A Sermon based on the Gospel of John21: 1-17
Today's story begins with seven of Jesus' disciples having returned to Galilee. Whether they were there because the Easter messenger at the empty tomb told them that is where they would see Jesus (Matt. 28:7 & 10;Mark 16:7)...or they are there because -- as the days & weeks have passed -- they have concluded there was nothing they could do in Jerusalem, we don't know. Perhaps, they think that the whole thing is over!
For whatever reason, Peter has gone home. Galilee is where the Jesus-movement began. Here is where he and Andrew, together with James and John, had left their boats and their nets and had followed Jesus, to become "fishers of men." But that was already a year or two, or three ago…
"We have found the Messiah!" they had exclaimed when we first met these fishermen-disciples in John’s Gospel (John 1:41). Their hopes ran high as they responded to his call, dropping their nets and moving out among the villages. Jesus (and they) had stirred up the people! They gathered a crowd. Here, in Galilee, they saw Jesus’ healing miracles and heard his inspiring words. Here, on the shore of this same Sea of Galilee, they had seen Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They had felt the excitement of the crowds. (!)
Sure, they knew that Jesus had enemies... but he was on a roll! Jesus was invincible (they thought)! Surely God’s Messiah would triumph over all his enemies! On to Jerusalem!
Then, to their astonishment and dismay, things started coming apart. First, Jesus acted so strangely during his Palm Sunday coronation parade -- actually weeping, crying, saying that the City didn't know how to make peace (Luke 19:41-42) -- and (frankly) Jerusalem still doesn’t!
Along the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus had said that the people would reject him (kill him) just as the people in Jerusalem had killed the other prophets God had sent to them. (!) Then, even more strangely, was the way Jesus acted at their last supper together, as if he would never see them again -- saying that his body would be broken; his blood, shed. He said that the men & women disciples would be scattered, like a flock without a shepherd. By one of them he would be betrayed! All of them would be afraid... So he had said on that Maundy Thursday...
Peter had replied: No way! He'd be there, even if it meant dying at Jesus' side! (Mark 14:29) What happened after that was too horrible to think about. Peter still wept silently whenever he thought of the three times he denied knowing Jesus! His intentions were good, but he made a bad decision when it came time to speak up. His actions that night (three denials) only added to his grief and guilt.
Like the rest of Jesus’ followers, whenever Peter’s mind's eye went back, replaying the scene of three crosses on Golgotha -- those three days of bleakness as Jesus' body lay buried -- it was too painful!
And now there have been a subsequent couple of weeks of confusion, emotion, dashed hopes, rumors... Their "ordinary life" had come to a screeching halt. Everything had changed. It was like chaos!
After three weeks, what was left? Judas was dead. (Suicide.) The other eleven disciples, and the women, began to split up. Two of them had gone off to Emmaus. Seven of the men decided to return home to Galilee. John tells us it was Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel (who was from Cana in Galilee), plus the two sons of Zebedee (James & John), and two other disciples… probably Peter’s brother Andrew was one of them.
Three years earlier, these seven had left Galilee with such high hopes, and now they returned -- looking back on those dreams and their vows -- seeing how far they were from accomplishing any of them.
They had given up their jobs (their place in society) to follow a dream of "changing the world" for the better -- for eternity, for God! -- but it turned out to be so much more difficult than they had expected. Now they came home, so much less than they thought they ought to be.
It’s normal for a person to make mistakes, and some of them can be quite serious. It’s a good thing that God has "a soft spot for fools and little children..." because I’ve been both of those!1 What does it take to forgive ourselves for our mistakes? (!) Is there anything a person can do to get "unstuck"? I imagine Peter and the others wondered those same things.
1 This phrase is from the song: "Farther On" (by Russ Taff, Tori Taff, & James Hollihan, 1989 copyright, Tori Taff Music ASCAP)
I can imagine this "remnant" half of the original 12 disciples arriving back in Galilee with the kind of sad mood one might encounter in the campaign headquarters of a losing candidate, or the depressed quiet one might hear in the locker room of a losing team. What was there to say? What could they do? The damage had already been done.
I wonder whether Peter could even share his "guilty secret" with the others. What would they think, if they knew that (like a fool, full of false courage) he had followed Jesus after his arrest. And then (like a coward) when questioned, Peter denied knowing him -- three times!
Those denials felt to Peter just like Judas' betrayal all over again... except that it was in him! Maybe Peter’s was even worse... because it was not just one act -- one kiss of betrayal, like Judas’s in the Garden of Gethsemane -- but three times! Peter couldn't stand to keep thinking of what he had done, but he couldn't get loose from it, either.
I'm sure we all know how that feels. Oh, not so much the feeling of having failed -- because anyone who tries anything for a first time probably knows what it’s like to fail on some occasions. All of us (I’d be willing to bet) have plenty of mistakes & bad decisions on our record! No, it’s the fact that Peter’s denials feel like betrayal. Not just dashed hopes, but gnawing guilt! Disappointment with others is hard enough to take, but denying in ourselves that which we know to be true -- knowing that we are living so much less (so much lower) than we ought to be -- can drive a person crazy!
And now that they're on the beach back home in Galilee, what was there to do? What was there to say?
You see, their depression came with them -- their lack of direction; their inability to find the energy to deal with their pain, their grief, the absence of Jesus, the silence of God. Their dreams had been betrayed; they had failed.
Peter was getting no better sitting in the sand on the shore of Galilee than he had been while hiding out in the locked Upper Room. Something had to be done! Maybe that's what jolted Peter into action at this point in the story: he just couldn't stand to keep on thinking about what had gone wrong... about what he had done!
"I'm going fishing!" he said, and the others followed. Doing something -- anything -- always feels better than sitting and stewing. Hanging a "gone fishing" sign in the window is as good as any other activity, I suppose. Probably there was reassurance in the familiar feel of the nets and the smell of the sea.
The seven men fished all night and failed to catch anything! That may also have been familiar -- causing a chuckle or two as they recalled other luckless nights. A sense of deja vu may have struck Peter, Andrew, James, & John, for it had been after just such a night, frustrated and fatigued, that Jesus had first called them to follow him. (see Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11)
As dawn broke, and they rowed themselves back to shore, a friendly voice called out: "Any luck?"
"Nope. Either they're not biting, or we're out of practice. We've tried everything, all night; no luck."
"Put your nets down off starboard -- the right side -- here in shallows, here in the morning light."
They did... and an incredible tug on the net astonished the men. They jerked into frantic action. One stood up to look to shore to see what expert fisherman had called out to them.
"It is the Lord!" he exclaimed. That got Peter so excited that he jumped into the water & swam to shore! The stranger met them with a fire already lit, grilling some fish for breakfast.
If this is the "Risen Christ," never has he appeared more ordinary than in this story! This is not a miracle – there’s no glowing white robe, no display of wounds, no display of divinity. Jesus Christ is eating breakfast on a beach with seven fishermen. I mean, how much more ordinary can you get!?
If you or I fail to recognize Jesus in our midst… maybe that’s why! We’re looking for something special, unique, powerful, dramatic, out of the ordinary! But this story reminds me that Christ appears at ordinary times, and that’s what makes all of life holy.
This stranger on the beach had some bread... just as (on a nearby hillside a year or so earlier) Jesus had blessed five loaves & two fish and passed them around -- just as in the Last Supper, Jesus had taken some bread, blessed it, & broke it, saying: "This is my body, broken for you."
Suddenly it all began to fit together: their call to follow, to become fishers of men; the symbols of fish & bread; the talk of raising the dead.
They realize that it is not over until they decide it is over. Their failures and guilt can be transformed into freshness and success, if they start up again. (!) There is something about the Spirit of God which has triumphed over death that reawakens these broken men and feeds their spiritual hunger, thanks to this quite ordinary stranger (this beach-comber) who has grilled some fish for breakfast... and invites them in!
Take note that Jesus came to the disciples. He didn't stay behind in Jerusalem, waiting for them to come looking for him... Waiting for them to make sacrifices of "atonement," or to "repent of their sins," before he would approach. No… Jesus doesn't wait for them to come to him, or to the Temple, to confess their sins. He doesn't even wait for them to call upon his Name! Jesus takes the initiative & comes to them. (Which makes me think: maybe the church should do the same!?)
Jesus reaches out to them, and gives them what they need, in spite of their failings and deep disappointments. He comes to them like a "bridge" between their hopes and their sad reality -- between what they ought to be and what they actually turned out to be. Jesus does the same for us. He comes to meet us where we are, just as we are...
For Peter, however, there was something else -- his three denials! -- a sin too great (he thought), impossible to forget, too big to forgive -- a stumbling block that Peter, the Rock, couldn't seem to get over... couldn't get past, without some help.
After they ate, Peter had to face it. But he couldn't bring it up on his own. In that, I’ll bet Peter is like us: we don't want our real needs, our deepest failings, to be known. We’d rather carry them inside, imbedded in pain, forever, rather than let them show… rather than let anyone know.
I’m here to tell you that Jesus' spirit already knows our deepest need, before we even ask! You see how Jesus (again) takes the initiative: "Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?"
I can imagine how pained Peter's face must have been as he looked at this stranger, who reminds him so much of Jesus -- the very person he had denied knowing, denied following. We can imagine something passing between them like these thoughts:
"Do I love you? ... Lord, I betrayed you!" I know.
"I denied you three times." I know.
"You mean you don't reject me? You don't cast me off!?"
No, Peter, I love you.
Now, would you mind answering my question?
For Peter, Jesus' invitation to join him in the picnic on the beach is more than just a sign of acceptance. It is a sign of his forgiveness. I think that his story is intended for us all. This post-Easter appearance of Jesus (on the Lakeshore) assures me that -- no matter what we have done, no matter where we have gone, no matter how "bad" we think we are -- God loves us, and has forgiven us.
I'm tempted to end right there with that Gospel message: God knows us & loves us, accepts us & forgives us. (!) But the story itself doesn't end here; & the impact of this third-week Easter appearance does not stop there for Jesus' disciples. Not for Peter, especially… nor for us.
The antidote for Peter's three denials is three new opportunities to state his love for Jesus.
I remember a story about a man who told his bride on their wedding day: "I want you to know: I love you. That's what this ceremony is all
about.-- And I don't expect to have to tell you again! If anything changes, I'll let you know."
For Peter to say that "he loves Jesus" just once (one time) would be enough to state the facts "for the record." To say it a second time would underscore it. But Jesus knew that three times was what Peter needed for his penance to purge whatever residual resistance he had to believing the Good News that Jesus knew about his denials and had never-the-less forgiven him. That is grace: undeserved good, unearned merit.
Unlike the groom in the story, we do need to put our love into words with one another as well as into our deeds with one another.
We, too (like them), are accepted and forgiven by Jesus. Our failures and sins (as well as those of others that have been directed against us) can be transformed into good by accepting the love of God, which is extended in grace (unearned & undeserved) and claimed by faith.
Easter says that -- in spite of our mistakes & disappointments; in spite of the apparent defeat of what we believe in and what we hope for; in spite of the apparent triumph of what is evil, harmful, & petty; in spite of all evidence to the contrary -- there is hope beyond our wildest expectations! We are a resurrection people! We can look forward confidently, as we work toward that day when God's dreams come true, on earth as it is in heaven.
May that day dawn for you, and for me, as soon as possible.