Sworn Word

At that moment Elrond came out with Gandalf, and he called the Company to him. "This is my last word," he said in a low voice. "The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road."
"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens," said Gimli.
"Maybe," said Elrond, "but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall."
"Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart," said Gimli.
"Or break it," said Elrond.

Tolkien does this kind of thing in several places. He allows two of his characters to have a debate, but it ends inconclusively. It's as if Gimli and Elrond turn to us here and say, "Well? Which of us is right? You, the Reader must decide." The natures of elf and dwarf make this particular debate quite vivid. The dwarf stands on rock, axe in hand, determined never to give way or deviate from his purpose. The elf also has purpose but he does not fully reveal it, and he is prepared to adapt his behaviour to the world he lives in; he knows the limits of his foresight.

Which is right? Faced with a daunting task, is it better to state our purpose from the outset and go with determination, or should we recognise our own possible weakness and lack of resources and just see how far we can go?

At this time of year, knowing Tolkien's Christian outlook, I think we can easily identify the gospel incident he has in his mind while letting Elrond and Gimli debate this:

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
   “‘I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.
(Matthew 26:31-35)

We know how that turned out. Peter had made his promise and he was determined to keep it. But in the end, under great pressure, in the firelight of the courtyard outside Jesus' trial, he failed:

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”
 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
(Matthew 26:69-74)

Because of this, Peter is held up as the example of failure under pressure. But is that fair? First, Jesus had assured him that he would fail and even indicated that he knew when. It was a situation he didn't expect any of his followers to withstand. Second, Peter had dared more than all the rest. When he was in the courtyard being questioned, where were they? Peter had followed his master more faithfully than the others, not less. And finally, notice the little remark, "And all the other disciples said the same". Peter wasn't the only one who had broken this promise.

But of course he still felt devastated. The following day, when Jesus was condemned and executed, he must have felt even worse. On the third day when some of the women planned to visit the tomb, Peter (and the other disciples) couldn't face it. He would have carried this guilt as a burden all his life if it hadn't been for the astonishing events of Jesus' resurrection.

A few days later:

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.
(John 21:4-7)

There's a lot going on here, but one thing stands out. Peter has a choice, and an instant to make it in. Hide? Run away? Refuse to face Jesus? Or get to him as fast as possible, before the others, to make a private confession and seek forgiveness? The only way to have that private talk with Jesus is by swimming. "He wrapped his outer garment around him and jumped into the water"!

Well, I find that I can't answer Elrond and Gimli's question. I don't know how openly it's wise to pledge alliegance. But I can recognise in Peter's actions the right response when we know we've failed. A Christian, a follower of Christ is expected to live accordingly and seek to have the same attitudes, priorities and concerns as Christ himself. It doesn't seem possible that any of us can always be perfect. But when we're conscious of failure a swift return to our Lord, seeking his pardon and restoration, is the best course. Easter is a reminder that this is always possible because he's alive, not in a tomb. And the central message of the Christian faith is that God loves us so much that he will always receive us: Christ's death for us is enough.

I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
(Luke 15:10)