Back in the day, I used to fire people for a living. Yes, really! I was in personnel management and had to do any number of different things, but the firing people part was certainly the most memorable.
In fact, in the hospital where I worked, my nickname was “The Terminator.” And yes, when I appeared to fire someone, I actually carried a pink slip. Not the most fun I’ve ever had, but I learned that even though every termination is different, they all have one thing in common.
The person being fired automatically, frantically, starts talking about others in his department who are so much, much worse than he is. Suddenly, EVERYBODY’S late, or insubordinate, or steals things, or whatever –– how come THEY’RE not being fired? And what The Terminator has to do, again and again, is say, “We’re not here to talk about other people. We’re here to talk about YOU.”
In John 21, Jesus has been resurrected and meets with his disciples on the beach one morning. When Jesus asks Peter three different times –– “Peter, do you love me?” –– Peter ends up getting a little testy. He’s not being FIRED, but he seems to feel criticized. Basically, Jesus was asking Peter, “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me enough to nurture my little ones, to care for them as I do? Do you love me that much?”
And when Peter finally erupts and says –– “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” –– Jesus is satisfied. Yes, Peter’s feelings are hurt. But Jesus knows the day is coming when Peter will not only serve Jesus; he’ll die for Jesus.
Even today, Jesus asks us for that kind of commitment. Then and now, Jesus wants to know, “Do you love me?”
Of course, this is a lesson Peter had to learn almost immediately. Because in the middle of Jesus’ explanation, Peter turned to John and asked, “Lord, what about him?”
You’d have thought he WAS being fired!
For years, what I mainly heard was there was jealousy. As in, “Yes, Lord, you’ve given me great things to do. What are you giving John to do? Is it as great and important as what you’re giving me to do?”
The same kind of question had been bothering the disciples almost from the beginning: “Lord, who is greatest among us?”
Or was Peter saying, “Hey, Lord … are you going to question JOHN’S love, too? How come he’s not getting the third degree, too?”
Or was Peter saying, “What, Lord, am I the only one being asked to die for you? What about HIM?”
Whatever exactly Peter was asking, Jesus’ answer was quick and clear. “If it’s my will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? YOU follow me!”
Jesus wasn’t holding a pink slip, but the message was the same. This is NOT about anybody else. It’s about you.
I believe scripture shows us clearly that God gives each of us specific, useful gifts and talents –– things we’re good at, things we love. And he does that so that the world may be loved and served in all the ways it needs to be. We each have a part in it.
But we’re a little too much like Peter. Usually, we start by arguing with God, telling him we don’t really have any gifts and can’t do anything worthwhile. Or we immediately start comparing our gifts with others’ and deciding that their gifts are better, so we quit doing our thing because somebody else’s thing seems so much more important.
Or maybe we’re working really hard. and it doesn’t seem like other people are doing enough. Or (my personal favorite) … maybe we get territorial. This is MY gift, MY area of expertise, and I’m in charge and everybody better get out of my way, especially so-and-so …
And whatever our complaint, Jesus’ answer is the same. “Do you love me? Then do as I’ve equipped and asked you to do. It doesn’t matter how I’ve gifted someone else or what I’ve asked of them. YOU follow me.”
Not easy! Unless we’re being applauded for something, we’d much rather make it all about someone else. But Jesus asks us to commit ourselves to following him: to use our gifts and give freely and work together on his behalf –– and love each other the same way he loves us as we serve and worship together.
Each of us really is on special assignment from God … in little ways and big ways … in our gifts, our lives, our own corner of the world. It’s hardly ever dramatic, and it’s too easy to start worrying that someone else’s assignment is better, or maybe someone else is being treated better. And say Jesus firmly says, to Peter and to us, “YOU … follow me.”
Jesus isn’t The Terminator; he’s the Giver of Life and all things good. But the commitment he asks of us is big and it’s personal: “Do you love me? Then … follow me!” My prayer is that each of us will find our place of service, and trust God even as we love him and those around us … his children, every one.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.