I want to talk about knowing where you start and where you end. We are in this large conversation about what it means to be in community and I think a very important aspect of communal life in the church, in your families, in your homes, is knowing where you start and end. Knowing who you are allows you to relate to other people in a way that is also known.
It might be hard to understand that your own self-differentiation gives you the opportunity to love more, to be more intimate, to care more, and to even give more of yourself. I think a lot of times we end up in close relationships, and we think that true communities are being enmeshed. We don’t know where we start and end because we are so intertwined and we are so connected. For some of us, this kind of mushy connection is welcome from our isolating world, but it certainly can complicate matters.
I was talking to one person the other day who was having trouble with her roommate, who was also her longtime friend, and I assured her that the likelihood of their friendship improving when she moved out was high, actually. Because our ability to grow intimately increases when we are our own people. It’s best to learn how to do that so that we can be close again. Once we start sharing toilet seats or spreading our excess toothpaste all over the sink, the relationship needs to change to survive.
In Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman writes about a couple who struggled to conceive during their marriage. They ended their marriage and decided to have sex one last time, just for the hell of it. Guess what? They got pregnant. When they became their own people, their bodies even worked properly.
I think Christians have a hard time doing this because we think “independence” and “autonomy” in some sense isn’t of the Lord, and in many cases it isn’t. We are not just independent but interdependent, and how we relate affects everyone around us. We are a body and an organism, and so when one of us hurts, we all do.
Sometimes, though, we confuse the importance of loving and caring for one another with the inability to discern and be our own people. Maybe I’m kind of stuck on this idea these days, but it doesn’t seem like a week goes by where I’m not helping someone know that God loves them as they are. Usually they despise themselves or their actions or they are accusing someone else of an egregious crime. Sometimes they think the world is on their shoulders and they need to save it from itself. Our leaders, who are well intentioned, will often make someone else’s problem theirs and they get involved. Other times, our friends in conflict triangulate us in their mess and we can’t send them back to solve the problem on their own, and we get sucked in—sometimes because it feels good and other times because we really do want to help.
More problems emerge when we cannot separate our negative feelings from someone else’s actions. Our only way to feel better or to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation is when the other person changes. Unfortunately, we can’t change other people and we need to demonstrate a level of humility to acknowledge how we feel, own those feelings, and then make personal changes to work toward wholeness.
For me, it seems like healthy community and relationships are about knowing where to begin and end and knowing what we hold in common. We are individual people who are engaged in relationships, quite intimate ones, in the context of this community.
But I don’t think this is an easy thing to do. I don’t think it is modeled well for us in our upbringing, in our culture, and I think these problems have faced humanity for all of time. I think we can find examples of this throughout scripture, but there is a great moment in the epilogue of John’s Gospel where I can demonstrate an interaction we can all learn from. Let’s move to John 21:18-23.
Jesus is talking to Peter about his own martyrdom, how he will die. John interprets Christ’s words for us when he cryptically tells us, “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 is talking about Peter’s death.
This private interaction is apparently interrupted by John, who is following them too. Not a coincidence that Jesus says “Follow me” to Peter, and John is there also following them. John will follow Peter in the planting of the whole church.
Peter might be annoyed at John. You can imagine their relationship. They are in Jesus’ inner-circle. Peter is allegedly older than John, some even say that John is quite young and so they already have differences. Peter is forward, upfront, and gets into trouble. He says weird stuff, he makes a scene at the Last Supper about Jesus washing his whole body, he denies Jesus after saying he wouldn’t. And now here he is again, getting reinstated into the mission. Some will later call him the first Pope. He’s the Rock on which Jesus builds the church (Jesus might be sarcastically calling him Rock since that’s also his name, and he calls him Satan later on in that passage). Peter’s betrayal and his foolishness in general is contrasted by his faithfulness to Jesus and the whole movement. He starts the church at Pentecost and performs great Acts that Luke documents in the book of the same title. (Keep in mind, his stubborn and pig-headed personality gets him in trouble with Paul too.)
John doesn’t often get into trouble. The one noteworthy time is when he and his brother James go up and ask Jesus if they can sit by his side in his Kingdom. They have a teenaged sense of entitlement, and Peter and the other disciples grumble about it later on. They don’t understand the “politics” of the Kingdom of God. But generally, John is depicted as a genuine, faithful follower of Christ. He cuddles with Jesus at the Last Supper and witnesses the resurrection. He calls himself the beloved one. Even in this passage he makes reference to that, and he also makes reference to the fact that he didn’t deny Jesus like Peter or betray him.
So maybe there’s a little sibling rivalry between John and Peter. You can see it in their Gospels if you go with tradition and assume Peter inspired Mark and John wrote John. But nevertheless, the Gospel of John is a book that took a lifetime to write. It’s the magnum opus of the apostle and it reads like it took a lifetime of pondering to produce. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the other Gospels, which is why it has so little in common with the other Gospels, but it’s deep enough for an elephant and shallow enough for a child. You can see the calmness that’s written into it. The high level of reverence given to Jesus—scholars call it the Gospel with the highest Christology. Compare that to the suffering Jesus in Mark, the Gospel historically thought to have been narrated by Peter. It is action-oriented, truncated, and fast-paced. John’s is slower. The Gospel of Mark runs to the shore to find Jesus. The Gospel of John stays back, and then follows. Mark is the first Gospel, John’s the last.
You see their rivalry in this interaction. Peter is dealing with the fact that Jesus basically told him that he is going to die and die early. Caravaggio depicts it in this painting (see side) rather brutally. And then he sees the pretty boy, clean, bright eyed, ready for what’s next. “And what about him?” Is he gonna die too? I hope. We’ve been doing this thing together for a long time, and now what?
John’s fate is much different than Peter’s—at least as far as we can tell. First of all, he’s probably a teenager when this is all happening, so his death probably isn’t as imminent. In fact, he’s the only disciple that observes Jesus’ death on the cross—probably because he doesn’t have a beard yet and he looks like a kid.
Jesus has this amazing line, and that’s where I want to settle: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
Yes, what is it to us? What does it matter what someone else is doing? Can we be our own people in Jesus and then relate to others in healthy ways?
We can get so caught up in what other people are doing, what they are thinking of us, what they mean to us, how we’re relating. We can blame them for all of our troubles and hold them responsible for all of our joy. Our own problems and distress we can blame and burden other people with. Your wife is the reason you are miserable. Your kids are why you are tired. You job is why you are depressed. The weather is why you are annoyed all the time. Like Peter reconciling his own martyrdom, all of a sudden he is pulling John into the conflict and trying to involve him in it. It’s like Peter thinks it’ll feel better to die if John does to. I might be reading into the text, but it is certainly a possibility.
We need to own ourselves and be responsible for us. Our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions. I don’t want to go overboard here, because you could feel entitled to be inconsiderate. We are not obsessed with individuality here, and individual rights. But there’s more to the story. I want you have boundaries in your own spiritual life and your own relationships so that your intimacy can grow with others.
Since this has been rather “vague” and probably hard to apply, let me give you some tangible ways you can carry out this basic idea. It might be as simple as Jesus is saying—love God and discern what he has for you to do. Discern what you want and what God wants for you and pursue it regardless of your surroundings. People’s anxiety can often inhibit us from following God and even leading. We can never let go of the childhood wounds we have, or make steps toward not letting your past control who you are now and what you can do. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself and make sure your feelings and needs are known and understood, so that you can work toward meeting your needs, but also so that you can begin to define who you are and what you are doing and how you are feeling. You know where start and end, and now you are free to relate to others.