April 8, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for this coming Sunday, April 10th, 2016. Third Sunday of Easter, Year C.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen. Or listen along.
Swimming with your clothes on
One of my favorite features of John’s Gospel is also what can make it so difficult to preach. John includes these very specific eyewitness details. And those details probably meant something to the first people who heard or read the Gospel. But the significance of those details is sort of lost on us today.
Our Gospel lesson contains a couple of those very particular details. One is how Peter responds when the Beloved Disciple tells him Jesus is on the shore. When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. Who puts on their clothes to go swimming?
Another of those oddly specific details is the strict accounting of the fish they caught. We are told that the net was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. First of all, I have to give props to whichever one of the disciples stood there counting the fish. That’s the kind of person you want on your stewardship committee right there. But still—why is it so important for us to know that there were exactly 153 fish? I found approximately 153 suggestions for the hidden meaning of that number while preparing this sermon. My gut reaction to a situation like that is to assume that if the meaning of the 153 fish was essential for salvation, God would made sure there was an in-text commentary. So the interpretation is up for grabs. Well, the interpretation I liked best was that of Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth and fifth centuries. Jerome said that at the time John’s Gospel was written, it was widely believed that there were 153 species of fish. So 153 fish represented all the nationalities and races of people. People from every tribe and tongue will be saved through the gospel of Jesus. To me, this also makes sense of the detail that the 153 large fish didn’t break the net. The unbroken net represents a church that can make room for all kinds of people.
Now do I really believe that’s why John (or whomever) wants us to know about the 153 fish and the unbroken net? Probably not. I suspect that there actually were 153 fish; and the net really didn’t break; and the disciples were just really impressed by that.
Sometimes 153 fish is just 153 fish. Even in John’s Gospel.
Well, around 11:00 on Tuesday night, it occurred to me that whatever else John 21 is about, it’s certainly not a tract about why you should swim with your clothes on. It’s probably also not a fisherman’s tale that can only be understood by numerology.
No, this is a story about calling. It’s a story about forgiveness. It’s a story about the church—about me and you—and what we’re all about.
It’s a story about Jesus meeting people where they are. And sharing a meal with them. And that’s a story we hear over and over again throughout all the Gospels, isn’t it? It’s also a story we tell—and reenact!—every week as we gather around the Lord’s table to share in his Supper.
It seems that John had originally ended his Gospel with last week’s lesson. Our Gospel lesson last week concluded: Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
I mean, just slap The End on this Gospel already, John. It’s done.
But at some point John—or someone close to John—decided this Gospel needed a bonus chapter. An epilogue. And so we got John 21. Our lesson today.
The last few verses of John 21 weren’t included in the reading, but just listen to how it ends: Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.
Somehow, we went from, Jesus did other signs not recorded in this scroll; to, All the scrolls in the world couldn’t hold all the awesome things Jesus did!
And it occurs to me that this epilogue to John’s Gospel isn’t just bonus footage. And it isn’t just the epilogue to John. It’s the final chapter—the final word—in the writing of Gospels altogether.
Mark has written a Gospel.
Matthew has written a Gospel.
Luke has written a Gospel.
John has written a Gospel.
And whoever added this twenty-first chapter to John’s Gospel was saying: What these four guys wrote isn’t nearly everything. But it’s more than enough.
And the conclusion of our reading today was meant to hand the work Jesus had begun with a handful of disciples over to the church. The last words we heard Jesus say in our Gospel lesson today were: Follow me.
And those were the first words he had spoken to his first disciples way back when. Follow me.
John 21 brings the story full circle, and gives it to us. Each generation of disciples is expected to hear, and respond to, Jesus’ invitation for themselves.
This final, Follow me, isn’t just a word for Peter. It’s a word for each and every one of us.
Like deja vu (all over again)
Truth be told, a lot of our Gospel lesson sounded awfully familiar. Like deja vu all over again.
Here’s something that’s eerily similar that most people miss. Our story takes place at the Sea of Tiberias. The Sea of Tiberias was also called the Galilee Sea. Well, back in the sixth chapter of John, Jesus fed 5,000 people a meal of bread and fish. He had borrowed the food from some kid’s lunch pail, you’ll recall. And he made it enough to feed everybody. And he did it right beside the Galilee Sea. And in this story, Jesus feeds his disciples a meal of fish and bread. He already has the breakfast cooking when they arrive, but he does ask them to bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus did this on purpose, I’m sure. The risen is Jesus calling, inviting, welcoming his disciples back into the abundance of fellowship with him. He did this to remind them of the last time they had eaten bread and fish on the shore of the Galilee Sea. It’s like Jesus is telling them, See—there’s more where that came from!
I suspect that most people start getting a whiff of the familiar with Jesus finding Peter and the disciples on a fishing boat; and Jesus telling Peter to, Follow me. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that’s exactly how Jesus called his first disciples. Jesus came across four fishermen—one of them was Peter—and called out to them: Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people (Mark 1.16-20; cf. Matt. 4.18-22; Luke 5.1-11). And can you guess where Jesus found Peter and the other fishermen? That’s right: The Galilee Sea.
But it’s the fifth chapter of Luke where we realize we’ve heard this exact same story before. Jesus found Peter and two other fishermen—John and James—frustrated. They’d been fishing all night, and had nothing to show for it. Well, Jesus told them where the fish were. And when they dropped their nets where Jesus said, their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting (Luke 5.6). I mean, that’s the only difference between the two stories. The first time the nets broke. But this morning, at the Galilee Sea, the net didn’t break.
I suspect that’s why, in our Gospel lesson today, as soon as the Beloved Disciple tells Peter the man on the shore giving them fishing tips is the Lord, Peter believes it. Because this isn’t the first time it’s happened.
It’s Jesus’ way of inviting Peter back into fellowship. It’s a gesture of forgiveness. It’s a sign of restoration. It’s Peter’s re-commissioning as a disciple.
And this time, Jesus is saying, the net won’t break. Their bond won’t come apart. Their friendship won’t be strained to the point of splitting.
The risen Jesus is confident about this.
Peter, as we shall see, not so much.
Like deja vu all over again (again)
So here’s something else that’s awfully familiar—like deja vu all over again—in our story today. Jesus fed the disciples fish and bread that day. We already saw what he was doing there. But the author of the epilogue also very deliberately pointed out how the food was prepared. When the disciples came ashore, they saw a fire there—specifically a charcoal fire—with fish on it, and some bread.
Well, we’ve seen a fire—a charcoal fire—before in John’s Gospel. It was the night Jesus was arrested. While he was being grilled by the high priest. It was outside the high priest’s house, and the night air was chilly. And John told us that the servants and the guards had made a fire—specifically a charcoal fire—because it was cold. They were standing around it, warming themselves. Peter joined them there, standing by the fire and warming himself (John 18.18).
And it was there, standing beside that charcoal fire, that Peter had denied that he even knew who Jesus was. Three times.
I bet that when Peter saw that charcoal fire burning that morning, all he could think of was the night he had publicly disowned his friend and mentor.
I imagine that Peter stared blankly at the fire, not even noticing the aroma of the fish and the bread cooking on it. And that Peter ate his breakfast, but couldn’t enjoy it. And Jesus saw him looking forlornly into the flames. And he knew why Peter was unhappy. In fact, I’d be surprised if Jesus didn’t set the whole thing up.
Peter had stood by the charcoal fire while Jesus was being grilled. And now, beside another charcoal fire, Jesus begins to grill Peter. Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? And Simon Peter replies: Yes, Lord, you know I love you. And Jesus says: Feed my lambs.
It’s been popular throughout Christian history to place a lot of emphasis on the fact that Jesus and Peter use different words for love during these exchanges. Jesus uses agapao—the verbal form of agape, that unbridled, without-conditions, all-inclusive love. But Peter uses phileo—“you and me are bros, Jesus.” The problem with that is, John uses the two words for love rather interchangeably throughout his Gospel. And anyway, by the third time Jesus asks the question—because remember, they went through this exact exchange three times—Jesus is using phileo, too. Does Jesus love Peter less the third time he asks the question than he did the first time? Is he that annoyed that Peter won’t give him a straight answer? Or is it Jesus giving up and taking what he can get? I don’t think so.
Peter doesn’t catch on to what Jesus is doing. The epilogue to John says that, Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” But we have perspective, and we can see more clearly than Peter could, what Jesus was doing for him.
Peter had denied his relationship with Jesus three times. Beside a charcoal fire. Now Jesus is wiping away those three denials. Beside this charcoal fire, Jesus lets Peter confess his love for him. Three times.
But that’s not all! He didn’t just forgive Peter. He restored Peter. He had first commissioned Peter for ministry there by the Galilee Sea. Just like he had brought Peter to the charcoal fire—the place where Peter had denied him—to forgive him; now he has brought Peter back to the Galilee Sea to send him back out into ministry.
With the same words he had called to him the first time: Follow me. Even to the cross, Simon Peter. Even your own cross. I know you won’t fail me this time. Follow me.
Jesus doesn’t just forgive Peter and forget him. Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter isn’t probationary. He forgives him and puts him right back to work: Feed my lambs, he says. Take care of my sheep.
Church, here’s where I start handing it over to you. We all fail Jesus countless times. Sometimes we make a big mess of things. We do. But just like that morning: when Jesus fed Peter; called him back into fellowship; and told him to take care of the people Jesus loves—Jesus does that for us every Sunday morning. At the Lord’s Supper table he sets for us.
Let’s be a community of forgiveness and care. Let’s welcome each other. Nourish each other. Nurture each other. Take care of each other.
Just like Jesus did for Peter. Just as he does for all of us.
If you love Jesus, feed his sheep
You know, I’m so glad that John’s Gospel doesn’t end with chapter 20. We need chapter 21. We need this bonus chapter. This epilogue.
Every one of us needs to see and hear this powerful moment of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration in Peter and Jesus’ friendship. And we need to see how Jesus recommissions Peter and sends him back out.
Here in the epilogue to John’s Gospel, we see Jesus make the word forgiveness become flesh. He does this by confronting Peter directly, and forgiving him personally. This is so essential for us, I believe. It’s one thing to know that we are forgiven in the abstract. To be among a crowd of forgiven people. That’s what the risen Jesus did for the disciples in his previous two appearances. But in this, his third appearance, he shows Peter forgiveness. Face to face. The Wounded One making forgiveness real to the one who wounded him.
Like Peter, we fail Jesus. We fail ourselves. We fail to live up to our own expectations, much less what Jesus has asked of us. I do it, you do it. Every day. My daddy calls it, Being a human being in the act of being human. We lose our patience. We insist on our way. We don’t listen to each other. We look away from suffering. We close our ears to the truth. We refuse to forgive, or to be forgiven. I suspect we aren’t comfortable with forgiveness, because to be forgiven means to confess that we have owed something to somebody. We justify bad behavior. Our own, personally; and the bad behavior of our friends, our colleagues, the people on our side. We lose our tempers. We sink into despair. Maybe we even just give up. On Jesus. On ourselves. On any hope that tomorrow can be better than today. And so we live cynically. And when we do these things, we might as well be standing by that charcoal fire with Peter. Jesus. Who’s he?
Well, what this epilogue to John’s Gospel does is invite us to hope again. It tells us that Jesus doesn’t give up on us, just like he didn’t give up on Peter. That Jesus comes to us where we are, and offers his friendship again. That Jesus makes a place for us at his table, and offers us nourishment. That Jesus forgives us, and Jesus takes the initiative to draw us back into fellowship. He doesn’t let us get lost in the crowd. Yes, even today—as we break the bread of his body, and drink together from the cup of his life spilled out for us—he asks me, and he asks you: Do you love me?
And we are given the opportunity to confess to him, like Peter: Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.
And then he says to us—like he did to Peter—that if we say we love him, we need to do something about it. And he trusts us to do this. If you love me, he says, Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep.
Make room in your life for the poor in spirit, the hopeless, those at the end of their ropes. Show them they have a place in the kingdom of heaven.
Don’t break the bruised reed, don’t snuff out the smoldering wick.
Comfort those who mourn.
Stand with and stand up for the meek—make sure they get what is theirs.
Feed and water the hungry and the thirsty.
Welcome the children.
Honor those who make peace. Stop accusing them of being the ones sowing discord.
Bind the wounds of the persecuted.
Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. It means the same thing as Jesus’ famous words in Matt. 25.40: when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.
That’s what it means to be forgiven by Jesus, church. To be drawn back into fellowship with him and with each other. And being given healing and meaningful work to do. Among each other, and in the world.
We are forgiven. We are always being forgiven. Always being re-commissioned. The risen Jesus ever stands with us, among us, inviting us deeper into friendship with him. And like Peter, he tells us, over and over again: Follow me. So let’s follow him. Even as following him means our bodies—and hearts—are broken. And our lives are poured out for the healing of each other, and the world.
Let us glorify God with our forgiven lives.