17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
20 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?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 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?”
I’ve always been confused by that statement, “If I want him to remain alive until I return”. Why does Jesus say this? There are a few explanations out there. It may have to do with the fact that all the disciples were martyred except for John, the author of this gospel, who was instead exiled to the Isle of Patmos. And so in some sense, it’s as if Jesus is alluding to the fact that John would be alive when all the other disciples had died. Also, most people of that time period believed that Jesus’ return was imminent, meaning it was going to happen within one generation of Jesus’ resurrection. And so in that chronological context, the idea of John remaining alive until Jesus’ return wasn’t that big of a deal, because that return was not far off. But despite those explanations, there is no doubt a certain mysteriousness to what Jesus says here.
And unfortunately, that mysteriousness takes away from the greater point that Jesus is trying to make here, one that has enormous application in our lives.
There always had been tension between the disciples. They often jostled one another for better position under Jesus, a dynamic that is clearly demonstrated throughout the gospels. And everyone knew that John held a special place in Jesus’ heart, and I’m sure that others resented it. I know I would have. And that dynamic dies hard, even after the resurrection. You see, in this account, Peter is being restored from his betrayal on Good Friday (or Thursday, depending on how you understand that event). He is being forgiven and reinstated, and given a sobering picture of what his life will look like as the father of the early church. Jesus completes this amazing reinstatement with the words, “Follow me.” An awesome moment of true restoration!
But in the next breath, Peter looks at John, the beloved disciple, and asks, “Well…what about him? What about John? What will he be doing, what is his path?” It’s unknown whether Peter asks this out of curiosity or perhaps a lingering competitiveness, but the point is that he does ask. Jesus has just given Peter an intensely personal reinstatement and command to follow, but it’s almost as if Peter isn’t listening, and instead is focused on what John will be doing! And Jesus responds, rather pointedly, “What is that to you? You must follow me.”
I think that is a rebuke that we all should take to heart.
I have an amazing life: a wonderful wife, beautiful children, a house, and my health. But I have to confess that I feel more than a little envy on occasion. I look at the life of this or that person, and wonder why such success has evaded me. Why is their church flourishing, while mine floundered? Why was their book picked up so quickly by a publisher, while mine languishes in complete anonymity? I spend unhealthy amounts of time focused not on the path that God has set me upon, but the path that others have, and that I wish I could have instead. And nothing good comes out of this attitude because whenever I focus on the calling of other people, I feel inadequate, under appreciated, ineffective, and unfulfilled. In the darker recesses of my mind and heart, I lament, “What about _______? Why does my life not look like his?”
And the answer, quite simply, is that their life is not mine, and mine is not their’s. My context and calling in God is unique. He has given me a particular story to live out and path to tread. My calling is not to love another person’s family, but my own. My path is not to pastor the exact same church the exact same way that another person does, but to pastor the church God calls me to, in the unique way that God has gifted me. Perhaps fame would be bad for me, and threaten what I love most. Perhaps God took away my church because He had other things in store for me and my family. Instead of coveting the story that God has given others, I should be relishing the one that I have been given, and figuring out ways to make my own story the fullest that it can be. And in those rare moments in which I am able to live my life this way, not focused on others, but enjoying where I am and where I am going, I always feel greater peace and joy.
This is a dangerously pervasive dynamic in modern life, made all the more difficult by the innumerable means we have to keep tabs on others and compare/quantify our lives. “That guy has THAT many Twitter followers, but only follows four people?” “Wow, her Facebook pics of her children or husband or house or car make me feel envious.” “What the…he married HER? Way out of his league!” Instead of keeping our eyes on the path laid before us, we are constantly looking to the left and the right, peering over digital hedges, wondering why the grass always seems greener on the other side.
But the concept of greener grass is not a Godly one. The greenest path is the path that God gives you to tread because it is borne out of His wisdom and knowledge of the unique way in which you are created. Every person’s path will enjoy unique blessings, and experience equally unique hardship. And we should focus on living the story we are given, instead of the one we wish we had received. Remember Jesus’ words:
“What is that to you? You must follow me.”