For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter. Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.
A story is told about a businessman who ended up seated on a plane next to Albert Einstein.
A few minutes into the flight, Einstein proposed a game. “l will ask you a question, and if you can’t answer it, you pay me fifty dollars. Then you ask me a question, and if I can’t answer it, I will pay you five hundred dollars.” The businessman knew he couldn’t hold a candle to Einstein’s intellect. But he figured he could at least come up with a few vexing questions – and at 10-1 odds, he could probably stay in the game. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Einstein went first. “How far is the Earth from the sun?” The businessman had no clue. He reached into his pocket and handed over fifty dollars.
Then it was his turn. He asked, “What goes up the mountain on three legs but comes back down on four?” Einstein thought for a moment, then admitted he was stumped. He reached into his wallet and produced five hundred dollars. “Before I ask you my next question,” he said to the businessman, “what does go up the mountain on three legs but comes back down on four?” The businessman thought for a moment, shrugged, then reached into his pocket and gave Einstein fifty dollars.
Unanswerable questions fall into several categories. There are those that are designed to trip someone up, like the one posed by the businessman. He couldn’t answer it himself. Then there are those that can’t be answered because they defy logic, like the famous Zen Buddhist koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Then there are the questions concerning which God clearly has the answers, but which he is unlikely to share with any of us.
At the end of the Gospel of John, Peter asks Jesus just such a question. He wants to know God’s plan for someone else’s life.
Sorry, Peter. You don’t get to know anyone else’s story but your own.
To be fair to Peter, he has just heard some unsettling news concerning his own future. “I tell you the truth,” says Jesus in verse 18, “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.”
Modern readers may say, “Oh, I recognize that. It’s called assisted living. My kids keep trying to move me into a retirement home.”
In Bible times, the words had a more ominous ring. John explains, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” Later in life, Peter will find himself at the mercy of people who will lead him to martyrdom.
All too often, the Christian life is “sold” on the premise that if you simply trust in Christ, you get your ticket stamped for the happiest of all destinations: eternal life in the presence of God. What isn’t preached nearly as loudly, however, is that the pathway that takes us to heaven – also known as the Jesus-following life – will sometimes take us to places where we would rather not go. We will have to let go of possessions that we would much prefer to keep. From time to time we’ll be called to surrender relationships that we can’t imagine living without.
For Peter and for all of us, it’s a lot to take in.
So he changes the subject. Turning around and noticing that the disciple John is just a few steps away, he asks Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:20-22).
It’s easy to become fascinated with the lives of other people. They may appear to be enjoying an amazingly happy existence, with more luck or less suffering or better DNA or a nicer spouse or greater blessings or a more spectacular Facebook page. Our feelings about them may swing wildly from appreciation to envy to flat-out judgment.
No wonder Jesus tells us to look away and look instead at him.
It is not our call to know anybody else’s story. Truth be told, most of the time we will hardly understand the broad outlines of the story that God is writing for each of us.
But one thing will always remain the same. Jesus says, “Follow me.”
Those are the words Peter heard when he was first called. Now they are the words he hears at his recommissioning.
It’s so tempting to look ahead and try to imagine the future, or to look around to see what everyone else is doing.
But Jesus reminds us what it means to pay attention in the kingdom of God:
“Just keep your eyes on Me.”