But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

beach campfire

John 21

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the 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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, 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. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

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Today’s gospel text is interesting in several ways. First, in that it’s quite clearly an added chapter to a gospel that had already been concluded with a nice wrap-up at the end of the chapter before – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” But then you turn the page and you see “But wait, there’s more!” and the gospel continues, by telling this additional story of the miraculous beach encounter between Jesus and some of his disciples. Second, it’s interesting in the way that the disciples recognized Jesus through his repeat miracle of telling them how to catch a huge amount of fish, a parallel to what Luke tells us he’d done early in his ministry when he was first calling some of these very same men as disciples. Related to that, it’s interesting, or maybe more accurately, it’s a little odd, how Peter responds when they realize it’s Jesus on the shore, by jumping up, throwing on some clothes, and jumping into the lake to swim to shore – which everyone knows, unless you’re John Fischbach, that the best way to get back to shore if you’re sitting in a boat is to just stay in the boat with everyone else and row in – and besides, if you’re going to swim in, why do you actually get dressed to jump into the water? You can imagine the other disciples just rolling their eyes and thinking “Well, that’s Peter for you; what are you going to do?”

But I think the most interesting thing about this story is its second part – Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now Peter, who still has to be stinging from what he’d done wrong – his denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest just over a week before, is talking with Jesus, and Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter confirms to Jesus that he loves him. Three times, a mirror image of his three denials, each time seemingly erasing the guilt and shame that lingered in Peter’s mind for each one of his denials; and each one being a reconfirmation of Jesus’ having forgiven Peter for those denials. It’s Jesus’ act of giving Peter a new start, and showing his love and acceptance regardless of what he’d gotten wrong before. From Peter’s standpoint, it had to be a powerful expression of love and hope at a time when he needed just that affirmation. That’s an affirmation that we all need at one time or another, when things seem to have gone off the tracks and we’ve messed up, and this story teaches us that Jesus offers it to us just as he did to Peter in this story.

At the same time, as the preacher David Lose has pointed out, Jesus gave Peter  two other things that we all need, too: first, we all need a sense of belonging, of being accepted for who we are by a larger group that helps us have a stable identity and sense of self, and self-worth. Our society touts individualism as maybe the most sacred aspect of our culture, but the reality is that, for better or worse, most of our self-identity comes from how others see and accept us. This is precisely why the way we welcome and accept others is so very important; the way we act and the words we say have immense power to  shape others in their own minds, and to make them feel loved and worthy, or not. In this story, Jesus has let Peter know that there is nothing that he’s done that has removed him from the fold of disciples. He is still a part of the beloved community of faith.

The other thing that Jesus gives Peter is a sense of purpose as a member of this larger community that he’s part of. Feed my sheep, Jesus tells him. Look out for others. Having a sense of purpose – knowing that who we are, and what we do, matters. Knowing that if we weren’t here, if we didn’t show up for life every morning, we’d be missed. It’s a well-proven fact that having sense of purpose in life is a far greater motivator than money, or power, or fame. Understanding that we have something of value to offer to other people is the most important aspect of living a life of joy.

In this story, the risen Jesus offered grace to Peter –  simultaneously offering him forgiveness, and a sense of belonging to a larger community, and giving him a purpose to carry out as part of that community.  And the risen Jesus offers the same to us. Through Christ, here, as members of this community of faith, we have the assurance that we’ve been accepted for who we are by God’s grace alone, and that we belong to this thing larger than ourselves, and that God has called each of us to make a difference, large or small, in this world of God’s creation.

In this world, we all struggle with guilt and shame about parts of our lives, and a sense of isolation and not belonging, and thoughts that we don’t really matter. This story was apparently an afterthought, an addition to John’s first printing of the gospel, but it’s good news for us that it was added – because here, Jesus offers us the cure for all of those struggles – through Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of a new beginning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. He offers this to us in a way just as real as if, just as he shared breakfast with Peter that morning, he was sharing breakfast with us each morning – and in a very real way, he is.

Thanks be to God.

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Embracing the Mystery (sermon 4/10/16 – Confirmation Sunday)

campfire on beach

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the 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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”  – John 21:1-19

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Sometimes, when you’ve got so much on your mind that you think it’s more than you can handle, the best thing you can do is to just stop – to step away from all of those thoughts and worries and all of that processing, and just take a breather to clear you head.

They took their breather, they cleared their heads, by fishing. By this time, they’d left Jerusalem far behind and made the solid four-day trip back to more familiar surroundings, the villages along the edge of the Sea of Galilee. With birds circling in the thermals overhead, and the waves lapping at the beach covered with smooth black basalt stones, they loaded the boat with their gear, and probably some snacks, and themselves, and as they felt the warmth of the late afternoon sun on their backs, they set out for deeper water not far from the shoreline.

Maybe they’d tried hard to catch some fish and hadn’t had any luck. Maybe they weren’t really trying to catch anything at all, the whole excursion just being an excuse to get away from things and to let the whole sensory experience of being out on the lake bring them some peace and clarity. Either way, after being out all night there weren’t any fish in the boat and the snacks were almost gone and they were going to have to go back in soon, when then, in the fledgling daylight, they saw the man standing on the shore. What? No fish? Try casting you net on the right side of the boat. Since most of them were right-handed, the most natural way for them to cast their nets would have been out off to the left side of the boat. But the stranger told them to try something new, something different and unconventional – and when they did, the results were amazing.

There are people in this world who describe having had encounters with someone, and somehow they just knew there was more going on than the eye could see. There was something more, something deeper, even otherworldly about the encounter. They couldn’t put their finger on it exactly, but still they knew that they weren’t speaking to just another ordinary human being, that there was some inexplicable spiritual thing happening. It’s the same sort of thing that the scriptures refer to as having entertained angels unaware, or maybe not all that unaware. It happened with Abraham and his mysterious three human-but-not-human visitors. It happened with Jacob wrestling the equally mysterious being along the Jabbock River, and in other places in the scriptures, too. And now, this was one of those times, as they looked across the water and somehow they just knew that even though he apparently didn’t look the same, it was Jesus.

And in a rush to meet up with Jesus, Peter does the odd thing, the opposite of what a person might expect – he’s out there, naked on the boat, and he gets dressed in order to jump into the lake – proving that not every new, different, unconventional response is necessarily the smart thing to do, and leaving the others to just scratch their heads and think, Well, that’s Peter for you.

Eventually, they’re all ashore and enjoying the grilled fish together, and it’s an indescribable experience they’re having. They know it’s Jesus, but they don’t want to say that it is, or ask if it is, and they don’t want to start running off at the mouth about how great a time they’re having and that they should set up tents for everyone and they could all just stay there enjoying the moment indefinitely, the way Peter did at the Transfiguration; because they knew that the minute they started talking like that, the mood would be broken and there would be a cloud or a thunderclap or the voice of God telling them to shut up, and they’d look around and find themselves all alone again on the rocky little beach while the birds circled overhead.

So they didn’t say anything like that. They sat there enjoying the fish and the fellowship, savoring the mixture of certainty and mystery, and maybe they thought to themselves that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could hope for in this life.

Somewhere during all that, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three time in a row he asked him, which would probably be annoying to anyone, and each time after getting Peter’s answer, the response was the same: Feed my sheep. Take care of my flock. Share my story, share God’s good news brought into this world for all people, with every generation that comes after you. And that’s exactly what he and the others sitting around the fire on that beach did, until the message eventually reached us.

And now it’s our turn. Now, we’re continuing to feed Christ’s sheep, to care for his people by sharing his message with the next generation through our Confirmation process. Teaching these young adults that our faith – their faith – is one where they’ll see Jesus in unexpected places, in ways simultaneously knowable and unknowable. That their faith is a marriage of certainty and uncertainty; that wherever their faith journey takes them, they’ll still have a list of unanswered questions that they’ll carry with them all their lives.

Hopefully, through the Confirmation process, they’ve come to learn like those disciples on the beach, to savor that blend of certainty and uncertainty, and that even in the midst of that, that they are surrounded, completely enfolded, by God’s love – that they are loved, and chosen, and called, by God – and that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could ever hope for in this life.

Hopefully, Confirmands, you’ve learned that within our particular, Presbyterian tradition, we welcome, and honor that holy tension, the embracing of certainty and mystery, and the lifelong journey of faith that it takes us on.

I have to say that it’s been not just my pleasure, but my honor, to have journeyed along with you in this process, Confirmands. Each one of you is a truly remarkable and exceptional person, and I consider myself blessed to have spent this time together with you. Wherever life takes you, always – always – continue to be open to seeing God in the unexpected. Never – never – avoid wrestling with difficult questions of faith. And know that wherever life takes you, God will always – always – be right there beside you.

Thanks be to God.