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John xxi. 19-22.

To be a dutiful under-shepherd is, in another view, to be a faithful sheep, following the Chief Shepherd whithersoever He goes. Pastors are not lords over God’s heritage, but mere servants of Christ, the great Head of the Church, bound to regard His will as their law, and His life as their model. In the scene by the lake Jesus took pains to make His disciples understand this. He did not allow them to suppose that, in committing to their pastoral charge His flock, He was abdicating His position as Shepherd and Bishop of souls. Having said to Peter, “Feed my lambs,” “Feed my sheep,” He said to him, as His final word, “Follow me.”

It is implied in the narrative, that while Jesus said this, He arose and walked away from the spot where the disciples had just taken their morning meal. Whither He went we are not told, but it may have been towards that “mountain in Galilee,” the preappointed rendezvous where the risen Saviour met “above five hundred brethren at once.” The sheep have doubtless been wending thither to meet their divine Shepherd, as in a secluded upland fold; and it is more than possible that the object of the journey in which Peter is invited to join his Master, is to introduce him to the flock which had just been committed to his care.

Be this as it may, Peter obeyed the summons, and rose at once to follow Jesus. His first impression probably was that he was to be the solitary attendant of his Lord, and a natural wish to ascertain the state of the case led him to look behind to see what his companions were doing. On turning round, he observed the disciple whom Jesus loved, and whom he too loved, following close in his footsteps; and the question forthwith rose to his lips, “Lord, and what of this man?” The question was elliptical, but it meant: John is coming after us; Is the same lot in store for him that you have prophesied for me? Shall he too be bound and led whither he would not; or shall he, as the disciple most dearly beloved, be exempted from the hardships I am fated to endure?

That another and a happier fortune was reserved for John seemed, we believe, probable to Peter. He could not but recall to mind that memorable scene in which John’s mother made her ambitious request for her two sons; and in spite of what Jesus had said to them about tasting of His cup, and being baptized with His baptism, he, Peter, might well imagine that John’s desire would be fulfilled, and that he would live to see the kingdom come, and to share its glories; especially as one and all of the disciples, down to the very last day of their Lord’s sojourn on earth, still expected the kingdom to be restored to Israel very soon. If such was Peter’s thought, it is not surprising that he should ask, if not with envy, at least with a sadder sense of his own loss, “Lord, what of this man?” Adversity is hard to bear at best, but hardest of all when personal ill-fortune stands in glaring contrast with the prosperity of a brother who started on his career at the same time, and with no better prospects than the man whom he has far outstripped in the race.

To such considerations, however, Jesus paid little respect in His reply to Peter’s question. “If I will,” He said, “that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” “How stern and unfeeling!” one is tempted to exclaim. Might not Jesus at least have reminded Simon, for his comfort, of the words He once uttered to James and John: “Ye shall drink of my cup”? Would it not have helped Peter more cheerfully to follow his Master in the arduous path of the cross, to have told him that, in whatever manner John might die, he too would have to suffer for the gospel; that his life, whether long or short, would be full of tribulation; that participation in the glory of the kingdom did not depend on longevity; that, in fact, the first to die would be the first to enter into glory? But no, it might not be. To administer such comfort would have been to indulge the disciple’s weakness. One who has to play a soldier’s part must be trained with military rigor. Effeminacy, sighing after happiness, brooding over the felicity we have missed, are out of place in an apostle’s character; and Jesus, to whom such dispositions are most abhorrent, will take good care not to give them any countenance. He will have all His followers, and specially the heads of His people, to be heroes, — "Ironsides,” prompt to do bidding, fearless of danger, patient of fatigue, without a trace of selfish softness. He will give no quarter even to natural weaknesses, disregards present pain, cares not how we smart under rebuke, provided only He gain His end, — the production of character temptation-proof.

Having this end in view, Jesus took no trouble to correct Peter’s misapprehensions about his brother disciple. Misapprehensions, we say, for such they indeed were. John did not tarry till the Lord came in the sense in which Peter understood the words. He lived, indeed, till the close of the first Christian century, therefore long after the Lord’s coming to execute judgment on Jerusalem. But except for the longevity he enjoyed, the last of the apostles was in no respect to be envied. The Church was militant all his days: he took part in many of its battles, and received therein many scars. Companion with Peter in the Church’s first conflict with the world, he was a prisoner in Patmos for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ, after Peter had fallen asleep. One might perhaps say that, owing to temperament, the life of John was less stirring than that of his brother apostle. He was a man of less impetuosity, though not of less intensity; and there was, perhaps, not so much in his character provocative of the world’s opposition. Both by his virtues and by his infirmities Peter was predestined to be the champion of the faith, the Luther of the apostolic age, giving and receiving the hardest blows, and bearing the brunt of the battle. John, on the other hand, was the Melanchthon among the apostles, without, however, Melanchthon’s tendency to yield; and as such, enjoyed probably a quieter, and, on the whole, more peacefull life. But this difference between the two men was, after all, quite subordinate; and, all things considered, we may say that John drank not less deeply of Christ’s cup than did Peter. There was nothing glorious or enviable in his lot on earth, except the vision in Patmos of the glory yet to be revealed.

Yet while all this was clear to His prescient eye, Jesus did not condescend to give any explanations concerning the appointed lot of the beloved disciple, but allowed Peter to think what he pleased about the future of his friend. “If I will,” He said, “that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” not meaning to give any information, as contemporary believers imagined, but rather refusing to give any in the bluntest and most peremptory manner. “Suppose” — such is the import of the words — "Suppose it were my pleasure that John should remain on the earth till I return to it, what is that to thee? Suppose I were to grant him to sit on my right hand in my Messianic kingdom, what, I ask again, is that to thee? Suppose John were not to taste of death, but, surviving till my second advent, were, like another Elijah, to be wafted directly into heaven, or to be endowed in his body with the power of an endless life, still what is that to thee? Follow thou Me.

The emphatic repetition of this injunction is very significant. It shows, for one thing, that when Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” He had no intention of making him a pastor of pastors, a shepherd or bishop over his fellow-disciples. In Roman Catholic theology the lambs are the lay members of the church, and the sheep are the under shepherds — the whole body of the clergy, the Pope excepted. How strange, if this be true, that Peter should be checked for looking after one of the flock, and asking so simple a question as that, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” Jesus replies to him as if he were a busybody, meddling with matters with which he had no concern. And, indeed, busybodyism was one of Peter’s faults. He was fond of looking after and managing other people; he tried once and again to manage the Lord Himself. Curiously enough, it is from this apostle that the Church gets the needful warning against the too common vice just named. “Let none of you,” he writes in his first epistle, “suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters;.” literally, as a bishop intruding into another’s diocese.6676671 Pet. iv. 15: ἀλλοτριοεπίσκοπος is the Greek word. Evidently the frequent rebukes administered to Peter by his Master had made a lasting impression on him.

Heavy as was the load of responsibility laid upon this disciple at this time, it did not amount to any thing so formidable as that involved in being a visible Christ, so to speak, to the whole Church. Neither Peter nor any other man is able to bear that burden, and happily no one is required to do so. The responsibility of even the highest in the Church is restricted within comparatively narrow limits. The main business, even of the chief under-shepherds, is not to make others follow Christ, but to follow Him themselves. It is well that our Lord made this plain by the words addressed to the representative man among the apostles; for Christians of active, energetic, and earnest natures are very apt to have very exaggerated ideas of their responsibilities, and to take on themselves the care of the whole world, and impose on themselves the duty of remedying every evil that is done under the sun. They would be defenders-general of the faith wherever assailed, redressers-general of all wrongs, curates-general of all souls. There is something noble as well as quixotic in this temper; and it were not the best sign of a man’s moral earnestness if he had not at some time of his life known somewhat of this fussy, over-zealous spirit. Still it should be understood that the Head of the Church imposes on no man such unlimited responsibility, and that, when self-imposed, it does not conduce to a man’s real usefulness. No one man can do all other men’s work, and no one man is responsible for all other men’s errors and failures; and each man contributes most effectually and surely to the good of the whole by conducting his own life on godly principles. The world is full of evils-scepticism, superstition, ignorance, immorality, on every side — a sight saddening in the extreme. What, then, am I to do?” This one thing above all: Follow thou Christ. Be thou a believer, let who will be infidels. Let thy religion be reasonable, let who will pin their faith to a fallible human authority, and place their religion in fantastic ritualisms and gross idolatries. Be thou holy, an example of sobriety, justice, and godliness, though all the world should become a sweltering chaos of impurity, fraud, and impiety. Say with Joshua of old, “If it seem good unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

The repeated injunction, “Follow thou me,” whilst restricting individual responsibility, prescribes undivided attention to personal duty. Christ demands of His disciples that they follow Him with integrity of heart, without distraction, without murmuring, envy, or calculations of consequences. Peter was, it is to be feared, not yet up to the mark in this respect. There was yet lingering in his heart a vulgar hankering after happiness as the chief end of man. Exemption from the cross still appeared to him supremely desirable, and he probably fancied that special favor on Christ’s part towards a particular disciple would show itself in granting such exemption. He did not yet understand that Christ oftenest shows special favor to His followers by making them in a remarkable degree partakers of His bitter cup and His bloody baptism. The grand enthusiasm of Paul, which made him desire to know Jesus in the fellowship of His sufferings, had not yet taken possession of Simon’s breast. When an arduous and perilous piece of service was to be done, those who were selected to be the forlorn hope seemed to him objects of pity rather than of envy. Far from volunteering for such a service, he would rather congratulate himself on having escaped it; and the highest conceivable virtue, in case one were so unlucky as not to escape, would, in his opinion, be submission to the inevitable.

Peter was deficient also as yet in the military virtue of unquestioning obedience to orders, which is the secret of an army’s strength. A general says to one, Go, and he Goeth; to another, Come, and he cometh: he appoints to one corps its station here, and to another its station there; and no one ventures to ask why, or to make envious comparisons. There is an absolute surrender of the individual will to the will of the commander; and so far as thoughts of preference are concerned each man is a machine, having a will, a head, a hand, a heart, only for the effective performance of his own appointed task. Peter had not yet attained to this pitch of self-abnegation. He could not do simply what he was bidden, but must needs look round to see what another was doing. Nor let us think this a small offence in him. It was a breach of discipline which could not be overlooked by the Commander of the faithful. Implicit obedience is as necessary in the Church as it is in the army. The old soldier Loyola understood this, and hence he introduced a system of military discipline into the constitution of the so called “Society of Jesus.” And the history of that society shows the wisdom of the founder; for whatever we may think of the quality of the work done, we cannot deny the energy of the Jesuitic fraternity, or the devotion of its members. Such devotion as the Jesuit renders to the will of his spiritual superior Christ demands of all His people; and to none except Himself can it be rendered without impiety. He would have every believer give himself up to His will in cheerful, exact, habitual obedience, deeming all His orders wise, all His arrangements good, acknowledging His right to dispose of us as He pleases, content to serve Him in a little place or in a large one, by doing or by suffering, for a long period or a short, in life or by death, if only He be glorified.

This is our duty, and it is also our blessedness. So minded, we shall be delivered from all care of consequences, from ambitious views of our responsibilities, from imaginary grievances, from envy, fretfulness and the restlessness of self-will. We shall no longer be distracted or tormented with incessant looking round to see what is become of this or that fellow-disciple, but be able to go on with our own work in composure and peace. We shall not trouble ourselves either about our own future or about that of any other person, but shall healthily and happily live in the present. We shall get rid for ever of fear, and care, and scheming, and disappointment, and chagrin, and, like larks at heaven’s gate, sing: —

“Father, I know that all my life

Is portioned out by Thee,

And the changes that will surely come

I do not fear to see;

But I ask Thee for a present mind,

Intent on serving Thee.

I would not have the restless will

That hurries to and fro,

Seeking for some great thing to do,

Or secret thing to know;

I would be treated as a child,

And guided where I go.”

Thus, brother, “go thou thy way till the end be;.” and “thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.”

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