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Fishing and Following – A Reflection on John 21:18-19

April 19, 2013

“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.) After this he said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:18-19).

Just before Jesus spoke these words to the Apostle Peter, he had reinstated him in his role of fishing for people, drawing people to Jesus through his words and his deeds. Peter had decided to go back to his former life of fishing, fearing that he may have disqualified himself from this task by his threefold denial of Jesus just before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus affirmed Peter in this ministry, saying that the only qualifications he needed was to love him and be willing to share his love with others, all of whom are equally dear to Jesus’ heart.

Now that Peter has affirmed his love for Jesus, and been affirmed once more in this most holy task, Jesus tells him that the very outcome he had so feared – feared enough to deny Jesus three times – would indeed happen to him. Peter would die because of his discipleship. Church tradition says that he was crucified (the words about stretching out his hands may indeed indicate this), upside-down, because he didn’t consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

But then Jesus adds two crucial words, the same words he spoke to Peter right at the very beginning, when he called him to leave his nets and become a fisher of people: “Follow me.”

“Follow me. Leave everything. Don’t try to go back to fishing. Follow me, and fulfill my purpose for you.” And Peter does. Though he falters at times as we all do (one instance is recorded in Galatians 2:11-14), he never again goes back on his commitment to follow Jesus as his disciple.

In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller shares about a story he heard a folksinger tell that helped him make the same decision:

The story was about his friend who is a Navy SEAL. The folksinger said his friend was performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building. His friend’s team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The hostages we curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were there to rescue them. The SEALs asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs, the folksinger’s friend, got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were there to rescue them. Will you follow us? he said. He stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. All the hostages made it safely home.

Following Jesus, Miller said, is much the same as this. We can do it, because he draws near, and becomes one of us. We look in his eyes and see his love for us. We know that he is our Good Shepherd, who is willing to pay any price for us, including laying down his life for us. We trust him to lead us safely home.

“Follow me,” Jesus says: not “Go in front of me; not “Go where I send you, but won’t go myself.” Our Lord has gone before us, and has promised, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). We shall never travel alone. We shall always journey with our Emmanuel, our “God with us,” guiding us, equipping us, and enabling us to live as his disciples. Alleluia!

(This is adapted from the sermon at our April 14 Services. The quote from Miller’s book has been edited slightly, without altering its original meaning. The photo at the top of this posting is of Navy SEALs engaging in endurance training. I was struck at how their arms are spread out in a fashion like Our Lord’s, and those of the Apostle Peter.)

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