Letting go

Sermon Starter

Key text: john 21 v 1-19

Making a good ending

This meeting between Jesus and his disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee forms the final act of John’s Gospel. Here Jesus says both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to his followers, and we, as the readers of the Gospel, realise that we too have reached the end of the story. We have read just enough to ‘come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing…may have life in his name.’ (20v31).

Jesus stands on the lake-shore; we can imagine him waving to the fishermen just as he did once before when, according to the synoptic tradition, he called them from their nets. There is bread and fish baking on the fire (v9), and Jesus takes it and gives it to the disciples (v11), just as he had done on a previous memorable occasion (6v11). In his saying goodbye Jesus is returning and re-telling the story of their life together, drawing the threads into a coherent whole full of resonances and interconnections.

The focal point for this going back is the charcoal fire, setting the stage for a reprise of Peter’s threefold betrayal in the courtyard of the High Priest, where, as his hands were being warmed his heart turned cold with fear (18v17-27). We might describe Jesus’ conversation with Peter over the fire with its threefold questioning as a process of reconciliation, followed by Peter’s rehabilitation and re-commissioning. We might also be tempted to use the word ‘forgiveness’. Is Jesus forgiving Peter?

The word forgiveness occurs only once in John’s Gospel (20v23); it’s clearly not a natural part of the writer’s vocabulary. But it is a word that should give us pause for thought, because the Greek aphiēmi, usually translated ‘forgive’, literally means to ‘let [it] go’. In going back to his past betrayal and re-working it through words of love Jesus is offering Peter the chance to let go of it once and for all.

The past is let go of well; it will not return to haunt Peter. It must be so if Peter is to move forward into the next stage of his life and ministry. But we are then shown (v18) that the letting go is not to end here but is to continue into the future. Jesus reminds Peter that when he was young he could essentially do as he liked. He was nobody’s slave (contrary to the popular stereotype of the uneducated impoverished fisherman, he was probably the head of a highly prosperous business); he had strength and vigour. He thus had both liberty (the freedom to do what he wished) and agency (the ability to do it).

Jesus lays out a future in which Peter will have to say goodbye to his liberty. He will end up somewhere he does not wish to go, and what’s more he will not walk there under his own steam as a free and independent human being, but will be taken there like a pet dog on a lead. He will have lost his liberty.

It’s been traditional, and the text invites us to read this as an allusion to Peter’s eventual imprisonment and execution in Rome. But it actually reads more naturally as a broader reflection on old age. Just think, for example, about what it feels like to give up driving and become dependent on public transport, taxis, or lifts from friends. Or to move out of your own place into residential care, even the best appointed sort of residential care. One often hears phrases like, ‘We had to move Mum nearer to us as she wasn’t coping any more.’ or ‘The children moved us to be with them.’ Or – most poignantly, ‘Don’t put me in a home!’ In all of these sentences the older person is the object or potential object of, often well-intentioned, actions of others. One older person remarked to me, ‘I feel like a parcel waiting to be transported by Royal Mail.’

In these examples the loss of liberty that comes with ageing is connected with a perceived loss of agency (the ability to be the captain of one’s life), something that is referred to as ‘capacity’ in legal terms. And this, of course, affects other groups in addition to the elderly, such as those living with chronic health conditions, disabilities, or terminal illness.

All of these people are facing the process of letting go – of moving from doing to being, from knowing to unknowing, from deciding to waiting, from giving to receiving; and most of them are facing it reluctantly and with regret.

Yet, to return to the Gospel, Peter’s calling is to a loss of liberty and agency that mirrors that of his Master’s undergoing of his passion. His calling is to continue to serve and imitate his Lord right up to the end of his earthly life, even in the midst of its rigours and hardships as well as its joys. This is the life-long calling of all Christians. You don’t retire from the life of faith; you keep on, even when what is intrinsic to keeping on is letting go.

This following Christ in letting go is ultimately and paradoxically what brings life from death and invests that life with meaning. John’s Gospel begins with a search for meaning by the disciples (and it assumes a search for meaning on the part of the reader); it ends with an invitation to make meaning by letting go. For Jesus’ first words are ‘What are you looking for?’ (1v38) and his last words are ‘Follow me!’ (21v22). Between these utterances hang heaven and earth.

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