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Power to Follow

The movie Pearl Harbor tells of the events leading up to and immediately following the Japanese attack on the U.S. on December 7, 1941. The film follows the fictional lives of two fighter pilots, Raph and Danny, who have been inseparable friends since childhood and are stationed at the same base in Hawaii.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Raph (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are called into Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s office. They have succeeded in downing seven Japanese planes.

Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) stands behind his desk and addresses the cocky pilots somberly. “You’ve both been awarded the silver star. You’re just about the only pilots with combat experience. I need you for a mission I’ve been ordered to put together.”

Raph and Danny look nervously pleased. Doolittle looks them over carefully.

“Do you know what ‘top secret’ is?” he asks.

Raph responds with a wry smile. “Yes, sir! It’s the kind of mission when you get medals, but they send them to your relatives.”

Ignoring the remark, Doolittle continues, “Top secret means you train for something never done before in aviation history—and you go without knowing where you’re going. You do it on that basis or not at all.”

Honored to be asked, yet unsure of what they are committing to, both men agree to go.

In many ways, God recruits us to follow him in the same way that Doolittle recruited these pilots for this mission. God trains us in ways unique to us to fulfill unique purposes, and we know little or nothing about where we are going. We go on that basis, or we do not go at all.[1]

In the final words of his Gospel, John tells us about the power to follow Jesus Christ.... 

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)

I think we can learn at least three things about the power to follow Jesus Christ from these final verses of John’s Gospel. First, we learn that the power to follow Jesus comes into our lives when we take our eyes off others.

Often in the Gospels, we learn something positive from the negative example of the apostle Peter. Remember the story of Jesus: walking on the Sea of Galilee and how Peter asked the Master to bid him come to him on the water? Peter steps out of the boat and he does fine for the first few steps. However, then he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the waves and then he begins to sink.

On another occasion, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” So far, so good. However, in the very next moment when Jesus announces that he is going to the cross, Peter urges Jesus not to, and Peter gets rebuked for it.

Then, of course, there is Peter’s famous denial of Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Last week we saw how Jesus forgave Peter and reinstated him. Hardly a second has passed since that reinstatement and Peter slips up again. You have to love Peter! He is so human, so fallible, just like us.

So how does Peter mess up this time? Jesus has just suggested to Peter that at the end of his life he is going to be led by others where he does not want to go. In other words, Peter is going to die a martyr’s death. You would think such news would be so sobering that Peter would keep his mouth shut, at least for a little bit … but he does not. No sooner has Jesus finished speaking, Peter takes his eyes off Jesus, turns around, and sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. That was Peter’s first mistake. He took his eyes off Jesus, turned around and started focusing on this other disciple whom Jesus loved. Then Peter’s second mistake was to ask Jesus this question: “Lord, what about him?” In other words, Peter was asking: “What kind of death is he going to die?” The problem here is that Peter was jealous of the other disciple whom Jesus loved.

Who was the disciple whom Jesus loved and how did Jesus love him?

This phrase is used six times in The Gospel of John. By a process of examination of the text and elimination of possible candidates, scholars have deduced that the Apostle John was the Beloved Disciple. A second century quote of Polycrates of Ephesus (c. 130s - 196), recorded by Eusebius in his Church History, supports the idea of John as the Beloved Disciple.
However, we must also ask, “What does the Gospel of John mean when it refers to this one follower of Jesus as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’?”
The Greek word that is translated “love” (five out of the six times that this phrase is used) is “agape”. As we have seen many times before: this is a word that was rarely, if at all used, outside the New Testament; the New Testament writers use this word to refer to God’s unconditional love for humanity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The word is also used to describe the love that Christians ought to have for others; it is sometimes translated as “charity”. When we think of Jesus’ love for his disciple John as “agape”, we are forced to realize that Jesus must have loved his other disciples in this same fashion.
However, in John 20, the word that is used for love in the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is different. In this instance, the word “phileo” is used. This refers to a friendship type of love. This word is part of the compound that makes up the name of the city: Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. The use of this word suggests that Jesus must have had a special friendship with John. We know from other verses in the Gospels that out of the twelve disciples Jesus was closest to Peter, James and John (the latter two being brothers, the sons of Zebedee). It was these three whom Jesus took with him up on the mountain when his appearance was transformed in their presence and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Apparently, out of these three, Jesus had the closest friendship with John, perhaps because he was the youngest, but we do not know exactly why.
This relationship, between Jesus and John, points out for us the truth that, as Christians, we ought to love everyone with agape love but that does not obligate us to be friends with everyone. Friendship is a unique kind of love that strikes up wherever two or more people share something in common.
Jesus was not doing anything wrong by sharing a special friendship with John. However, apparently, Peter was jealous of this friendship and so he asked Jesus, “What about him Lord, what kind of death is he going to die?”
What can we learn from Peter’s negative example? Allow me to tell a little story that I think illustrates what we can learn….
As I have told you before, when I was in high school, I got involved in theatre for the first time. I tried out for a high school play and landed the lead part. I imagine that some others in the play, who had been involved in theatre far longer than me, might have been jealous of my role. Who knows? Maybe the director made a mistake by casting me in that particular part. I do not know.
However, what we can know is this: God makes no mistakes in casting. God has created you and me with certain gifts and talents. He has caused us to be born at a particular time and in a particular place, into a particular family. If we allow God to do so, he can use all of our experiences and circumstances to shape us, to mold us, and to fit us perfectly to play the exact role he wants us to play, right where we are. There is no need to be jealous of the roles that others are playing in God’s kingdom, whether those roles are bigger than ours, or not. God has created each of us with unique gifts and a unique role to play that no one else can play. As I have said before, humility is the belief that you are incomparable, that you are incapable of being compared to anyone else. Therefore, why should we waste our lives making comparisons? Rather, we should get on with playing the roles God has created us and called us to play … and play them to the hilt!
How exactly do we go about doing that? We do it first by getting our eyes off others, and secondly by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus.
Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, “What about him?” was not to say: “Oh, that is a very natural question Peter. Let me answer that for you.” No. Jesus’ answer was a gentle rebuke. “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
This sort of conversational exchange used to happen more often in our household when my sons were younger. I might ask one son to wash the dishes on a certain night, or clean the bathrooms, or help with the yard work, and that son might say to me, “But what about my brothers, Dad, what are they going to do?”
I doubt that I ever answered that sort of question in the following manner but I could have said: “Suppose I want him to travel to outer space and back, what has that got to do with you? You do what I am asking you to do.”
That is the essence of what Jesus is saying to Peter. He is not really saying that John is going to live forever. Jesus’ point to Peter is: do not focus on what I have for the other guy to do; you focus on what I have called you to do.
In C. S. Lewis’ story for children entitled The Horse and His Boy, the great lion Aslan (who is the Christ-figure of the story) says on more than one occasion: “I tell no one any story but their own.”
I think that line expresses very much what Jesus is saying here. “I am telling you your story Peter. Do not worry about anyone else’s story but your own. Work on living out your own story with your eyes fixed firmly on me.”
As Tom Wright has said, “We are called to follow Jesus wherever he leads us, not wherever he leads the person next to us.”
However, Peter must have wondered later on, when Jesus ascended to heaven: “What does it look like to follow Jesus now?” After all, the first time Jesus issued that invitation to follow, he was standing right next to Peter. What would it look like for Peter to follow Jesus when Jesus’ physical presence was taken away?
All of us have to ask that question, and for each of us the answer may be slightly different. For Peter, following Jesus involved feeding his sheep and caring for his lambs; it meant being a leader of the Church and giving up his life in martyrdom.
For John, following Jesus looked different. He did not end up in Rome, like Peter, he ended up in Ephesus, as far as we know. For John, following Jesus meant caring for Jesus’ mother Mary, and eventually writing down his memories of his years with Jesus and what it all meant. John’s following of Jesus and Peter’s following of Jesus looked very different in some ways, but perhaps similar in others. The same will be true for each one of us. The way you follow Jesus and the way I follow Jesus may not look the same. I am a preacher; you are not. However, we all can follow Jesus in different ways.
Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist working in Minneapolis, was once a devout Buddhist. Now she is a Christian. How did that change in her life take place? Yuko says, “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity. When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God.” Masashi Masuda, a Jesuit priest, came to faith in almost the same way: “Listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity.” Today Masuda teaches theology at Tokyo’s Sophia University.[2]
You may not be able to compose a fugue like Bach, play the organ like Yuko, or teach like Masuda, but you and I each have unique talents given to us by God and unique ways of following Jesus with those talents.
So how are we to know which way to go? How are we to know what each one of our followings of Jesus should look like?
That is where a third step comes into play. Though the way each of us follows Jesus and what that looks like may be different, we each need to trust Scripture as our guide in the process.
Now I realize this is not explicitly stated in our text for today. However, I do believe it is implied or inferred. We read…

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
The Apostle John, an eyewitness to the events he recounts, has written down for us the words and deeds of Jesus. He has written down for us an account of what other people following Jesus looks like. In fact, John gives us more individual portraits of the followers of Jesus than any other Gospel. Those portraits are detailed; they provide us with much guidance for our own journeys. Furthermore, most importantly: “We know that his testimony is true.” Perhaps, these words were written down by a trusted friend of the Apostle, a member of what has been called the Johannine community, a group of disciples who gathered around John and learned from him, perhaps in Ephesus. 

What can we learn from this? I believe that as we prayerfully read Scripture in community as a living Church today, and in the communion and guidance of the saints down through the ages, Jesus will show each one of us what he wants our following of him to look like.

The Gospel of John ends with an interesting note:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel was obviously added by a member of the Johannine community. Whoever wrote these words knew that the Gospel of John already had a proper ending at the conclusion of chapter 20. There we read…

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Now the author or authors of chapter 21 begin their conclusion in a similar way. They write that: “Jesus did many other things as well.” Like most people telling a story, John and his community both selected and arranged, out of all the stories they knew about Jesus, certain ones to tell to achieve a certain purpose: that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we might have life in his name.

Furthermore, the author or authors of chapter 21 tell us that if all the things Jesus said and did were written down, the world could not contain the books.

Today we know of much larger libraries than were ever dreamed of in the first century. In November 2012, I spent time in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Like our Library of Congress here in the United States, the Bodleian is a repository for every book printed in the United Kingdom. The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and is second in size only to the British Library in London. It occupies a group of five buildings in central Oxford plus additional off-site storage space and a number of underground storage units built since the nineteenth century. The Bodleian has millions of books in its collection, and the Bodleian Library is among one hundred libraries in Oxford alone.

In addition to libraries that hold physical books, of course today we have the capacity to digitize. Naturally, electronic storage systems today have a greater capacity to hold information than our physical libraries. Therefore, on a very literal level, if everything Jesus said and did had been written down, the world would have enough space to hold that information.

However, there is another way in which the world cannot contain all the information about Jesus’ life and words. The world cannot contain that information because it is too explosive. The stories of Jesus’ life and words are powerful. The Greek word for this is “dunamis” from which we get our word “dynamite”. The New Testament is TNT.

While the world cannot quite handle such power, God does continue to channel that power through human beings. We receive the power of Jesus’ life through prayerful, Holy Spirit empowered, community based, reading of Scripture. As we receive that power to follow Jesus in our world today, the Word that was in the beginning with God continues to manifest himself in human flesh, our flesh.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Pearl Harbor (Touchstone, 2001), rated PG-13, written by Randall Wallace, directed by Michael Bay; submitted by Greg Asimakoupoulos, Naperville, Illinois
[2] Uwe Simon-Netto, “Bach in Japan,” Christian History & Biography (Summer 2007)


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