Scripture: John 21:15–19
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
The famous last words of Nathan Hale, demonstrating his patriotism and commitment, before he was hanged by the British.
“I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
These are reportedly the last words of Leonardo da Vinci, showing that even after everything he had created, there was an endless drive to create more, do more, be more.
“Oh Wow! Oh Wow! Oh Wow!”
These are the last words of playful and creative innovator, Steve Jobs, as he prepared for his next big adventure.
In some cases, someone’s last words demonstrate how they lived their lives. They become an extension of who they were throughout their life.
The Gospels paint such a picture of Jesus, as they report the last words that he spoke to his disciples. Of course, like every step of the way, each of the four Gospels paint a little bit different picture of the complicated nature of Christ.
The ending of Mark is complicated, so I am going to take a pass on him, for today.
Matthew provides probably the most famous last words of Jesus: The Great Commission. “Go into all the world and make disciples.” Last words of mission and preaching and baptism and global ministry.
Luke is similar. Of course, his last words of Jesus are actually in Part Two of his Gospel, the Book of Acts. In 1:8, Jesus proclaims that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea, and even to the ends of the earth.” Again, a global hope!
But, like it has been from the beginning, John’s Gospel is much more intimate. Here, in chapter 21, the last words that he speaks are to two of his disciples. The two who stood in the courtyard at his trial. The two who raced to the empty tomb. And now, two of his apostles for whom he has a special words of blessing.
What links together these two blessings is a single word. In Greek: martyria “to bear witness, to give evidence, or to testify.” You will notice a similarity to our English word martyr, and that is not coincidental. We usually associate the word martyr with someone who dies for their faith. But the more complete definition is someone who witnesses to the power of their faith with their entire lives, even including giving their life, if necessary. The fullness of the definition is about someone who witnesses with all of their lives, testifies even in the less dramatic, day-to-day living, where faith usually lives.
The Gospel of John begins in chapter one with this word, about John the Baptist, that he “came as a witness to testify to the Light.” And here at the end of John, Jesus calls both of these two disciples to martyria, to witness to the power of what they have seen in Christ. But again, in John, Jesus has been much more personalized and intimate in the ways that he invites people to a life of faith. Here, he invites them to witness to the light, to the Word made flesh in their midst.
Let’s talk first about the disciple that Jesus loved…who I dubbed DJL on Easter. He has been around throughout John, and I have not talked about the identity of this disciple, for good reason: we really don’t know. Scholars have suggested that maybe it was Nicodemus. Others thought it was Lazarus. There is a tradition that it was John, especially because of this passage here at the end of the Gospel.
24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Most scholars that I have read suggest that this is not a simple collection of stories by a single author, but that there was actually a community of disciples that gathered and created the Gospel of John, as well as the Revelation of John, and the Letters of John. This group, sometimes called the Johannine community, saw it as their goal to take these stories and martyria—bear witness—to the narrative of Christ. They present these writings as creative retellings of the story of Christ and his love.
So what about us? How does this partnership between the Disciple that Jesus Loved and the Johannine community inspire us? Are we meant to write a book of the Bible?
Of course not. But it doesn’t mean that we aren’t meant to use our talents and abilities in similarly creative ways. We, too, can find creative means to bear witness to the light and love of Christ…
- Writers, like DJL and the Johannine Community, like those who have in the past helped write our liturgy, or those who lead it on Sunday mornings.
- Those who have gifts to create physical parts of worship, like Anne Munsterman’s banners or Peggy Ward’s stoles.
- Or choir members! Those who sing in the choir are absolutely using their creative gifts to bear witness to the love and light of Christ!
These are examples of martyria: bearing witness using creative gifts and talents, like the Johannine community, like the Disciple Jesus Loved.
And then we move to the second example of martyria: Peter.
Remember the scene just a few short chapters ago. He stood by a fire, warming himself, in the early morning hours, as Jesus’s trial happened just on the other side of the wall. It was there that he denied Jesus three times…three times to dismantle and destroy any trust that he had in himself, and his perception of the trust that Jesus had for him.
But now, Jesus has come to him, and the others, on the beach, has built a fire in the early morning hours, where Peter and the others warm themselves. And now, Jesus asks him one…two…three times, “Do you love me?” And now, Jesus opens the door for Peter to be redeemed. He isn’t asking Peter these questions because he doesn’t know the answer. And he isn’t asking because he needs proof from Peter. Jesus is asking so that Peter hears himself say it. So that Peter builds a muscle memory of trust, instead of denial. He knew that Peter would need to count on this memory, more than the memory of his denial. In the process, Jesus rebuilds community with Peter and the rest of the disciples, creating again a community of trust and not failure.
Jesus knows that Peter will become an enactment of martyria. He will bear witness to Jesus: at Pentecost, in the Jerusalem Council, throughout the region and beyond, and yes, even in his own death. Peter is a martyria who is also a martyr in the sense that we usually expect. He will die for his faith, bearing witness with his very life. That is the language at the end of the passage, about being led to a place where he does not want to go. Jesus knows the cost of living a life of total commitment, and he knows that Peter will need to have the memory of a three-part affirmation to rely on…not just three-part failure of his denial.
So again, how does this martyria become a way for us to live? How then, will we be like Peter? Will we become martyrs for our faith? Perhaps, but it is more likely that we will reenact his life in a different way. We, too, are invited to “feed my sheep.” To care for each other. To care for the physical, and emotional, and spiritual needs of those within the church, and serve those outside of it.
We, like Peter and the disciples, have found our community disrupted. We, too, have had our worlds turned upside down. Throughout the pandemic, so many things that we have come to count on have been taken away. But the good news for Peter is good news for us, too! For Christ comes to restore our community, as well! Christ comes to us to teach us what it means to live a life of “sheep-tending!” Christ teaches us again what it means to be community together…to be family. Just like Jesus showed up on the beach that morning to restore this “fictive kin-dom” that he had created, he comes to us to restore the Church that he birthed. It means, like Peter, that we will have to learn how to be community again. But it means, like Peter, that Jesus will lead the way.
Which is our final word for today. And is, in fact, Jesus’s final words as well. Did you notice what Jesus’s “famous last words” are here in John?
That is our calling. That is our task. That is our martyria: to bear witness with all of our gifts and all of our lives to the light and life of Christ. We, too, must relearn the muscle memory of service and love. We, too, must relearn what it means to follow. But we, too, have a Master who leads us with hope and purpose. This week, and in all weeks, let us remember Jesus’s last words. Let us live a life of “Follow Me.”