Stretch Out Your Hands
First, please allow me to bring greetings from Eastern Mennonite University and from the campus pastor colleagues from across Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada who have enjoyed professional and fellowship connections with Tig through this past decade plus. It was a good ride for sure and you, Tig, are missed among us.
Lest I begin heading down pathways of nostalgia, considering more the past than the present and future, let us ground ourselves in this service of installation for Tig as pastor of Daniels Run Peace Church. This is about now – a journey of covenant and commitment between this congregation and Tig, between Tig and God, and between God and this congregation. But really, the now and the future are always informed by the past – and when one has had a long-term ministry already, expressed in several settings, there is a lot of past to inform the present.
The selection of the scripture passage for this sermon is but one example of how the past informs the future. When asked for a suggestion of scriptural reference, Tig said, I’ve always sort of been intrigued with the John 21:15-19 passage.” I believe that was the quote and it was good enough for me. Tig’s long time intrigue with this passage pulls forth into this service of installation. One might ask why? What is it about this passage that so intrigues? And how does it speak into being installed, yet again, for a pastorate?
Well I’m grateful for the scholarship of the late Willard M. Swartley in his Believers Church Bible Commentary on John. (Tig, did you study new testament theology with Willard as did I and so many others?) Well, here’s another lesson from his excellent work.
First, let’s establish the setting. In the book of John, following the empty tomb, Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene just outside the tomb and says to her, “Do not hold onto me because I have not yet ascended to my Father.” And then he appears to the disciples who are said to be fearfully locked in a house and says, “Peace be with you. (a typical greeting – hello) Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then Jesus returns one week later to be sure Thomas, a disciple who was not there for the first visit, sees him and his wounds and believes. And there were other signs done by Jesus among the disciples. And then, at some point hence, we don’t know how much time has passed, it appears that some of the disciples went fishing following Simon Peter’s lead. They were out all night, caught nothing and at daybreak Jesus surprised them yet again with his classic “other side of the boat” fishing trick, cooked breakfast for them over a charcoal fire on the beach, handing them some bread and fish – and setting the stage for yet another poignant encounter with Peter.
Jesus asked Peter three times “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you., was Peters reply each time. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.,” Jesus said.
Some theologians see this three-fold asking and responding “Do you love me” “You know that I love you” as offering an opportunity for redemption for the three-fold denial of Jesus by Peter not long before. But I suspect such a reading is not what is most intriguing to Tig and others. There has to be more. And there is more when you get into some textual study.
Jesus is not just reaching back only to the denials, he is coming full circle with Peter by addressing him as Simon, son of John, taking Peter back to their first meeting, before Jesus changes his name, so Peter can relive his entire journey with Jesus. And he asks him, “Do you love me?” But again, it’s not so simple. In his question, Jesus uses a form of love that means “Do you love me with a love that is self-giving, a love expressed ultimately in a willingness to lay down your life for me?” And Peter replies with a yes – but with what kind of yes – what form of love? Peter replies, “You know that I love you with friendship love, the kind of love expected of friends who enjoy each other’s company.” Not what Jesus is looking for here. Jesus tries again with the same response from Peter. The third time, Jesus meets Peter where he is with “Do you love me with friendship love?” and Peter replies, having been exposed, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you with friendship love.”
Other aspects of this exchange are of equal interest. In the first question Jesus asks, “Do you love me more than these?” These who? – is Jesus gesturing to the fish that over-filled the net? Is he gesturing to the other disciples standing near and no doubt eagerly listening in? Does it matter? Scholars don’t know. But there is a calling out that is taking place in the presence of the other disciples and the netted fish too for that matter – and maybe the fish are the primary point? One among the disciples, Simon Peter, is being installed (in essence) for a set-apart form of leadership. This was his installation service – more likely his ordination – for it appears to be for life. And what is his charge?
Feed my lambs (meaning perhaps the young among them who need to be fed). Tend my sheep (perhaps the adults among them who need some shepherding). Feed my sheep (perhaps the people who are aging or very old and once again need to be fed and provided basic care and support.)
This pattern of younger to older repeats in the following text in Jesus’ prophesy of Peter’s future. Peter did not earlier indicate that he loves Jesus with self-giving, self-sacrificing love but Jesus lays out a future that indicates this very thing. Just as when Jesus prophesied “truly, truly” that Peter would deny him three times, he now, with authority and a spirit of redemption, for a final time, prophesies “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and to walk wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you will (reach up) stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”
And then Jesus says, follow me (let’s go – let’s do it). Follow me.
Well, there is a lot to chew on here. Is it scratching an itch, Tig? Is it dipping into what’s most intriguing about this passage?
Knowing that Tig and I both value the leadership and voice of younger emerging adults, I invited my team of campus ministries student leaders to read this passage a few times and offer initial reflections and questions that emerge for them. It’s often refreshing and telling to explore a passage or theological concept with people across the generations or from different cultures and backgrounds. This is the point in the sermon where I would have shared some of the insights lifted by college students (college students who work with and for me no less) but not one of them responded to this invitation. No response.
Fortunately, I’m not left stranded, for I know from some conversation with Tig that it is this final piece, the truly, truly statement in verse 18 that has most intrigued him. What does this mean? And particularly for today, in the context of a service of installation, what implications does it have concerning a pastoral role?
Well, a flat reading of this verse simply implies that one is vibrant and independent when younger and more fragile and dependent on others when older. Peter appears to have this reality in his future – as do many others -including some of us. If this is the case, having called Tig into this pastorate late in his career might mean that Tig will need plenty of assistance in this pastoral role. Maybe the blessings will flow through Tig’s humility and openness to receiving assistance as he stretches out his hands?
Another straight-forward reading of this verse is that it indicates the form of Peter’s death.
But before going too far down this path, let’s consider a more robust theological interpretation pulling again from Swartley.
There is redemption from the denials in this exchange but there is much more going on here. Though brash and denying, Peter is redeemable – even chosen for significant leadership in the gospel of Jesus, the Christ. Peter will feed the lambs and tend and feed the sheep in love and with boldness, following and reflecting Jesus as leader of the discipling team. There will be no more turning aside or turning back or uncertainty about Jesus’ intentions – the path is made clear and Peter is “installed” for a leadership of love=feeding=following. But this lead ministry role will have a cost.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and to walk wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands (spread hands wide), and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”
The word dress in this passage can be replaced with clothe or gird – to gird oneself as Jesus did before washing the disciple’s feet – the final servant act of Jesus before his death. And the phrase “stretch out your hands” denotes crucifixion in antiquity. Indeed, although he could not say it earlier in this exchange, Peter will love Jesus with a love that is self-giving, expressed ultimately in a willingness to lay down his life for Jesus.” It is set.
How will we, Tig as pastor, and all of us gathered here today, love Jesus? With what kind of love will we reflect Jesus as we relate to one another and our neighbors? Is it a love that equals feeding and following – feeding (or caring) for the young, tending (or shepherding and mentoring) those who need some guidance, and feeding (or supporting) the old through following Jesus fully to the end – whatever the end looks like for each of us?
I see from your website, that the vision of this congregation is Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcome Everyone.
So Pastor Tig and Daniels Run Peace Church, as we seek to apply the calling in the passage selected for worship this morning, let us consider a few questions. Who are the young placed in your care – or the young in your awareness needing to be nurtured? Who nearby might benefit from mentoring, companioning, or a compassionate guiding presence as they struggle through life? Who among and around you are the broken and fragile, perhaps marginalized or silenced, in need of life support? How are you Living Love, Growing Justice, and Welcoming Everyone.
It’s well worth pondering on this day of installing a new pastor.
Finally, it’s also worth paying attention to this “I’m going fishing” thing that has prominence in the larger narrative of this text. Peter, perhaps feeling restless, tired, uncertain, anxious – something hard to hold – in the challenging days since Jesus’ death, resurrection and appearance among the disciples, turns to fishing – and others join him. He turns to something he knows – something he’s typically good at – something that makes sense to him. And Jesus pulls him back again.
Let us consider if there is a “fall back on fishing” dynamic in our patterns of congregational mission and purpose. Might there be an element of seeking the known, the comfortable, the predictable. I’m sure there is for all of us individually and collectively. And it might be alright – but how aware are we of this dynamic that could be a hindrance of sorts to our boldness in faithfully following Jesus?
Jesus asks, do you love me? How do you love me? With what kind of love do you love me? How will others know of this love? How will you follow me?
This was the call of Jesus for Peter on a beach around a charcoal fire having been served fish and bread – and I believe it is so for us. What will be our response?