Margaret LaMotte Torrence
John 21:1-19 pp. 115-116
Third Sunday of Easter
April 15, 2018
One of the gifts of growing up in the church is that each season becomes layered with memories. I cannot sing “Silent Night” without remembering every sanctuary in which I have spent a Christmas Eve.
We begin to sing and suddenly I can feel velvet pew cushions, hear my grandmother’s quavery voice, and smell candle wax mixed with the salty air of my childhood.
One of the memories that has found its way into my Easter collection was formed eight or nine years ago. My daughter was still in high school,
and I was serving a church in downtown Asheville. We were making preparations for our Maundy Thursday service. It was a balmy late afternoon and we had the doors to the sanctuary wide open, so that when you stood in the chancel—you could look straight down the aisle, through the open doors, onto the street outside.
I was tending to some last-minute details when I heard laughter and looked up to see my daughter, Hanna, standing with one of her friends, just outside the door. I had known that the friend would be spending the night at our house, but had not expected to see her until after the service was over.
This friend had not grown up in a faith community and nothing we would do that night would be familiar to her. But the ride that would have brought her to our house later in the evening had fallen through, so she had decided on the spur of the moment to join us at church. Being an open-hearted, curious sort, she was eager to give it a try—she even accepted a small reading part in the service. We gave her the role of a bystander.
In that community’s tradition, Maundy Thursday worship is a simple but dramatic service of reading and communion, with many members participating. The light diminishes as the conspiracy around Jesus builds, and then finally all of the light is extinguished at the account of his death. We whisper the Apostles’ Creed before leaving in the darkness.
After the service concluded I stayed to clean up, while my husband took the girls home. For the twenty-five minutes that they were together in the car, Lee said that Kelsey peppered them with one question after another.
But most of all, she wanted to know, “What’s the rest of the story?”
What’s the rest of the story? Something in us wants resolution; we don’t want to live in the tension of an unfinished tale.
The author of John’s gospel knows something about that tension. He also seems to struggle with his ending. Last week we heard the close of the previous chapter, chapter 20, which concludes with these words: “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.”[i]
Many readers, including most scholars, find that a tidy stopping point.
They suggest that today’s reading, from Chapter 21, must be a later addition, but no copy of John’s gospel has ever been found that lacks this final material. We are left to wonder why, in particular, it is here. If anyone has a stake in its inclusion, it is Simon Peter. Were the gospel of John to end with chapter 20, the last reported conversation between Peter and his Lord would be the prediction of Peter’s denial. But Jesus loves Peter too much to let the conversation end there.
Chapter 21 begins in darkness. Peter and six others are in a boat, fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They have gone home. They have returned to the work they know, but as the morning dawns, the night looks to have been wasted. In the chill just after daybreak, as the world begins to stir, someone calls to them from the shore, saying: Children, you have no fish, have you?
This stranger names their situation. They have come up empty. This is a description of what we often are hesitant to admit about our own lives, that we run dry: relationally, work-wise, in our faith community. That things aren’t as good as they look on our Facebook feeds. Children, you have no fish, have you?
When the man, whom they have not yet recognized as Jesus, issues a simple instruction, they wordlessly follow along. Maybe they are too weary to protest or maybe there’s something about his voice. Either way, they are rewarded by a catch so great that they are unable to draw it in.
The abundance of fish must have reminded them of a copious quantity of wine at a wedding in Cana. It must have reminded them of a meal they shared on the far shore of this same lake, when five loaves and two fish became so much food that they collected twelve baskets of what remained after five thousand people were fed. The abundance of fish is enough for one of the disciples to put the pieces together. He turns to Peter and says “It is the Lord.” –And I can’t help wondering if he shares the news first with Peter because he knows that Peter needs this encounter most of all.
In response, Peter grabs the nearest piece of clothing, cinches it around himself the same way that Jesus tied a towel around his waist when last they ate together, and then Peter throws himself in the water. In just the same way that the net was cast, Peter is cast. John doesn’t tell us that Peter swam to shore, or whether he arrived before the others in the boat—John seems most interested in Peter’s need to get in the water on his way to Jesus.
It’s not until they are all ashore that they see charcoals burning on the beach with fish already cooking and bread. Jesus says, “Bring some of what you have so that I can use that, too.” In a parable of grace and stewardship, Jesus invites them to contribute what he himself has provided.
In response Peter goes aboard the boat and hauls the whole slippery, writhing, impossibly heavy mass of fish and brings every last one of them to Jesus. Peter’s efforts do not elicit a response, just an invitation to “Come and have breakfast.” Before all else, Jesus’ followers must eat what he has prepared for them. Only after breakfast does Jesus draw Peter into conversation.
Have you ever come face-to-face with someone whose love you have betrayed? Did the space between you so need to be cleared of the pain,
that it sat like a weight against your chest? This is that kind of conversation.
As they walk together, Jesus reverts to using Peter’s name as it was before he became a disciple, as though they were starting over: Simon, son of John, he calls him: do you love me more than these?
This is the reckoning. Implied in Jesus’ question is the whole of their history together: Peter’s reckless boasting of his boundless commitment to Jesus, and then the words spoken in the darkness by another charcoal fire, words Peter cannot take back, in which three times he denied his relationship to Jesus.
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? It’s more than Peter can do to address the whole of Jesus’ question. Peter knows that he did not prove more faithful than the others. But he also knows that Jesus can see into his heart. He replies simply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
There are no words of recrimination from Jesus, just another instruction: “Feed my lambs.” Peter is silenced by this exchange.
Jesus asks him again, but this time more gently.
And then Jesus drills it home one more time: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
This time the pain surfaces in Peter. Jesus knows everything;
why must he keep asking? But Jesus responds again, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus then tells Peter that the road he’s setting out on will cost him his life. His final instruction to Peter is “Follow me.”
I am struck by how simple Jesus’ instructions are throughout this story: “Cast your net on the other side….Bring some of what you’ve caught to me….Come have breakfast….Feed my sheep….Follow me.”
Jesus says we begin from where we are. We begin by acknowledging all the empty places, then listening for the sound of his voice and following where he leads. We offer what we have for his use, knowing that it is ours only by grace, trusting that he wastes nothing. We let him feed us and care for us, because only after we have learned to trust and love him can we serve him.
Jesus recognizes that we don’t have what it takes to sustain the church out of our own energy, commitment, or faith—when we try, we come up empty time and again. Jesus knows that the only way that we can re-present him to the world is if we know something of what it means to live in love with God. Jesus says tend the world out of the love you share with me.
It amazes me that this is what reconciliation looks like for Peter, that this is what it looks like for us. Jesus doesn’t say: “It’s alright; I forgive you; go and sin no more.” He doesn’t keep us at such a distance. Jesus demonstrates his reconciling love by entrusting to us what is most precious to him. Jesus asks us to love the world the way that he does.
No punches are pulled. This way of life will be costly. For Peter, it will end on a cross.
I have not met very many people whose faith has placed them in such jeopardy, but about four years ago I had the privilege of spending a long evening with Allan Boesak. His name will be very familiar to some of you, but not, I suspect to others. Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak led the black South African Church through the struggle with apartheid. Bishop Tutu is Anglican, while Dr. Boesak is from our own Reformed Tradition.
Dr. Boesak is the first to admit he is not a perfect person, he has not escaped controversy. Yet that makes him all the more compelling, somehow. He seemed to me, at the same time so human and so filled with the light of God. So like Peter.
The church in South Africa that struggled against apartheid, against the labeling of some of God’s children as subhuman, has blessed the larger church by giving us a document called the Belhar Confession. It is so named after the township outside of Capetown, from which it emerged. Allan Boesak was one of its principle authors. As Dr. Boesak commended this confession to us, he shared a warning. He said, “I can’t tell you how many times I have found such comfort in the knowledge that Jesus is there.
I also can’t tell you how many times I have prayed to God that Jesus would just go away for a while, just leave me alone for a bit—that doesn’t happen though. That doesn’t happen.”
Dr. Boesak says we must put ourselves at the disposal of God—that we are not to worry so much about whether the church is losing members, or do we have enough money—He says don’t worry about that.
“Because we are the church of Jesus Christ, the church should not be our first concern, God will take care of that—our first concern is how can I be obedient? God will take us where God will take us, rarely to a place of our choosing, sometimes to the cross—but there is no more secure place for the church to be than that.”
The cross was where we left Kelsey when she stumbled into our sanctuary in Asheville. And on the ride home she ached to know the rest of the story.
The truth is, friends, that we are writing our chapters even now.
And the broken world is dying to receive from us a faithful, courageous, obedient witness.
Jesus still says: Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.
[i] John 20:30-31