Feast of St John the Russian of Evia
JESUS SAID to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.)
Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper . . . When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’” —John 21.18-22
The temptation to look at others, as opposed to our own—whether to note what they get to do, what they have, or the charmed life they seem to lead—is as normal and as deadly as any sin there is. To our modern eyes it might seem that St. John has been given the better, easier path. After all, St. Peter has been shown that his life will end in martyrdom. Why does John get off so easy?
Blessed Theophylact, the eleventh-century Bishop of Bulgaria, is a great help here. He turns our thinking about this question upside down. Peter is not looking at John’s prospects of a natural death with longing, but quite the opposite. Shepherding the flock and making the ultimate sacrifice as a martyr for the Lord was considered a great privilege, one he wanted his dearest friend and companion to share with him. So he didn’t envy his friend’s position but was saddened by it. When was the last time we thought of suffering or martyrdom as a privilege?
Nor did St. Peter want to be separated from St. John, with whom he had a great bond of love. The first four apostles, two sets of brothers, must have been exceedingly close, having been together through Jesus’ mission, death and Resurrection. How hard it must have been to contemplate the break up of the fellowship that was such a gift to each. How difficult for each to break away from the group instead of remaining in the comfort of companionship.
Yet, as Blessed Theophylact says, “When the apostles were entrusted with the great work of preaching the Gospel, their time together was at an end. Each was required to depart to the country appointed him.” Each was required to walk the unique path set out for him. This leads us back to the striking aspect of this passage.
Comparisons are among the most crippling habits of humankind. It is not for us to investigate the life God may have planned for anyone else, no matter how close they are to us. Our tendency to worry about whether our path is higher or lower, easier or more difficult, more or less valued or less popular than someone else’s, or requires more or less sacrifice, or any number of differences, is contrary to the Lord’s command. According to Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Lord’s word to Peter is to pay attention to what is yours. Take care of your work and follow me. Good and liberating advice for us all.
Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.