Because the Seabury chapel is named for St. John, and because the school is always on vacation after Christmas when his feast day comes, we always use the propers for St. John’s Day [December 27] for this annual celebration of Awards Night. The Gospel which we just heard [John 21.19b-24] gives us John’s account of Jesus’s final appearance to his disciples, and it is quite an arresting story: Peter has just heard that he is destined to die a grisly death at the hand of the Romans, and then he asks about the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loves. Jesus answers, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” [John 21.22] As compelling a story as this is, the way we just heard a snippet of it leaves out some of the other elements which make it so deeply evocative. Here are just a few lines from the earlier part of John 21:
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. . . . Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. . . . When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. [John 21. 1,4,9]
I grew up in Southern California, and when my parents divorced early in my childhood my father moved out to Malibu and got a house there because, if you can believe this now, it was cheap. So I spent many of my elementary school weekends at the beach, and that early experience probably colors the way I hear the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel when it is read. I cannot hear about Jesus at the beach sitting around a charcoal fire without thinking of what that looks, feels, and smells like from my own early experience. One of the things I remember best about those Malibu weekends was going down to the beach and sitting around a fire. In that seaside setting you have all the elements which early humans thought made up the universe: earth, air, fire, water. There is something primordial and eternal in that kind of moment, and also something fleeting: everything in that scene is ephemeral. As a scene which mixes the eternal and the ephemeral, a fireside by the water is the perfect place to say goodbye.
So since my earliest days of reading the Bible with some care, I have been moved that the risen Jesus’s final meal with his companions occurred on a beach gathered around a charcoal fire. As much as Easter is about the joyful return of Jesus to his friends, it is also ultimately about the loss of Jesus, too. Jesus is returning to the One he calls his Father. This is the last time his companions will see him. And without trying to sound impious or inelegant about it, it means something at least to me that Jesus leaves his friends after a final beach cookout, and the meal he shares with them takes place in the setting not only of a beautiful natural place but also in the context of the work of fishing, the stuff of their daily life.
“Lord, what about him?” [John 21.21] Peter, of course, stands and speaks for all of us here. Having lived with Jesus and the other disciples through the events of Holy Week and Easter, Peter cannot help but wonder that human destinies can be so various. “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,” Jesus had told him [John 21.18]. And when Peter asks about what will happen to the Beloved Disciple, he is gently chastened: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” How precisely is this fair?
As Jimmy Carter once said, when talking about the differences between what rich people and poor people could afford, “there are many things in life that are not fair.” It’s not fair that one disciple goes to a martyr’s death while the other dies in peace on an island in the Mediterranean. It’s not fair that some live to old age in health while others die young. And speaking as one who lives in the rhythm of seminary life, it’s not fair that teachers and students grow close to one another through all the shared experience of their time here and then have to go their separate ways.
Tonight begins the observances of a week in which we will do things as we have always done them pretty much for the last time. We will have Awards Night and Commencement next year, but they’ll be smaller, more intimate occasions. Tonight marks the beginning of a week of the final observances of a certain kind of way of being Seabury. Like the Easter season, the week we begin tonight celebrates both resurrection and loss. Graduating students and departing faculty are going on to new life and new work. And the seminary itself is in the midst of being dramatically reborn. All this is good news. In almost all measurable ways, our individual futures are bright.
Nevertheless, there is considerable loss in what we do this week. We will never be together in precisely this way again. Traditions and relationships will change. And we all know how much Episcopalians like change.
I have to confess (if it hasn’t been otherwise obvious) that I have been in a bad mood much of this Spring, and I believe my grumpiness results, in part, from my inability to express the sadness I feel at the graduation of the class of 2009 from Seabury. Part of that is because everywhere I turn, people are telling me how wonderful it is that Seabury has succeeded in reinventing itself. Part of that is because I do not like to say goodbye to people I care about, even if I do so for some very good reasons. And part of that is, no matter how liberal or progressive you and I might think I am, I really don’t like change. As much as I believe in and look forward to that new thing that Seabury is becoming, I loved and valued the old thing, too. That was why I came here. So, for me, this is the first graduation week in which I get to watch not only the students but the faculty and the whole school itself go on to what Milton called “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” [“Lycidas”]
Now I don’t know if you are in quite the same emotional place as I am—which I would describe as hopeful and sad at once—but I will bet that like me you feel some combination of excitement and loss as you contemplate what it means for all of us to do these things together in this way for the last time. And as we face into this paradoxical task—what Claudius in Hamlet called “mirth in funeral and . . . dirge in marriage,/ In equal scale weighing delight and dole” [Hamlet 1.2] Jesus’s remark to Peter serves at least as a sharp slap in the face to call us back to our senses and our values.
“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” Working in a seminary, like working in the church itself, is not about preserving a museum exhibit of the past. It is about being agents of God’s love, justice, healing, and reconciliation. Because our life together in a place like this is so intense, it is our natural human tendency to want to build a wall around it and preserve it as an artifact of our experience—much as Peter wants to do at the Transfiguration. But what Jesus says to Peter here tonight is what Jesus says, in a variety of ways, to each of us. If it is God’s will that we separate and go our different ways, and if it is God’s will that Seabury itself be transformed into something different than any of us has ever known, and if it is God’s will that God use each of us in ways that we could never ask for or imagine, what is that to us? Our task, like Peter’s and like the Beloved Disciple’s, is to follow Jesus. That is what we are here for. As Jesus said to his friends in another context, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9.62]
The briskness of that retort does not, in fact, leave us comfortless, because God never does. As we all prepare ourselves to drop what we are doing and follow Jesus, let us never forget that Jesus’s last earthly gathering with his friends took place at a meal on the beach, gathered around a charcoal fire, sharing the Eucharistic elements of bread and fish. Earth, air, fire, water. Bread, fish. The ephemeral and the eternal. We will never be together in precisely this way again. But we are together, because, in our various ways, we share this meal and then get up and go out to follow Jesus. Amen.