[The message below was based on John 21:1-19 and delivered at Parkminster Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, on May 5, 2019.]
“Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’” That’s a heavy message for a restored disciple from the risen Lord. Listen to more of that message from “The Message”: “Jesus said [to Peter], ‘When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.’ He said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. And then he commanded, ‘Follow me.’” Hint? That sounds like more than a hint to me. It sounds more like, “Get ready to die.” And in the meantime, “follow me.”
This is our Easter season, a time of abounding good news for all in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Is it good news to be confronted by Jesus, the Lord of life, with the reality of the death sentence each one of us lives under every day? Is it good news to have some advance notice that we are going to die?
About a half year ago, it was noticeable that a friend was losing some of his mental sharpness. Last December he couldn’t be at home alone anymore. His wife, who still works outside the home, made the difficult, but wise and loving, decision to place him in a caring facility. I visit him there every so often. He has known me for only a short portion of his years, so it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t know me. Those words Jesus spoke to Peter hit me whenever I visit my friend: “’When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.” My friend is at the stage where he needs help getting dressed and eating. The death by which he will glorify God seems not far away, but we don’t know just when that day will be.
When I was pastoring, I made many visits over many years to people with diseases that were life-threatening. Some were older than I, some about my age, and some younger, some much younger. I have always had a measure of good health, through no merit of my own. But I know how quickly that can change—for me, for you. Leaving a visit with someone that has what looks to be a terminal disease, I often think that that person has an advantage over me in that I might think my health is a given and my days still many. After all, I don’t know what illness or disease may be at work in this mortal body right now. And you don’t know what life-threatening disease may be at work in you.
“Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’” We don’t know how much time elapsed between Peter hearing those words and Peter dying. But the Book of Acts makes abundantly clear that Peter lived his life fully and faithfully in the interim. He delivers the first sermon of the baby Christian Church on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 people respond and become followers of Jesus that day. (I keep hoping one of my sermons will have that effect!)
Before we get to that day on that beach, we take a closer look at that day in its context. John is writing his gospel some decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John was the longest living of the original disciples and was ending his long years as a prisoner on the island of Patmos. He is able to take a longer view of the ministry of Jesus. When it comes to telling us about Jesus appearing and ministering to the disciples after Easter day, John wins. Mark says nothing. Matthew gives five verses. Luke gives four. John gives a chapter and a half, a whopping 33 verses. Only John gives us the narrative we have today.
The narrative unfolds in three movements. On a beach, the risen Lord appears to seven disciples. That it was on a beach is not insignificant. Good things happen on beaches. I love beaches. But it is curious that the risen Lord isn’t appearing in Jerusalem. He could be confronting Herod and Pilate with his good news. Or the high priests on duty in the Temple. He could go to Rome, the greatest city of its day and confront the Roman Emperor, the Caesar. Instead he appears on some unnamed beach in the backwater region of Galilee.
It is on a beach on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that these disciples see Jesus, but don’t realize that it is Jesus. That is a fairly common experience in the gospel accounts of Easter morning. They are all having trouble believing what seems unbelievable. Jesus gets their attention with a simple question: “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” That’s got to be a little embarrassing—perhaps humiliating—to seasoned fishermen on the body of water they regularly fished, where some once made a living. That leads to a breakfast of grilled fish and toast. “Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them,…” There is something here we cannot ignore. Jesus shows up in ordinary places doing ordinary things for ordinary people that can often be clueless. I think that hasn’t changed. Jesus still regularly reveals himself in ordinary places doing ordinary things for ordinary people that can often be clueless.
The second movement deals directly with Peter. We remember that a short time ago in Jesus’ hour of need, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times and then wept bitterly when Jesus locked eyes with him. With three questions—really one question asked three times—Jesus restores Peter. Why three asks of the same question? I don’t think that was lost on Peter. Or on us.
The third movement is that sobering word to Peter: “…when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” Happy Easter, Peter. And, by the way, you’re going to die.
Without Good Friday, we have no Easter. Without death, we have no resurrection. Our faith conquers death, but it doesn’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. The sting is gone in the victory of Jesus, but the pain lingers. The apostle Paul says that he dies daily in following Jesus. Late in his earthly life he writes: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:20-21.) Knowing that we are meant to glorify God in our dying can liberate us to glorify God in our living.
Jesus shows up in ordinary places doing ordinary things for ordinary people that can often be clueless. I think that hasn’t changed. Jesus still regularly reveals himself in ordinary places doing ordinary things for ordinary people that can often be clueless.
A few years back Tim McGraw sang about a man that found out that he had an illness and his days were numbered:
He said “I was finally the husband That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin’ Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
I finally read the Good Book, and I took a good, long, hard look.”
And I loved deeper And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying
And he said “Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dying
Like tomorrow was a gift And you’ve got eternity
To think about What you’d do with it
What could you do with it What did I do with it? What would I do with it?”
Jesus does Peter a favor by reminding him of his mortality. “Then he says to him, ‘Follow me!’” He speaks the same reminder to us and then charges us to follow him in whatever the day holds for us. After all, our days are numbered. This is not another fish story.
[Two days after I finished my sermon preparation and a day before I preached this message, Rachel Held Evans, an author who writings have greatly influenced my faith, died at age 37. Like Peter, Rachel lived and died to the glory of God.]