No Comparison

Delivered July 1, 2001 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper.
Theme: We should not compare God’s call on our life to others. We simply need to follow.

Sermon Text:
John 21:18-23

On one of my trips to Mexico I remember going shopping for authentic Mexican clothes to bring home as gifts. The tourist stores were full of Mexican clothing, but I thought that if I went to where the Mexicans shopped, I could find the real thing. But when I got there, all I found was American clothing. It seems that we are always trying to be like other folks, always comparing ourselves to other people, or wanting to be like them.

I remember hearing about when Madonna – the singer, not the original – showed up as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson – yes, it was that long ago – and the next day, within 24 hours of the appearance, the reports in the newspaper were that all the sweatshirts that looked like the one that Madonna wore, were sold out of stores across the nation. Thousands and thousands of girls wanted to look like Madonna.

Of course, none of us are really immune to the comparison thing, are we? When we are young we want to look older and wiser and to be respected – we wish we were older. And then when we get older we wish we looked younger, felt younger – we wish we were younger. We are always looking at the other side and thinking, “wouldn’t it be better.” Those of us with straight hair, get perms to make it curly. Those of us with hair that is too curly often go to the hairdresser to have them straighten out, or relaxed, as they say. We are always looking to make ourselves into something else, so that we are sometimes more like everybody else, and at other times less like them. That is a trait common to all humanity. We compare ourselves with other people. We are continually focusing on them and often making our choices based on what we see in other people.

And we find that in the Bible as well. In fact, this morning we are going to look at Peter again, like we did last week. We will look at the next few verses and see how Peter got into trouble because he focused on someone else, rather than himself, or even more importantly, rather than focusing on Jesus Christ.

Please turn with me to John, Chapter 21, starting at verse 18 and going through verse 23. You can find this on page 770 of your red pew Bibles. Hear the Word of the Lord.

Jesus said to Peter, “I tell you the truth. When you were younger you dressed yourself and went were 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.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me.” Peter turned and he saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him he asked the Lord, “What about him?” And Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, rumors spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die, but Jesus did not say he wouldn’t die, he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of his Holy Word. Please join me as we pray.

Lord we thank you for these words of scripture that you have given to us through the Apostle John. And we pray now that you would give us wisdom as we look at these words. Lord, that by your Holy Spirit we would understand what you desire to say to us; that you would mold us and change us, that we might be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. For it’s in his name that we pray. Amen.

There are several things that we can learn this morning from Peter and his experience about how we can overcome our temptation to constantly look at others, to focus on them and often make decisions based on who they are, rather than who we are. In the first couple verses – and if you remember from last week – Jesus predicted how Peter would die in a way that would glorify God. It was the conclusion to Jesus restoring Peter to full fellowship with Jesus Christ, as well as restoring him to leadership in the church. Jesus had allowed Peter to make three public declarations before the other disciples – even as he had made three public denials of Christ before his death – and now it seems that Jesus is calling Peter to follow him, to have a conversation with him away from the other disciples.

As Peter and Jesus are walking away, Peter does something that he really shouldn’t have. Rather than focusing his attention on Jesus, who has called him, and really following Jesus, he turns around and looks at the other disciples. We don’t know why. Was he looking back with a smug expression, saying, “Ha, Ha. I get to talk with Jesus,” was he hoping to gauge their reactions? What was he thinking? We’re not sure, but what we do know is that rather than focusing on Christ, he focuses on the other disciples. In so doing, he sees John beginning to follow and he asks Jesus a question. “Lord, you know you’ve told me about my future, you have restored me to leadership, but what about him?” Peter opens his mouth (as he is prone to do) and gets in trouble (as he is prone to do when he does open his mouth) and he is rebuked by Jesus.

You see, the problem was that Peter took his eyes off Jesus. You would think that Peter would have learned from his past mistakes. You might remember one other time when he took his eyes off of Jesus and got into trouble. It was in Matthew 14, when Jesus was walking on the water at night, during a storm, and came to the disciples, who were in a boat. He called Peter to walk out toward him – because of course, Peter asked him to do that. And he got out of the boat and he began to walk on the water towards Jesus. And as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, he was fine. But it says that he began to look around him at the wind – the storm, the waves, the water – and what happened? … He began to sink. As soon as he put his attention back on Jesus Christ, and cried out, “Lord, save me!” the Lord reach out for him and helped him get back to the boat where he was fine. Whenever Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus, he gets in trouble. And the same is true for you and for me.

How many of you were in little league? I remember one particular rule from my days in little league, drilled into us by the coach: “When you are running the bases, don’t look for the ball. Look at the base coach. He will tell you whether to run or not. If you are looking for the ball you are not going to be focused on running, you’re going to be trying to figure out what’s going on and pretty soon you are going to be out. Keep your eye on the base coach. He will tell you when to run.” We need to keep our eye on Jesus, he will tell us when it’s safe to run. He will let us know the direction we are to go.

Well, Peter didn’t follow this advice. He looked back, he saw John, and asked about him. You notice what Jesus says? He says, “What is that to you?” In other words, “Don’t worry about him. Don’t worry about anyone else.” We’re not sure exactly why Peter asked the question. Was his thought, “Lord, do I have to suffer alone? I mean you just predicted that I would have to suffer for Christ – be persecuted. Will John be at my side?” I don’t know that he understood that it meant crucifixion, but he knew that he was in for a long life, and a life with suffering. Maybe he was saying, “What about him? Does he get an easy life, or must he suffer too? Or is it just me?” Or maybe now that Jesus had restored Peter to leadership, maybe he saying, “What about him? Is he a leader too?” Maybe he is even thinking, “John is my good friend. Now that I have learned about my future, maybe I can get Jesus to say something about John’s future that I can share with him as an encouragement.” The point is that we’re not sure what Peter meant, and it is ultimately not important. Even if we assume the best of intentions, Peter’s focus was still misguided. The problem was that rather than focusing on Jesus’ call to follow, he was trying to get in to other peoples business – which was, once again, something that he was prone to do.

We learned last week that Peter had essentially declared that he loved Jesus more than any of the other disciples – comparing himself to them right up to the time where he failed. And remember the last supper? In fact, verse 20, refers us to this incident. It has in parentheses, that the disciple whom Jesus loved was the one who leaned backed against Jesus at the last supper and asked, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” Which reminds us, “Why did John ask that question?” It was because Peter was sitting next to him and said, “Hey John, ask Jesus who is going to betray him?” Peter was always wanting to know about other people. And what happens immediately after that? If you remember your scripture, it says that an argument arose as to which of the disciples was the greatest. And I bet you that Peter was right in there, maybe even starting it.

The disciples had the same problem that you and I have: comparing ourselves to other people – focusing on others around us, rather than focusing on Christ. In fact, I would dare say that many of us probably spend more time analyzing the lives of other people, than we do our own lives – thinking, “You know, they ought to do this, rather than that.” In fact, isn’t it much easier to analyze somebody else’s life? Isn’t it so much easier to figure out what they are supposed to do, rather than what we are supposed to do? And at church, those comparisons generally lead to one of two things. “Oh, I am far more spiritual than they are.” Or “Why can’t I be like them?” But the problem is, whenever we focus on other people, rather than Jesus Christ, it prevents us from understanding who God has made us to be and what he has called us to do. So the first thing we need to learn from Peter’s experience is to keep our eyes focused on Jesus.

The second thing we can learn is that God has made each of us to be different. Jesus says, “If I want John to remain alive until I return, What is that to you?” That word “want” is really a very weak word. The Greek word is qevlw (thelo), which most often means “I will, I purpose” it to be. He is saying, “If I will for John to do this, what should you care? I have something different for him, than I have for you.” Now these words should be an encouragement to us, because it tells us that Jesus is the one who is the Lord of history. He wills to put us in to the places where we are. He is the one whose wills that we should be who we are. And he has designed us, very specifically, to be different, to be unique. Peter died early by crucifixion. John we know, was the only one of the twelve disciples to die a natural death at a ripe old age – somewhere around the turn of the century. Peter continued to be an upfront leader in the church, whereas John was not as visible a leader of the Jerusalem church. In fact, when he was a leader of the Ephesian church late in his life, the stories were that his leadership wasn’t the up front, in your face kind, he was more a kindler, gentler disciple, who talked about love all the time and encouraged the disciples to love one another more fully and deeply. Peter preached a lot around the world, but John wrote a gospel that has now been read and heard by far more people than Peter ever preached to. Two disciples of Jesus Christ who lived together for three years, were bonded together, who even before Jesus called them, used to fish together. Two disciples who were two very different people, with very different destinies and very different calls, because God had designed them differently.

This should raise several questions for us: “How has God designed you? What kind of a past and a present do you have that God desires to use to make a new future? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are the gifts that God has given you? What are the situations where he has placed you and how does God want to use those for his glory, for his service – to allow you the greatest significance in this life that you can imagine? As long as we focus on other people, and what they are doing, and how we compare to them, and how we want to be like them or not be like them, we will miss who God has made us to be.

One of the new ministries here at Central, is the AiM, the Assimilation and Mobilization Ministry. It seeks to help people to understand their design, to give them tools to find their place in the body of Christ and in God’s ministry to the world. In fact, there is even a newly developed class called “Exploring your Spiritual Design.” It is meant to help you ask these very questions, and to begin to think through these issues. “Who has God designed me to be?” And “What practical difference does that make?” “How can I find my greatest significance in this world, through knowing who God has designed me to be, and how he wants to use me for maximum effect?”

The truth is that we are not going to find the answers as long as we are focusing on other people, or living by their agendas. Bob Buford, in his book, “Game Plan,” says that very often in the first half of life we live according to somebody else’s agenda. The shift we need to make is to begin to live, not by other people’s agenda’s, but by our own agenda. More specifically, the agenda that God has given to us. But many people just continue to live according to the agenda of others.

Who has God designed you to be? Me to be? What is his call on our lives? The final thing that Jesus says to Peter is, “You follow me!” Now the word “you” is emphatic, it is stressed in the original language. You see in Greek you don’t need to use the actual word “you,” because the verb is inflected in such a way that you know it means “you follow.” It has an ending that tells us the verb refers to “you,” the second person. But here is says, “‘You,’ you follow me.” Jesus is trying to emphasize to Peter that he is to stop worrying about anybody else. He says, “Stop following any crowd that you might see around you, don’t follow any other agenda that you find in the world. Follow me. I have called you, I have designed you. I will your life to be thus. You need to live in harmony with my design and my call!”

Easier said than done now, isn’t it? How is it that we keep our focus on Christ? Well, the very first step in keeping our focus on Christ is knowing how much God loves us – realizing the depth of the love of God, which we see most preeminently where? In the death of Jesus Christ for our sake. In fact, that is what we celebrate – and what we are going to celebrate a little bit later – in communion. We are going to celebrate the depth of God’s love, that he gave everything for us. What price was he willing to pay to have fellowship with us? To have us as his friend and companion? He was willing to give up his life. And when we realize the depth of God’s love for us, then we can begin to understand the second step of focusing on Jesus: that we should find our value, not in what other people think, not even in how we feel about ourselves, but to find our value in Christ alone.

How valuable must we be if Christ was willing to die for us? In order to restore our relationship, in order to reconcile ourselves to him, to provide for our forgiveness, he was willing to die. We are valuable. Even if not valuable to anyone else, we are valuable to God.

This reality is seen clearly in the church planting movement that we support in India, called The Rural Presbyterian Church of India. It ministers to the Dalit caste. If you recall, India, because of Hinduism, has literally thousands of castes. This church ministers to the Untouchables, the lowest of the low – those who are valued by no one else. In fact, they are taught from an early age not even to ask why they have no value. The question is driven from them. And when they are confronted with the Gospel – that Jesus Christ actually loves them, and died for them – they are freed up in amazing ways. Over 10,000 people are coming to Christ every month through the Rural Presbyterian Church of India, because people are being freed by the love of Jesus Christ – by knowing that they have value, no matter what their society might say, no matter what they even believed in the core of their being. And you and I need to come to that same realization. And when we do, we will stop worrying about the folks out there, and we can keep our eyes on Jesus, the lover of our souls.

Only then will we have the courage to take the third step in focusing on Christ. That is, figuring out who he has made us to be – to look at our lives and ask, “Who has God made me to be?” “What does he will for me?” “What does he intend for me?” “How can I find my greatest significance, in following Christ and his purposes?”

And then the final step is simply following him. “You must follow me,” he tells Peter. And the same words comes to me and to you. We must follow him and no one else.

When I was younger I was very competitive. I know, I am still competitive, but you should have seen me back then. Growing up, I was the smallest one in my class. I was also the smallest one in my home, because I was the youngest of three sons. I often like to say that I was gipped by God. You see, I have two older brothers, one is my width, thin, but he is 5 inches taller. The other is my exact same height, but he is about 5 inches wider. Why did I get the smaller dimensions of both? Why couldn’t I have gotten the height of my tall brother, and the width of the big brother? Then nobody would mess with me. But that’s not the way that God designed me. Consequently, growing up I was always wanting to show that I was the best, the first, the fastest, the smartest – that was the goal of my life. I was a Christian, but my eyes weren’t focused on Jesus very well. For my Stanford application, I had to write an essay on the adjective that best described me. You know what I chose? That’s right … “competitive.” And they let me in. But in college, that began to change. I began to realize that my value did not come from what I could accomplish or do, it came from the fact that God loved me – that he valued me so much that he was willing to die for me, and that my purpose in life was not to prove that I was somehow worth it, but my purpose was simply to follow him, however he called. That meant that I ended up bucking a number of expectations that other people had of me, including that I was going to go into medicine. Changing directions and heading into ministry was a surprise to many, including my parents. But I had found God’s design, and the call of Christ.

And you know, the process never really stops. I am still on the journey. I am still on the journey of living out my value in Christ. I am still on the journey of understanding how God has designed me so that I can serve him most effectively and joyfully. In fact, if you look in this week’s “News and Views” you will find that I am going to be gone for two weeks of study leave in August. I will be starting my Doctor of Ministry program, and this is the first two-week course that I will be taking at Fuller Seminary. And the purpose of this first class in the Doctor of Ministry is to have the minister assess who God has made him to be, as well as to assess the ministry where God has placed him. It is to ask the hard questions of how God wants me to move forward in ministry based on who he designed me to be – to look at strengths and weaknesses – to ask “What is God’s call? How can I follow Jesus Christ in my ministry in such a way that I am the greatest blessing to the church where he has placed me?”

I am still on the journey. Every single one of us is on the journey, if we are in the right place. Because you never have it completely figured out. But the foundation is always the same. I have got to keep my eyes on Jesus Christ, find my value in him and continue to discover what it is that he wills for me. What is his unique design in my life and how can I follow it today?

There was a simple sign on the back of a 18-wheeler that said, “Any load, Any place, Any time.” I think that is a great motto for the Christian. “I will bear any load that you give me. I will go anyplace where you send me, anytime you call – because Lord, I am following you, and you alone!”

Please join me in prayer. Lord, we do thank you for your call upon our lives. We thank you that you love us so much that you paid the ultimate price, that we might be restored to fellowship with you, that we might be reconciled, that we might love you in response to your love for us. We thank you as well that you call us to lives of significance, to lives of purpose and meaning. We pray Lord, that you would help us truly, to focus our attention on you, to fix our eyes on you, that we might run the race before us with courage and joy and faithfulness. For we ask it through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Amen.