I wrote this sermon for Graduation Sunday, a service celebrating our 5th, 8th, 12th and college graduates. Our theme for this service was "Passages." It was delivered on 6/5/16.
Scripture Reading: John 21: 4 – 19 NRSV
Scripture Reading: John 21: 4 – 19 NRSV
Our scripture reading for today was taken from the last chapter of John’s gospel, but before I dig into that passage, I’d actually like to begin in the previous chapter. So that we can get a feel for what has happened up to this point in the story, which I believe will help us better understand the scripture we just heard.
By this time in John’s Gospel, Jesus has been baptized, spent his life healing and teaching and because of this put on trial and ultimately executed on a cross by the Roman Empire. After his crucifixion, Jesus’ body is bound in funeral clothes and placed in a tomb sealed by a large stone. Three days later one of Jesus’ female disciples goes to the tomb only to discover that in a shocking turn of events her Lord is gone!
And this is where chapter 20 picks up the story. The text says she ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved... Which if you’re Peter has to sting a little, right? I mean there’s the disciple Jesus loved… and then there’s Peter.
Anyway, in verse 2 she says to them:
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him! So, Peter set out with the other disciple and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”
[Hmm hmm hmm…]
“He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.”
I don’t know if you caught it but there is a bit of a rivalry going on here. I mean John is telling us about the resurrection, what we affirm to be the greatest event in human history, and yet he takes the time to give us petty details like who was faster? What exactly is going on here?
Well, let’s start with what we know: According to John, when Jesus was on trial — alone, about to be crucified— Peter denies ever knowing him. On other hand, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus asked the beloved disciple to take care of his mother after his death and not only does he outrun Peter to the tomb, but what when finds the tomb empty, “he believes.”
All of which leads us to the passage we heard today, wherein the newly resurrected Jesus takes Peter aside and asks: do you love me? Peter, do you love me? Three times he asks him this question and the text says Peter was grieved the Lord would question his devotion.
In spite of his apparent suspicions, Jesus gives Peter a sacred task. Three times he repeats some variation of: “take care of my sheep.” Essentially, he says: “Peter, pastor my people, lead the church.” And he ends this calling in verse 19 with the words, “follow me.”
Jesus commissions Peter in this holy moment — follow me Peter, take my mission on yourself, feed my sheep — and what is Peter’s response this grand invitation? Well, we read in verse 20ff:
“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”
Peter wants to know: but what about him? What are you going to give him to do? Is it going to be fair? Jesus says to Peter:
“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
Consider for a moment of all the subtle, petty ways you and I gauge our worth by measuring ourselves against someone else. I mean how often do we let the impulse to compare make us miserable? And maybe today, as we begin to consider all of the fears and variables that go along with taking our next steps Jesus is asking us “What is that to you?”
A few years ago I attended a student led Ash Wednesday service at my seminary. The theme for this service was “idolatry,” which basically was a way of addressing the fact that all of us frequently give our attention to something other than God. But if we can name them, confess the ways we’ve worshipped them and repent, we have faith God will forgive us and bring our devotion back to where it needs to be.
For the service, the chairs were arranged in a circle and at the center of the circle was a table filled with candles. After the message, the preacher invited us to share our confessions of idolatry with the group, and then light a candle to symbolize the naming of that idol. We were told that at the end all of the candles would be extinguished, and with that, we were left to it.
A few people, not many, but a few people shared their idols with us— things like good grades, their children’s achievements, their income or their significant other. Each of them rolled off me as if I had heard this standard list of idols a million times before.
But then a woman, a woman I didn’t know very well but shared a few classes with, stood up and said: “You are my idols. This semester I’ve invested what at times feels like all of my energy into caring about what you think of me, how I measure up to your standards. Of this, I repent.”
And what was already a silent collection of people staring at a table of flickering lights somehow became even more deadly still, as this woman walked through the seats, picked up a lighter and lit a solitary candle we knew stood for every one of us.
To this day I am convinced that during that service she began the lengthy painful process of figuring out, “what is that to me?”
This is not just an individual impulse. I think whole groups do it, churches even. Well Jesus, what about them? They have so much more funding than we do! They have the most creative ideas, the right people, the best location, the nicest building — whatever we determine the “better” thing to be at a given moment. We think: “I know we’re supposed to be fulfilling the vision you gave us, but what about them? Is this really fair?”
Underlying this complaint lurks something ominous. What we really want to know is: why didn’t you make me like them? We envy others because we wish we weren’t who we are. We wish we were funnier, thinner, smarter, wealthier… we wish we had gotten into a better school, or could be a better parent, or a savvier businessperson.
We ask Jesus “what about them?” because we want to know “why not us?” When we do this we are admitting that on a fundamental level we are not OK with who God made us to be. This, I think, is Peter’s central struggle. But we are not supposed to live this way. We can feel it in our bones.
Well, in the Old Testament God offered the Hebrew people a blueprint for how they could live life in a way that brings wholeness. The bible calls this blueprint the “Ten Commandments” and they are found in the 20th chapter of Exodus.
What’s fascinating about them is that the first nine are similar, in that they are all externally observable. You can witness a murder, overhear a lie or catch a thief. It’s only the 10th commandment, the one about coveting — desiring what has been given to someone else—, which takes place in the inner life. How do you know if someone is coveting? How do you know the person sitting next to you isn’t coveting as I speak? You can’t! This is something we do internally. And I don’t know about you, but it makes sense to me that God would prohibit something avoidable like killing, but how could it make sense for God to prohibit envy? It feels inevitable, unreasonable, inescapable! How can we possibly stop desiring what other people have? It’s a very strange commandment in that way.
So why is this commandment so different from the others? Well we usually translate verse 14: “You shall not covet.” But it can also mean, “You will not covet.” Translated like this the commandment sounds less like a choice and more like a promise. In other words, keep numbers one through nine and you won’t covet.
Therefore, when you honor your mother and father, show fidelity to your spouse, tell the truth, take only what is yours and keep all the other commandments, you won’t want anyone else’s life. That’s true contentment. That’s what sets us free.
Earlier in the passage we heard today, Jesus tells Peter: “someday you will be lead where you do not wish to go, he said this to indicate the manner of death (by which) he [meaning Peter] will glorify God." Another translation of the word “indicate” in the Greek is “to give a sign;” This detail significant, because in John’s Gospel signs are a big deal. In this gospel Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” and by performing signs Jesus is revealing his identity as the Son of God and long awaited messiah. John seems to be hinting that Peter’s mission, though it will be fraught with struggles and set backs, will announce to the world that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be, and that his resurrection has all sorts of implications for us.
The task Jesus has given Peter, well, it’s quite an honor…
Unfortunately, Peter is unable to appreciate the significance of what Jesus is inviting him to do because he’s too busy worrying about what task the beloved disciple will be given.
How many times has God invited us to step into who we are, a journey that uniquely expresses our gifts and talents, only to be distracted by worrying about what other people are doing. What others have been given?
Consider this question for a moment, because the fact of the matter is that whether you are a graduate entering an entirely new stage of life, or simply going about things as usual, we all have our own sacred stories to tell; stories—though they are filled with struggles and set backs— have the potential to unveil God’s presence in the world.
Another reason owning our stories is so critically important is this: how can we be at peace with others if secretly we wish we had what they’ve been given? How can love exist where there is resentment? Or acceptance where there is bitterness? Just think about how different the world would be if all of the energy spent comparing could be replaced with energy spent connecting?
As you some of you know, I graduated from seminary last summer, and as a alumni of Wesley Theological Seminary I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some really incredible people — I mean people who are literally changing the world.
Some of my former classmates are championing issues like affordable housing and hunger. Some are taking on whole systems of injustice like mass incarceration and sex trafficking. In other words, I graduated alongside a hugely gifted, passionate and talented group men and women. So it’s easy to begin the comparisons. When I evaluate myself against their talents I consistently find they are better writers, savvier problem solvers, more patient listeners and certainly better preachers.
In the three years I was in seminary there was more than one instance when I wanted to hand one of them my calling and say, “Here, take it. You do something amazing with this.”
But every time I am tempted to exchange my story for someone else’s I’m instantly transported back in time, sitting on a beach talking with Jesus. The air is warm and salty. I can hear the sounds of men laboring to drag a giant catch of fish onto shore, as waves lap at their feet.
And me, with my head turned away from Jesus to observe my peers —in their world changing glory— I hear the convicting words of Jesus:
“Leigh, what is that to you? Follow me.”
The reality is that none of us have it all together. We are all in need of grace and it is this resurrected Christ sitting on the beach with Peter that offers it to us. Which means our righteousness is not our own. And if our fundamental identity as Christians is based on something outside of our own accomplishments, then there is no basis on which to compare.
We are all equal in our need to be seen and loved just as we are, and God —the only Being capable of such a task— has called each and every one of you to something holy and set apart.
So when you leave this place, and jealously inevitably begins to creep in, ask yourself: What is that to me? Begin the painful process of self-examination. Once you do this, I promise God will redirect you towards an appreciation of your own journey.
Now brothers and sisters, let’s hold on to God’s unique vision for our church, for your family, for you individually and for me. May we give our full attention and gratitude to the resurrected Jesus, who liberates us from the bondage of wanting someone else’s life, and then sends us out to proclaim the Good News: Christ is risen the captives are set free.