This time of year, we spend a lot of time with each other. Yes, we spend a lot of time in church. But we also spend time at home—clustered around a Christmas tree with family, or traveling to see loved ones. This is a season that celebrates being together.
So today, here we are—to celebrate another holiday—the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. It is one that I think really gets to the heart of this life of being together. The readings cover every part of our experience—from the intensity and power of God himself, to the fractions and fissures of human companionship. Moses, in the crevice of a rock, experiencing God physically present. And Peter and John on the beach with Jesus.
Peter—because ironically, a feast day celebrating the life of John ends up featuring Peter more prominently than the Beloved Disciple. This continuation of Peter’s post-Resurrection beach conversation with Jesus is the same one where he is asked if he loves Jesus, and is commanded to feed my sheep. Can you imagine, after that exchange, looking back over your shoulder and saying to the risen Lord—well… what about HIM?
I imagine Peter telling friends or grandchildren this story. He’d shake his head, looking back, wishing all over again that he could put his foot in his mouth. Why did I have to say that? I’m bet you can remember the last time you said that to yourself. I know I definitely can.
As much as I want to fault Peter for his comments, I can’t help but think that the act of looking over a shoulder and asking “what about her?… what about him?” is very much part of our human lives together. Perhaps it’s from jealousy. From curiosity. From pride. But why do we keep looking behind us—we who are beloved of God? Are we afraid that someone else will appear—better equipped, more obedient, easier to love? Are we afraid of stepping out of bounds, of doing something too heinous, all the while forgetting that we are the people for whom God’s love was intended?
Peter was worried that John knew, had, or was, something that Peter was not. And he was afraid. Peter was right, at least partially. The Beloved Disciple did know something Peter had not yet learned. Our legacy of St. John the Evangelist is him—
Reclining near Jesus at the last supper,
taking Mary, Christ’s mother, into his own home,
asking who in the world could betray our Lord,
looking into the tomb of the risen Christ and immediately believing…
This is a legacy of love. John knew, with certainty, that he was loved by Jesus, and knew that this love would not waiver. I think that it is said that Jesus especially loved him because in a ministry of trying to convince a world of his mission of love, John was someone who really got it. John, I imagine, was the disciple who had some sense of the Father’s love, and who loved in return—like that friend who you can look at in the middle of a crowded room and know that they understand exactly what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling—John was one of the few who had an inkling of this mission of love to the world. Even Jesus, the Son of the God, must have looked at John some days, and said to himself “well, thank goodness there’s someone who gets it”. To know that you are beloved by God is to know the heart of God.
To know that you are beloved by God is to know the heart of God.
This is what Peter was missing, in his look over his shoulder, in his fear of being replaced, in being less trusted than John. Jesus’ answer sounds harsh, but what he’s saying to Peter is “why does that matter? You are my beloved”—I love you, and I need your help.
The poet T.S. Eliot penned the following lines in his Four Quartets—one of my favorite poems:
“Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
I can imagine the regret Peter felt when he thought of his words, because I cringe internally at Peter’s jealousy, his looking over his shoulder, knowing that I have done the same thing at least in the past 24 hours… What makes this story hit home inside of us is not the knowledge that we are better than Peter, but that we are the foolish Peter, who cannot help looking over his shoulder at John, asking “what about HIM?”. I take comfort in hearing of the folly of old men—their fear of belonging to others, to God, because it is only then that I can hear the words of Christ. “why does that matter? You are my beloved”—I love you.
The wisdom of humility is knowing that we need love. To give oneself over, like John, to love Christ, and to be beloved of Christ is to give everything up except the certainty of love. When we know of love, when we know the heart of God is love, this is everything we were made for. This is what we are called to live into. And humility is Peter perhaps telling his friends, his children, that yes, I was foolish and didn’t know—I didn’t know what mattered. But now I know, and we today know, that we are beloved children of our Savior, who says to us “what matters is this—I love you, and I need you, to feed my sheep”.
(Preached at Ware Episcopal Church on 12/27/17)