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”What is that to you?”

by Jeremy Marks

20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" 22 Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me."

John 21:20-22 (ANIV)

[NB Traditionally, the "disciple whom Jesus loved" was thought to be John, but this is by no means certain. Scholars have a number of theories as to whom this disciple might have been, if indeed we know his name at all. Consequently, in this article, we shall refer to him simply as "the beloved".]

Jesus did not shrink from giving a very succinct and clear statement as to what our priorities should be when necessary.

In this passage, that comes at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus was helping Peter to repair his relationship with him, after denying him three times at the time of Jesus’ trial (John 18:15-27). No doubt this occasion arose in part out of Jesus’ sensitivity to Peter’s profound need for forgiveness and restoration. So Jesus asked him three times if Peter loved him, giving him the opportunity to specifically revoke all three denials. As Peter affirms three times that he does indeed love him, Jesus restores to Peter the calling he had previously given him: first saying : "Feed my lambs"; then adding, "Take care of my sheep"; and the final time simply saying, "Feed my sheep." (vs 17). No doubt Peter felt very affirmed by Jesus restoring him in this way. He would surely have needed such affirmation, given that Jesus then revealed to him that he too would suffer the way of the Cross—which Peter had so dreaded before. But Jesus explained that in this way he would glorify God, concluding his words by saying, "Follow me!". No doubt Peter felt empowered to face anything, knowing he was following in the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus. Love does tend to have that kind of empowering effect. I find this to be an incredibly moving passage of scripture.

One of the most moving testimonies I’ve ever heard, of the Church operating at its very best, came from Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who spent 14 years in communist prisons being tortured for his faith. I heard him speak in the West in the mid 1970's, after he had been released. He described Christians in prison as, "a Church of shining faces". These Christians had learned to accept their unimaginably awful circumstances under the sovereignty of God. In following Jesus through the way of suffering, they had learned to love their enemies as Jesus did. As if somehow confirming that the way of the Cross subverts the worst of evils, it is interesting to note that Communist governments eventually began to collapse in 1989.

Richard Wurmbrand also brought to our attention the fact that nowhere in the Gospels is there a single instance in which Jesus is asked for forgiveness. He explained that "Forgiveness was written in his eyes". This was because he saw such forgiveness in the eyes of Christians suffering in prison. Peter must have seen such forgiveness in the eyes of Jesus, when he asked if Peter loved him. Asking for forgiveness is unnecessary for those who seek him—because Jesus longs to forgive and restore.

Following his restorative conversation with Jesus, Peter then noticed that "the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them". Could it be that he was tempted to feel in some way diminished by the fact of Jesus’ distinctive love for another disciple—about whom we only know one certain fact—that he was "The beloved"? Peter had just been affirming his own love for Jesus. Curiosity got the better of him, so Peter asked, "Lord, what about him?" To which Jesus basically told him to mind his own business—"What is that to you? You must follow me."

Jesus’ response, "Feed my sheep", repeated twice, did not imply in any way that Peter was being given a privileged position; certainly he was not given authority to exercise control over others. Jesus has a unique relationship with each of us. So Peter was not even invited to be "in the know" as to what God’s plan was going to be for other disciples. The one thing that really concerns Jesus is made clear—"You must follow me". This is where our focus must be.

"Follow me", is the most oft-repeated command of Jesus in all the Gospels. Perhaps this is the one thing we really need to remember, because following in the way of Jesus means living a life of humility—expressed in love, acceptance, forgiveness and the service of others. Whatever individual gifting we may have to offer the Church, the clear calling we all have in common will profoundly challenge our attitudes to God and to one another. Whoever we are, our role is never going to be about exercising control over the lives of other. Not even for Peter. Whereas we will all have to take responsibility for our own attitudes as well as our actions.

If we practise the presence of God, we see that this command is really very simple. A child would understand. The Bible is so full of reminders too: such as Micah 6:8

"He has showed you, O man, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God."

How is it that we so easily forget?

The greatest temptation is always to pursue our personal autonomy. We love to be "in the know" because knowledge brings us power in this world. Peter was only acting like a fallen human being as we do, when he wanted to know what was going to happen to the beloved disciple. That inappropriate curiosity "to know" was the classic temptation at the time of "The Fall" in Genesis 3. Pursuit of that kind of knowledge is the true nature of all sin: we want to be in the know; we want to be in control! If you doubt me, just pick up any newspaper or switch on any radio or TV news broadcast and listen to the headlines. Why is it that reporters investigate and report their stories in the way that they do? They set out to satiate our lust for knowledge, especially about anything sensational, attention-grabbing or scandalous. Why do we listen to them? Are we edified or drawn into the presence of God by them?

The truth is, we just don’t like to surrender ourselves to the sovereignty of God. The consequence is that we all fall short of the glory of God. And, as if trying to be in control of our own destiny is not enough, we often want to control the lives of others too, if only by imposing our opinions—which can put people into great bondage, as gay Christians (and many others) know only too well.

If we remembered these things, or more to the point, if we just determined to follow Jesus’ simple instruction to follow him, (because remembering is not actually all that difficult), the Church today would be such a different place. The Church would have an entirely different atmosphere; an entirely different perspective. We would be "a Church of shining faces", welcoming all, whether enemies or friends—like the persecuted Church. All people who recognise their need of God would want to join. Nobody likes false piety or burdensome rules or religious hypocrisy. But there is something so inviting about being with humble people who love, accept and are willing to forgive one another, as Jesus demonstrated to Peter. No wonder thousands followed Jesus for days at a time, without even thinking about what they were going to have to eat! (Matthew 14, 15, 16; Mark 8; John 6).

We don’t need to know the destiny of our brothers and sisters in God’s eternal perspective. It is privilege enough to have the opportunity to serve one another and help them on the way.

John’s account of Jesus and his beloved disciple is particularly affirming for gay people, because although the arguments against gay relationships (from so many of our opponents) tend to be focussed on the practice of a certain kind of genital activity, the essential issue is about love. People just don’t like hearing men (especially) talking about their love for another man. Incidentally, I am not attempting for a moment to suggest that Jesus and/or his beloved were gay. Apart from the needless offense that might cause, I believe such a suggestion can never be more than idle speculation since we have no evidence. Besides, conceptually I doubt if we can imagine (with any hope of accuracy) how Jesus’ contemporaries would interpret a relationship like this: for a start we are looking into a world where there was no equality between men and women (women were just chattels—with no equality in relationships as expected today), so deep same-sex relationships would have had quite a different social significance. But I see from this passage that, beyond doubt, Jesus knew what it meant to love another man—to the extent that it was noticed by others around. Jesus’ love for this man was commented on by his disciples, a fact considered significant enough to be recorded for future generations. That is encouraging for gay people.

However, although homosexuality (in whatever way that was understood in those days) was possibly even more obnoxious to Jewish society in Jesus’ day than it is to some members of the Church now, not even Jesus’ worst enemies tried to discredit him for being known to love another man! The Pharisees would hardly have passed up such a perfect opportunity to accuse Jesus of "lying with a man as with a woman"; if there had been the slightest suspicion, they’d have stoned him to death! The lack of criticism of Jesus and his beloved is very reassuring, because it means that the integrity of their relationship was beyond doubt. It raised comment because it was unusual to see true love of this kind.

For all the modern emphasis that evangelical Christians place on adherence to the Bible as the Word of God, Jesus’ relationship with his beloved makes decidedly uncomfortable reading for many straight traditional-thinking evangelical Christians. The association of ideas is not a happy one. One never hears a Christian today speak of a man enjoying a same-sex friendship described in terms of the relationship between Jesus and his "beloved"—not even amongst the most devout of modern disciples. Does it not seems odd that for a man to be noticed as loving another man in this way has become a taboo subject in the Church, except amongst gay Christians? People are afraid, lest they are thought of as gay or that they may be vicariously "approving" some sort of sin! Clearly this was not a potential accusation that worried Jesus! Yet nobody shrinks from eulogising about romantic heterosexual love, out of fear that they might be suspected as potential fornicators or adulterers!

What do anti-gay polemicists have to offer us gay Christians? Their arguments come down to something like this: "Jesus is allowed to love another man because he is pure; you are not allowed to love another man because homosexuality is "intrinsically evil" and homosexual acts "objectively disordered" (to cite Roger Wilson, a Roman Catholic author, for example), so you must be celibate. So, are heterosexual acts by definition intrinsically "ordered"? Social trends towards marital breakdown and divorce, even in Christian communities, not to mention pre-marital heterosexual sex, suggests that it is our heart motivation that determines whether our relationships are intrinsically moral or immoral, not just certain sexual acts.

Who really has the problem here? Whatever could it be that God wants us to learn from Jesus’ example in this? Perhaps in a community of God’s people where there is a willingness to learn from one another, those of us who are gay might be permitted to offer a perspective on this?

In the meantime, whilst ignorance rules, studying these scriptures has shown me that I can be content to be a follower of Jesus and not care two hoots whether others think it is OK to be gay and Christian or not. All I have to do is follow Jesus—and, in humility, learn to love as Jesus loved. This is sufficient.

And to anyone who feels this is not sufficient, Jesus would surely say, "What is that to you? You follow me."

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