When (We) Grow Old

John 21:15-19

In John 21 the Risen Jesus appears to 7 disciples on a beach adjacent to the Sea of Galilee. He directs them to a huge haul of fish, then invites them to breakfast.  After breakfast, he allows Peter to affirm his love for him as often as Peter had denied him, three times.  And each time Jesus says to Peter, “Feed” or “Tend” my sheep.   Then Jesus looks straight at Peter and says:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

The text says that Jesus told Peter about the death he would someday die to glorify God. Then Jesus said, “Follow me.”

I have no doubt that those who first heard this story knew exactly how Peter died.  We can’t be sure.  An old and usually reliable tradition says that he was crucified in Rome. A less reliable source says that he was crucified upside down because he refused to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Peter’s death “glorified God,” because it put the seal of authenticity on his life. Many times along the way he could have saved his life by denying Jesus, but he did not.

For twenty centuries this same text has served as a parable of old age. When we are young, we dress and gird ourselves and go where we want to go. But when we grow old, we stretch out our hands, perhaps asking for help, and others dress us and gird us and take us where we do not want to go.

This week, when I read this text, I was reminded of my mother’s life. My mother had 93 good years in which she dressed herself and went where she wanted to go. When she was young, she worked at Montgomery Ward and in the office at the Downtown Garage. After marrying my father, she served as his live-in, un-paid secretary. She saw this as her vocation, her calling. Several years ago, when I emptied my parents’ house, I took more than 40 boxes of my mother’s records of my father’s pastorates to the Moravian Archives. The boxes included every sermon my father ever preached and every bulletin and newsletter he ever published. They held the text of every memoir, the minutes of every board meeting, and the record of every marriage. The archivist told me they had never received a better record of a pastor’s life and work. My mother had 93 good years and 2 years that were, to her, pure misery, because others took here where she did not want to go.

My mother went into assisted living with my father the day after Christmas in 2015.  It was their 69th wedding anniversary. My dad survived less than two months and died on his 94th birthday, February 12, 2016.  After my father’s death, my mother continued in assisted living for a year. Then, in June of 2017, she went into a memory care unit, where she lived until she went to hospice in September 2018. My mother died at about 9:00 p.m. on September 10, 2018,  three hours short of her 95th birthday. For two years Elayne and I visited her almost daily, often sitting with her for two hours or more. In the last year of her life, she sometimes knew me, sometimes mistook me for my father, and sometimes did not know me at all. One clear day she told me if I did not believe Philippians 4:19 that “I could do all things through Christ who strengthens me” she would knock me in the head. Other days, she said only that she was in living in hell, and those who took her to meals, bathed her, gave her medicines, and put her to bed were minions in Satan’s service. I regarded the same people as angels of mercy.

Like my mother’s, Peter’s early life was blessed. He was born in the home of a fisherman, and he followed the same trade. His office was a boat, and his address was the sea. He lived with the sun, and wind, and rain, and heat, and cold. Peter had days so good that he and his family feasted, and he praised God for God’s generosity.  Peter had days so bad that he and his family went to bed hungry, and he lay awake praying to God for a better day tomorrow. Peter was known as the “Big Fishermen.” If I were making a movie about his life, I would cast the title role with someone who looked like Anthony Quin in “Zorba the Greek,” big, dark, powerful.

According to the 4th Gospel, Peter’s life took a dramatic turn for the better when his brother Andrew “brought him” to Jesus, and Jesus named him as one of the twelve disciples whom he appointed to be with him. Peter was the first to confess that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God, and Jesus said that it was on this confession by Peter that he would build his church.  With James and John the sons of Zebedee, Peter followed Jesus up the mountain where he was transfigured before them. Peter and his friends also followed Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane where they slept while Jesus prayed. According to the 4th Gospel, it was Peter who drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Peter was the first to tell Jesus he would die with him, rather than forsake him, and much to his shame, he was one of the first, if not the first, to deny Jesus, not just once, but three times. On a more encouraging note, St. Paul says that when the Risen Jesus appeared, he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. When the disciples were together, Peter was the first among equals, and he continued in that role long after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We know from  St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that Peter was one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem.  The Risen Jesus spoke to Peter saying, “Follow me!” and Peter obeyed.  He followed Jesus from Jerusalem to Rome, where he preached the Gospel at the center of the known world.  According to a 2nd Century Christian named Papias, John Mark wrote down what Peter preached in the gospel that bears his name. As we have mentioned, Peter was still in Rome when he died, like his master before him, at the hands of sinful men.

And what about us?  Few of us will die a martyr’s death and that is okay by us. We all want to live long, prosper, and die in our sleep, in a house we paid off decades before.  Even so, some of us, like my mother, will be forced to stretch our hands while others gird us and carry us where we do not want to go.  So, what can we do to make our old age go as smoothly as possible? I would suggest at least the following.

First, we can prepare for old age while we are young. My dad died on his 94th birthday, my mother died three hours short of her 95th birthday. Both took care of themselves. The whole time I knew them, they did not smoke or drink, they watched what they ate, and were very small to be Americans. (I should have learned from them!) Like all people who live to a great age, they experienced many a loss and passed through many a crisis. My dad had a massive heart attack when he was 59, and the doctors gave him just five years to live, but he continued walking, running, and playing golf and survived another 35 years, many of them with various cancers.  My mother never felt very good, and she was never very active, but she got plenty of rest and ate very little. For more than twenty years she lived with abdominal pain. The ancient Greeks said that we should starve an illness, and my mother did that. First she skipped meals and drank black coffee. As her pain grew worse,  he skipped the coffee and sipped cups of hot water even while serving us fantastic meals. When mom was 89 years old, a surgeon removed a large mass from her colon and discovered that her pancreas was almost completely encased in a tumor. He told her that she undoubtedly had pancreatic cancer.  She said, “You don’t know that for sure,” and she survived his diagnosis by more than five years. In old age, we live the life we earn in our youth.  Ben Franklin was right, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Take care of your body, and your body will take care of you.

Second,  we should stay active. My dad, a pastor, was forced into retirement at the age of 67. He did not quit. He volunteered as the chaplain at Salemtown for five years before he was put on a modest salary for at least half a dozen more. While at Salemtown, and after, he also pastored a small Reformed Church in the Washington Park neighborhood. I used to accuse my dad of trying to make himself so useful that God would extend his life. Now I find myself doing the same thing. To be honest, it is not a bad strategy! Many in this church have used it. I love looking up into that organ loft. I remember how our organ was built by seven retired men of this church, who just wanted to do something for this church and for their Lord, Jesus Christ. Vernon Thrift designed the organ. The last time I saw him was in ICU pouring over blueprints of the organ, still perfecting his design. He died the next day. The master craftsman on the organ was Riddick Bowles. He had finished most of his work, including the outer case, before he died one month to the day after Vernon, just months before the organ was finished. Five of the seven—including, in alphabetical order, Raymond Binkley, Charlie Petersen, Tom Pleasants, Joe Reich, and John Rutledge, lived to hear the organ play.  I was reminded of this last week when Psalm 150 was part of the lectionary. When we dedicated the organ back in 1985, I preached on a text from the King James Version of Psalm 150 which declares  “Praise the Lord! Praise him with … organs!”

God’s people would be lost without the contribution of the elderly.  Abraham was an old man when God called him to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, to go to the Promised Land. His wife Sara was almost as old, but they went out in faith, not knowing where they were going. Likewise, Moses was an old man when he went to Pharoah and spoke the Word of God saying, “Let my people go!”  Forty years later, God allowed him to look into the Promised Land, but not go in, for he had disobeyed God. Still, when Moses died at the age of 120 years, his eye was still keen and his natural force had not abated. Peter, like Jesus, died at the hands of sinful men, but I am willing to bet that he lived longer than he thought he would. Likewise, according to tradition, John the son of Zebedee, whom I believe to be the beloved disciple who is the authority behind the 4th gospel, died in 96 A.D., more than six decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. When you are a disciple of Jesus old age is not an excuse. Jesus never stops saying to us as he said to Peter, “Follow me.” Today every church always needs to be loved for more than it is worth so that it can become more than it is. Older people often do this best because they are the most heavily invested, and we have the time, talent, experience, and treasure to share.

Third, we can stay young by thinking young. John Calvin said that the task of the truly Mature Christian is to maintain a kind of “perpetual adolescence” of the mind, always ready to be surprised by God and learn something new. And, though I have taken some liberty in transcription, it was Frank Sinatra who taught us to sing:

(Great things!) can come true
It can happen to you
If you’re young at heart.

For it’s hard you will find
To be narrow of mind
If you’re young at heart.

When people without faith grow older, they often look back to “Glory Days,” and insist that the only way to go forward is to do today what we did yesterday. As people of faith grow older, we learn from the past, but we live from the future that is coming to us in Jesus Christ.

 Jesus said, “New wine is for fresh skins.”

St. Paul said he was always:

“Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson said:

“The old order changes, giving place to the new, and God fulfills Himself in  many ways, lest one good custom corrupt the world.”

And John Greenleaf Whittier  wrote:

 “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, we  must onward still and upward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

Sometimes the best way to live from the future is to trust it to the generations that follow.  We can listen to their ideas, and support them to test their wings, because someday, very soon we will be forced to trust them with everything we hold dear.  This should not burden them, for God says to them as he once said to Jeremiah:

“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.  Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

And Jesus says to us, and to our children, and our children’s children, as he once said to Peter, “Follow me!”


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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