Craig Satterlee

denying the best within us

Everyone’s heard the saying about “biting off more than we can chew.”  Well, in John 18, we see the result of it.  This is the passage in which Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him.  In fact, Peter is quite adamant in declaring he has no connection with Jesus.  “Wait.  Jesus who?  Can’t say the name rings a bell.”

The part about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew happens earlier, in chapter 13.  It comes after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and after the meal which has come to be known as the Last Supper.  Peter boldly says to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (v. 37).  That is some pretty big talk!

Jesus doesn’t seem to be impressed.  He comes back at Peter, “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (v. 38).  Peter, you’ve done the easy part; you’ve done the talking.  But before sunrise, before the rooster crows, three different times you will claim you don’t even know me!

Tragically, as we see in chapter 18, the prediction of Jesus comes true.

What about Peter’s big talk—that he will lay down his life for Jesus?  In one of the ironic twists of history, Peter does indeed lay down his life for Jesus.  Tradition holds that Peter is crucified by the Romans (in the year 63 or 64), but they do grant him a last request.  He wishes to be put to death on an upside-down cross, because he feels unworthy of being crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

(Satanists have stolen the upside-down cross and claimed it as their own, but it’s still a Christian cross!)

1 jn 18

So maybe we should revisit that comment about Peter’s biting off more than he can chew.  Sadly, he winds up choking on it!

The subject matter he deals with is pretty grim, but John is a wonderful story teller.  I like the way he throws in little details.  A good example is when Peter is lying and saying he is not a disciple of Jesus.

A woman at the gate of the high priest’s courtyard is questioning him.  “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” (v. 17).  As we’ve seen, Peter says, “No way!  You’ve got the wrong guy.”  Here’s a nice detail: “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves.  Peter also was standing with them and warming himself” (v. 18).

Why add the bit about the charcoal fire?  What’s the point?

It does add color.  It invokes the senses.  Can you smell the smoke of the burning coals?  Can you feel the chill of the pre-dawn cold as Peter huddles with the others to gain warmth?

Lutheran bishop Craig Satterlee talks about Peter joining “the very ones who came to the garden to seize Jesus as they warm themselves around a charcoal fire.”  He compares him to “the junior high kid who abandons a buddy to hang with the cool kids.”  He is the “bystander who does not intervene to oppose abuse because to do so is just too dangerous.”[1]

Have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever betrayed someone, especially someone we care about very deeply?  Have we ever been too scared to stand by someone?  I think if we’re honest, we’ve all been in that position, at least once in our lives, maybe more.  It’s a horrible feeling.

At various times, I’ve had dreams in which somebody is being picked on or someone is being mean to an animal, and I haven’t stepped in.  I haven’t said anything.

I’ve heard that when we dream, we do so in order to learn, to practice different scenarios.  We see what happens when we do or don’t do something.  So maybe I’m learning some lessons!

Fortunately for Peter, he will find himself once again standing next to a charcoal fire.  They’re on the beach, cooking fish for breakfast.  This is after Jesus has been resurrected.  He asks Peter three times, once for each denial, “Do you love me?” (21:9, 15-17).  John makes sure to include this act of restoration, because it is such a powerful part of the story.

I’ll ask again, have we ever been in Peter’s place?  Have we ever experienced the overwhelming, humbling, and heart wrenching moment of being forgiven by someone we have betrayed?

2 jn 18

Have we ever been in Jesus’ place?  Have we ever granted to someone the awesome grace of forgiveness?

If we follow this particular thread of the story of Jesus and Peter into the book of Acts, we see something marvelous.  Along with John, Peter is teaching the people about Jesus, and “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees” are upset about it, and they have them arrested (4:1-3).  The leadership is interrogating them, and we have this remarkable comment: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (v. 13).

Companions of Jesus.  After being filled with the Spirit of Christ, there’s no way in the world Peter is denying that anymore!  He now has a true knowledge, a holy boldness.

Still, what does it mean to deny we are disciples of Christ?  What does it mean to deny we know him?  Does it mean giving in to the voices of fear and selfishness and apathy?  Does it mean settling for karma when grace is so abundantly present?

A few years ago, the lead singer for the rock group U2, Bono, did an interview in which he talked about the difference between karma and grace.[2]  He said that “at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma.  You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one.  It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.  I’m absolutely sure of it.  [I’m not so sure of it, but I still like what he has to say!]  And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow’ stuff.  Grace defies reason and logic.  Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…

“I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge.  I’d be in deep s___.  It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.  I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

Karma is what we deserve.  Grace is what we do not deserve.  Let me transition from a rock star to a Benedictine sister.

3 jn 18
Sister Joan blessing Bono at the 2008 Women’s Conference in California

Joan Chittister comments on a chapter in the sixth-century Rule of Benedict that deals with “serious faults.”[3]

“Each of us is capable of betraying the best in us.  We cut corners in the office, we stop cleaning the house, we let the study and the reading and the praying go.  We sit around in life letting the juice turn black in us.  We let the family down.  We let the business slide.  We let our minds and souls go to straw.  We fight the call to growth and goodness with everything in us.  We let the world carry us instead of carrying our part of the world.”

To return to our story, while his dear friend and Lord is being mistreated, Peter denies him.  How often have we denied Jesus?  How often have we denied the best within us?  What is to be done?

Chittister continues, “The problem, of course, is that a human being needs help to be a human being.  At our worst we seek the solace of another’s hand.”[4]

When the cock crows, Peter wonders, “What have I done?”  This is the very thing he swore he would never do.  He is gripped by intense remorse.  He can’t believe he has done such a thing.  This is Peter at his worst.  And yet, soon the time will come when Jesus offers him his hand.  He sets that as an example for us.

We need not sit around in life letting the divine juice spoil and turn black in us.  Our very best self is being transformed into Christ-likeness.  We need to seek it and hold on to it, because that is where we find life.

By the grace of God, we do not deny, but we express the best within us.




[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 97.

[4] Chittister, 98.

imitate me (not the dogs)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That seems to be one of those universal truths, expressing the way life seems to remain in a state of flux. Things are always changing!

Actually, the fact that things continue to change is part of life itself. Whether we’re thinking about single-celled organisms that jitter and ooze around—or the larger creatures we call animals that are “animated”—by its very nature, life requires movement; it requires change.

Here’s where I trot out my scientific acumen. There is a technical term for something that never changes: it’s called “dead.”

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Congregations are living things. As a result, they also are constantly changing. Some see a difference between change and transition. “Change” is something that simply happens. Change is an event, whether we choose it or not. “Transition” is how we experience that change. We have very little say about whether or not we want change (that is, of course, if we want to remain alive!). Transition, though, is something we can control.

In Philippians 3, we see the apostle Paul trying to lead the people through the change that the gospel inevitably brings. It’s inescapable. In this particular case, it’s abandoning circumcision as a requirement for faith. That’s a good thing for more than one reason (including the fact that I squirm when thinking of circumcision!). A more important reason is that the practice excludes females. As Christians, our rite of entry into the church is the all-inclusive sacrament of baptism.

Whether people embrace change as transition in the new reality is another question. Will they come to terms with it? Will they change their practices?

In his book, When God Speaks Through Change, Craig Satterlee looks at congregations in interim, transitional times. He says that in-between times can seem “wasted and meaningless.” (Kindle edition, 1.5.2) But that need not be the case. He even uses extreme language. “Chaos,” he says, “is more hospitable to new ideas than are standardized methods and routines.” If we’re satisfied with old routines, we tend to shut out fresh perspectives, innovative points of view.

For Satterlee, we need to “resist the desire for certainty and closure. Congregations often try too quickly to ‘get back to normal’ when in reality there is no ‘normal’ to get back to.” (1.5.4) There is no “normal,” because due to change, we’re in a new environment, a new world. He adds, “Resisting people’s desire for certainty and closure is continuous.”

That might seem counter-intuitive. Certainty and closure are by no means bad things. But when speaking of moving through transition, they can lead to some big time foot dragging.

I’ll ask something that we always need to consider. What changes are we facing now? If we want to choose life, what transition do we need to follow? The season of Lent, with its focus on reflection and discernment, lends itself well to questions like that.

I began my sermon by setting the stage in a way different from the way the apostle Paul does it. If you notice my sermon title, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. In verse 17 he says, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Imitate me, he says.

And on this business of “imitating me,” this isn’t the only place where he gives that particular bit of advice. He does it in 1 Corinthians chapters 4 and 11, where he qualifies it by saying, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (v. 1).

But if we go back to the beginning of the chapter, look at what he calls those who insist on circumcision. “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (v. 2). It sounds like the tagline for a horror movie!

A few years ago, Arthur Paul Boers wrote a book on troublesome behavior in the church. He gave his book the title, Never Call Them Jerks. I wonder what Paul would make of that.

Nevertheless, his heart is in the right place. At the end of our passage, Paul addresses his “brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (4:1).

So yes: St. Paul doesn’t always use diplomatic language. In fact, he can be quite salty. In verse 8, he says he regards “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.”

The Greek word translated as “rubbish” (skúbala) refers to something a bit more odorous than that. In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.” And that’s being euphemistic!

Is there anything we might think of as skúbala, something we know it’s time to, say, bag and dispose of?

Still, we should be mindful that what Paul now rejects isn’t necessarily something bad, in and of itself. Think of food that, when fresh or newly cooked, is very tasty. But after a while, it begins to turn. It’s no longer nutritious, leading to health and life; it actually becomes poisonous, leading to sickness and death.

With the often intense language Paul uses, it can be easy to forget that. He speaks of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). These aren’t necessarily people bent on acts of terrorism! In verse 19, we hear this: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”

They are on a path that doesn’t lead to fullness of life. They follow their own appetites first—which sadly, is a very easy trap for all of us. They’re proud of stuff which should make them ashamed. They don’t allow their vision to be lifted up; they run from challenges.

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As I hope I’m making clear, these “dogs” aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes, they are just stuck. They need the Holy Spirit to get them unstuck.

There’s a Lenten Bible study, Toward the Sunrise, that poses the question, “Is it sometimes fear of failure that stops us from doing something, or can it also be the fear of what we might discover?” (3) That can apply to many things, including change, which can be pretty daunting. As I suggested earlier, there can be a tendency to dig in our heels and resist transition.

Is there a fear of failure? To me, that second question might be even more compelling. Is there a fear of what we might discover?

The study looks ahead a couple of weeks to Easter. In Luke’s version, when the women visit the empty tomb, two men in blazing garments ask the question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (4) (By the way, there’s that technical scientific term I started out with!)

What about us? Do we look for the living among the dead? Are there structures, practices, ways of organizing, that once upon a time, served very well, but no longer function that way? Is there anything of which we can say, “They don’t lend themselves to the flow of the Holy Spirit they once used to”?

Too often (and I include myself), we say that we welcome change—just as long as we’re not the ones undergoing the change! Let other people change. But that’s what transition is all about. That’s what life is all about. That’s why looking for life among the dead is ultimately self-defeating.

In my early twenties, I was a member of the Assemblies of God. Among the Pentecostals, I heard on occasion that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman.” That’s not a reference to gender, although it’s not very helpful that it’s presented with masculine language! No, it means God does not coerce us into anything, including the transition that accompanies change. Even though we might feel the Spirit stirring within us, a tugging at our heart, so to speak, we still have a choice. We can still say no. God is love, and God does not force us to do anything. God is gentle.

In fact, if we feel shoved, overly pressured, that might be a red flag. That also goes for your interim pastors. We are here to offer guidance, not compulsion. We share observations, celebrate wonderful achievements, and perhaps note things that might require a second look (or even a first look).

But thank the Lord; we don’t take on this interim project all by ourselves. And by “ourselves,” I’m also speaking of the larger community and the presbytery.

No, in verse 21, St. Paul says that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (v. 21). The body of humiliation is transformed to the body of glory. You know, that’s not such a bad deal!

So, as we revisit the questions I mentioned earlier, “What changes are we facing now?” and “What transition do we need?” we can be assured that we’re not alone in that.

God is doing and will continue to do a new thing. God is moving us calmly and steadily to places where we will experience new ways of being with God.

That’s what the community of Christ is about. That applies to us, regardless of our age or station in life. While we draw breath, we are called into that adventure which is the imitation of Christ. And that, brothers and sisters, beloved, is how we stand firm in the Lord.