A few years ago, my wife Lisa and three young kids joined me for the first time at the EP Gathering in Chicago, making a family vacation of it. During the time we spent in that metropolis, we took in some museums, visited Lake Michigan, and saw the fish at the aquarium. It was a busy few days. But of all the things we did, simply getting around might have been the most stressful. For kids used to walking down the sidewalks of Erwin, Tennessee (population 8,000), attempting to navigate the hustle and bustle of a city of millions was a new experience altogether, and as a parent, it was important to me to make sure they did it safely. It was up to me and Lisa to take their hands when we came to a busy intersection. It was up to me and Lisa to speak clearly and sometimes firmly as we gave instructions about how we were going to catch a bus or hop on a train before the doors closed.
Throughout those few days in Chicago, our chief responsibilities as parents were to keep everyone together and to keep everyone safe. The kids’ chief responsibilities were simply to trust us, to listen to us, and of course, to obey us. It’s hard to be an adult sometimes. But it’s hard to be a kid, too. Responsibility is hard. So is dependence. And for those of us called to follow Christ, living in that tension is sometimes the hardest thing of all.
This week’s gospel reading relates one of my very favorite stories in all of Scripture, one of the post-resurrection accounts that come at the end of John’s gospel. After the appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, after the initial appearance to the disciples in the upper room, even after Jesus displays his wounds to Thomas, Jesus encounters his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, just after one of their all-night fishing excursions. When they realize, after some confusion, that the man standing on the seashore, waiting to have breakfast with them, is in fact Jesus, Peter wastes no time springing into action. Like an impulsive child darting into traffic, he jumps into the water, pausing only to tie a garment around himself, and hurries to the beach to see Jesus.
The other disciples arrive shortly thereafter, and what follows is a simple breakfast and—for Peter—an important conversation with Jesus on the beach. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, echoing Peter’s three denials of Jesus, and then commands Peter to feed and take care of his sheep, the other followers of Jesus who will look to Peter for leadership. In other words, he is giving Peter an enormous responsibility, to be a shepherd of God’s people, the church. And Peter, we can assume, is honored to accept.
But, as awesome as such a responsibility might be, in the next few moments, Jesus reveals to Peter that, when he is older, he will stretch out his hands, and someone else will lead him where he does not want to go. The text tells us that Jesus is talking about the sort of death Peter will one day experience, by which he will glorify God. And as with the death that Jesus himself had recently experienced, the death that Jesus alludes to is also bound up with powerlessness, even humiliation. Peter, who is so used to rushing into things, making his own decisions (prudent or not) and going where his impulses or his convictions lead, will someday be led where he does not want to go.
It’s not clear who is doing the leading in Jesus’ prophecy here. Maybe it’s Roman soldiers, binding Peter and taking him to his death. Maybe it’s the will of God revealed through the Holy Spirit, calling Peter to submit and to allow for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. Jesus could be referring to both of these realities simultaneously, as both will likely be at work in Peter’s martyrdom. Either way, it is clear that if this independent, strong-willed, often bullheaded disciple is going to be the shepherd God has called him to be, and is going to lead others in bringing glory to God, he will have to learn trust, even dependence, on things that he might not fully understand. He will have to surrender himself completely to the will of God and the leading of God’s Spirit.
In some ways, the journey that lies ahead for Peter, the path to which Jesus alludes, parallels the experience of another man, one to whom Peter will later and forever be linked in the story of the church—Saul, also called Paul. If Peter sometimes struggled with the impulse to make rash decisions that was somehow rooted in his personality, Saul was often compelled to go down the wrong path because of his zealous disposition. Saul seems to be guided by nothing so much as his unshakeable conviction, earned through long years of study and rising through the ranks of the religious institutions of his day, that he is right and those who disagree with him are wrong, especially when it came to the things of God.
As Acts chapter 9 relates, during one of Saul’s journeys, as he is being led by his religious certainty down the road to Damascus, he encounters the same resurrected Lord who walked with Peter beside the sea. And just as with Peter, Jesus asks Paul a crucial question—not “Do you love me?” but “Why do you persecute me?” The results of this encounter for Saul are powerful. Ultimately, this will lead to Saul’s conversion, his baptism, and a life of ministry taking care of sheep in the name of Christ.
But all of this will come later. Immediately following Saul’s encounter, he is rendered powerless. Struck blind, he is forced to take the hands of his companions, who lead him into the city and to the house of a man named Judas, where he simply must wait and see what God will choose to do next. For three days, I imagine this Pharisee who had been so sure of his own abilities, so certain of his own convictions, learning trust, obedience, and dependence in the home of a stranger, and thus being prepared for all that God had in store. Like Peter before him, and like so many of us after him, Saul will have to become like a little child. He will have to stop kicking against the goads and give himself in submission to God’s purposes. And in doing so, he will become more completely like the Jesus he once persecuted, the crucified Jesus he once refused to trust, the resurrected Jesus who transformed his life forever.