May 5, 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter
The God we worship is the consummate inventor: One who creates something that did not exist before. This we discover through the stories of creation found in the Book of Genesis, and we continue to discover each and every day: babies conceived and born; seeds planted…
Since we do believe that the God we worship is the creator of all living things, we also believe that each and every one of us exists because God decided that we needed to be here. Each of us is created with a particular set of gifts, specifically designed to partner with God in helping to care for God’s world. In other words, each of us is created for a specific purpose, and God knows what that is because our whole existence is God’s idea, part of God’s unfolding plan. Sadly, though, I think all-too-often we’re so aware of our flaws, transgressions, frailties, insecurities, that it is impossible to believe, truly believe, that God could consider us to be worthy of such a noble task. But here’s the thing; because we’re designed by God, God accepts us unconditionally, while at the same time is mindful of our potential; and not just mindful, but also providing everything we need to help us live into our God given potential. If there is anything you take with you from this morning, I hope it is the reminder that God loves us unconditionally, while always guiding us to live into our potential.
Two of our readings this morning exemplify this truth. First, the story of Saul, soon to become Paul: One who has made every effort to crush the church. Jesus chooses him to become a follower; Jesus chooses him to fulfill a critical role in building that first century church. God accepted him unconditionally, chose him, while at the same time guiding him to live into his potential.
Then, the story of Peter: One who abandoned and betrayed Jesus, and yet Jesus continues to seek him out – choose him – to become the rock on which the church is built; through this weak and misguided individual the church would grow. God accepted him, chose him, while also guiding him to live into his potential. Indeed, Peter is often defined as weak, seriously limited and misguided. It is sometimes easier to remember the multitudinous ways in which he misses the point than the few times he actually gets it right. But Jesus sees Peter’s potential, and continues to seek him out.
Peter, here, along with the rest of Jesus’ followers, has had a really bad week. Circumstances, along with his own cowardly behavior, must be weighing on him heavily. His beloved Jesus has accepted death on the cross and Peter – understandably – is incapable of comprehending this devastating unfolding of events.This is not what Peter had signed up for; He had assumed that Jesus was to be a powerful military leader who would defeat the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel. He had assumed that he was securing – elevating - his own self importance by aligning himself with a winner. But now, with Jesus’ death, all hope of this outcome is lost. Which of course, is why during Jesus’ journey toward the cross, Peter (three times no less…) denies any connection with Jesus at all. For Peter, it is both dangerous and embarrassing to be associated with Him.
Initially, he and another disciple (who may be John) manage to stay close to Jesus as he is led to his death. They are able to gain access to the high priest’s courtyard, but while they are there Peter is asked, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” And Peter responds, “I am not.” Later on, after the high priest has questioned Jesus, Peter, while warming himself by the fire, is confronted two more times with this question, to which he consistently denies any association with Jesus at all. In the space of a few hours both Judas and Peter have betrayed Jesus, each for different reasons, and in different ways. Imagine the heaviness of this betrayal, weighing on Peter’s conscience. It seems clear that his love for Jesus stands firm, but his courage falters, along with his understanding of why Jesus has to die in this way. So, now he is grieving Jesus’ death, and equally painful, he’s likely filled with a sense of self-loathing for having allowed his fear to lead him into such betrayal.
And this brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading from John, which takes place between the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension. The apostles have returned north, where Simon Peter decides to go fishing; some of the others decide to go with him. After fishing all night, they catch nothing. (This situation of course is reminiscent of Luke’s story which tells of the same thing happening on the day that Jesus first called Peter to be his disciple.) But then, in the hazy light of dawn, a figure calls out to them from the shore, telling them to throw out their net on the other side of the boat. (I love this piece of the story, because it offers an important reminder that if something isn’t accomplishing positive results, perhaps we simply need to find an alternative approach.) The beloved disciple is the first to realize it is Jesus on the shore; but Simon Peter is the one who throws on his coat and jumps overboard. (Fishing is what these men do. Fishing is an ordinary, everyday task for them. This piece of the story offers an important reminder that we come to worship so that we may become church; that is, to discover and serve Christ within the context of our everyday lives.)
John remembers how the others follow, dragging the great catch about 100 yards to the beach, and counting the fish, 153. If this number has a special meaning, it may stand for the mission of the church. Many believed that there are 153 nations in the world. After a long night’s work, Jesus invites his friends to breakfast, complete with fresh bread, and fish already cooking on a charcoal fire. (Indeed, Jesus is One who feeds.) Again, the fire may trigger Simon Peter’s memory; as I’ve mentioned already, it was beside such a fire, in the high priest’s courtyard, that he denied Jesus three times.
After breakfast, Jesus and Peter have a heart-to-heart talk. Rather than using his nickname Peter (‘Rock’), Jesus calls him, Simon son of John: Since Peter has so vigorously denied Jesus, they must now rebuild the foundation of their relationship. After abandoning Jesus as he journeyed to the cross, and denying three times any association with him, the risen Jesus still seeks him out. He does not give up on him. Jesus loves Peter unconditionally, continually feeding and nurturing him, leading him to live into his potential. Peter, I know you abandoned me; I know you denied even knowing me, three times… so now I ask YOU, three times… “Do you love me?”
In his Complete Jewish Bible David Stern translates this Greek text in a particularly suggestive manner, because the exchange here is not simply, “do you love me,” with a repeated response, “You know I love you.” They are actually using two different words here, Jesus is using the word ‘Agape’ which means, “do you love me with an intense, complete, devoted, sacrificial love?” While Peter (Simon son of John) is responding with the word ‘phileos’ meaning friendship; a love that is not quite so complete. English translations are challenging because we have only one word for love, whereas the Greek language has three - agape, phileos, and eros. So, David Stern’s translation goes like this;
Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I’m your friend.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, Simon son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I’m your friend.” He said to him, Shepherd my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, are you my friend? So he replied, “Lord, you know everything! You know I’m your friend!”
Jesus recognizes the limitations of what Peter is able to offer in that moment, and still trusts him to carry on His work. In dying on the cross and rising to new life, Jesus has taken onto himself, the weakness and sinfulness of humanity. Jesus now stands in solidarity with Peter’s weakness and sinfulness; sees it clearly; and with his resurrection feeds him, leads him, empowers him to carry on the work he began. And this is true for each and every one of us.
We are all weak. We are all frail. We all know what it is to fall into sin (to make decisions that are not faithful to God’s mandate to sacrificial love). On the cross, Jesus has taken all this onto himself, and with his resurrection He has come to meet us, to lead us, empower us to follow Him; chosen us to carry on His work. Jesus loves us, accepts us unconditionally; He is not waiting for us to be worthy to serve Him; He accepts us, as we are, today, and trusts that in following Him, serving Him, we will grow into our God-given potential. (Peter evolved: from a cowardly, misguided, betrayer of Jesus, to the rock on which the church was built. And he did so, because he kept following Jesus, as well as he was able, each step of the way, improving as he went.) We are all works in progress. May we continue to progress as we discover the risen Christ standing on the shore and as we answer his call to serve.