by Rev. Mark Carlson
"Most assuredly, I say unto you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you, and carry you where you do not wish" (John 21:18).
These words were among the last Jesus would speak to His disciples. They were directed to Peter, but they were meant to be heard by all His disciples, including those of you listening in this morning. The occasion is remarkable on two counts: first, it was indeed the last visit the disciples would have with the Lord before His ascension, and second, the location was a beach on the Sea of Galilee. Most of us would probably agree that there is something special about a beach; it is a place we associate with warmth, both physical and emotional. It is a place for fun, for family togetherness, and a place for meditation.
Picture the scene in your minds. The disciples had been fishing with little success all night long. It is now close to dawn and they are tired and discouraged. Suddenly a strange man appears in the dim light on the beach nearby. He calls to them: "Children, have you any food?" They answer, "No." Now they are more discouraged because not only have their labors been for nothing; now they can offer no hospitality. The stranger calls to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They then catch more than their nets can handle. And now the sun is just beginning to show streaks of light above the deep blue mountains to the east of the lake. The surface of the water is glassy smooth; all is quiet except for the creaking of the oars as the weary disciples row toward shore.
Suddenly, John thinks he recognizes the stranger as His master, Jesus. He calls out, "It is the Lord." Then Peter plunges into the water to greet Him, breaking both the silence and the placid calm of the water. As they row to shore the Man has a small fire burning in the sand, with fish laid on it and bread nearby. The scent of the fresh fish cooking fills the morning air. Their breakfast is ready.
It is in this beautiful, calm, warmly moving setting of a breakfast at the beach that the Lord speaks His last words with the disciples. And what does He say on this most important occasion? Usually our attention is drawn to the Lord's beautiful discourse with Peter about the nature of love and the feeding of His sheep. But Jesus' very last words all deal with the subject of death, words which taken literally seem to prophesy that Peter will die a martyr's death: "Most assuredly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish."
And then there are the Lord's more abrupt words to Peter, which when taken literally seem to indicate that John will live to see the Second Coming: "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?"
Now, it is clear that John did not live to see the Lord's Second Coming, and we do not know for certain the fate of Peter, though tradition has it that he did indeed suffer a martyr's death in Rome. In any case, could it be that the Lord was using this occasion to indicate such a minor thing as how and when two of His disciples would die? And when we observe that John died in old age, never having witnessed the Second Coming, are we to believe that Jesus was somehow mistaken? It hardly seems likely. For almost two thousand years every well-read Christian has known that John did not live to see the Lord's Second Coming.
What was He talking about then? Why, that morning on the beach, does He speak of the demise of Peter and John? There must be more to it than that! On several occasions Jesus hinted that there was deeper significance to the words He spoke, as when He said, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear" (Matthew 11:15). And the gospel writer openly states that Jesus always spoke in parables in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (see Matthew 13:34). It seems clear that the last words of Jesus were another invitation to look more deeply into everything He did and said. So let us look more deeply at what Jesus said that morning.
First, we must understand that Jesus chose His twelve disciples to picture the twelve basic stages or states of spiritual development. He also used them to stand for different types of people who manage to get stuck in one or another of these developmental states. Peter represents the state of spiritual development when the highest principle one lives by is a certain zealous desire to know the truth, but the truth then learned is held merely as a matter of factual knowledge. Peter was always eager to learn from Jesus, but his commitment to Jesus was weak. So we see Peter denying Jesus three times before the cock crowed on the morning of His crucifixion.
John, on the other hand, stands for the state of spiritual growth in which one actually lives according to the truth he has learned. Living the truth opens one to receive a solid and abiding love for the neighbor. Peter represents a beginning, infantile state of spiritual life when truth is merely known, the rock upon which all is built, while John stands for the spiritual end in view, when the mind or spirit is reborn into the quality of mutual love. John is therefore said to be "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 21:20).
Perhaps now we may understand why the Lord told Peter that His death would be a difficult process, while implying that John would live long and see His Second Coming. And note why Jesus brings John into the conversation. It is because Peter, acting out of the state of one who is stuck in the stage of holding truth merely as knowledge, is jealous of John. Peter, after being given such a grim prediction concerning his death, asks Jesus point blank about John's demise. He blurts out, "Well, what about this man?"
Jesus responds to Peter's pettiness with a tone of gentle rebuke when He says, "If I will that he [John] remain till I come, what is that to you?" It is almost as if the Lord is saying to Peter, and to all those stuck in the state of faith alone that Peter represents: "Get off it!"
There can be little doubt that many of us are stuck in the state of Peter for much of our natural life. We have some knowledge of the truth, but we just don't get around to doing much with what we know. Like Peter, our follow-through is weak. We know we don't act very loving and that we have bad habits and sick attitudes that need work. But change seems so difficult. And so it is that Peter's pettiness and jealousy often remain part of our character.
The following words of the Lord to the Peters of the world should give pause for thought. "When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish". (text).
Here the Lord is inviting each of us to look at how we will accept the reality of growing old, and particularly the reality of our own death. If we remain like Peter, His message is that we will resist our death at every turn; we will attempt to remain in control, even as we lose control. "You will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish."
If we identify ourselves with our bodies and define our identity by what we can do in the world, frustration and misery will be our lot as we grow old and approach death. And worst of all, we may grow ill-tempered and bitter when we could be enjoying the serenity and wisdom of old age.
How shall we deal with the Peter within? How shall we handle the part of our minds that wishes to remain in control, the part that resists really knowing the truth, the part that resists growing old, the part that resists letting go, the part that resists dying?
We must practice dying. Like most things, death is not something we can do gracefully without practice. Practice dying.
How, you might ask, can I practice dying? First, remember the actual death of your body is the easy part. In fact, the Lord assures us that when this happens it will be one of the most remarkable experiences of our life. It will be more than pleasant; in fact, it will be quite enjoyable. It is all the stuff that comes before death which is difficult. There might be pain and illness to deal with - being clothed by another, being carried by another. How many of us right now could accept death without resistance or bitterness? Certainly we could die, but could we die well?
What if this very moment were your last? What if that were it? Whatever thought that was in your mind right then, that was your last thought - that thought. What if we all died in that moment? That was it, no refunds. All the work done, or not done, until that moment was all the work of a lifetime. To whatever degree you had the truth in your heart in that moment, to whatever degree you were able to let go of your name, your idea of yourself, your family, your possessions, that would be the degree of love and wisdom that would accompany you into the next life. Think about it.
The truth has not really affected the Peter within us. He lives with the fantasy that he will somehow live forever in the natural world. It is not that he lacks the knowledge of the impending demise of his body; rather he does not have the sense of it. He acts and feels contrary to what he knows to be the truth. So it is that many of the thoughts and feelings of our daily life are a contradiction. We know we are going to die, that we could in fact die any moment, that we are in fact dying a little every moment. The Lord tells, and all experience teaches, that natural life is a fatal disease. We know we must leave all this behind, perhaps tomorrow, but we are insensible to the full impact of what dying truly means.
We must practice dying.
The Lord gives each of us many opportunities to practice dying each day. These opportunities involve the challenge of accepting change and the personal losses which change inevitably brings. We are invited each day to let go of the fantasy that we are in control of our lives. We are invited each day to see the beauty and wonder of the universe as though it were our last day to observe it.
Have you ever noticed how when we are about to leave a place we love and it seems likely we will never return, suddenly everything seems more beautiful, more precious? Friends become more valued, every moment becomes savored as the smallest details of life draw our attention. At such times we are in touch with the true beauty and value of it all in a way we had not been when we labored under the fantasy that we would surely see it all tomorrow.
Those who know they are leaving for good, those approaching death, often report a tremendously heightened awareness of the richness and the beauty of life, usually accompanied by a sad realization that they had not truly lived until they really knew they must die. If we would only practice dying during our days of strength and vigor, remembering how tenuous and fleeting our present circumstance truly is, perhaps we might more completely experience these precious moments. If we practice dying, perhaps we may taste more deeply of the richness of our life the beauty of a sunset, the marvel of a snowflake, the smile on a child's face, the love for children, friends, family and spouse.
Most of all we need to practice dying by giving up the illusion that we are in control of our life. It is so difficult to give up the notion that we can make our lives just the way we want them to be, that we can make our spouse or our children into projects for our control. The truth is that nothing and no one is truly within our control. We are not even in control of our bodies. They get sick, they get old, and they die. The one and only thing we can control is the direction of our spiritual growth. If we are growing spiritually it will not matter that our bodies weaken, for we will sense our spirits growing strong.
If we practice our own death, the Lord's prophecy to Peter will no longer be our prophecy. In learning to live the truth by letting go and accepting the Lord's will for us, we will have become like John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The prophecy concerning his death will become our prophecy. As our bodies die, our spirits will remain light and free, and we shall receive the vision of the Lord's Divine Humanity - His Second Coming.
As our spirits grow we will not mind being dressed by another, or carried by another, because we will have no need to assert our control or our fantasy of self-sufficiency, nor will we have difficulty receiving the care we need. Rather, we will love those who care for us even if they carry us where we do not wish to go. And though our care-givers be precious in our eyes, our spirits will eagerly fly away when the Lord calls us home. "Those who wait on the Lord shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
-New Church Life 1989; 109:399-403