John 21: 18-19
18 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.” 19 After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter had gone back to fishing, in the story where the above is excerpted. He went back to fishing where he could work with his hands, and his back, and do what he knows; where his mind could mull over the questions of what happened. How was it that he messed up? He can lick his wounds, over how he embarrassed himself on numerous occasions, of the look in Jesus’ eye when he looked across the courtyard as Peter denied knowing him in the fear of the moment. He can stew over how he didn’t live up to his own expectations. That is the moment Peter finds himself in.
Peter is looking back and coming to terms. He is taking stock. We do it at different points in our lives, with one level of severity or another. It seems to be at crisis stage for Peter, making great changes in his life driven by disappointment and guilt. But Jesus comes to him on the shores of Galilee and he invites Peter back into his true calling, inviting him to feed the sheep, and to love Christ even if imperfectly. It is here where this parabolic statement of old age is inserted, about growing old, and being lifted and led by another. I take Jesus to be telling Peter that what you are experiencing is not failure, but discipleship. It is not an indignity, but a mark of maturity. There comes a point of letting go of control, of being willing to be our frail selves, to be in community, and to be led by the Spirit in ways we would not have anticipated. This is not a disqualification, but the path toward spiritual maturity.
We have been talking about life, death and dying here at Calvary in the past month. And thinking about such things involves a fair amount of looking back and taking stock, as well as looking forward and making preparations. In Erickson’s stages of development, the crisis of the later stage of life is that of integrity vs. despair, of coming to terms with one’s life and with one’s death. Coming to terms with life when much is behind us. As Erickson suggests this can lead to a sense of dignity, or to a sense of despair. What keeps Peter from despair? I want to suggest that there are a few things about this interaction with Jesus and Peter, and about this statement about old age and being led that keep Peter from despair and which say something to us.
First, there is an accepting of limitations. Jesus is able to accept Peter despite his missteps, despite his faltering in the intensity of the moment. Peter, through the back and forth around the fire, is able to accept that Jesus accepts him. Peter is able to not let his past keep him from future opportunities. He is willing to accept his life as it is, without giving in to despair.
Second, Peter comes to terms in part through his response to the future. After all, the only way one can alter what has happened in the past is through perspective, and perhaps how we continue into the future, and continue to shape our overall narrative. How we live today and tomorrow can be a response to life, when what is behind cannot really be changed. Peter chooses not to fight against the past, but allow it to open him up to what future ministry might hold. He chooses to love Christ despite his frailness and to feed the sheep.
Lastly, This parabolic statement of old age and being lifted and led is more about maturity than merely end of life issues. It is about the path of discipleship. Of being willing to let our limitations move us closer to each other, and to new opportunities and ministries. This statement about being lifted and led is followed by the invitation, “Follow me.”
If I had a chance to have coffee with Peter I would ask him about that moment, that transition. What did it mean to him? What was it like to give in to the truths of that parable? Did he get to the point in his journey when he would not have chosen to go back to buckling his own belt and going wherever he pleased? Did the journey change him in ways that he wouldn’t want to undo? Did he stop looking back, or was looking back always intertwined with looking forward?
How would you answer these questions? Or, what questions would you have for Peter, if you two were to sit down to coffee?