Homily for Easter 3, Year C, 2010
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 21:1-19
“But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else with fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” – John 21:18
When we are young, we are under the illusion that maturity buys us our freedom. One only has to go through the process of raising a child, or holding down a job in order to pay the rent, or to look after an ailing and aging family member, or face the disappointment that money can’t always buy what you want, to know that maturity doesn’t always buy us freedom. As children we might think that adults have all the freedom in the world, but as adults, we might longingly look back upon our youth and remember the carefree days without the responsibilities that we unexpectedly took on as we entered adulthood. This is not to say that as mature, responsible adults that we are bereft of freedom; to the contrary, we have considerable freedom in making choices for our lives. The real mark of maturity, though, seems to be the recognition that freedom and limitation are forever yoked together in a delicate dance.
Parker Palmer, a writer and teacher of teachers, has written some insightful words on vocation and discernment. He notes that he grew up being told that anyone could grow up to become the president of the United States. Upon reaching adulthood and undergoing a long journey of vocational struggle and discernment , Palmer came to the realization that he had been taught a bit of a lie. While it might be true that a society should provide equal opportunity for all its citizens, not everyone has the gifts to live out every vocation. As such, it is not true that everyone has the potential to grow up to be president. Palmer said he wrestled with some time with the idea of ministry in the Church, until he heard from God that in no uncertain terms, was he to be an ordained cleric in God’s Church. I think all of us can relate that there are some things we can do well naturally, that there are some thing that we can learn to do well, and that there are others that we should probably never even try. The delicate balance is discerning what we are called to do, and what we are not called to do -- freedom and limitation in a delicate dance.
I suspect that the Apostle Peter never really saw himself as much more than a fisherman. I doubt that he wanted to be a leader; yet, Jesus saw something in him that challenged him to reframe his self-understanding. Somewhere along the way, Peter made the leap from fisherman to shepherd. Jesus awoke within Peter a discerning spirit and gave him the courage to see within himself his leadership potential. Jesus helped Peter to understand that he would have the gifts and strengths not only to herd his flock but also to push them forward into new and verdant pastures. He saw within Peter a strong leader that could push and encourage his sheep, but also, when needed, to gently tend and feed them. Jesus activated within Peter his gifts for leadership, and there on the seashore, gave him the courage to use them.
Peter still had his limitations, though. He was not the first one to recognize the Lord that morning. No. That honour belongs to the beloved disciple, that unnamed follower of Jesus who rested his head on Jesus at the last supper, who remained faithful at the foot of the cross, who was the first to believe in the resurrection when he saw the empty tomb. So, some time later, on that morning in boats on the sea of Tiberias, after fishing all night with Peter and the others, when the eyes of all others were clouded, the Beloved Disciple looked toward the seashore and recognized the risen Lord. This Beloved Disciple, himself a fisherman, was not destined to be the shepherd of Jesus’ people. No. Instead, he had the gift of insight, the gift to recognize and see the risen Lord in the most unlikely of places, and to share that story with others. If he is indeed the witness that stands behind the words of the Gospel of John, then he had a most remarkable gift indeed, for his words have continued to witness to the Risen Christ, and teach the faith for two thousand years. Jesus stirred within the Beloved Disciple the gifts he needed to live out his vocation.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple shared many of the same practical skills, and likely, they both came from a very similar upbringing and socio-economic class, practicing the same profession -- two men with similar skills, but different gifts; two men with the same Lord and master, but different callings.
Both were called. Both men responded to the words, “follow me.” But their answers of “yes” meant different paths for each of them. They had the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to the call, to continue on doing what they were doing, or to see where unlocking their gifts and following Jesus took them. Both responded with a “yes,” but their individual gifts would shape how they each live out the call in very different ways. Peter could no more be the thoughtful insightful witness that inspired belief in others, any more than the Beloved Disciple could be the shepherd of a people who required equal doses of gentleness and challenge. Each had their gifts and each had their calling.
In their final conversation, Jesus thrice encouraged Peter to care and tend for his flock. Peter was a bit hurt by Jesus’ repetition of this instruction, but it was only to encourage Peter (and to confirm his faith in his gifts of leadership) that Jesus pressed this message repeatedly upon him. Jesus then told Peter that leadership is not about being free, but being yoked. In youth we fasten our own belts, we do what we want, and we go where we want to go. In old age, we stretch out our arms and others dress us and take us where we do not want to go. This was a thinly veiled reference to Peter’s eventual martyrdom. Peter was given the leadership of Jesus’ followers. He would be called upon to make decisions, to arbitrate disputes, to have the final say. If we follow Matthew’s account, “what Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven.” He was given the keys. That’s a lot of authority, and presumably a lot of freedom. And yet, Jesus’ sermon illustration was about his loss of freedom. With his new-found authority, Peter was bound to follow a new way, the way his own master exercised leadership, that is, the way of the cross -- freedom and limitation in a delicate dance.
Peter, ever the straight-shooting talker (perhaps, one of his traits of leadership) asked about the other disciple, the Beloved Disciple, “what about him, Lord?” Perhaps, like many leaders, Peter was worried about the competition. Jesus simply said, “Don’t worry about him. I have other plans for him.” It was like he was saying to each of them,” I know your gifts; now you two recognize them in each other and all will be well. Now just follow me.” And follow they did. Peter led the people until legend tells us he followed in his masters step’s to martyrdom in Rome. The Beloved Disciple lived to a very great age, outlived all the other disciples, and went on to teach and inspire others to teach the faith to some of the great Christian leaders of the second century. The Gospel of John is a timeless testament to his story of Jesus, and through it, he witnesses to the Risen Lord still, and teaches us today.
As with raising children, working in unexpected jobs, caring for aging parents, in all the strange twists and turns that life throws at us, we find within ourselves the gifts to live the life into which we are called. The question is not whether I can grow up to the President or Prime Minister; it is not whether I can be a CEO or teacher, a nurse or fisherman, it is how might I be faithful to the call in which I am truly free? To live into the call that God gives us, to follow him wherever he may lead us, is perfect freedom, but it closes other doors. There are doors through which we may wish to walk, or have hoped to have walked by any given benchmark in our lives. Perhaps, after all, there are doors better left unopened and road better left unwalked, for not every door is the door to the house into which I am called, and not every path is the path of my life. What is more to the point, is that from the boat on which we drift through the night, working away at whatever we do, the risen Lord calls from the seashore with the words, “follow me.” With him as our friend on the journey, we shall find the right doors through which our gifts will lead us, and right path on which our life and path will unfold.
c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves