READ : John 21:18-19
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
John 21:18,19 rsv
Listen to these words of Jesus to His disciple Peter: “`Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he [that is, Peter] was to glorify God.) And after this he [Jesus] said to him, `Follow me.’”
You get the impression that Simon Peter, when he heard these words from Jesus, was in what we might call “middle life.” He wasn’t young any longer. Youth could be looked back on as a thing in the past. Jesus says, “When you were young.”
But he wasn’t old yet either. Jesus didn’t say to him, “Now that you are old.” It was rather, “When you are old.” Peter was in the situation of most adults. They’re well past adolescence but they don’t yet look upon themselves as old. Youth may be a memory, but retirement years are still out ahead.
But this is really a word for everyone. If you are quite young, then this passage gives both a description of your present situation and a vision of what’s ahead. If you’re older, it may provide a wistful look backward. But in one sense, all of us are “in the middle,” as we say, because today we’re older than we’ve ever been before and younger than we’ll ever be again. This is a word, then, for all seasons, a message for every stage in life.
WHEN WE’RE IN CONTROL
Notice first what Jesus says about youth. “When you were young, you girded yourself.” Michael Kelly Blanchard, one of the most creative recording artists of our time, has written a song about a little boy who insists on getting dressed “all by himself.” He can do it. He doesn’t need help. “I want to put it on myself,” he says. That’s the way it is with youth. Youth means the exciting discovery of our powers. It’s learning what we can do.
When we are young, we “gird ourselves” in the sense that we prepare ourselves for action. We go through a regimen of schooling. We learn a trade, pursue a discipline, develop a skill. We’re getting ready for the business of life.
But it’s not only a matter of study and practice. Youth is a time for dreams. We develop ambitions. We fantasize about future successes. We think about who we’re going to be, what we’re going to do, and how high we’re going to go. And that’s all part of girding ourselves, preparing ourselves for the long haul ahead.
Here’s another thing about youth. Jesus says, “You … walked where you would.” The young, as we say, are “footloose and fancy free.” They aren’t tied down or fenced in. All kinds of possibilities are still open to them. They can walk through any one of a number of doors, it seems. Their horizons seem unlimited. Who knows where or how far they’ll go?
Young people for that reason often seem naively optimistic. They’re sure of themselves, eager to try their wings, confident they can do things that have never been done before. The world has searched for answers and struggled with problems but now they’re here and they’ll take care of everything! They’re serenely sure of being right about almost everything. The dean of a boys’ school chuckled about that once when he said, “None of us is infallible, even the youngest.”
The young in body and young in heart are the explorers of this world, the intrepid adventurers. They’re always starting out in new directions, pushing against the known limits, free like the eagles. They can take care of themselves and go anywhere – pursuing that dream.
WHEN WE LOSE CONTROL
But when you become old, says Jesus, it’s different. Then “another will gird you.” You won’t be as independent and self-sufficient as you used to be. You’ll need help. My wife Helen has been sensing some of that lately. She badly bruised her ribs in an automobile accident and cracked one of them. Since then almost every movement has been attended by pain. For a while, she couldn’t even get up out of bed without assistance, couldn’t pick up something she had just dropped or do simple little things for herself. All her movements had to be measured and careful. At parties she would have to sit around almost immobile, like someone very old and feeble. She felt all through that painful time, very aged. She, the ever- active help-giver, suddenly had to be dependent on others.
As we get older, we become more and more aware of life’s limits, don’t we? We can’t run as fast, jump as high, throw as hard as we used to. I was laughing with some friends the other day about what it’s like for me to play softball now. When I used to be an outfielder, I prided myself on having a rifle arm. I could wing the ball into home plate almost on a line. Now when a ball is hit to me, my brain says, “Fire it home,” but my body responds with a looping throw that may bounce several times along the way!
And it’s not just physically that we feel the limits. We reach a point in our lives when we realize we’ve gone about as far as we can in our chosen field. The opportunities for new ventures are beginning to dwindle. Maybe we’re not going to reach some of those coveted goals. Maybe elements of the dream will remain forever unfulfilled. We’re conscious of declining powers and narrowing hopes.
And the time eventually comes for most when others will have to make decisions for us. My uncle at 98 1/2 has been at that point in his life for several years. He can no longer handle his own finances. That has to be done for him. Even the decision about where he’s going to stay has been largely taken out of his hands. And sometimes in the evening the folks in the nursing home tie him with restraints in his wheelchair or make him go to bed before he wants to.
That’s what old age is like. You no longer, as we say, “control your own destiny.” Your needs are taken care of by others and they begin to set the boundaries for your life. You may struggle against that, but it’s usually a losing battle. The younger and stronger ones entrusted with your care will more and more impose their wishes on you. Sometimes they’ll carry you where you don’t want to go.
HANDS STRETCHED OUT
Up to now this has all been fairly general – about youth and age. But there’s also a special personal message here for Simon Peter. Did you notice how Jesus said to him, “But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands”? What did he mean by that? From the early days of the Christian church, this has been understood as a reference to crucifixion. The hands are “stretched out” not to receive a gift but to be nailed to a cross. That’s what others will do for Peter some day. That’s where they’ll take him against his will – to a place of terrible torment and open shame.
There are two lines of evidence that this is actually what happened. The first is a persistent ancient tradition that Simon Peter was eventually crucified head downward in the city of Rome. The peculiar reversal in this was said to be Peter’s own idea. He didn’t consider himself worthy to die as his Master had died.
The other line of evidence is the comment of the gospel writer here in the text. In speaking of these words of Jesus to Peter, John writes, “This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.” Jesus was telling His disciple in these days following the first Easter that the time would come when he, Peter, would be hung upon a cross. For him, “aging” would come with shocking suddenness. He would stretch out his hands and others would gird him and carry him where he did not wish to go. Can you imagine Peter knowing throughout his whole career as a Christian missionary that he was headed for a cross? No wonder he wasn’t daunted by the threats and beatings he received along the way. That was all relatively mild for a man with a cross on his back, headed for his own Jerusalem.
A CALL FOR EVERY STAGE IN LIFE
But the climax of this passage is not in the words about youth and aging or even in the startling prediction about Peter’s future. Here’s the thing to remember most: “And after this he [Jesus] said to him, `Follow me.’” That was the same word, remember, which Peter had heard when he was considerably younger. It was while he and brother Andrew had been working as fishermen, casting their nets by the shore of Galilee. Peter hadn’t known much about Jesus then. He probably couldn’t have explained to you just why he had decided to leave the nets and to throw in his lot with Jesus. There had been something about that man, a kind of majesty in His presence, a light in His face and music in His voice. He spoke as one who had a right to command. And Peter, young, strong, impulsive, warmhearted, had jumped out of that boat and splashed his way to the shore, heart already surrendered to his Master.
Then had come the years on the road, traveling from place to place. Peter had listened, hours without number, to Jesus’ teaching, watched His mighty works, sensed His amazing compassion. He’d seen the stirrings of trouble, felt the rising tide of antagonism against Jesus. And then the terrible days came. Peter had promised to be loyal, pledged himself to follow Jesus even to the death, but in one nightmare evening had denied Him three times. Then had come the helpless horror of watching Him die. Then the dark, dark night of despair. And then the thrilling news of Easter morning, the incredible mercy of being restored, of being able to say again, “You know, Lord, that I love you.” Now Jesus was telling him what was ahead for his life and saying again, “Follow me.”
It would be different now in some ways. Jesus wouldn’t be with them in the flesh as He had been before. It was all new, this indescribable presence of Jesus by the Spirit in the hearts of His followers. But they would still be remembering what He had said, walking in His fellowship, doing His will, serving as His witnesses. Peter was older and wiser. The circumstances were changed, but the call of Jesus was still the same, the call to discipleship, to utter self-giving, to faithful following, going with Jesus all the way.
Isn’t it good to know, friends, that that’s our calling, wherever we are in life? Maybe you are still very young. Oh, what a great time to hear the call of Christ! You’re at the peak of your powers. You have your whole life before you. As someone has said, “What a glorious yoke are youth and grace, Christ and a young man – or a young woman!” This Someone is supremely worthy, your Lord and King who loves you and gave Himself for you. Listen to His call today to follow. Trust Him as your Savior; yield up your whole being to His lordship and make it the high goal of your life to be His person.
Or maybe today you’re in middle years, not young any more but not old either. You’ve had a lot of experience and you still have plenty of energy. These are golden years for you. Give them over to Him. Now is the time when you have most to contribute, the largest opportunity you’ll ever have to serve your generation. Oh, friends, make it the main business of your life to follow after Jesus Christ, listening to His Word, responding to the promptings of His Spirit, living in His fellowship all through your days.
Or maybe for you, it’s later on in life. You aren’t feeling very self- sufficient any more. You need to have other people do things for you. The time has come when you must relinquish a measure of control, have others make the decisions that you’ve always made for yourself before. You don’t feel very useful now. There doesn’t seem to be much you can still do. No one asks for your advice. Is it all over now? Is it just a matter of putting in time until the end? Or does Jesus still say to you, in years of weakness and limitation, “Follow me”?
Oh, believe that He does! And who knows – that latter following may mean most of all to Him. Even though you may be getting hard of hearing, you can still listen to His voice in the Word. Even though your voice isn’t as full and resonant as once it was, you can still call on Him from the heart in your prayers. You can still walk as closely with Him as ever you did – and maybe more so.
Jesus said all this to Peter, remember, to “show by what death he was to glorify God.” That has a strange sound, doesn’t it? Surely Peter would glorify God in his bold preaching, in his dedicated leadership of the church, in feeding Christ’s lambs. But by dying on a cross? There was nothing to that but suffering and shame. Peter wouldn’t be doing anything – simply bearing abuse and torment. But, apparently, friends, we can glorify God not only in our years of active service but also when we only stand and wait, or stoop and suffer. Wherever we are in age and whatever is happening to us, to stay near to Christ and remain loyal to Him is to know the highest success, to live our lives for God’s glory. May it be so for us!