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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Looking Death in the Eye

John 21:1-19

Third Sunday of Easter

April 25, 2004

The 21st chapter of John's Gospel reports on the activities of the disciples after Easter has come and gone. We find them back at the Sea of Galilee, back in their boat, but the fishing this night is terrible until a stranger appears on the shore and suggests that they throw their nets on the other side. When they do, their nets fill with fish and they realize that the one giving them advice is Jesus. We pick up the story as Peter dives in and swims for the shore while the others return with their abundant catch.

Listen for God's Word to you:

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him a third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he had said to him the third time "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, 'When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.'" He said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After this, he said to him, "Follow me."

So ends the reading. Thanks be to God.

Edward Bloom, the central character in the movie Big Fish, is a man who delights in telling stories. The stories that Bloom relates about his life and his adventures are fantastic. They are mythic. Each night sitting on the edge of his son's bed, Bloom describes his encounters with extraordinary creatures-giants and werewolves. In his son's favorite bedtime story, Bloom recalls a youthful expedition to find a broken-down house in the midst of a nearby swamp. The story goes like this:

One night when Edward was only 10 years old, he and four curious friends hiked into a swamp seeking a ramshackle, vine-covered home and hoping to get a peek at the house's occupant-an old woman who was reputed to be a witch. It's only when they're crouched in the undergrowth peering at the eerie house that one of the young friends informs the others of rumors regarding the witch's menacing, mystical glass eye. "They say," he tells his companions, "that if you look right at her awful glass eye, you can see how you're gonna die." Quivering at the horror of such a possibility, the friends begin to dare each other to approach the house and knock at the door. It's a hard sale, though, for these youths are clear that they're not at all interested in catching a glimpse of their demise in a witch's enchanted eye.

How many of us would react with fear if we were faced with the possibility of viewing our own death? To glimpse that sight, to watch a film clip of our final breathing moments seems so very threatening. No doubt we're afraid of what that ultimate event could look like. Will I die gracefully? Awkwardly? Tragically? When death comes for me, will I be alone or surrounded by loved ones? Will I die unexpectedly with countless items left on my to-do lists? Or will I die at peace, satisfied with this life?

These are tough questions. Do we really want to peak at the answers? Perhaps death is best left as a surprise, for if we were to witness our end, our concluding act on earth, it might disturb our whole approach to life. Yes, of course, we know that we're all going to die some day, but we don't live each day with pictures of our final, faded moments propped up next to our computer screens or taped to our dashboards. Something like that could seriously mess a person up. Our choices, our day-to-day decisions depend on us forgetting that we are finite, don't they? What do you think? If you were offered the opportunity to see the moment of your own death, would you look?

At the conclusion of the Gospel of John, standing on the beach at sunrise the risen Christ speaks an oddly somber proverb to Peter, "Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." What a strange thing to say, so strange, in fact, that the gospel writer feels compelled to pause and explain this pronouncement. Elbowing confused readers in the side, John writes that Jesus has uttered these sober words to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Mmmm, does that clarify things? After all, Peter has just confessed his love for Jesus not once but three times. Surely, we expect Christ to respond in kind, yet instead of tender mercies, Jesus forecasts the fisherman's death.

You know, reading the final scene in John's Gospel could make a person feel like one of the children in Edward Bloom's story, for this text invites its readers to crouch in the bushes silently quaking as Peter looks into the eyes of his beloved Lord and catches sight of his life's end. The proverb, Jesus tells Peter, speaks about loss of control. If there's anything that we care passionately about in this culture, it is control. We want control over our destinies, our finances, our schedules, our emotions. As we grow older, one of the most frightening things that we can contemplate is a loss of control. Will I lose control of my body, my choices, and even my thoughts? Will I be able to dress myself and drive my car or will someone else be fastening a belt around me and taking me places I don't want to go? Jesus tells Peter that his destiny is to lose control. What a strange choice of parting words to speak to a dear friend. Is that what we can expect from God? If we confess our devotion to Jesus, will he also look us in the eye and promise that our fate is to lose control? To answer, we need to go back to the beginning.

The story of Peter's final encounter with Jesus summons us again to the Sea of Galilee. Pacing back and forth on the shore, the disciples seem anxious. What will become of them? Jesus is gone. What should they do with their lives now? Then, standing along side the lake that had once been the answer to all of these questions, Peter declares, "I am going fishing." The other disciples, eager for anything that might break the mood, toss their tunics on the sand and state that they are going with him. So they return to the boat, to the baiting of hooks, the casting of nets, to the very things that put bread on the table before they were called, before they were summoned to follow a holy man who went and got himself executed. In a way, they were back to square one, back to something that they knew, the familiar rhythms of fishing. But how familiar was it? Nobody was catching anything. Perhaps their old skills had turned rusty or maybe the fish had simply gone deep. Whatever the case, on this night their nets were unlucky sieves that could strain nothing but gloom from the black waters. Then, at daybreak, just as they were about to pack it in, a stranger appears on the shore, a man who acts like he has fished these waters before, because immediately he starts dispensing advice: Why don't you throw your nets on the other side of the boat? Why not? And this time the strands of roped mesh grow taut, the men's muscles bulge. Fish-so many fish! The stranger's counsel has transformed their excursion form emptiness to abundance, from futility to triumph. With this abrupt change comes new perspective. An epiphany. "It's the Lord!" says one. And at that announcement, Peter abandons ship, swimming for shore and his Savior. When Peter eventually wades onto the beach, cleansed by the waters of Galilee, the soaked disciple finds Jesus tending a charcoal fire. His teacher has prepared breakfast. It's like old times. Here they are together again sharing a meal, yet something is different, for after serving fish and bread to the hungry men, Jesus turns to Peter and asks something that he has never asked the disciple before: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Quickly, as if he was desperately hoping for such an opportunity, Peter responds, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you," to which Jesus replies, "Feed my lambs."

Scholars see in Peter's three-fold declaration of love a chance for the fisherman to retract the three denials that he uttered during the arrest and trial of Jesus. You remember, don't you, how Peter was questioned by soldiers who suspected that he had links to this Jesus fellow? Yes, Peter had looked death in the eye before. He had faced the prospect of his own demise and fled from it in fear.

Fear is also what hangs in the air when young Edward accepts his friends' dare and begins to approach the house in the swamp. We watch as he softly pads across the porch. Then, suddenly, the front door snaps open, revealing an old woman with snarled hair and a patch over her left eye. "M'am," says the startled boy, "my name is Edward Bloom and there's some folks here who'd like to see your eye." With that, he leads the woman back to their hiding spot where only two of his companions remain-Zacky and Don Price, brothers. The others have fled.

As the old woman emerges from the shadows behind Edward, she stares at the brothers and flips up her eye patch. A flashlight beam illumines her mysterious eye, and the film cuts away to show us what the paralyzed Zacky sees: An old man, Zacky is standing on a wobbly stepladder, changing a light bulb. Without warning, the ladder gives way and he falls-dead. Trembling with fear, for Don has seen his death, too, the two brothers bolt from the underbrush and flee into the swamp. Edward, however, has not gazed at the eye. He could leave without looking back, but curiosity gets the better of him, so he says to the woman, "I was thinking about death and all, about seeing how you're gonna die. I mean, on one hand, if dying was all you thought about, it could kind of screw you up, but it could kind of help you, couldn't it, because you'd know that everything else you can survive?"

"It could kinda help you," says the boy. Wise words. Wise indeed. In fact, that may explain why Jesus' last gift to Peter is a vision of his own death. Peter, strong, reliable Peter, has been overcome by fear. He has denied his beloved teacher. He has cut himself off from a joy that once fueled his every waking moment. The text hints at Peter's melancholy by following the disciple back to Galilee, back to his former life. Only now even fishing isn't working. Clearly, Jesus senses his disciples' profound pain. For instead of offering the fisherman a psychological Band-Aid, instead of simply saying, "Listen, don't worry about denying me-no big thing"-he honors Peter by wading into the deep waters with him. He tells Peter about his death-not to scare him. Oh no, quite the contrary. Jesus tells Peter about his death to restore him to life.

Looking at Edward Bloom, the old woman smiles -- a crooked grin of broken teeth -- and turns her head so that the eye faces the boy. This time the director doesn't cut away. We do not see what Edward sees. Instead, we study his features as he witnesses his death. He stares, transfixed, and then with a smile, he say's, "Huh, so that's how I go."

Concluding the story, tucking in the covers, a grown Edward says to his young son, "From that moment on, I no longer feared death."

After Jesus tells Peter about his death, after Peter smiles and thinks, "Huh, so that's how I go," the Christ speaks two simple words, "Follow me." It's a challenge that Peter has accepted before and one that he will keep accepting until he breathes his last. For when fear has been vanquished and when control has been ceded to God, then following and service become possible.

Reflecting on the development of his faith over the years, Frederick Buechner writes that "I have always trusted God with my life. The change is that now I begin at least to trust God with my death."

Perhaps that's what Jesus offers Peter, an opportunity to trust God with his death. And isn't that what the story of the resurrection is all about? The testimony of John's Gospel would have us look into the eye of wisdom and see reflected there what God has prepared for us. Of course, it would be frightening to see ourselves toppling from ladders and exhaling final breaths in hospital beds. But is that what we would see? Perhaps if we would appear into God's great glass eye, we would catch sight of something altogether different, something that would surprise us--like a charcoal fire on a beach and a few trout being grilled by our dearest friend who patiently waits for us to reach the shore.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, may we always find in you a compelling vision that frees us from the shackles of fear and empowers us to surprising acts of devotion. Until that day when we shall look you in the eye and be filled with your peace, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.


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