Every Christian is called to follow Jesus.
But not everyone is called to follow in the same way. The apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear:
You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they? (1 Cor 12:27-30, CEB)
He is writing to the church in Corinth, a confused and contentious group of believers who have a tendency to use spiritual gifts as a way of ranking who matters and who doesn’t. Paul’s answer is that people have different gifts and ministries by God’s design, just as the human body can’t function without all its different parts.
An important illustration of this comes out at the end of the gospel of John. Jesus calls Peter to shepherd the flock, a vocation that will eventually end in martyrdom. But the ministry of the so-called “beloved disciple” is different:
When Peter saw [the beloved disciple following them], he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:21-24, NRSV)
Here we get a hint of why chapter 21 was needed, even though chapter 20 brought the story to a fitting conclusion. The beloved disciple — we’ll follow convention here and assume it was John — is himself the author of the gospel. By the time it was written, Peter had already been martyred, and obviously, John was still alive.
But Jesus’ words to Peter had been misinterpreted, leading to a rumor that John would live forever (misunderstanding and rumor in the church? How shocking!). The story in chapter 21 may have been meant to rectify that situation: Here’s what Jesus said, and let me repeat it for you just to make sure you get it. He never said I wasn’t going to die.
Even more importantly, however, we see that John had been called to another ministry, a testimony of the written word rather than the spoken — and one for which we should be incredibly grateful. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a good deal of material; some of the stories they tell are repeated nearly word for word (which is one reason why scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used the earlier work of Mark as a source). But some of our favorite and most revealing stories of Jesus are found only in the gospel of John. Had he not been faithful in following Jesus in that specific way, we would have a different picture of who Jesus was.
We need Peter’s ministry of shepherding; we need John’s ministry of written testimony. In that sense, your ministry and my ministry may be quite different, in terms of the form each takes and the gifts required. But both are also expressions of one ministry, a theme that runs like a scarlet thread through the whole of John’s gospel: giving testimony, being witnesses to what God has done in Jesus.
In that sense, your ministry and my ministry are caught up into the one ministry of God’s Spirit to a world in need of truth and healing. Each of must follow in his or her own way, but we must also follow together.