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Sermon – April 18, 2010: Where You Do Not Wish to Go

Sermon for Sunday, April 18, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Where You Do Not Wish to Go

Psalm 30, Revelation 5: 11-14; John 21: 1-19

I was talking to a man–not a churchgoer, I’m not sure really how religious in a

conventional way, but a bright, well-read man. He’s older, and he said, “Doesn’t it say in the

Bible somewhere that “when you’re old, someone else will take you and make you go

where you don’t want to go?” I was a little surprised he knew the scripture, but who could

be surprised that he knew the feeling? This is from Jesus’ speech to Peter at the end of the

gospel of John, where Jesus tells Peter, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your

own belt and go where you wished. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands,

and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

Then the author of the gospel tells us, (“he said this to indicate the kind of death by which he

would glorify God.”) ‘”After this,” the gospel goes on, “he said to him, “Follow me.”‘

The evangelist interprets Jesus’ remark for us as a foretelling of Peter’s own

crucifixion as a prisoner condemned by the Romans, to which he presumably would have

gone as bound. But the helplessness with which it is our common lot to meet death, the

sense that we arrive, at some point in our lives, at a place where we no longer are in charge

of our own destiny, but are given over to an unrelenting and unwelcome power which leads

us implacably away–that’s part of the consciousness of our mortality with which we live all

our lives. Different seasons of our life and different circumstances dictate how forcefully we

feel the weight of this knowledge, and various factors shape our response. Who can read

this scripture past the age of forty and not wince in sympathy with Peter, who has so many

things going for him but is being reminded that there’s a limit to how much time he’ll have to

live?

You can read this exchange between Jesus and Peter in different voices. Jesus can

sound stern and confrontational, or Jesus can sound gentle and sympathetic. You could

even read it in a way which would make Jesus’ remarks about Peter’s eventual death seem

full of regret. Jesus may mourn the very fact of mortality, Jesus may be even more pained

than Peter is about the inevitability of death. The tears which Jesus wept at the tomb of

Lazarus may support reading Jesus this way, as foretelling Peter’s eventual demise not in

the voice of a commanding officer willing to sacrifice his troops, but in the attitude of anyone

heartbroken about the prospect of separation, and loss, and anyone’s losing the reassuring

routine of continued existence, anyone’s having to resign living and relinquish being.

However we are to hear the unspoken, the affective part of Jesus’ speech to Peter,

the words are clear enough. Peter won’t always be free to go where he wants, and in fact at

some point won’t be able to prevent being taken where he does not wish to go. That’s the

way it is, and even with that being the way it is–or perhaps especially because that’s the

way it is, Jesus is telling him to follow him.

We know how Peter’s life turns out. He goes from having been one of the

fishermen whom Jesus recruited on the shores of the Sea of Galilee–strong, certainly, able

to command respect– Jesus made him his lieutenant, the first among equals of the

disciples–but just a man working out his destiny in a backwater of the empire. That’s who

he starts out as, and he becomes the head of the new church at Rome, and leads that

church long enough and ably enough that it gets established as preeminent among the

fledgling centers of Christianity worldwide. Peter is martyred. Peter is arrested and

condemned and killed, and if people really kept track of this successfully, you could get in a

plane and fly today to Rome, and tomorrow visit the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, the

church of St. Peter in chains, and see the manacles that were fastened to his outstretched

arms, see the links by which he was led to his execution. Through his life, and through his

death, as well, by the logic of God’s stirring up a new faith, he encouraged the spread of a

new way of understanding God and human beings and life and death, he had a hand in

changing the world.

It wasn’t his experience of this world that empowered him to dare what he dared and

do what he did. It wasn’t what he learned from his everyday existence which equipped him

to become an ambassador for Christ and a leader of a movement. It was his experience of

the Risen Christ which developed that potential in Peter, and the experience of the Risen

Christ counts, at least in part, on a confident acquaintance with the realm of the holy, with a

heavenly kingdom where Christ always is alive, and by which Christ’s followers live in this

world until they are joined to him after death.

Some churches overemphasize the hidden dimension of religion, a world which can

only be glimpsed in mystic ecstasies or felt as spiritual possession, or trusted as the next

address beyond the grave. Critics of Christianity have lamented “pie in the sky when you

die” religion, dismissing belief in heaven as a symptom of abandoning the effort to improve

this world, or seriously engage its ills. Some churches, on the other hand, by emphasizing

moral duties and compassionate actions, by insisting upon discipleship as a life of service

and self-sacrifice, perhaps say too little about the reality into which Easter opened a

window; a place where death has no dominion, and God’s will is not constrained by human

failure or folly, but where love is vindicated and hope is justified.

Maybe because we mark Easter annually, and have it in our calendar as one more

recurring holiday, to take its turn for our attention in the cycle of the seasons, we lose the

sense of how much Easter changes everything. To some extent the whole of the Bible

tells its story conscious of this world’s playing out its events in the context of a divine creator

who oversees and interacts and instructs, so there’s always heaven in the picture. In the

New Testament, however, that inferred place of God’s dominion is the more present, and

the hope for resurrection, which Easter inaugurates in a new way, means that the faith of

Christians is that however God’s realm may be obscured by our worldly trials, or how

hidden to our frail perceptions, we shall at last know it, following Christ not only to the grave

but to Paradise: “Now as in a mirror dimly, but then face to face,” as Paul writes.

The vision of the Lamb of God’s eternal rule in the heavens from the book of

Revelation is just that–a vision, an otherworldly apprehension communicated by a dreamer.

It is nonetheless a core belief of Christ’s church, that beyond ordinary discerning God has

everything well in hand, through Christ. Easter and resurrection don’t only change the way

we meet the powers of this world, whose tactics of force and fraud are weakened by the

example of a humble victim overcoming them. Easter and resurrection don’t only change

the way we conceive our own natures, as though Christ’s having brought life and immortality

to light is simply a matter of discovering, to our astonishment, that we are not limited only to

the life we have in the body. This season of God’s triumph through Jesus also means that

the One whom the disciples called “Lord” because he was alive to guide and direct them is

now alive to guide and direct us, so that we may call him “Lord” not only as a title

appropriate for a deity, but as the proper term for someone to whom we give both

obedience and allegiance.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a narrative structure and lots of stuff in

common, and it is generally believed it is because Matthew and Luke had Mark’s gospel

before them when they wrote. John, however, represents an alternate tradition, and a

distinct effort, so it is interesting when a story we know from the first tradition appears in

John. Sometimes it comes in a slightly different form.

That’s what happens in today’s gospel reading. Luke has Jesus urging the

unsuccessful fishermen to put down their nets once more the first time he meets Peter, and

the miraculous catch makes Peter fall to his knees and tell Jesus “I am a sinful man, depart

from me, O Lord!” Jesus doesn’t leave, but makes Peter his main disciple. In John’s

gospel this happens at the end of Peter’s fisherman days, after Jesus’ resurrection. Now

the miracle sets the stage for this encounter between Jesus and Peter by the charcoal fire

on the shore. The last time in John’s gospel that Peter stood by a charcoal fire, he denied

Jesus three times. This time Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. This grieves

Peter, but it is a restoration, it’s a way back. Peter insists the third time that he loves Jesus–

and that’s the setting of Jesus’ telling Peter that he will die. That was the thing which Peter

couldn’t face the first time, that was the obstacle, before, to Peter openly being Jesus’

person. Peter couldn’t face a helpless death. Now, with Easter behind them both, Jesus

thinks Peter is ready to accept both living as a person of Christ and dying as a person of

Christ.

“Feed my sheep,” the Good Shepherd tells his disciple. Take care of the people I

care for, is the message Jesus delivers to all who, now that Easter has come and gone, can

face the facts of life and death as illuminated by resurrection. Jesus doesn’t expect us to

embrace our end–he tells us it’s a way we do not wish to go–but Jesus expects us to live

up to our responsibilities as those who serve him, all the days of our lives, including the last.

 

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