Following Jesus, Part 2 (John 21:15-25)
Sermon for April 19, 2020
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Dear New Cut Church and friends,
Greetings in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Last week, we looked at John 21:15-25. We looked at what it means to be a disciple, that is, a follower of Jesus Christ. We saw that the first prerequisite of following Christ is to love Christ. Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved him. Each time, Peter said “Yes.” Then Jesus commanded Peter to follow him. Love for Jesus is the first and foremost part of following Jesus, so it is essential that we remind ourselves of this love we have for our Lord and let that love undergird our following of Christ. We also saw that a vital aspect of following Jesus is repentance. Peter’s three confessions of love for Christ paralleled his three denials of Christ. To follow Christ again, it was essential for Peter to repent, to turn back towards Christ. It is essential for any follower of Christ and any church to be repentant in order to follow after Jesus. Now, this week, we continue in John 21:15-25 and look at two other essential aspects of following Christ: following Christ through suffering and following Christ within our unique callings. Let’s begin by reading the passage, John 21:15-25. Here is the Word of God:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
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. Very truly I tell you, 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.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
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?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers 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?”
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
There is risk involved in anything that we do. Take flying for example. Many flight crews, before flying, fill out something called an Operational Risk Management score card. This sheet tallies up all the risk factors of a flight. Risk factors can include length of the flight, length of the work day, how much rest the crew members have, or the amount of crew member flight experience. This sheet adds up all of the risk factors for a total risk score. If the score is high, the question has to be asked, does the risk outweigh the benefit? Something interesting about these Operational Risk Management score cards is that it is impossible to get a score of zero! There is always risk involved in anything that we do. This is true not only for flying, but other areas of life as well. There is risk in driving a car. There is risk to grocery shopping.
According to Google Dictionary, the definition of risk is “a situation involving exposure to danger,” and danger is defined as “the possibility of suffering harm or injury.” When it comes to risk, the question might be understood as: how high is the possibility that I will suffer? When Jesus reinstated Peter, concerning suffering, he did not present Peter with a remote possibility of suffering. He did not present Peter with the risk of suffering. Jesus guaranteed Peter, that by following Jesus, Peter would suffer a great deal. Immediately after the charge to feed the sheep, Jesus said in vv. 18-19,
“Very truly I tell you, 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.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Jesus didn’t present Peter with a possibility of suffering for following him. He guaranteed it. And he guaranteed a lot of it. When Jesus said to Peter, “You will stretch out your hands,” this is a reference to crucifixion. Jesus was telling Peter that he would die a violent, public death at the hands of others. In these verses, being dressed by someone else and taken where you don’t want to go is a reference to imprisonment. Notice also in these verses the reference to age. Peter would not finish his ministry in honor an dignity, and then live out the rest of his days peacefully. He wouldn’t receive the honor of his old age. Instead, his ministry would end in the shame of imprisonment and public execution. In order to follow Jesus, Peter had to undergo suffering.
The call to follow Christ through suffering was not specific only to Peter. It’s not specific to apostles only, to pastors only, or to Christian leaders only. The call to follow Christ, even in suffering, is applicable to every Christian. Matthew 16:24-25 says, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “’Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’” Jesus does not say here that some of his disciples are called to take up their cross, that is, to suffer, in order to follow him. He says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” All Christian are called to self-denial. All Christians are called to undergo suffering in order to follow Christ.
The example in of Peter’s suffering was crucifixion. Crucifixion still gives us a context for thinking about suffering and following Christ. It was horrible physically. We don’t need to go into those details here. Crucifixion was also embarrassing. The Scripture especially focuses on the shaming and embarrassment of crucifixion. Someone would have carried their cross in the presence of others, mocked and jeered at. During crucifixion, a person was lifted up off the ground so that they could be seen, so that they were on display. When a Christian is called to take up his or her cross, it’s not just physical suffering, but can be all kinds of suffering. Suffering can involve embarrassment, a loss of status, a loss of material goods, or a loss of physical comfort. You can suffer in obvious, apparent ways. Or you can suffer in smaller ways that are often overlooked. These less extreme, often overlooked types of suffering might be referred to as “hardship” “discomfort” or “loss.” We sometimes miss the call to take up our crosses and follow Jesus because we only think of the most extreme examples of suffering. Let’s not miss many of the ways, often overlooked ways, that we can take up our crosses and follow Christ. So, what are some examples in today’s context of Christians taking up their cross and following Christ?
I think of something a professor shared. He had worked hard and was in a prestigious position at a college. However, he came to a point at which, in order to stay in his position, he would have had to be complicit in corruption. So he resigned from his position. In the context that he was in, it was unheard of to resign from a position of prestige and power. Beyond the position, the resignation wasn’t good for his career. However, he knew that something was more important than his position and career. More important than holding onto his position was following Christ. He chose, instead of engaging in corruption by complicity, to follow Christ’s commands for truthfulness and integrity. He denied himself, took up his cross, and chose to suffer loss to his position and career in order to follow Christ. One way that you could be called to take up your cross and follow Christ is by putting Christ before a job position or popularity in the workplace. This is an example of suffering to follow Christ. It did not involve physical pain. It was not one of the more extreme examples of suffering. However, it was an example of suffering to follow Christ in ordinary life. You can be called to suffer in order to follow Christ in similar ways, whether in the workplace, among friends, or other contexts. Suffering is also applicable in the life and mission of the church.
In the life of the church, a member of the church may need to suffer in order to follow Christ. Take for example, teaching a Sunday school lesson. While something like putting a Sunday School lesson together and teaching is a joy, it can involve suffering. Remember, we are not necessarily talking about the more extreme suffering, but the suffering, the discomforts, that we may undergo frequently, in order to follow Christ. Putting a lesson together might be tiring at some points, and even though it is a joy to do so, might mean pushing through discomforts at times in overcoming writers block, difficulty understanding, or simply time spent when there is a competing demand. Suffering and discomfort can be applicable to the very act of teaching. Frequently, the reason people hesitate to speak publicly is the risk, the possibility, of misspeaking in front of others and the discomfort of being embarrassed. There is a possibility of suffering embarrassment. But if you are called to teach in this way, then in order to follow Jesus, it is necessary to take on risk, the possibility of some discomfort.
Suffering is applicable for working out any conflicts in the church. The Bible gives an outline for working out conflict. Some chapters that address this model are Matthew 18 and Romans 12. The model is to take initiative; if possible, go to a person one on one; and to not gossip. Yet, gossip or resentment so often ends up being the go to. There is a risk in following the Biblical model. It might be uncomfortable even bring up an issue. But it is the way that Christ taught. And Biblical reconciliation is better than the resentment that goes along with not pursuing Biblical reconciliation.
Reaching out to the community involves risk. Sharing the gospel involves risk. Remember that risk means the possibility of suffering, and that suffering can be a lot or a little, and in a variety of ways. Reaching out to the community could lead to being rejected. Sharing the gospel could lead to being talked about. Both community outreach and evangelism presents challenges and risks, the possibility in suffering in some way. There will always be some risk factor when reaching out to others. But in order to do outreach, or in order to evangelize, it’s necessary to take on risk. There will always be a reason not to take the step to share the gospel or reach out. But it is necessary to take on the risk, the possibility of suffering, in order to follow Jesus in this way.
There are many ways that we are called to suffer in order to follow Jesus. The previous examples were just a few of many ways that people are called to suffer in order to follow Jesus. At this point, I would like to make a few qualifications. I have been talking about risk as the possibility of suffering. I have been saying that it is a necessary part of following Jesus. We can’t follow Jesus if our sole goal is to avoid suffering at all costs. We can’t follow Jesus if our primary objective is to be comfortable. Risk is necessary. But I am not talking about recklessness. Recklessness, according to Google Dictionary is the “lack of regard for the danger or consequences of one’s actions; rashness.” Wisdom, prudence, and self-control are important Christian characteristics. We are not called to take risks for the excitement, for lack of forethought, or for lack of considering better options. We aren’t called to be daredevils, taking on risks to impress others. We aren’t called to suffer just for the sake of suffering. Jesus’ primary command here in John 21 is to follow him. The question isn’t so much, in what ways can I bring suffering upon myself? The question is, in what ways is God calling me to follow him? And what suffering do I need to endure in order to fulfill my calling to follow Jesus? Consider, is there a particular way that you are being called to follow Jesus, but you are not following in this way because you are attempting to avoid suffering?
So, suffering and the possibility of suffering, risk, is necessary to following Jesus. But taking risks, the possibility of suffering, to follow Jesus, does not mean that we should be reckless. Neither does taking on suffering or risk mean that we should embrace asceticism. Asceticism is keeping away from anything that is pleasurable, as if pleasure is in itself bad. It is putting a value on self-denial as if self-denial and suffering is the end goal. It’s suffering for the sake of suffering. Paul addresses asceticism in Colossians 2 when he writes,
Why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
When we are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, this doesn’t mean that we deny ourselves of all good things. This doesn’t mean that we suffer just for the sake of suffering. Teaching to avoid and not enjoy the good things that God made is not the point. Teaching to self-inflict suffering is not the point. The point is to follow Jesus, even if it means suffering. The question is not, how can I rid of myself of all good and pleasurable things in my life and inflict the highest possible amount of pain? The question is, in what ways am I called to follow Jesus, even if it is uncomfortable and involves suffering?
The final qualification that I would like to make is that not every person is called to suffer in the same ways or the same amounts. Jesus made this point in his dialogue with Peter. After Jesus let Peter know how Peter would suffer, he asked about another disciple. Peter asked in v. 21, “Lord, what about him?” Then Jesus answered in v. 22, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Peter’s concern was whether or not the other disciple was called to the same suffering. Then Jesus corrected Peter. Peter was not to be concerned with how this other disciple’s suffering compared to his own. Peter needed to follow Jesus in his own calling and the associated suffering with that calling. We are not called to compare our sufferings against one another. We are not called to this comparison. We are called to follow and glorify Christ in whatever situation we are in, whether the amount of suffering is great or small.
Individually, we do suffer in similar ways. We certainty have the same primary instructions for following God contained in the Word of God. We can imitate good examples of one another. But each person is called to unique suffering in following Christ. I gave some examples earlier of people suffering as teachers. But not every person is called especially to teaching. Each person has particular callings, and particular sufferings that go with it. So follow Christ in the way that Christ has called you to follow him.
This is also true on the group level of a church. A church needs to follow Christ the way that God has called that particular church to follow Christ. Other churches are certainly worth imitating and learning from in different ways. But our church, New Cut Church, needs to be New Cut Church. We need to follow God’s call on our church and be the church that God called us to be. I’m not talking about resisting any and all changes. God may call us to change in some ways. And if God calls us to change in certain ways, we ought to change. We need to follow Jesus within our calling as New Cut Church. The question is not, how can we be like that church? The question is, in what ways is God calling New Cut Church, with the people in our church, to follow him, and glorify him, in the community context of where God has placed this church? An answer to a question like that probably doesn’t come all at once, but gradually as we prayerfully follow God together. But as we see answers to the question, “how do we follow Jesus as a church?”, we need, just as Peter was instructed, to follow Jesus, even if it is uncomfortable, even if it is inconvenient, even if it involves suffering. We need to follow Jesus.
In order to follow Jesus, we need to remember our love for Jesus. We need to be repentant, turning from sin, and turning towards Christ. We need to be willing to suffer to follow Christ, and to suffer within our own callings. Follow Jesus.
Grace and peace,