19 This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. 20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? 21 Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? 22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. 23 Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? 24 This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. 25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. (John 21:18-25)
Who is your favorite Apostle, and is it appropriate to claim a favorite among the twelve? I believe it is both appropriate and a spiritually valid approbation. Jesus held a special love for John, the Apostle; and so I believe we can do so as well. After all, the name, John, means ‘favored one of God.’ If you read carefully the four Gospels, we must admit that John has a greater reference to love than all of the others, though all stress the love of God and our fellows.
The historical record suggests that John was the only Apostle to be spared a martyr’s death having lived well into his nineties and written the final book of the Bible from exile on Patmos Island in advanced age. This will introduce us to the biblical text provided in the lectionary for today – St. John 21:19-25.
The venue for the text is beside the blue waters of Galilee (Sea of Tiberius) which held many fond memories for the Apostles – the fish with the golden coin in its mouth (Matthew 17:27); the scene of the immoderate storm while Jesus slept (St. Matthew 823-27): the same Sea upon which Jesus walked and bade Peter walk also (St. Matthew 14:25-32); the shores by which Jesus found Simon Peter and Andrew casting nets into the sea; and many other happy occasions. God gives us happy memories to make our hearts light and joyful on stormy and dark days. But the present occasion under discussion is the most joyful of all.
It was an all-night fishing expedition that yielded not a single catch. With their Lord being crucified, Peter decided it was time to return to his old living as a fisherman – and, indeed, it was; but not of the smelly fish of the sea, but rather the smelly fish of sinners. In past times, these men – Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and others, had lived upon the generous support of those who followed Jesus. Now, in their mind, all of that was over, it was time to return to their old ways. How many Christians come to know Christ, are changed profoundly thereby, but later lapse into their old carnal selves after some dramatic setback in life?
Our Lord has just informed Peter, in this placid meeting and breakfast by the Sea of Galilee (following the resurrection), what manner of death he would endure as a martyr for Christ. “18 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” Before we came to know Christ, we, too, did as we pleased. Our wills were in bondage to the devil; but when we come to Christ, we forsake the old wine and walk a new life of love and sacrifice. The weather will not always be fair and calm. Taking up our cross daily (St. Luke 9:23) to follow Christ means to follow him – not only TO the cross, but ON it and beyond. We die to self, surrender our wills to Him so that His Will is now OUR will; and dying to self by means of that cross we have taken up, we live for Him in that resurrection unto eternal life emphatically demonstrated at the Garden Tomb that beautiful Easter Morning. Thusly, our will becomes FREE.
There are far more lessons than the brief length of the text would suggest!
LESSON # 1: The disciple of Christ is not to concern himself with the calling of others – that is God’s prerogative. We have enough challenge on our hands in seeing to our own calling. The church organist is not to concern himself (or herself) with the calling of the Lay Reader, and the Lay Reader is not to concern himself with the nature of calling of the Altar Guild. Whatever our own calling in Christ (and we are all called as surely as day follows night), it is sufficient to occupy our souls and spirits in performing that calling. After Jesus informed Peter of the manner of his martyrdom, He told Peter, “Follow Me!” In other words, do not follow John or any others besides me – only ME! That will always be enough, for our Lord always leads in the right way, for He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (St. John 14:6)
LESSON # 2: Do not harbor jealousy or envy for fellow servants of our Lord. Instead, edify all of the Body of Christ. If you cannot utter a word of encouragement to a fellow soul, at least do not utter a word of discouragement. The world has already provided an abundance of discouragement. The House of God is not a place to be discouraged, disparaged, or disappointed. It is always possible to offer a word of kindness and love to the most obscure (to us, but not to God) among us. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
LESSON # 3: Two doctrinal points of the Gospel are mentioned in the text. The first, that each Christian must follow Christ alone as commanded. His Way is always the right way and untainted by petty jealousies. Like Peter, Christ admonishes each of us to abide by this doctrine. The second doctrine presented is that of perfect contentment with one’s calling. Jesus bore a special love for the apostle who lay his head on His breast at the Last Supper. John presumes nothing – he only answers in echo to that love of Christ. John does not ponder the plight of Peter. He only accepts whatever the will of Christ may hold for himself. (see Philippians 4:11)
LESSON # 4: The Christian life not only follows Christ in the manner of living, but also in the manner of death. We may bear a strong testimony of Christ even in the manner of our death as will Peter. We live in Christ and, if so, we shall also die in Christ (as Christ himself says, we will fall asleep). “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34-37 KJV)
LESSON # 5: Obey Christ in the instant without lingering doubts. What is the first thing Peter does when Jesus commands him to “Follow me” in verse 19? He immediately takes his eyes off of Christ and looks upon John with envy. We all are guilty of that human frailty. To deny this fact is to add guilt to guilt. We follow Jesus Christ, which is the incarnate Word of God, implicitly! There are too many today who look upon the ministers as the perfect role model while they should be, instead, looking upon the Word which they teach (if you are fortunate today to find one that preaches that Word). St. John the Apostle would be first to counsel you to follow and imitate Christ, not himself! The Saints of God did not die in our stead on the cross. They were men of carnal minds and souls like unto our own until touched by the Holy Fire of God. The light and fire they share or reveal is evidence of a Source for Fire and Light – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are all saints.
Lesson # 6: Stop looking back. If I look back on the dreadful old self that I was before Christ, I may utterly despair that the Love of Christ could ever forgive such a one as I. The past is full of our own misdoings, but the future is full of the hope of Christ. Keep looking to Christ else you, like Peter, may sink into the briny foam. As our dear Lord has declared: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62 KJV) When the plowman looks back over his shoulder at the puny evidence of his own past works, the rows in front will not be straight either. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength.” (Isaiah 26:3-4 KJV)
QUESTION: Is your mind, spirit, and soul stayed upon Christ, or are you distracted by the specters of the past and present? Is your love governed by that effulgent Fountain of Life in Christ? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Matt 22:37 KJV)