John 21:15-17, 20-25; Mark 9:33-34
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 3, 2016
Richard Rohr says that “Spirituality tends to be more about unlearning than learning.” Certainly that appears to be true about the two followers of Jesus in today’s reading from John: Peter and John. Peter was an impetuous, emotional person, who was the first to realize some things, and moments later seemed to be completely in the dark. When Jesus asked the disciples who people thought Jesus was, and then asked Peter who Peter thought he was, it was Peter who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Yet Peter was also the one who denied Jesus three times just before Jesus’ crucifixion. And it was on the beach afterwards, when they had all gone back to fishing, that Jesus three times gave Peter his forgiveness and Peter’s calling to a new life.
Peter and John were in a constant power struggle, a competition to see who Jesus would like best. A pastor named Rob Bell helped me to look at their competition in a whole new way recently. He wrote about Jesus’ question to Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” Bell writes:
He’s there on the beach, grilling some fish and talking with his disciples, asking one of them, a caffeinated fella named Peter, if Peter loves him. Peter is adamant about his love for Jesus, but after the question is repeated the third time Peter realizes that this interaction is about something else. It’s about Jesus essentially saying to Peter, I know you betrayed me three times, but now I forgive you and I’ve got something for you to do. I want you to take care of my followers . . ..
It’s a beautiful, sacred moment between the two of them, charged with love and grace, but Peter misses the significance of it. He’s distracted, looking over his shoulder, wondering about another of Jesus’ disciples, one named John. Peter asks Jesus, What about him?
Jesus has just given Peter a path, a calling, work to do in the world, but all Peter can think about is John’s path. Jesus responds to his question, If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?
In the Resurrection account in John’s Gospel, Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb, sees that the stone has been removed and runs to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.
Wait – let’s stop right there. Because this is the Gospel of John, right? John is the one telling the story. And in this story John is telling he refers to Simon Peter and another disciple who is the one whom Jesus loved.
Who is he talking about? Himself! Classic. He describes himself as the one Jesus loved. As opposed to, you know, the other ones.
Back to the action. Mary told the disciples about the open tomb, and then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter.
The other disciple? Who’s that? Oh yes, John. And John outran Peter? Is this detail important? It is to John. John wants you to know that he can run faster than Peter! And then he adds that he reached the tomb first.
John continues with the story, telling us that he bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him.
Why was Peter following him? Oh yeah, that’s right, as we all know he was following him and showed up later because he’s just not as fast a runner as John. Peter, John wants us to know, went into the tomb.
He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first – Really, John? You have to remind us again that you got there first? But John saves the best for the end, telling us that he also went in, and he saw and believed . . .
He saw and believed. As opposed to that infidel Peter. Who also, in case you didn’t know, got there second.
So now, back to Jesus and Peter having breakfast and Peter looking over his shoulder at John and asking, What about him?
Peter is doing here on the beach what he and John have apparently been doing for a while now- competing, comparing, measuring themselves against each other. And in this sacred, holy moment between Peter and Jesus, when Jesus is essentially saying to Peter, I want you to lead my church, Peter is not thinking about the massive responsibility he’s just been given, he’s thinking about . . . John.
Which leads us to the line Jesus adds just before the “What is that to you?” question, the line about “If I want him to remain alive until I return . . .”
Don’t get distracted by this line, looking for some hidden, meaning about Jesus’ plans or the future of the world or the apocalypse or whatever.
I think he’s being funny.
He’s trying to get across to Peter how insane it is for Peter in this moment to be worried about John. Jesus has something different for John to do. Peter has his path, John has his.
What Jesus says here is absurd because Peter’s asking about John in this moment is absurd.
It’s as if he’s saying, Peter, you have your path and John has his path and everybody else each has their own path. It is a tragic waste of your sacred, God-given energies to be looking over your shoulder wondering about his path when you have your own path, and it isn’t his or hers or theirs or anyone else’s, and to be true to your path will take every single ounce of energy you have. I have work for you to do in the world, and when you’re distracted with someone else’s work, you miss out on your work, your life, your joy.
In those moments when I’m distracted from my own path, looking over my shoulder, wondering about someone else’s path, I’m reminded of the words of Jesus, the question of Jesus, asking me, What is that to you?
Because the answer for Peter is then the same answer that it’s always been for me, and for you.
- What Did Jesus Ask?
Certainly it would be great if none of us felt any competition with anyone else, but especially at this time of year, with March Madness coming to an end, and Syracuse in the Final Four, what’s so unhealthy about a little competition? Well, for both Peter and John, they both seemed to miss what was more important.
Peter has just been given a wonderful blessing and a huge affirmation from Jesus, but all he can think about is John. “What about him?” Peter says. Even years later, when John tells his story to someone who, after John’s death, wrote it down, John still has to make sure that no one forgets that John is a faster runner than Peter ever was. Peter probably had good reason to worry about John.
John’s father, Zebedee, owned a thriving fishing business on the Sea of Galilee, and John and his brother, James, worked in their father’s business before they followed Jesus. Sons of a prominent family, they were used to being treated differently, and they wanted to make sure Jesus gave them the honor they were due.
One day James and John asked Jesus for a favor, that they would be on his right hand and his left hand in the seats of honor. The crazy part of this is that James and John made this request just after Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death. Concerned only about their desire for recognition, they show they have completely missed what Jesus was saying. The other disciples were furious when they heard about what James and John had done because the two brothers were trying to beat them at a game that they were all still playing.
None of them seemed to understand and, even at this late date of the story in John’s gospel after Jesus’ death, with Jesus telling Peter, “Feed my sheep” three times, both Peter and John seemed to have been side-tracked by their own competitiveness. Being side-tracked by competitiveness seems to be just as bad in our society today as it was in Jesus’ day.
College professor Charles Wheelan wrote a wonderful essay entitled, “Help Stop the Little League Arms Race?:”
I have heard the same complaint over and over again since becoming a parent: kids’ sports are becoming incredibly structured and ridiculously competitive. There are eight-year-olds with private hitting coaches, and nine-year-olds being told that they have no future in a sport if they are not playing in competitive leagues during the off-season.
Families say that they can’t leave town during spring vacation because their children have practices or tournaments.
Why is this happening? Why are so many people doing something that makes them unhappy? I found a bizarre but compelling explanation: our eight-yearolds are locked in an “arms race” that has implications long after they are done playing Little League.
Here’s how it works with a real arms race: A country enjoys a strategic advantage if it has more (or better) weapons than another country. The key insight is that only relative advantage matters. If the United States has one nuclear weapon and Russia has none, then the United States has a crucial military edge.
But the Russians wouldn’t stand for that; they would build more nukes, prompting the Americans to invest in defense technology to preserve their military advantage.
Here’s the futility of the arms race: both countries would have been better off if they had just stuck with the situation in which the Americans had one nuke and the Russians had none. Instead, they both spend hundreds of billions of dollars to end up in exactly the same strategic place – money that could have been better spent by both countries on something else. It’s like an animal on a hamster wheel – it does a lot of exhausting running just to end up in the same place.
So what does this have to do with Little League? I am convinced that young athletes (or, more accurately, their parents) are locked in an arms race – they are doing a lot of exhausting running to end up in the same place. More important, I don’t think it ends when kids take off their sports uniforms.
If having private coaches teach seven-year-olds to throw curveballs makes kids and families happier than they were twenty years ago, terrific. But if that extra practice, coaching, and money spent on equipment, camps, and lessons comes at the expense of other activities (such as family vacations, riding a bike for fun, playing other sports), then our kids’ lives are worse for it. And, more important, the message to our eight-year-olds is that the key to life is running faster than the next guy, without thinking about why they are running or where they are trying to go.
Here is all I am asking you to do: look around every once in a while and ask yourself; Have I created a race out of something that ought to be a journey?
A journey involves following a passion. You identify a worthwhile goal and then work relentlessly in that direction. There are often tremendous external rewards, but the direction and motivation come from within. A race involves running faster than everyone else, regardless of where they happen to be going. This, too, involves a lot of hard work and the potential for large rewards – but not much introspection. In a race, success is defined by how you finish relative to others. If you flounder, even briefly, then someone will pass you by.
I see the Little League mentality bleeding into higher education, which is what I know best. I see it when students become more obsessed with grades than with learning, or when credentials mean more than the accomplishments they represent.
A student walked into my office after a midterm exam. She was despondent that she was going to get an A- in the class. You read that correctly; her midterm grade was an A-; not a B-, not a D. An A-. And when I describe her as despondent, I am not using the word lightly. I spent at least half an hour trying to assuage her anxiety, to no avail. Finally, I asked, “What is it that you want to do in life that you’re not going to be able to do because you got an A- in this class instead of an A?” She didn’t have an answer.
The “life as a race” mentality sends a powerful signal to kids that they can’t take risks, because that may lead to a C, which will doom their chances of getting into a good college, or a good law school, or some other competitive endeavor. And then life will be horrible, just like not making the traveling soccer team.
Yet we know that success is not about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. It is about finding a passion, taking risks, running in new directions, and dealing with failure.
If you think of life as a race, then every setback means that you have fallen behind. Every risk has a potential failure lurking nearby.
But if you think of life as a journey, then every setback helps direct you to a place where you will be more likely to succeed. Every risk has a potential adventure behind it, or at least a learning experience. You are not necessarily in competition with everyone around you.
There is not a huge downside to asking every once in a while, Why am I doing this?
We will know for certain that my analysis is wrong when we see the following obituary: “Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.”
- 101/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said
Instead of asking “What about him?” perhaps we should listen to Jesus’ question first, “What is that to you?”
Maybe both Peter and John experienced life as a journey – eventually – and they began to understand, at least a little bit, that it doesn’t have to be a race. Maybe they each realized that, as Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
But maybe they both missed it, believing to the end that it’s all about winning, about running faster, keeping an eye on the competition, getting all “A’s.”
I don’t believe our society, not in America, not in Canandaigua, NY, has understood yet. But, I think Jesus’ question still has meaning for us and our children and our grandchildren, “What is that to you?”
It is still a very good question.