[Moderator's Note: The sermon was originally entitled, "Portrait in Depth: VIII. Postscript" and was part of a Lenten Series on the Gospel of John.]
Readings: Psalm 16 and John 21:15-25
"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." John 21:18
Many of you no doubt assumed and some may even have hoped that, with last Sunday's sermon, the preacher would be done with the Fourth Gospel and get on to something else. After all, it was advertised as a Lenten sermon series, and this is now the Second Sunday of Easter. Originally, I had not planned to prolong the series, but then had second thoughts. Much as John himself did, apparently.
There is little doubt that the earliest edition of the Fourth Gospel concluded with the appearance of the risen, but still wounded Christ, to the disciples in Jerusalem. Later, John must have realized there was more to the story that should be told. Thus, we have his account of an appearance in Galilee and of a farewell conversation between Jesus and Peter. Afterthought or not, chapter twenty-one contains precious material, without which we would be immeasurably poorer.
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Everybody expects a let-down after Easter. The lilies are gone. The brass is gone. Half to two-thirds of the people are gone! According to John, this perennial post-Easter slump can be traced all the way back to the original disciples, several of whom meet by the Sea of Galilee after having only recently experienced Easter. What do these first Christians do? They do not have a service of worship, or anything of the kind. Peter says, "I am going fishing." The others say, "We will go with you." John says: "They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing."
Do not miss the irony. It was not long ago that Jesus had called them away from their boats and told them to fish for people. But now, despite possessing the glorious news of Jesus' resurrection, the disciples have returned to their old way of life. John probably intends for us to understand their unproductive night's work as God-inspired. That's not what they were supposed to be doing!
At daybreak, Jesus appears on the beach, but once again goes unrecognized. Upon learning of the fishermen's lack of success, the stranger bids them to drop their nets once more into the sea. After a mild protest, they do so and haul in an enormous catch. Referring, in all probability to himself, John says: "The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord!"' Whereupon Peter plunges into the water and heads for shore, leaving the others to haul in the fish.
After a breakfast on the beach, Jesus undertakes Peter's rehabilitation. The horror of Jesus' execution is not far in the past. Peter has vivid memories of his blustering in the Upper Room, his refusal to admit any weakness, and his later three-fold denial of Jesus. The ensuing conversation between the risen Lord and this disciple whom he had once called "my rock" is one of the most moving episodes in all of Scripture. By virtue of the single request, "Feed my sheep," three times repeated, Jesus rescues Peter from his shame and restores him to a position of leadership.
Not that Peter will ever forget his earlier failures. But he learns that they need not get in the way. They will, in fact, have positive consequences. For, the memory of his own flounderings will serve to make Peter more understanding of others' frailties, and more compassionate in dealing with them. As a result of his own restoration, Peter will realize that Christ's community is not about being perfect. It's about forgiveness, mercy, grace. The church he is to play a key role in forming will not be a place where people are expected to obey the rules, but where they are to learn how to love God and one another.
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As a result of this post-Easter conversation on the beach, the care of Christ's little flock is entrusted to Peter. As a proper conclusion to the story, one expects either a charge or some kind of a blessing. Instead, Jesus makes a prediction; He tells Peter: "... 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 will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."
It's a reversal of what one normally expects, isn't it? It's when you are young that you expect to be led, guided - by parents, say, or teachers, or pastors. When you grow old, you anticipate being able to go where you want, do what you want. Yet Peter is being told that the opposite will occur. As he grows spiritually, as he becomes the mature leader of the Christian flock, he will be led - and led where he would rather not go.
Does that feel to you like a kind of bondage? A restriction of freedom? Actually, it's the opposite. The more Peter listens to God's guidance, the more he allows himself to be led, the more willingly he obeys, the freer he becomes. He's not having always to stop and ask: "What will others think? How will this affect my social standing? What will this cost me?" Life is greatly simplified when the questions that really matter are: "Where is God leading me? What does Christ want and expect me to do?" When these become the main questions, there is a tremendous freedom to act. In deciding what to do, one worries far less about the risks involved, and far more about what is the right thing to do.
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I am going to do something now I don't very often do. I am going to tell you how this text is speaking to me within the context of our denomination's adoption of Amendment B. A majority of Presbyteries have now voted to add the following paragraph to our Book of Order: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among those standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/ or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament." There were about 20 more Presbyteries voting for the Amendment than voting against it, but of the individuals who cast votes, about 51% voted for and about 49% voted against- scarcely an overwhelming mandate.
I have opposed this Amendment, believing that it is contrary to the spirit of Christ and potentially disastrous to the denomination. I find it mean-spirited and unnecessarily provocative. It seeks to legislate something on which there is not a consensus - always a recipe for failure. It interprets the Bible, along with the creeds and confessions of the church, literally and legalistically. It stands in contradiction to several other parts of the Book of Order. It subverts all our efforts to be a more inclusive, more diverse church. It denies to congregations the right to make their own judgments about who their officers should be. It opens the door to a spirit of inquisition. It invites hypocrisy. It ignores realities that any pastor engaged in meaningful pre-marriage counseling has long been aware of. Most importantly, for me, it stereotypes an entire group of people - gays and lesbians - and consigns them to second-class membership - unless they choose a life of celibacy. As a consequence of this amendment, it doesn't matter if someone has all the attributes one would look for in a minister, elder, or deacon; it doesn't matter if that person has a loving, committed, monogamous, durable relationship; it doesn't matter if that person has taught Church School, or sung in the choir, or given sacrificially; if that person is in a same-sex relationship, he or she is ineligible to serve in an ordained office.
While I have actively opposed Amendment B, it has not been a major focus of my ministry. I have, as a matter of fact, resented the time and energy it has drained from what I consider my primary calling: to preach, to teach, to provide pastoral care, to lead this congregation in its ministry and mission. It is not something I have wanted to make a big deal about. In a very real sense, I am being led where I do not wish to go. But, I find myself unable to acquiesce in something I find so far from the mind and manner of Christ. It is interesting, by the way, that while the Amendment speaks of Scripture and the Confessions, it makes no mention of Christ. I wonder why.
I have, on other occasions, addressed the matter of the Bible and homosexuality. There is not time to get into that this morning, except to say that the Bible is being misused and abused when it is the basis for bashing gay and lesbian persons. We have, of course, been down this same road before with regard to other questions. For years, the Bible was used in defense of slavery, and in opposition to the ordination of women. Personally, I do not doubt that, as it did with these matters, the church will one day come to a different place with regard to homosexuality. Amendment B is not the final word. I am sure of that.
Two years ago now, 132 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 130 years following the Civil War, and 27 years after the death of Martin Luther King, the Southern Baptist Convention finally got around to apologizing for the role it had played in justifying slavery and maintaining a culture of racism in the United States. Only recently did the Roman Catholic Church apologize to Galileo! I understand that old prejudices die hard, that it takes time to assimilate new knowledge and to get free from long-felt fears. I do not dismiss out of hand those who counsel patience. But I do not have 100 years. I do have four grandchildren who I hope will grow up to be Presbyterian. They were all with us last weekend to our great delight. I do not wish them, as adults, to have to apologize because their grandfather did not have the courage to stand for what he believed. I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning when I shave. I have to represent Christ when, as happened yesterday, I meet a life-long Presbyterian who, with tears in his eyes, tells me he has two gay sons, and asks why he should remain Presbyterian.
In recent days, I have been re-reading Robert Bolt's play about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. In the play, Henry VIII wants More, the first lay Chancellor of England, to give public approval to his marriage to Anne Boleyn. In the Preface to the play, Bolt says: "Unfortunately (More's) approval of the marriage was asked for in a form that required him to state that he believed what he didn't believe, and required him to state it on oath." It is all a matter of conscience for More, and he refuses to give his approval. Near the end of the play, More is in prison, and it is clear that unless he takes the oath, he will soon be executed. His daughter, Margaret, pleads with him to "say the words of the oath and in your heart to think otherwise." More responds: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then - he needn't hope to find himself again."2
With regard to Amendment B, I find myself in a similar place. It is for me a matter of conscience. Some of you do not agree with my views about homosexuality. Some of you think Amendment B is a good and necessary addition to the Book of Order. I respect those of you who see things differently, as I hope you respect me when I tell you that obedience to Christ leads me to disobey my denomination. Having opposed Amendment B, I intend to work for its repeal. In the meantime, I shall express my dissent publicly. I have no intention of participating in the kind of inquiry into the private matters of church members that this Amendment encourages, if not requires. Just yesterday I received a fax from the Office of the Stated Clerk with 13 questions and answers about the enforcement of this Amendment. I'll have no part of it. Thank God for that "preliminary principle" of our Book of Order which recognizes that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship."
Though it is tempting, I will not do as some on the other side of this issue have done, and encourage the withholding of funds from denominational mission, nor will I do anything to promote schism. But I will not remain silent in the face of that which I believe to be offensive to God. Should some Grand Inquisitor decide to come after me, as could happen, he will find me at work, doing as best I can the ministry to which I have been called.
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In the Fourth Gospel, there is that final scene in which Peter, having been called again to follow Christ, looks over his shoulder and spies John trailing along behind. Peter says to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus answers, in effect, "He is not your business. Your business is not to worry about John. Your business is to follow me."
"Follow me." That command of Christ's stands alone, without embroidery, without any suggestion as to what, specifically, following may entail. What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ, to follow him? Each of us has to decide. I cannot decide for you, nor you for me. We can help each other think about what it may mean, given our time and place, our circumstances. We can support each other along the way. But, at the end of the day, I have to decide for me what it means to follow Christ, and you have to decide for you.
Commenting on this final scene in the Fourth Gospel, Fred Craddock writes: "Christians are not to compare and contrast themselves with each other as though they were being graded on the curve. Whoever takes the path of discipleship cannot know where it will lead. The disciple can only know that at the end of it is Christ."3 Which is far more than any of us could desire or deserve.
1. See Peter Comes, The Good Book (New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1996), p. 84.
2. Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), p.140.
3. Fred B. Craddock, John Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 148.