Sunday, May 2, 2010

Staring Death in the Eye

John 21:18-23
May 2, 2010
William G. Carter

Jesus said Simon Peter, “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.”

The kids in my house have introduced me to a great movie. It’s called “Big Fish,” and it’s the story of Edward Bloom. Edward is a storyteller, a spinner of wild yarns. Every night he sits on the edge of his son’s bed and talks about his extraordinary encounters with giants, werewolves, and imaginary villages.

One night, he says, when he was about ten years old, he and four of his friends went looking for the house of an old woman. She lived out beyond a swamp near their Alabama town. Rumor had it she was a witch, that she had a glass eye that was both mysterious and menacing. Edward told his friends, “They say if you look right at her awful glass eye, you can see how you’re gonna die.” The other kids look at one another, struck with horror. Then they dare one another to walk up and knock on the door.

Only Edward will do it. Two of the kids slip back through the swamp toward home, leaving two slightly terrified brothers to hide and watch Edward approach the house. They weren’t the least bit interested in meeting the witch, and catching a glimpse of their final breath.

It’s a weird and spooky thing, don’t you think? How many of us would want a preview of our own death? To glimpse the fleeting moment when we leave behind this life? A lot of people are afraid of death, nervous about it, anxious about how they make their final exit. Will an illness take us? Or an accident? Will we see it coming or will it catch us by surprise? When death knocks on my door, will I be alone – or surrounded by people who love me? Will I leave behind a long bucket list of things I wanted to do? Or will I die with a sense of satisfaction of a life well-lived?

These are difficult questions, and we would rather postpone them as long as possible. It might be best to leave them unanswered, so that death does not disrupt our living. It’s true that the one perfect statistic is that all of us will die – it’s running at a hundred percent – but it might not be of any comfort to know when, how, or where. Just imagine if you knew the countdown of days, hours, and minutes; it could seriously mess you up. So many of our day-to-day decisions are based on forgetting we are finite. Imagine an eighty-year-old man who buys a house with a thirty-year mortgage – he is a hopeful man.

In the final story of the Gospel of John, the Risen Christ says a strange and somber proverb to Simon 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."

It is a very odd thing to say, so odd, in fact, that the gospel writer stops to explain it. John claims that Jesus says these words to predict the kind of death that Simon Peter will face. They come out of the blue, totally unconnected from the context. As he heard last week, Simon Peter has just confessed his friendship to Jesus. We would expect the Lord to trade pleasantries with his friend. But instead, he predicts his death.

According to tradition, Simon Peter was killed in Rome. Supposedly he faced crucifixion, but didn’t think he was worthy of the same death as his Lord. So he insisted on being crucified upside-down – his arms outstretched, a belt around his waist. By the time that John wrote down this Gospel, in about 90 AD, Peter would have been long gone, maybe as long as 25 years. So here the story is told backwards, as if Jesus is looking forwards.

But needless to say, it’s still a creepy thing. I can understand why Edward Bloom’s friends were hiding in the bushes while he went up to knock on the witch’s door. Simon Peter looks into his Lord’s eyes, and catches a glimpse of his own end.

And what Jesus tells him – what Jesus may be telling all of us – is that death is about losing control. That is probably why we want to postpone any talk of death, especially in our culture – because we don’t ever want to talk about losing control. Jesus says, “Someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.” You know, if there’s anything we want, it is control. We try to control our lives, our schedules, our emotions, our children. If anything scares us about growing older, it’s losing control. Will I still have power over my own body, my memory, my finances? Will someone else have to dress me? Will they take away my driver’s license and “take me where I don’t want to go”?

In his final words to his friend Peter, Jesus says Peter’s destiny is to lose control. That is his fate, and in a way, it really shouldn’t have surprised the fisherman. From the very beginning, Jesus invited Simon Peter and everybody else to “follow him.”

• Follow where? Wherever he goes.
• But where are we headed? We will find out when we get there.
• But what are we going to do? Feed his sheep, tend his lambs, and whatever else he wants us to do.
• But where is the itinerary? What is the agenda? Why can’t we be in charge? And the answer: we are following him. We cannot call the shots if Jesus Christ is Lord.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, who said it most clearly: “When Christ calls [people], he bids [them] come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time - death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old [person] at his call.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 99). Discipleship is a kind of death. We follow Christ as Lord, and die to any sense of our own importance, die to our exclusive personal agendas, die to anything or anybody that presumes to put any other claim upon our lives. Christ comes first in everything we do or wish to do. We follow him. And if we are clear first and foremost about that, any other kind of death is really not going to matter.

In the movie “Big Fish,” Edward Bloom takes the dare of his friends, and goes up to the vine-covered house. Just as he reaches to knock on the door, the door swings open and there’s an old woman with tangled hair and patch over her right eye. "M'am," says the surprised lad, "my name is Edward Bloom and there's some folks here who'd like to see your eye." He leads her back to the place where two brothers, Zacky and Don, are still hiding.

She glowers at the two boys, and flips up her eye patch. A flashlight illumines the mysterious crystal eye. Zacky sees himself as an old man falling off a ladder. Don sees his own demise too. The two of them fly out of there, back toward town, leaving Edward to walk with the woman back toward her house. He has not gazed at her eye, and curiosity gets the better of him.

And he says to her, “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?" That’s really wise advice.

The final gift of Jesus for his friend Peter is the chance to stare down his own death. Peter had died before – he died one Thursday night beside a charcoal fire, when three times he lied and said he didn’t know Jesus. The guilt on his heart just about killed him as he heard the rooster crow.

And now, that very morning, he stood beside another charcoal fire as the Risen Jesus asked three times if Peter loved him – each time he confessed “yes,” his voice got stronger, clearer, as the old fearful fisherman was killed off so that the new Simon Peter could live and follow his Lord. Just like Jesus, he passed from death to life, and death no longer had any power over him.

Out in an Alabama swamp on a moonlit night, Edward Bloom got his wish. The old woman smiled with a crooked grin, and turned so her eye faced the boy. We do not see what he could see, but we do see his face. He glares, and then says with a smile, “Huh, so that’s how I go.”

Finishing the story, tucking in his son, a grown Edward declares, "From that moment on, I no longer feared death."

That could be the most important lesson of Jesus and his resurrection: to not be afraid of death. To follow without fear. To pick up the work that he calls us to do. To love all the people that he loves. We can stare death in the eye – and always look through it, beyond it – until we see the face of our good friend Jesus. And we hear him say, “Die to yourself, and come follow me . . .”

[Note: I am deeply indebted to Scott Black Johnston, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC, whose good work with this scripture text has shaped this sermon.]

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