Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, follow me." (John 21:1-19) Another translation says "when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will tie a belt around you and lead you where you do not want to go. - It is from this translation that I derive my expression, the brotherhood of the belt.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - As a Catholic Deacon I have the privilege of reading the Gospel during Holy Mass. This year, our Sunday readings follow cycle C. On the Third Sunday of Easter I proclaimed what for me has become one of the most meaningful of the Post Resurrection accounts. It comes at the end of St. John's Gospel and tells of an encounter between the Risen Jesus and Peter:
"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." He then said to Simon Peter a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." Jesus said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep".
What follows in the encounter between Peter and the Lord has come to mean so much to me. Jesus continued speaking to Peter, "Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, follow me." (John 21:1-19) Another translation says "when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will tie a belt around you and lead you where you do not want to go." It is from this translation that I derive my expression, the brotherhood of the belt.
As the years have unfolded in my own life, this encounter between Peter and the Lord has taken on a deeper meaning for me. How do I respond to the inevitable struggle, failure, disappointment and difficulties in life? How do I recover when I have fallen? Let's be honest, we will make wrong choices, we will fall, and we will struggle. The only question is whether we get up and are changed and converted as a result. Whether we will voluntarily join this brotherhood of the belt, this way of discipleship, and allow ourselves to be pulled along by the Lord who alone knows what is best for our lives.
John's is the most theological of the four gospels. Probably the last to be written, it reveals the mature reflections of the early Church concerning the deepest meaning of the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and teaching of Jesus Christ the Messiah. In his treatment of this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, he focuses us on Peter for many reasons. The early Fathers of the Church drew beautiful insights from the three questions asked by the Risen Lord, as well as from Peters three fold response. They taught that this dialogue represented both the undoing of his former threefold denial and an affirmation of his specific call to leadership over the early Church as it went forth into the Nations to carry forward in time the redemptive mission of Jesus.
How beautiful this insight truly is. It reaches down to the depth of the mystery of human freedom. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church so succinctly expresses "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself" (CCC #1861) Sin is an abuse of freedom, a wrong choice. When we choose against God, we choose against love, and we choose against our own human flourishing. When we make these kinds of wrong choices, we not only negatively affect the world around us, but we change who we become in the process.
Peter's denial crippled Peter emotionally and spiritually. He lost his way in life, until he encountered the Risen Christ. We lose our way as well - when we make wrong choices. However, what matters most is what we do afterward. Peter shows us the way into joining what I call the brotherhood of the belt through encountering the Risen Lord and letting him pull us forward. The only path out of Peter's plight was repentance and, then, making a new choice - one that was rooted in faith and trust rather than fear. The Risen Jesus came and stood in front of Him, gazing upon Him in love, showing Him the way of new life.
He does the same for each one of us. Our repentance invites us to make new choices of love and fidelity in both word and deed; to begin again. We are invited to exercise our freedom when we are faced with difficulties and struggles. The right choice, made possible by grace, is to choose the way of surrendered love, like the Apostle Peter did. To make the decision to join Peter, and all of the Saints in the brotherhood of the belt, is to choose to follow Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
I am in a season of my life where I no longer want to get out ahead of the Lord. I feel as though the Lord has tied a belt around me and He is pulling me. I have found great freedom in simply letting Him do so. I know that this is right where I should be. It is also becoming where I want to stay, and live, and learn the Way. What changes more often in my life these days are not the circumstances that surround me but the way I view them and the manner in which I respond. In short, I am changing; it is the kind of change that is not easy, but I know must happen. It is the path to true freedom.
What once seemed sour now tastes sweet. What once caused fear now invites a deepening call to faith and surrender. Perhaps you are having similar experiences in your own life? If so, take Peter as an example and a source of encouragement. Let go of any attempts to control. Join the brotherhood (or sisterhood) of the belt. Let Jesus pull you along in the way of surrendered love. There is no better way to live. Failure, Opposition, Struggle and Difficulty in the Christian Life are the classroom. In that classroom we learn how to live in the brotherhood of the belt.We live in a world which desperately needs redemption. That world is both within us and around us.
It seems that the older I get, struggles, hardship and difficulties seem to be on the increase. When I was a young man, I thought that struggles would lessen as I grew in faith and matured. My studies of the lives of the apostles and the saints through the years finally disabused me of that notion. Now, as I round the corner to my 60th birthday, I not only know how wrong I was - I believe I had it backwards. There are some Christians, often well intended ones, who insist that the obstacles, struggle and pain we often face in trying to live our lives for the Lord are always opposition from the enemy of our souls, the devil. (Eph. 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8) Don't get me wrong; evil is real and, because we are joined to the Lord through Baptism, we do encounter spiritual attacks as we participate in the spiritual warfare arrayed against His loving plan.
There are other Christians whom I refer to as friends of Job (Job 16:2-4). They offer us their advice when we fall on hard times or face struggles and difficulties. Like the "friends" of that great figure in the Old Testament, they all too quickly blame the difficulties and struggles we are going through on us. They may accuse us of not "having faith" or of not doing the right thing. Of course, there are times when our lack of faith, and improper behavior and response, impedes the loving work of God in our lives as our Gospel passage demonstrates. However, discerning that fact can be hard and it should not be presumed.
Then, all too often, there are fellow Christians who speak as though they have God figured out, as though He were some kind of puzzle to be solved. They present the Christian faith as though it were a formula to be followed rather than a gift and mystery to be received. They minimize the Christian vocation as a call to some form of "success", accomplished by following a formula, rather than a rugged road to be walked in the footsteps of a Savior whose greatest act of Love was deemed by most who witnessed it to be a complete failure.
My experience as I age has confirmed something quite simple but hard to accept until age wears you down a bit, difficulties and struggle are just a part of the mixed human experience. They are rooted in the rupture that was caused by our individual and corporate separation from God. That is a result of sin. However, there is some very good news. When we learn to live our lives in Christ, they can also become the raw material for our continuing transformation. They certainly did so with Peter. Thay also did so with the great Apostle Paul. He tells the Corinthians in that wonderful passage found in his second letter to the Corinthians:
"Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong". (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Let's be honest. Life is often difficult, painful and filled with obstacles. Yes, even when you are praying, being as faithful as you can be, cooperating with grace and really trying to believe in the Lord and all that he teaches through His Church. Pain, failure, opposition, hardship, struggle, disappointment all just seem to be a part of the program. The saints of old, such as St. Paul, grew so accustomed to difficulties they began to boast of them. The question that we should ask ourselves when we face struggle, difficulty, failure, disappointment and the frequent pain of real life is how do we respond to the invitation that they offer to us?
Every difficulty, struggle and experience of opposition or pain can become an invitation to exercise our freedom, informed by our faith, to truly believe in and embrace the loving plan of God. To the man or woman who is sincerely committed to following the Lord, embracing these experiences in the surrender of authentic discipleship can pave the path to holiness, form the raw material for continued conversion and equip him/her more fully for the work of the Gospel. It is not the difficulties, struggles and hardships which lessen in life as we age. Rather, they just change their complexion. We change in and through them. They can become the vehicle for some of the greatest growth in our relationship with the Lord. What had been intended for our demise can become the path to our restoration.
That is, if we freely choose join Peter in the brotherhood of the belt, and earn the way of discipleship.
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