John 21:20-23 v. 23 “So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die…”
A few weeks ago, Thelma Tillman came in to the church and told us that her son had died, and that we would need to prepare a memorial service for him for what turned out to be yesterday, April 10. Then, last weekend, Eltee Tisdale passed away after battling Alzheimer’s and diabetes for years, and we had his funeral on Friday, April 9. Last Sunday, during Easter services in California at my brother’s church, my uncle Elias and Tia Rachel were summoned out of worship because the doctors had told my cousin Moe that his wife was at death’s door. And she finally succumbed on Friday morning while I was preaching for Eltee’s funeral. Last Tuesday, my good friend, Bruce Hawkins, called me and said that he needed me to preach a funeral at his parlor for a family that had no church home. And he calls me a few times a year to help out like that because he knows I love the opportunity to preach Jesus to people. And that funeral was Thursday. Thus, in the aftermath of the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, I preached at three funerals and mourned the loss of a beloved cousin and friend. I don’t know about you, but Easter was supposed to be a season of new life, and instead people have kept on dying anyway.
A lot of us suffer in life on top of the tragic events and terminal diseases and relational heartbreaks, but added to that from the misunderstood expectations. Sometimes, knowing what to expect makes all the difference in the world in how we handle ourselves in a less than desirable set of circumstances. And sometimes, there is not a thing in the world you can do to prepare for it; you just have to live life sometimes, prepare the best you can, and be flexible when things are not quite the way we thought they would be. It’s a quality in life that I’ve had instilled in me from my days as a Pentecostal preacher, when you never know when the pastor might tap you on the shoulder and say, “the guest preacher can’t make it; you’re preaching in 45 minutes.” I used to never leave home for church without some kind of outline of a sermon that I could preach. Now, since I’m the pastor with a stable full of associates, I figure if something goes wrong I’ll just tap one of them on the shoulder. “You’re it!”
But some things, you just can’t prepare for no matter how you try. I tried to talk to my children about how to ride a bike, told them to balance themselves, told them to pedal one foot in front of the other, told them to steer the handle bars straight, told them to wear a helmet. But when they each got on their bikes with out the training wheels to support them, all kinds of thoughts ran through their minds and there was really no way of telling them what it would feel like to balance themselves, how to do it. The English language failed me, and for that matter so did the Spanish curse words I know. But they each eventually got up on their bikes and pedaled and maintained balance, figured it out how they were going to go forward without falling, kept on pedaling and kept on going. And all I could do was cheer them on. I could prepare them best I could for what to expect, but some things, you just have to go through.
A case in point is on display in the aftermath of the resurrection of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. He arose the victor from the dark domain, the song says, emerged with the keys to death, hell and the grave, some say. He walked through the walls into the upper room, he was whisked away from the Emmaus Road after they recognized him praying over a meal there. They were able to put their fingers in the holes of his hands and their hands in the open piercings of his side. Amazing stuff, no?
But what did that mean for his followers? What were they to expect in terms of their own ability to circumvent death in this manner? He had said that he that believeth in me shall never die. What did that mean in the light of his resurrection from the dead? Were they to never die? And what about Jesus’ promised return. There was this rumor of a story that Jesus had told John that he would never die, that he would remain until I come, the rumor went. Did that mean that Jesus would return in the span of one lifetime? What were they to expect concerning death in the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus?
And to make matters more indefinable, this was a group that had previously misunderstood what to expect about Jesus on a prior occasion. They thought he was the one to redeem Israel, thought he was going to throw off the yolk of Roman oppression and liberate the Jewish nation from foreign occupation. And when he was arrested in Gethsemane, convicted before Pontius Pilate, and crucified on Calvary, all them expectations went out the window. But when he arose, all sorts of new thoughts went through their minds, none of which were clear thoughts about what to expect concerning Jesus, concerning Jesus’ second coming, and concerning their own death and resurrection. It was all quite vexing.
Apparently, based on the writings of Paul who addressed this issue on more than a few occasions in his writings to the churches of Corinth and Thessalonica and even to Timothy, the early church had an expectation based on Jesus’ resurrection that they might not die at all, that Jesus would come for them as he had stated in John 14, “if I go away, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” So they must have interpreted that statement of Jesus combined with his other statement from John 11 spoken to Mary, “he that believeth in me shall never die,” plus the actual physical resurrection of Jesus himself from the dead, all that led them to expect that they would never die.
The difficulty began when one by one, folks began to die, as folks are prone to do. That’s the thing about human flesh: it tends to wear out, whether before or after the warranty. The confusion in the first century church was rampant, which was why Paul had to write repeatedly about those who sleep, or who have died. It’s also the context that provides impetus to a particular understanding about this 21st chapter of John and how and why it may have come to be. The theory among many Christian scholars is that the last chapter of John’s gospel was a later addition to rest of the book itself, and there are very good reasons behind this theory, none of which, I want to insist, makes the bible any more or less God’s word. But if you read the last two verses of the 20th chapter, it reads like a concluding statement to a gospel, or a testimony at the very least. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Sounds like he’s ready to open the doors of the church to me. There are other more technical reasons such as the lateness of the text, near the end of the first century, and the unlikelihood in the minds of some that John would have been alive at the time of the writing. Raymond Brown, one of the best scholar’s of the past century on this gospel, wrote some well-researched support for it actually being John who wrote it. Yet even he looks at the 21st chapter and finds reason for considering this to be a later addition, and here’s the scenario that makes him think so:
He imagines that John was in Ephesus preaching and growing a church in the latter decades of the 1st century, and that the church there had the same anxieties about Christians dying prior to the second coming of the Lord. But here was one of the original 12 disciples, perhaps the Beloved Disciple of whom he wrote of himself in his gospel, and he was living a very long time. And then there was this story that John was telling his congregation of his experience with Jesus that the Lord had said of him when speaking to Peter after the resurrection, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The first century church may have been clinging to this thought, that as all the other saints were dying before the second coming of Jesus, some as martyrs for preaching that Jesus rose from the dead, others from natural causes, but maybe it was all on this one disciple, John, who was outliving them all. Maybe it was only about him, that Jesus would return before John died. The possible scenario that Raymond Brown posits is that after writing his gospel to its conclusion in chapter 20 and verse 31, that John, too, died. Perhaps panic set in amongst the early Christians now, not knowing what to make of not only all the saints of the church dying prior to the second coming of Jesus, but even John dying. Confusion must have been rampant. What are we to believe now? What are we to do now? Christians die just like sinners even after the resurrection of Jesus. Christians suffer just like others even after the resurrection. Christians go through trials and heartaches and misery and anguish just like those who aren’t Christians. What now? What do we do now?
Raymond Brown’s theory is that the community of believers in Ephesus had been taught for decades by John not that Jesus said, “he will remain until I come,” but that Jesus said to Peter, “If it is my will that he remain.” Thus, the community of believers in Ephesus felt this story of John’s had to be added to the compilation of the other 20 chapters about Jesus that John had communicated over the years so that the early church would be comforted, would be calmed from their confusion and their added pain of dealing with a theological expectation that just had no basis in being a promise of God. And deducing from how often Paul wrote about this subject, and how John wrote about it in the epistles and likely in the Revelation, the first century church must have had itself one huge crisis of faith on its hands when even the last disciple, the beloved disciple, had died and Jesus still had not come back.
Let me see if I can apply any of this to our modern 21st century church. Every now and then, I come across some folks who have experienced Jesus Christ in their lives, who have been raised to walk in the newness of life with Jesus, who have become new creations in Christ, old things passed away and all things are new. But when the first sign of trouble comes, when the first sign of the old life, the same old problems, the same old bills, the same old hangups and temptations, the same old trials come their way, 21st century saints have trouble understanding what’s going on, just like 1st century saints did. When we’ve been reborn, renewed, revived by the resurrected savior of our souls, Jesus Christ, and then death comes knocking on our door anyway, heartache comes knocking on our door anyway, terminal diseases and untimely death and loss of jobs and inability to pay our bills comes our way anyway, 21st century Christians sometimes don’t expect that. Sometimes we don’t expect that a God who can do anything but fail, a God who can raise up Lazarus from the dead, a God who can heal lepers and unstop deaf ears and make the lame to walk, a God who himself arose from the dead with all power in his hands, we don’t expect a God like that to be either incapable of nor unwilling to prevent such tragedies from happening in life.
I’ve been to many a wedding, seen many a blushing bride, seen their hopes and expectations on their faces in the form of smiles and glittering eyes and longing glances. And I’ve also been in that office with those same couples, wondering why it’s so tough, why he won’t act right, why she won’t act right. Heck, I’ve been there myself. I was counseling a couple recently and I was going over these types of expectations, and how every couple argues and disagrees and conflicts. And they asked me how soon after my wedding did me and my wife start having arguments. And I told them, soon as we finished marching up the aisle out the church…
Listen, what I want to communicate here today to you is that just because you serve a risen savior, just because you have Christ in your heart, just because you have seen his healing power at work in your life and lord knows I’ve seen him at work in mine, seen him move in your life, seen him make you a new creation in him, doesn’t mean that we still won’t hurt. It doesn’t mean we still won’t cry. Doesn’t mean we still won’t die. And if we expect to stop being human just because we serve a risen savior, we’re setting ourselves up for even greater disappointment than would already be accompanying life’s difficulties as it is. And even if I tell you what we can expect as Christians, that we’re still going to hurt, that we’re still going to have to sigh, still have to cry, still have to die, I want you to know that it’s still going to be hard even knowing that it’s coming up.
So what are we supposed to do? What encouragement is there from the Lord concerning our humanity in the face of his resurrection? Why did the first century believers include this story in the gospel account of John, and why did the early church fathers insist that it be included in the canon of scripture for 21st century Christians to read? What are we supposed to do when we believe in a resurrected Jesus and death keeps surrounding us? What do we do when we serve a risen savior and we keep on going through the valley and the shadow of death? What do we do when we fail to comprehend properly what to expect in the Christian life, what to expect concerning death, what to expect concerning following Jesus through the storms of life?
Well, I’m going to have to go back to the little story of teaching children how to ride a bicycle. For no matter what I taught them, they were still going to have to go through it for themselves. But when they got up pedaling, got moving forward, and the excitement of being upright on a two wheeler was setting in and like Peter they began to look to the left and to the right and worry about how they’re going to stay up, the only encouragement I could muster was, “keep pedaling!”
Oh, my sisters and my brothers, keep pedaling! Keep believing in Jesus Christ. Even in sorrow, keep pedaling. Even when you don’t understand, keep pedaling. When it hurts so much, when you feel like God’s not listening, keep pedaling. Keep pedaling! Keep believing in Jesus Christ.
And if I can encourage you a little as you try to keep pedaling for Jesus: The facts are still that Jesus got up from the grave. The facts are still that he did emerge victorious from the grave. The facts are that he did rise again. Death couldn’t hold him down. Roman guards couldn’t hold him down. Conspiracies to silence his message couldn’t hold him down. Nothing could hold him down.
Paul wrote it this way, “I do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters about those who have died so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Thing is, we still have hope because Jesus did conquer the grave. I may not understand what’s supposed to happen to the Christian life as we live it here. But I’m going to keep pedaling because I have a hope in Jesus. I may not have all the answers as to death, suffering and sorrow, but I’m going to keep pedaling because I have hope in Jesus. I’m going to keep preaching Jesus. I’m going to keep singing about Jesus. I’m going to tell the world about how marvelous my savior is.