This is the sermon I preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church, Boonville, NY. The text is John 21:1-19.
Parents, in my experience, have a way of knowing us better than we know ourselves. I know this because I am a parent and, even though she’s only sixteen months old, I can already pick up on distinct aspects of my daughter’s personality emerging. I also know this because I have parents and, much to my chagrin, they have often been able to finish my sentences, predict my next move, and see a part of my personality that I thought I had hidden well.
I felt particularly cornered one day when my mother aptly pointed out that I suffer from an “over-active conscience”. Little things, small errors in judgment that most people would be able to let go, bothered me to the point of needing to confess to someone. On one such occasion, my father interrupted my tirade of self-loathing to give me one bit of advice. “Son,” he said, “go easy on yourself.” To this day, that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
I am hardly the first person in history to wrestle with such a compulsion. Psychologists have identified a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder called “Scrupulosity”, which manifests itself as an unhealthy fixation on one’s own sinfulness. Historical scholars suspect that both Martin Luther, the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist churches, might have suffered from this ailment.
These “scrupulous” tendencies in myself, combined with a church environment that condoned such an inclination, brought me to the point where I disqualified myself from serving as a minister in the church. Even as I graduated college and started seminary, people would ask me, “Are you planning to pursue a career in ordained ministry?” I would respond, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”
Because of this experience, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the apostle Peter felt at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. This story comes to us from the end of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead. We read that Peter was certainly present for the events which took place around Easter Sunday, but the last time he played a major role in the plot of this story was on the night when Jesus was arrested. Earlier that evening, Peter had expressed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus in no uncertain terms. By the next morning, Peter had publicly denied that even knew Jesus. He did this, not once, but three times.
This was no minor misstep for Peter. In doing this, we know that he turned his back on his faith; he rejected everything he had come to believe about God through Jesus. But more than that, Peter had also turned his back on his closest friend at a critical moment. According to ancient near-eastern custom, Peter’s infidelity had violated Jesus’ honor. Jesus would be expected to demand vindication for such an offense. Perhaps Peter thought of those words which Jesus had spoken earlier, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of his Father and of the holy angels.”
So Peter was probably not all that surprised when at Jesus’ first appearance after the resurrection, his friend did not address him directly. I can imagine Peter, in his crushing guilt, believing that his denial had purchased his exclusion from the ranks of apostles. He had been reduced from the role of leader to that of spectator. When Jesus commissioned his apostles, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I can see Peter, sitting in a far corner of the room, relieved to see Jesus, excited for his friends, but also sad for himself. I can even imagine Peter saying the same thing I did, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”
After the events of Easter, Peter has to decide how to get on with the rest of his life. It made perfect sense for him to return to fishing, the only life he knew before Jesus. I find it interesting that six other disciples accompanied Peter in his return to the maritime business. I like to imagine that they went along as Peter’s social support system. Maybe they were hoping to shake Peter out of his paralyzing guilt so that he would come and join them as they sought to preach the Good News about Jesus to the ends of the earth.
Peter, hoping he could forget the past (or at least put it behind him), was finding his old job to be a hollow pursuit on multiple levels. We read that his nets kept coming up empty. I think this is a comment about something more than the fishing conditions at the Sea of Tiberias. I think we, as the readers of this story, are getting a glimpse inside Peter’s soul at that moment. The fisherman’s life to which he was returning seemed empty and meaningless after his experience of traveling with Jesus. I also imagine that it must have been hard for Peter to work those same shores, remembering the day he met Jesus on that very spot, when Jesus used his boat as an impromptu pulpit.
In this sad moment, the risen Christ makes a sudden reappearance. Jesus encounters Peter in the midst of his daily routine and brings two gifts. First, he brings Abundance. Like the symbol of emptiness, this miraculous catch is a sign to Peter that he is about to find that which he was really seeking (and here’s a hint: it isn’t fish).
As they are gathering the nets, one of the disciples, the one “whom Jesus loved” (identified as John by most biblical scholars), turns to Peter in realization that this catch was no ordinary coincidence. “It is the Lord!” he says. In this moment, John is acting like a true pastor by pointing out God’s presence and activity in Peter’s life. This, by the way, is how I spend most of my time on the street as a Community Chaplain. I’m not a street preacher, I’m a street pastor. It’s my job to walk with people through the triumphs and struggles of daily life and help them see how God is at work there.
Peter responds to this observation immediately. But we read that he does something quite unusual: he puts his coat on just before hopping into the water. I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to swim without being fully clothed. But, like the nets, I take this to be a statement about Peter’s internal state-of-being. He doesn’t want to feel so exposed in front of the one he has let down. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Peter wants to cover himself because he feels ashamed. Too often these days (even in the church), God’s children fall victim to this mentality. They assume there is something about themselves that is unacceptable, so they duck and cover. Hiding in the closet, they wear the mask constructed for them by society’s expectations. But, as we will see in a moment with Peter, Jesus has this uncanny ability to pierce the veil of our shame with his love.
Which leads me to Jesus’ second gift:
Jesus appears bearing the gift of Acceptance. When Peter and the disciples finally make it to shore, they find breakfast waiting for them. This is evocative of Jesus’ meal-sharing ministry, which got him in even more trouble than his teaching and healing. You’ve heard me describe before what a powerful statement it was to share a meal with someone in the ancient near-east. Eating with someone signified one’s total acceptance of the other person into the family unit. By feeding the multitudes and dining with outcasts, Jesus makes a statement about the scope of his radically inclusive love. In this passage, that love is extended to the disciples, even Peter. By eating first, Jesus is effectively saying that he has rejected Peter’s rejection of him.
Once breakfast is over, Peter is finally ready to come face-to-face with Jesus and talk about the painful events of that night. Jesus uses his words like a surgeon’s scalpel: cutting ever deeper, exposing the source of the pain in order to heal it. It is not an easy soul-surgery for Peter to endure. Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him. One time for each denial. Each time, Peter affirms that he does love him and Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”
Instead of enacting vengeance upon Peter, Jesus asks him to take care of that which is most precious to him: this new community of believers. In verse 16, Jesus uses the term “Shepherd”, which is “Poimaine” in Greek, and will later be translated into a Latin term that is very familiar to us: “Pastor”. Jesus doesn’t punish Peter, he ordains him!
Jesus says to Peter, in effect, “Do you really love me, Peter? If so, then I want you to take that love and give it to these people who need it the most right now.” Peter now stands before Jesus as a healed and restored person. The shameful hurt of denial has been replaced by the warm embrace of love.
History tells us that Peter did, in fact, take up this call. Peter stands out as one of the great pastors in the early days of the Christian Church. We have stories and letters in the New Testament that bear witness to this fact. I think Peter walked away from that meeting with a newfound faith in the power of love to set things right. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Peter had this encounter in mind when he wrote to a group of churches years later, saying to them, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
I went to seminary declaring, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.” I said it as a joke, but my sarcasm was a thin veil covering my deep sense of shame and unworthiness. But it happened that as I heard Jesus’ words to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, I began to notice a new desire rising up within me. I realized that I wanted to feed Christ’s people with his Word and Sacraments. Following this desire has led me out into the streets, where many of Christ’s lost sheep stand desperately in need of love. I am being transformed by that love, even as I try to give it out. My ministry in the neighborhoods of inner-city Utica has only increased my faith in the radically inclusive love of God. I believe Jesus is teaching me to read my Bible with a new set of eyes as I read it with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people. I no longer see it as a book of rules and doctrines, but as a library of stories, poems, and letters, documenting a millennia-long romance between God and God’s people. Like Peter, I find myself being transformed by the warm embrace of a love (God’s love) that covers a multitude of sins (my sins).
I don’t know where you are this morning, in relation to this powerful, transforming love of Christ. Maybe you feel like there is something inside of you that you have to hide from the world? Maybe you feel like you’ve committed some unforgivable sin and Jesus has finally turned his back on you? Maybe you feel the crushing burden of doubt or guilt? If that’s you this morning, I want to encourage you with this Gospel passage. Jesus is coming into your life now with his gifts of abundance and acceptance. He is not coming to punish you, but to heal you and, finally, to commission you into his service.
Maybe you’re here today and you’ve already experienced that healing love of Christ firsthand? If that’s you, then I want to encourage you to take it with you into the world. There are many of our sisters and brothers who are still bound by chains of guilt, fear, and despair. Jesus is calling you this morning to follow him into those dark corners of the world, bringing with you the light and the warmth of his love. One need not be a pastor in order to feed Christ’s hungry sheep. Each of us, regardless of age or occupation, has a call to ministry. Likewise, one need not go to Palestine or the inner-city. There are hurting people who stand in desperate need of love in your own family, neighborhood, and community. Your co-workers, clients, and supervisors need it. If you are still in school, look for that fellow student in the cafeteria or playground who always eats or plays alone. If you are retired, look among your friends and neighbors. None of us has outlived God’s call on our lives. For as long as there is still air in your lungs, God still has plans for your life.
Jesus has a lot of love to give and the hurting people of this world desperately need it. Let’s learn to accept that love for ourselves and then pass it on. Come on people, let’s feed some sheep.
Let us pray.
Eternal and Holy One, your love, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, has covered the multitude of our sins: Grant us vision to see your love more clearly in our own lives, that we might pass it on to those hungry sheep who you have entrusted to our care; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.