to bear in mind, as Jesus (again, no fool) certainly did, that wanting  to be committed to him, wanting to be his disciples, is not natural — or even normal — for any person or any group of people. Commitment, that decision made ahead of time and maybe even drilled into our reflexes, cannot fully anticipate every future crisis. Grace has the last word. Like Peter, we can be glad that John 21 comes after John 18.