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Keeping a Safe Distance

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Photo: Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Hanging around with Jesus can get you into a lot of trouble. His closest friends, who had spent the previous three years with him watching the extraordinary miracles, and even assisting him with them; made themselves scarce on the night of his arrest. The youngest of the twelve, John, seems to have known people and did manage to make it into the trial; all the others disappeared, except for Peter.

Peter had talked a good talk. He had assured Jesus that he would die with him, if it came to that. Now he was lurking in the shadows; watching from the sideline, keeping a safe distance. In spite of his best attempts to pass through the crowd unnoticed, he was recognised in the flickering light of a fire, first by a servant girl and then others, as one of Jesus’ disciples. The pressure of being outed among such a heightened crowd - a scary volatile mood in the air - led Peter to stammer out his most memorable of all statements, “I don’t know him!”

Jesus had never kept the cost hidden - he had never tucked away the difficult bits in the small print. To those who had been paying attention he had boldly stated that they would need to pick up their cross and follow him. I guess it all seems clear in retrospect, but his disciples still seemed taken by surprise by the apparently untimely interruption to their preaching and healing schedule. We now know that the cross would become the turning point of history and the turning point in the lives of millions of people, up to this very day.

The temptation for his disciples is still the same today - to follow him, but from a safe distance. We might feel reluctant to get sucked into the more complicated stuff associated with following Jesus - or find ourselves thinking, let’s keep a safe distance between us and some of the less popular things he said; maybe it would be wise to stay away from those Christians, or that particular church, because they do go a bit overboard on some things. I may resist going to a prayer meeting, or joining a mission trip because I want to keep my faith private - just between me and God.

There’s a thought!

It seems that Jesus, however, was expecting his disciples to be his witnesses: to give a testimony to those around of what he has done on their behalf. The New Testament word which is translated into the English, witness, is martus. It is the word which was adopted to define those who did give their testimonies of the amazing love and power of Jesus and paid for the privilege with their lives. The first martyr for Jesus was Stephen, stoned to death by a raging religious lynch mob.

Back to Peter - I don’t imagine he really intended to abandon Jesus, but his own courage abandoned him. His desire to protect himself from the terrifying prospect of being put on trial next to Jesus, led him to angrily deny all knowledge of him. For most Christians in the West, our biggest fear is unpopularity, or exclusion from certain groups. In some countries in the world today being known as a follower of Jesus means facing harsh discrimination, maybe loss of employment; in other regimes it can mean almost certain imprisonment, torture or death.

More than 360 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith – that’s a staggering 1 in 7 believers. (Open Doors 2023)

Society expects all Somalis to be Muslim. Imams in mosques and madrassas statepublicly that there is no room for Christianity, Christians or churches. Christians from Muslim backgrounds are regarded as high-value targets and may be killed on the spot if discovered.

Believers continue to face an extreme level of violence, which has worsened in recent years. Islamic militants have intensified their hunt for people who are Christian. Their goal, as they have stated on many occasions, is to rid Somalia of any Christians. (Open Doors 2023)

Nonetheless, even in these most hostile environments, living under the most brutal regimes there are those who faithfully walk with Jesus. These are the martus, who don’t follow from a distance, but daily take the risk of having to suffer or die because they love Jesus enough to walk up close with him.

So what about you and me? How does our courage look when viewed alongside the disciples of Jesus in Nigeria, where 89% of the 5621 Christians killed for their faith in 2022 were murdered? How are we doing when Jesus is getting some negative publicity or some hostile verbal abuse from a co-worker in the office? Are we standing next to Jesus, taking it with him, or are we following from a safe distance? Peter shows us that when we move away from Jesus’ immediate presence into the shadows we become far more likely to quietly disown him and ultimately deny that we ever knew him.

The incredible end to the story with Peter is that he gets to meet the risen Jesus, who sees his sorrow over his failure and reinstates him. Peter goes on to be the official spokesperson for the first generation Church. He becomes a fearless, outspoken martus, willing to be identified with Jesus to the very end; truly a foundation stone of the church. His strategy was to be fully identified with Jesus, rather than lose sight of him ever again. As Paul the apostle would say, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” For Peter, his end was to be crucified upside-down, because he did not consider himself worthy of the same death as his Lord.

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