fallen and I can't get up”:
A Reflection on Ambivalent Discipleship
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
[Jesus’ disciples said, “His] teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked (his other twelve disciples), “Do you also wish to go away? Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ (John 6: 60, 66-70)
A story. One day a man was walking by a monastery and saw a monk standing in front of it. The man asked, “O holy man of God, what do you and your fellow monks do in there?” The monk replied, “We fall and we get up. We fall and we get up.”
Following the Lord Jesus is never easy. In the Gospel reading today, we hear some of the disciples complaining that what Jesus required was difficult. And we can sympathize with the disciples because we too often experience the demands of the Gospel as burdensome. It is not always easy to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). I start with the premise that there is goodness in everybody. But I am also enough of a pragmatist to say that we could be capable of betraying even the best in us. I know that that is true of me. At the end of each day, as I say my evening prayers, I would usually do what is called an “examination of conscience.” I would make a brief review of my day. Often I would not only discover the blessings of the day. But I would also discover moments in which I have I failed in my Christian responsibilities and duties- to God and to those around me. When we do a review of our daily life, we will find that there are times when we neglect our relationship with God because we pay more attention to work, or money or some other thing. And we will discover as well that we do not always act lovingly or justly towards others around us. Sometimes, resentments, crankiness, jealousy, and just plain selfishness get the better of us. Like the monk in that story, we fall from grace many times. Our life has many moments- big or small- when we turn away from following the Lord.
We are always a people who fall and get up, fall and get up. We can never, at least in this life, get it quite right. We can never achieve spiritual perfection. Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying here that we should give up trying our very best to do good or be good. What I am saying is that Christian life is never an easy road, that we must expect some bumps on the road, and these obstacles, our own failures should not prevent us from picking ourselves up from our fall and trying again. To fall and pick ourselves up over and over do not constitute failure. It is part of our human condition. The only failure is when we despair and give up on trying altogether like the many disciples who abandoned Jesus because they were disheartened by their own struggles to follow Jesus.
Look at Peter in the Gospel reading today. Peter seemed to be the perfect disciple. While many disciples turned away from Jesus, Peter did not. After Jesus experienced rejection from the other disciples, Jesus turned to Peter and the other disciples, and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter’s answer was just perfect. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But if we look at the stories in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, we get a completely different picture of Peter. Peter was not always resolute in following the Lord. Sometimes, we find him in conflict with Jesus. The Gospel portrayed him as impulsive, and often times, an awkward fool. We know that he betrayed Jesus by denying him and abandoning him in his last hours. Peter and Paul had a big fight once because Peter seemed too slow to affirm that God loved everyone and did not discriminate on any basis (Jews versus Gentiles). Peter was not a disciple who always got it right.
A few years ago, I went on a trip to Rome. Now, Rome is filled with many magnificent churches, the famous one of these, as we know, is dedicated to Saint Peter, the famous Basilica di San Pietro. But in an off-beaten path was a less known and a less impressive chapel, the Chiesa del Domine, quo vadis? The chapel was built on the spot where, according an old legend, Peter encountered the risen Christ as Peter was fleeing from persecution. This legend, not in the Bible, alleges that Peter tried to save his life by abandoning his persecuted Christian brothers and sisters. On his way out of the city, Peter saw the risen Jesus, walking into the direction of the city, and Peter asked him, “Domine, quo vadis?” “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Since you are abandoning your brothers and sisters, I go to Rome to be crucified again (“Eo Romam iterum crucifigi.”) Peter realized his mistake and he got up from his fall from grace and turned back to the city. Peter might be a coward. Peter might be a flake. Peter might not have a backbone like Paul. But Peter never despaired of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He knew he was a great sinner, but even then, he was always a great lover of God. And so, even if Peter found himself turning away from Jesus over and over, he always returned, unlike the other disciples who turned and never came back.
My brothers and sisters, we can fall over and over, but God is always ready to supply us with his grace to help us get up from our fall. He will give us as many chances as we want and need. He will never turn his back from us. For this, today and always, we give praise indeed to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for his infinite mercy and compassion on us. Amen.
2006 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.