Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” Amen. John 21:19b.
Today we celebrate the feast of our patron, Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist (who, by the way, is almost certainly not the author of the gospel which bears his name, and probably is not the disciple whom Jesus loved – but that is another story; we will celebrate anyway!). The lesson from the Gospel According to John appointed for this celebration is a curious exchange between Jesus and Peter about the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loved. In fact, this scene is the final of four scenes in which Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved appear together. The relationship between these two disciples, and their relationship to Jesus, seems to be an important subtext of this Gospel.
Two things can be noted about this anonymous disciple, which make him very interesting indeed. The first is the very existence at all of an anonymous man identified simply as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In what sense does Jesus love this particular disciple in such a way as to distinguish Jesus’ love of him from his love for the other disciples? Have you ever thought about that? What is the significance of Jesus’ relationship with this disciple? How does it inform our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus?
The second interesting thing about this anonymous disciple is that he is always paired with Peter in the Gospel According to John. It appears that we are meant to interpret the significance of these two disciples and their relationship with Jesus in light of each other. Something important is being communicated about what it means to follow Jesus by the way in which these two disciples are compared and contrasted.
The disciple whom Jesus loved appears in the Gospel According to John, always with Peter, at four critical points in the narrative: at the Last Supper, at the Crucifixion, at the Empty Tomb, and in a post-Resurrection appearance story, part of which we heard this morning. We first find him at the Last Supper, after Jesus announced that one of the disciples would betray him. A literal translation reads as follows:
One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, who is he talking about.” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answers: “It is the one to whom I will give this morsel when I dip it.” So when he dipped the morsel he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. John 13:23-26[i]
We next encounter this anonymous disciple at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and several other women disciples. Peter is notable by his absence, having denied and abandoned Jesus along with the other male disciples. Here we are informed that Jesus, seeing his mother and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, see your son.” Then he says to the disciple, “See your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own [home]. John 19:26-27
After Jesus’ death and burial, Mary the Magdalene first discovers the empty tomb. She runs to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Together, they race to the tomb, but the anonymous disciple arrives first; he peers in but refrains from entering. Peter enters the tomb and observes the burial wrappings separately folded and set aside; but no body. We are not told Peter’s reaction, but Then the other disciple, who had come to the tomb first, also entered and he saw and believed . . .” John 20:9
Finally, after a series of post-Resurrection appearances, we have the last post-Resurrection story in which Jesus appears incognito to a small group of disciples, who are fishing. Interestingly, it is the disciple whom Jesus loved who recognizes Jesus first and says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.” After a miraculous catch of fish, the disciples share breakfast with Jesus on the beach. There follows a long dialogue in which Jesus questions Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter responds affirmatively and is commanded by Jesus, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus then makes an enigmatic prediction of Peter’s martyrdom, concluding with the words, “Follow me.”
Turning, Peter sees the disciple that Jesus loved following them, who also was the one who leaned on Jesus’ chest at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is the one betraying you?” Peter, seeing this one says to Jesus, “Lord, and what of him?” Jesus says to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” John 21:20-22. Notice how this final scene recalls the Last Supper, where we are first introduced to the disciple whom Jesus loved, indicating to us that we should read this last scene as being of a piece with the previous pairings of Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Now, what are we to make of all this? One thing that stands out for me is that not all relationships with Jesus are the same; in fact, each is unique. And it follows from this that what it means to follow Jesus will be somewhat different for each disciple. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved exemplify this in spades.
As Ted Jennings argues persuasively in his book, The Man Jesus Loved, on the basis of the Gospel text the relationship between Jesus and the disciple whom he loved can best be described as one of lovers, a relationship marked by bodily intimacy and singular fidelity. The text indicates, in terms quite familiar to first century readers of the Gospel, that Jesus was the lover of a beloved. This intimacy is clearly conveyed at the Last Supper, where Peter implicitly acknowledges it by assuming that the anonymous disciple knows the identity of Jesus’ betrayer.
It is significant that the disciple, in fact, does not know and has to ask Jesus. Against those who try to sublimate the homoerotic aspect of the text by seeing the anonymous disciple as having an authority rivaling Peter’s, the text emphasizes that his intimacy with Jesus does not translate into any special insider knowledge or status among the disciples. Peter is always “in charge.” The “specialness” of the disciple whom Jesus loved lies elsewhere.
The unique bond of intimacy and fidelity shared by Jesus and the anonymous disciple is reinforced by the fact that he alone among the male disciples does not abandon Jesus, but rather takes his place with the women at the foot of the cross. It is striking that Jesus commends his mother and the anonymous disciple to each other’s care, essentially commanding their mutual adoption. This is particularly striking, because John’s Gospel makes mention repeatedly of Jesus’ brothers, who would normally be responsible for the care of their mother after his death. Against those who would allegorize the disciple whom Jesus loved as a type of Jesus’ love for the Church, Jesus simply instructs his mother to treat him as her son-in-law.
So, we should not be surprised that this disciple whom Jesus loved is the first to believe in the hope of the Resurrection and to recognize Jesus when he appears. And yet, the special nature of Jesus’ love for him, and his fidelity to that love, does not in any way privilege this disciple or obviate Jesus’ love for each and all. In spite of everything, it is Peter, who denied Jesus, who is commissioned to care for the community of Jesus’ disciples. Following Jesus is clearly not a matter of being special or worthy. It is simply a matter of loving Jesus enough to respond to the call, of trusting in Jesus’ love to sustain us in our ministries. Jesus judges us, not according to who we are, but on the basis of who we were created to become.
There will always be those, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, who seem to have an especially intimate relationship with Jesus, who feel his loving presence in their lives in a singularly powerful way; people whose fidelity to that love strikes us as simply astonishing. Consider Teresa of Avila, the great 16th Century mystic and saint who recounts the following vision.
He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire ... In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God.
One almost blushes at the thought of such a relationship with Jesus. If this is chastity, give me poverty! But we should not envy people like Teresa. As the story of the disciple whom Jesus loved reminds us, such intimate experiences are not the basis for any claims of superior discipleship. Such experiences are a gift, given to some but not to others for reasons known to God alone. In her lifetime, Teresa was rather reticent about such experiences (I can imagine why!), and emphasized more the ordinary sense of serenity she cultivated on a daily basis. The anonymity of the disciple whom Jesus loved is itself a reminder that such intimacy should, if anything, instill in us a greater sense of humility.
And there will always be disciples, like Peter, whose authority we recognize, not because they are particularly holy or faithful, but simply because we discern that they are called by Jesus, whose presence among us in the power of the Spirit continues to raise up leaders to care for his disciples. Clearly, Jesus chooses to make use of people whom we would not choose ourselves. Sometimes those people are you and me! We should not envy such people, because they, like Peter, are often called to a very demanding practice of sacrificial love.
Some of us may be notable for the way in which Jesus loves us – with a breathtaking sense of personal intimacy. Some of us may be notable for the way in which we love Jesus – even unto death. Most of us fall somewhere in between. The point is not to get too exercised about where we fall along this spectrum, or too preoccupied with the business of comparison. As Jesus told Peter when he inquired about the anonymous disciples’ fate, “It’s none of your business. Your business is to follow me!” Amen.
[i] The translations from Scripture and their interpretation are taken from Theodore Jennings, the man jesus loved: homoerotic narratives from the new testament (Cleaveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2003).