”…what is that to you? Follow me!”
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) He said to him, “Follow me.” Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” John 21:19-22
At first I didn’t get it. …this stuff about the belt and old age connected to the kind of death Peter would die. I discovered it was much more about the life of service Peter was destined to live into old age than some untimely or bizarre death. It doesn’t support the tradition that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, but it does support the long held belief that Peter labored long and hard for many years in ministry within the church. And it starts with the hard work to which he was called.
The word picture in our passage tells of the processes of aging, quite specifically that of Simon Peter’s aging. His labors began in Jerusalem and involved him in the earliest councils that shaped the church, carried him on missionary journeys and that included his correspondence. That’s the picture of the belt. Early in his life, as a fisherman doing heavy lifting like he did pulling a net of 153 large fish to shore, Peter fastened his own belt and went where ever he wished in a life of service in the Kingdom.
Later in life all he would be able to do would be to lift up his arms so others could fasten his belt around him, like they do today in nursing homes, and they would take him where they wanted him to go. I found it heart warming that with such an understanding of the passage we get the sense that Peter wasn’t abandoned once he was advanced in age but that he was cared for, even if he could not longer pursue the ministry he loved. No one knows when or how Peter died though many have been willing to share their speculations. But that was what was in store for Peter were he to live obediently to Jesus’ call to follow him.
You might enjoy this. As I was trying to understand the implication of the belt and its relationship to heavy lifting I learned that the phrase ‘to gird up your loins’ originally referred to pulling up your pants so they won’t get in the way of the labor you are planning to do. It seemed so contemporary. I guess if you don’t plan on exerting your self, girding up your loins is a waste of time.
But all that is just context and getting caught in the context can become an attractive nuisance that keeps us from the getting to the heart of the shared story. In this case, the majority of those who comments I read on these few verses seemed fixated on the phrase ““If it is my will that he remain until I come…” speculating on when Jesus will return. For Quakers that’s never been a matter of contention, we believe that Christ has already come to teach his people himself. We aren’t to spend our time waiting for the other shoe to fall, we are called to put on our shoes and get on with sharing the good news of the Kingdom come, on earth.
The text implies that Simon Peter was walking with Jesus and Jesus told him what he would be facing in life. Peter wasn’t going to die an early martyr’s death like he had expected or maybe even preferred. He looked back and saw another disciple following them. Actually I think it’s important that the other disciple isn’t clearly identified. For the purpose of the story it could have been anyone else who was, like Peter, following Jesus. “Lord,” Peter said, “What about him?”
This may be hard to imagine but according to the Gospel of John the very last words of Jesus is a rebuked of Peter and of us to the extent we are like Peter. “…what is that to you?” Jesus said. “Follow me!” It was none of Peter’s business. Your business, Jesus told him, is to follow me, not meddle in the lives of others. In the devotional classic ‘The Imitation of Christ’ Thomas A Kempis describes a man who ‘neglects his duty, musing on all that other men are bound to do.”
How very hard that is for us to give up the need to concern ourselves with how others live out their faith. Peter had just heard a very hard word about his future. And he thought “what about John?” or who ever. If I have to suffer, will he have to suffer? If my ministry ends like that, will his end like that? If I don’t get to live a long life of fruitful ministry, will he get to? That’s the way we are wired. Compare. Compare. Compare. We crave to know how we stack up in comparison to others. …like two children comparing what they got for Christmas and trying to figure out who got more.
Do we get depressed when we look around and find that what we are doing in our lives and ministries appears to be less successful than that of others? Do we get some kind of high when we compare ourselves to someone less effective than are we?
We do it a number of ways. We do it when we contrast how others express their spirituality with the language and images that are important to us. We do it with comparative morality – contrasting our personal standards with the practices of others. Quakers have the model of William Penn and his need to wear his sword being told to wear it as long as he could, that is until he felt convicted in his heart about it. Not a job for others, a job best left to the Holy Spirit.
There’s good news in this. Jesus does not judge us according to our superiority or inferiority over any one else. No other person is the standard for me! Jesus has work for me to do and a way for me to do it that is different from the way for you. It is not what he has given anyone else to do. There is grace in that. Will I trust God for that grace and do what God has given me to do? Paul laid it out in Romans 14:4 when he wrote “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.”
Late in his life, tradition says, Peter, with the help of Silvanus wrote the book we call 1st Peter. He shares how Jesus’ instruction worked out in his own life and gives us advice for our own. He wrote:
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;
yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 1 Peter 3:13-22
His point is that all that any of us can testify too is the hope that is ours.
In the final analysis, the last words of Jesus weren’t a rebuke at all, they were and are an invitation that was offered to Simon Peter and to us. Giving up our need to control, guide, direct or correct others Jesus simply says “Follow me.”