Whenever I have preached on John 21 I have tended to speak about the kindness of God shown through how gently the Lord restores Peter, and as we know for every spoken denial of the past there is the opportunity given to express love and recommitment because Jesus did not come to rub it in, but to rub it out.
But right now, I notice—and see how often this is true of myself—that as soon as Peter sets off again from that reconciliation, he trips up in what he says and does and the reason for that.
Verse 19 says, “When Jesus had spoken the words about Peter’s death, He said this to him, ‘Follow Me! Follow Me!’” Follow Me. Simple enough. That’s how Peter got started in the first place, and actually in the same place. Jesus met him where he first called and invited him to “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19).
Jesus promised to take Peter and make him something he was not at the time of calling. He was a fisher already (though how well he did seems debatable). But as he followed, he would be changed.
That’s all we have to do to get started—follow. All we have to do to keep going through the valleys and mountains we face—follow. All we have to do to finish—follow. One step at a time. You get started by following. You get to the end by following.
But look how Peter trips up again! And he’s only gone a few steps. The Lord started walking away down the beach, he’s going, leading in a new direction now. Peter has just been fully reconciled, restored, and reinstated for service by Jesus. From fisher of men, to tender and feeder of sheep. Surely his mind is spinning as he tries to process some of what the Lord rather obliquely told him his future looked like—it seemed a little scary—but right now, all Peter has to do, is focus on him and follow.
It’s easy to follow here because they’re on a beach. He’s even leaving footprints for Peter to put his feet in. So Peter follows, for at least a step or two. But look at verse 20 it says, “Then Peter - turning around … (NKJV).”
What? The word in the original language indicates an abrupt change of direction, even a turning back. “Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following …”
“Hey! What are you turning for?” “Well, I’m looking at him!”
How often do we lose our stride by focusing on others?
In her book Atlas Of The Heart, Brené Brown writes about how much she loves lane swimming at the pool, unless her attention drifts to the lanes next to her. Then she finds she’s trying to catch up to someone or wondering if her stroke is better or worse. I think we’ve all been there and I don’t just mean when we are swimming. It can happen with finances, work, recognition, relationships.
Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy” because comparison robs contentment. Whether you stop counting your own blessings and compare your weight, wealth or work. When you see somebody else’s house, hair or husband - and it doesn’t matter if you feel they rate up or down, negatively or positively, because either smug pride or envious inferiority will leave you feeling less in the end.
Brown goes in to describe comparison as simultaneously “trying to fit in, and stand out.” No wonder it’s hard. That’s true whether we are comparing against someone we perceive as better or worse. Her studies show that “in the end, comparing ourselves to others leads us to fear, anger, shame, and sadness.”
Now Peter turned from just following Jesus and started to look at someone else who was also a follower, the one who chose to include this incident of yet another of Peter’s failures out of all the things he could have written about he or Jesus did. Maybe John caught his eye because John walked a little faster than Peter. John had of course (annoyingly) included earlier in his Gospel that on Easter Sunday he had beaten Peter in a foot race to the empty tomb (John 20:4). Not that he had any comparison issues of course, he was way above that. Yes he was faster and younger and better looking but he was also the guy who went around calling himself “The disciple Jesus loves.”
Peter’s stride is broken and he loses focus when he stops following and once again takes his eyes off Jesus. This time it was not because he was looking at the wind and the waves, but he was just as sunk now as he once was when he attempted walking on water because he stopped looking at Jesus and looked at John instead.
Who? John tells us who he is. “You know, I’m the one who leaned on Jesus at the supper—when Peter got told off for saying ‘No thanks’ to a foot spa because it felt a bit too intimate.”
So now “Peter seeing John said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’” What Peter’s got? FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). “What about him? Do you love him more than me? What is going to happen with him?”
Look at the answer. Really it’s not an answer to the question is it? Jesus says, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
Notice Jesus is not saying John will stay alive right up until the second coming. History shows that he died in exile on the Isle of Patmos, but the rumours of his possible immortality started anyway that day it seems. Jesus is not saying John wouldn’t die. He’s telling Peter, stick to your knitting. it’s not your business. Never mind him. What about you? “You – follow me!” Literally it reads “Keep on following – you!” Stop looking at everyone else.
Scott Sonenshein actively investigated the common phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side” and discovered that when we look over our fence their lawn actually does look greener because of the physics of how grass grows, the perspective can mean theirs looks a better hue even if it is actually the same as our garden. But comparison stops you from enjoying what you have.
Think about Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Linked In, and so many others. The continual rise and the lowering age of what is termed “negative social comparison.” Let me assure you that church leaders are not above getting this too. When everyone starts posting their “How many we got this Sunday / How many we baptised at Easter’ photos, it can get a little dark.”
Social media becomes very anti-social in its impact, increasing depression as people feel envious of others or down on ourselves because of how we look or what we wear. Ridiculously unrealistic filtered up body, beauty, and age standards for men and women leads to eating disorders, self-harm, or even suicide.
The push for many on social media is to count, “How many are following me?” Meanwhile the Lord of the universe stops us in our tracks, looks us straight in the eye and says what matters is, “How closely are you following me? You! Follow. Me!”
Peter, had a hard enough job of doing that without worrying about someone else. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else because God made everyone different. Look at your fingerprint. God made each one of us unique on purpose because he loves variety. “Nobody else can follow me like you, because nobody else can be you.”
Yes Jesus loves John, but they just established that he is awfully fond of Peter earlier on the walk. Jesus doesn’t want Peter to be like someone else. Just because Jesus loves John does not mean he has any less love for Peter. We don’t need to worry what Jesus is doing to or through somebody else. Their plans are irrelevant to you. Just follow Jesus!
Who do you compare with? Generally, it will be someone quite like you, at a similar standard or age and stage. There’s no point in comparing my golf swing to Rory McIlroy. But I compare in so many ways with so many others because it’s natural and hardwired to say, “What about him?!”
Brené Brown wrote “My new strategy is to look at the person in the lane next to me, and say to myself, as if I’m talking to them, Have a great swim …. So far, it’s working pretty well.”
God is never going to ask, “Why were you not more like him or her?” God does not compare you with anyone else. He is molding us to be more like Jesus and that happens when we follow him so that’s why he says, “Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life” (Gal. 6:4-5). God's desire is that we fulfill his plan for us in his way and timing. That will never happen, because you can never be the best you, if you’re trying to be someone else.
He loves you. He’s making you what you can never become alone or apart from him. Jesus is calling you by name. He never called you to be anyone other than you. When he says “Follow me” the call is to be the best that you can be for him; the one he has uniquely shaped and gifted—the masterpiece he has prepared good works in advance for that you should walk in (Eph. 2:1).
 Brown, Brené “Atlas of the Heart : Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (9780399592577)”. Apple Books.