Getting To Yes

Week of Monday, April 9, 2001

At a recent InterVarsity meeting our preacher for Sunday morning was Femi Adeleye of Nigeria. Femi was preaching on Acts 10 and the conversion of Cornelius the Roman centurion, but this is really a story of the conversion of Peter the follower of Jesus. When Peter fell into a trance he saw a vision of a large sheet filled with ceremonially unclean animals, then he heard a voice telling him to eat. As a conscientious Jew, his response was an unequivocal “no” (Acts 10:14). Femi then observed in passing that Peter also told the Lord “No” on two other occasions. When Jesus tried to wash his feet he said, “No, you shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). Then, right after his confession of Jesus as Lord (Matthew 16:16), when Jesus explained that He must “suffer many things,” Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him, “No! This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22). Eventually Peter got it, was converted beyond his initial conversion, and changed his No to Yes: “Now I realize that God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).

Later as I was waiting for my plane in O'Hare airport, I was thinking about Peter's other No's. Femi forgot to mention Peter's most egregious No when he denied Jesus three times in the Garden of Gethsemane. When accused of being a follower of Jesus, Peter gave an unequivocal No three times over: “I don't know what you are talking about” (Matthew 26:70), “I don't know the man!” (27:72), and again, “I don't know the man!” (27:74). Peter, the text tells us, “wept bitterly” at his denials.

I don't think Femi's aside was deliberate, but it fit perfectly with the theme of our conference. Our speaker was Darrell Guder whose recent book is entitled The Continuing Conversion of the Church (2000). In this book Darrell explores a major theme of the Protestant Reformation, that the church not only reforms, but is in constant need of being reformed. You know something is important when it winds its way down to us in a handy Latin aphorism: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. Yes, Cornelius needed to be converted to Jesus for the first time, but Peter's lesson, and the lesson for us all, is that even as followers of Jesus we need to be continually converted. Repentance is a lifelong attitude, not a single shot of remorse. We need God to move us beyond all of our No's and denials, to the transforming grace of Yes.

But it is not easy. I find it all too easy to say No to Jesus and to remain in my anger, pettiness, sarcasm, fear and the like, rather than saying Yes to God's grace and being reconverted—slowly, continually, repeatedly—to peace, kindness, gentleness, and faith. In one of my favorite books, In the Name of Jesus (1989), Henri Nouwen thus defines Christian maturity as allowing God to take us to places we'd perhaps rather not go (see John 21:18). For Nouwen this meant moving from a professorship at Harvard to serving as a priest for the mentally retarded.

One faltering Yes to the grace of God can overcome all our No's. This is the difference between Peter, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the rich man who “went away sad” after Jesus challenged him to sell his possessions (Mark 10:22), the Pharisees who “rejected God's purposes for themselves” (Luke 7:30), or the people of the Gerasenes who witnessed Jesus's miracle of merciful healing but still ran Him out of town (Mark 5:17). Impetuous as he was, Peter had more than his fair share of denials of Jesus, but he kept saying Yes to God's grace, whereas these other people, as far as we know, remained stuck in their No's.

Our Yes to Jesus need not be perfect, or even permanent; they rarely are. Peter's most famous Yes in Matthew 16:16, maybe the most famous Yes in all of Christian history—”Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!”—was followed only a few verses later by a wholesale denial of Jesus's central purpose of suffering, death and resurrection. And even though he was converted to say Yes to Gentiles like Cornelius, later he reneged. Paul writes, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray” (Galatians 2:11–13).

We will always struggle with divided hearts, habitual sins, unhealthy thought patterns, and compromises of various sorts. This is because we are, as Luther put it, simultaneously both saints and sinners (simul justus et peccator) until we reach heaven. But even though our Yes is imperfect, and even partial or impermanent, it nevertheless avails us of the power of God's transforming love.

I am reminded of two ancient prayers.

In the Gospel of Mark (9:24) Jesus heals a boy with an evil spirit whose father wrestled between Yes and No: “Yes, Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief!”

In A Century of Spiritual Texts, St. Theodoros (9th century?) records the prayer of Arsenios, a fifth-century desert father of Egypt: “My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start.” Or, as Femi might put it, the power to move from No to Yes.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.