(a sermon for May 5, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on John 21:1-19)
It’s actually surprising – and a little bit odd – to realize that what our text for this morning is really all about… is failure.
I know; not exactly the message we’ve all come to hear, especially right now when we’re in the midst of what the church refers to as Eastertide, the 50 “Great Days” between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. Fourteen days in, we are meant to still be in the afterglow of our Easter celebration; and Easter is supposed to be the joyful victory of God, not the sad defeat! And yet, it doesn’t take very long in this last chapter of John’s gospel to discover that there’s an air of defeat and failure that permeates the whole story! And it all starts with Simon Peter announcing to his fellow disciples, “I am going fishing.”
I mean, think about this with me for a moment. This is what is referred to by biblical scholars as a “post-resurrection narrative;” in other words, John’s account of what happened after Jesus was raised from the dead. So what we’ve already heard about in John is about Mary discovering the empty tomb, the two disciples racing to investigate and Mary mistaking the risen Christ for the gardener; and then, of course, there’s the story of Thomas’ lingering doubt and subsequent belief in the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. By this point, we’re told, Jesus had already made his presence known to the disciples on several occasions: he’d appeared to them when they were behind closed doors, he’d spoken to them directly, he’d breathed on them the breath of the Holy Spirit (!); and yet, what was the disciples’ collective response to all of this? They went back to fishing! I actually love William Willimon’s assessment of this response; of the disciples he writes, “You must be a really dull person to walk away from a resurrection, to have been personally met by the risen Christ, and [then] still go back to fishing!”
Then again, it kind of makes sense… especially when you consider the failure involved.
Because when you think about it, there’s actually two kinds of failure running through this decision to head out on the waters. First, there’s the corporate failure, if you will: what Willimon refers to in his piece as “the apparent or assumed failure of Jesus and his mission.” Remember, just a few days prior those disciples had watched everything they’d previous held to be true unravel right before their very eyes. They’d left everything to follow Jesus and had walked with him for three years; they really did believe that he was in fact the anointed one, the Messiah who would redeem Israel; and they’d seen that belief confirmed in a triumphal entry along the streets of Jerusalem! But then after having stood by and watched Jesus suffer and die on the cross, that dream was dead and gone. Not even the presence of a Risen Savior could change the fact that at a crucial moment the people had all turned against them and that the old guard – that is, the “collusion” of Romans and Temple Leaders – had put an end to their hope of “a kingdom with no end” once and for all.
So… yes, he had risen… but maybe the initial rush of the having seen their master alive again had faded away a bit; perhaps this whole series of events was more than a little overwhelming to even think about at that moment; or it could be that they just didn’t know what to do with themselves except to go back to the last point when everything had seemed normal to them. They went back to fishing; something they knew, something that made sense, something they could embrace without fear of anything else going wrong!
But that was, as I said before, the corporate failure; be assured that as they sat out there in their boats that night, there was also the enduring pain of personal failure as well. Because also remember, friends, that there was not a single one of those disciples who had stood with Jesus on that fateful night of “betrayal and desertion;” so the sheer weight of guilt and responsibility for everything that had gone down that night and on the “Good” Friday that followed had to have been more than they could bear. And that sense of remorse could not have been deeper than in the heart of Simon Peter: Peter, the one who was so outspoken in his resolve to remain steadfast and stand with Jesus; Peter, who promised that even if all of the others fell away, he would not; Peter, who in the heat of the moment, had actually taken up arms in the form of a sword with which he cut off the right ear of a high priest’s slave (John 18:10)! Peter, who for all his bravado and promises, “ended up denying Jesus three times and breaking down in tears at the failure of his resolve.”
So never mind, for a moment, that Jesus had risen from the dead; there’s still this insurmountable amount of guilt around how he’d died in the first place, which was more than the disciples, and in particular Peter, could take! What do you do in the face of all that, especially when you consider that the one you thought was dead was now alive and almost certainly would soon be standing before you demanding a reckoning for what you’d done, or more accurately, what you hadn’t done? I’ll tell you what you do: you get out! You go fishing! You do whatever it takes to put some distance between you and your failures!
Of course, the great irony of all this is that once Peter and the rest of them had put out to sea and had cast their nets into the water, they ended up catching nothing at all! To quote William Willmon once again, “their empty nets must have seemed to them a symbol for just how they felt. Empty. Failures. Defeated.” Three years of following Jesus had ended terribly, and now they couldn’t even manage to catch a stupid fish? Humiliating, that’s what it was!
See what I mean about this story being literally awash with failure?
But that having been said, friends, isn’t it interesting that it’s directly into the midst of all their defeat and failure that the Risen Christ actually appears?
First off, while the disciples are all out there not catching any fish, Jesus (though they yet don’t know it’s Jesus) calls to them, shouting, “Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?” [The Message] No… Well, then, “throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens.” And just like that, there are so many fish in the net the disciples can scarcely drag it ashore (without, it must be added, the help of Peter who now is so amazed that Jesus is with them – again (!) – that he immediately throws some clothes on – because for some reason the gospel fails to explain, he was naked –and swims for shore!). In the end, there are 153 big fish in the net (John is very specific about that number, and it’s been the source of great fascination amongst biblical scholars and numerologists across the centuries – St. Augustine, for instance, had this theory that it was based on 10 commandments plus 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit plus all the numbers from 1 to 17 adding up to 153 – but truthfully, in the end this number most likely has to do with historical record and a symbol the literal overabundance of God’s blessing in that catch of fish); and it makes for a huge and hearty breakfast barbecue on the beach, hosted by Jesus himself, who not only passes out pieces of broiled fish but also breaks bread and gives it to the disciples… just like before.
Now it might well have seemed odd that the same man who had previously fed 5,000 with a just a few a few scant loaves of bread and a few fish now was serving seven disciples with 153 fish (!), but then again, this wasn’t about the fish; this was about Jesus restoring their relationship with each other. Indeed, this meal was about grace and forgiveness, friendship and love. In such an ordinary circumstance as a morning meal, Jesus managed to bring forth yet another miracle: that of healing and new life to these disciples still so mired in the pain of defeat and failure.
And the best part of all? Jesus wasn’t done yet.
After everything Peter had done, you see, after every one of the ways that he really had failed Jesus by his fears and his denials, even right now when he’d demonstrated that going to sea was preferable to having to endure any kind of face to face encounter with Jesus, at the end of the day and the end of this barbecue, it’s Jesus who comes to Peter to offer him something more than he could have ever expected.
Jesus simply asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
You’ll notice that there’s no berating Peter for his lack of faith, nor any judgment regarding his failure to stand by Jesus in his hour of need. Jesus doesn’t ask, “Are you sorry, Peter… really sorry,” nor does he smile wearily and say, “and what have we learned here today, Peter?” He doesn’t even push for any kind of assurance from Peter that this sort of thing would never, ever happen again! It’s simply, “Do you love me?” Three times, in fact (speaking of numerology!), Jesus asks the question, “Do you love me,” once for Peter’s every act of denial on that horrible night of failure. And of course, Peter’s answer is, “Yes… yes…. yes, Lord, you know that I love you! I know I’ve disappointed you, I know I’ve not been a good disciple, and yes, I’ve denied you… but I do love you!”
And here’s the miracle: not only does Jesus clearly accept this confession of love, he then re-calls Peter to discipleship, giving him the assignment of feeding his beloved sheep. In spite of Peter’s utter failure in anything having to do with being a disciple, here’s Jesus now putting Peter in charge of his flock; tending to, feeding and keeping the sheep of Jesus’ pasture. No, this was not about to be the end of Peter’s story; in fact, as Jesus then points out to Peter, it’s only the beginning. It was never about about the failures of Peter’s past, nor even the dangers that would most certainly lie ahead of him; rather it would be about Peter’s love for Jesus and his willingness to answer Jesus’ call to “Follow me.”
Like I said before, this is a story all about failure and defeat; but it seems to me to be not only about Peter’s or the disciples’ failures, but ours as well!
So often that’s how we’ve misunderstood Easter, you know: after that long and arduous journey of the cross we get so caught up in the good news of an empty tomb and all our alleluia shouting that we falsely assume that all the discouragement, frustration and failure of life is gone forever! The truth is that even after Easter, the struggles of life and living go on, and our fears continue… not only that, but we keep on making the same mistakes over and over again; so much so that the miracle of resurrection ends up seemingly overcome by the sheer weight of our perceived failures! But the good news is always that the Risen Christ stands right there before in the midst of those failures. Jesus will not let us walk away – or even sail away (!) – from his presence; nor will he let us remain mired in all that is wrong with the world or with our lives. In fact, it’s there that he speaks to us, reassures us and once again calls to us, “Follow me.”
We’re not meant to be perfect disciples (which speaking personally, I find to be a very good thing!) Really, the first and only requirement from you and from me is that we love him… that we love Jesus. The rest of it – the feeding of lambs and sheep, the caring for and healing of all of God’s people here and away, the endeavor to be the church in the world – all of that and so much more will find its form and substance in that love…
… and at the end of the day, that will be more than enough.
Do you love him? I hope and I pray that you do; and that out that love you will choose to follow the Risen Christ where he leads. And in all the ministries in which by grace we are strengthened and empowered…
…may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry