The lectionary Gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago — for the Sunday I was to lead worship — was John 21, about Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias. I’ve always loved this story, with its many sensory details, fascinating dialogue, and even bits of comedy. And, of course, the notion of breakfast with the risen Lord. So, in preparing for the Sunday ahead, I was enjoying this text, from the fishing scenes through the meal through the three-time “Do you love me” question to Peter and on into
Truly, truly, I say to you,
when you were younger,
you used to gird yourself,
and walk wherever you wished;
but when you grow old,
you will stretch out your hands,
and somebody else will gird you,
and bring you where you do not wish to go.
And continuing on to
Now this he said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Which brought me up short.
First of all, what’s this talk about death, when this is a story of resurrection? Everything here, from a net teeming with fish to the aroma of a charcoal fire, brims with life. Miracles and love are once again in full display, and now this reminder (for them, and us) of dying?
But also: by what kind of death he would glorify God? Tradition says Peter also died by crucifixion, and commentators link Jesus’ proverb-like description to that. (I also see, for the first time, via a commentator’s note, a reason for the detail earlier in the story about Peter pulling on his outer garment and jumping into the water to stride to shore — an indication that he was still a man quite capable of dressing himself, and a man who walked where he wished.)
But whatever it meant for Peter, the description sounds much too much like my father’s death, like his last years, that once strong and independent man now reduced to the most adject helplessness, being taken everyday where he wished not to go. It also sounds like the place a favourite aunt has reached, dependent in a hospital bed and her once gentle personality drastically altered.
This kind of dying doesn’t connect for me — not logically at least — with “glorify God.” Dad’s moment of death had beauty, yes, and relief, but what about the years of dying before it, locked away from us and from his own memories, in some prison we couldn’t penetrate, which seemed to give no glory at all, not to himself or his Creator?
And yet these words jumped out at me, and I knew if a demeaning death and giving glory to God were combined here for Peter, that somehow the combination could be seized, and trusted, for my father’s death, and my unknown one as well. I’ve asked God, I’ll confess, for certain privileges, like a clear mind to the end, and a ripe old age, but not too ripe, though long enough to finish up all my projects, of course, and it would also be nice to have enough notice to get my house in order (six weeks?), and a scene out of one of those pious old novels would be a bonus — you know the one with the family round the bedside, sweet final blessings, and songs… Who wants to be killed by a bus, or transition through the long bleak tunnel of Alzheimer’s?
No one. But we don’t get to choose, and until it’s indicated by what kind of death we will glorify God, we’ve got this, an invitation to whatever it may be: “Follow me.”