Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Continuing the work of Jesus"

Message preached April 25, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon John 21:1-19

Order of Worship

            "Follow me." Thatís what Jesus told Simon Peter here at the end of Johnís gospel, which may seem a bit odd. After all, this rock of a man was not new to the path of discipleship. He was one of the first to join up at the suggestion of his brother, Andrew (John 1:40-42). This resurrection scene beside the sea at the end of Johnís gospel almost sounds like a beginning tale, with Peter receiving the invitation to follow, as if for the first time.

            Does that seem strange to you? I mean, here is a man who has walked with Jesus almost from the beginning. If you will, heís a battle-hardened follower. Through thick and thin he has walked with his rabbi, stumbling at times - indeed - but still there. The last days in Jerusalem, when it seemed like all hell broke lose before heaven had the final say, reveal something of the character of this rock of a man.

            In the garden, when Jesus was arrested, it was Peter (according to Johnís gospel) who took up the sword in his defense, stopping only when instructed otherwise by our Lord (18:10-11). It was Peter who followed with another of the disciples - where the rest were, we donít know - to the very courtyard of the high priest where Jesus was interrogated. That was a risky move by someone who could be visibly identified as a key leader, next to Jesus, of a band of so-called troublemakers. The truth is, as we know: Peter was recognized - not once, but three times. While it was his lowest moment, denying his Lord and running away, even so, he followed farther than almost everyone else.

            So here we are in the gospel story at its end, after all the dark days in Jerusalem, and after the event that shifted this tale from a tragedy to what we now call "good news." And in this last resurrection appearance, as if for the first time, Jesus invites Peter to "follow me." Interesting!

            If even this rock named Peter was given the opportunity to respond - as if for the first time - to Jesusí call, maybe thatís something that should be extended to those of us who have been walking with Jesus for a long time, also. Once upon a time we, like he, said "yes" to the Lord. It may have been a dramatic step, or something more low-key and gradual. Maturity of faith doesnít mean, however, that once we have started this journey with Jesus we then miss out on the joy of its beginning. No, just look at Peter.

            I love this ending story, even as I still have all sorts of unanswered questions about it. Thatís how it should be, by the way. Once we "know it all," weíre lost. There should be about us still, even after we have chewed on this spiritual food for a long time, a desire to just jump in the water and swim to Jesus. Thatís what Peter did.

            Wait, letís rewind the tape a bit and press the "play" button again. In the way John tells the story - which is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke - this is the third time (21:14) Jesus appeared to the disciples. Actually, the very first time was just to Mary Magdalene crying at the tomb (20:11-18). Later that day, the rest of them saw him - all, that is, but the disciple Thomas (as we heard last week, 20:19-25). Seven days later, Jesus returned - and this time even Thomas was there (20:26-31). Strictly speaking, then, the seaside episode remembered in the 21st chapter of John is actually the "fourth" resurrection appearance of our Lord, but letís not get technical.

            The scene has shifted from Jerusalem to Galilee, and weíre not really given a time frame as to when all this happened. A bunch of the disciples are just sitting there beside the sea. Itís almost like when I was younger, and me and my friends would hang out together. "What do you want to do today?" one would ask. "I dunno. What do you want to do?" another would reply. "I dunno. What do you want to do?" ... You get the picture? All of sudden, Peter says, "Iím going fishing." Hey, sounds good. So they all jump in the boat and do just that. To no avail. The fish just werenít biting. These, however, were stubborn men. They werenít going to let a few empty nets get in the way. They stayed out all night. "Hey, do you think we should call it quits?" ... "Oh, I dunno. What do you think?..."

            Come daybreak, these bleary-eyed guys see someone on the beach who tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They must not have been very far from shore (21:8). "How about it, fellows, do you think we should try the other side?" ... "I dunno. What do you think?..."

            Now, folks, I know this good-olí-boy goofy-ness isnít exactly there in the text. However, youíve just got to wonder. The most spectacular event in human history has just happened, and these guys were eye-witnesses to it all. The world has been turned upside down. Jesus, who was crucified, is alive! And his disciples have, according to Johnís gospel, been "sent" forth by the risen Christ. They have already received the Holy Spirit (20:21-23). Yet here they are just fishing the time away. Itís like they didnít have a clue as to what their mission was. "What do you think we should do today?" ... "I dunno. What do you think we should do?"

            Well, that fellow on shore at least had a plan. So they pulled in the net from one side of the boat and tossed it to the other. What happened? You heard the story. More fish than they knew what to do with, and Peter came to his "Aha!" moment. Mind you, it needed to be spelled out for him. One of the disciples, a person who is never named in Johnís gospel, but who is simply referred to many times as the one "whom Jesus loved," this disciple looks closer at the guy on the beach, and says to Peter, "Itís the Lord!"

            What does Peter then do? He jumps into the water and swims to Jesus. I love that image. Doesnít sound like a very "mature" thing to do, does it? The responsible course of action would be to pull the nets into boat, unload the fish, then head to shore. Thatís not what Peter did. He couldnít even wait for the boat. He just plowed into the water. Even the other guys, who stayed with the boat didnít finish the job. They started rowing in, the full net just dragging behind them. Kind of a comical sight. Like that Dominoesģ commercial where a room full of men race to the door for a pizza.

            Speaking of food, thatís what awaited them on shore. Breakfast. Jesus is there with a fire. Encouraged by the Lord, they haul in the catch, which is huge. It reminds us of another meal where just a few fish and a couple loaves of bread fed five thousand people, with plenty of leftovers (John 6:4-13). Imagine what could be done with this big catch? Itís after the morning meal, however, that the heart of this story unfolds. Itís not about fishing, or swimming, or cooking, or eating. There are more important questions than, "What do you wanna do?"

            Youíre familiar with the so-called "Great Commission" at the end of Matthewís gospel, arenít you? There, the disciples in Galilee are called to a purpose. The risen Christ told them to "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (28:19-20). Well, this is Johnís great commission passage. This bunch of disciples who seem a bit aimless after having followed Jesus from Galilee all the way to an empty tomb, are given a sense of purpose - especially Peter.

            Jesus asks him, not once, but three times: "do you love me?" The wording is actually "do you love me more than these," but weíre not sure whether that means "more than you love these disciples," or "more than these disciples love "Jesus' Charge to Peter" - stained glass window in Jesus Church, Troutbeck, Cumbria, UK, by William Morris," or even "more than you love these fish." In responding, Peter didnít jump on the "more than these" part. He just say, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you," to which Jesus responds each time, "Feed my lambs," or "tend my sheep," or "feed my little sheep."

            Thereís a purpose to all this. Our life in Christ isnít a matter of sitting around asking each other what we wanna do. Unfortunately, isnít that what we often do? By asking "do you love me?" Jesus brought things into focus for Peter. Not that it wasnít frustrating on his part to be asked that question over and over. However, by the third time, I imagine Peter was looking Jesus square in the eyes. Our Lord got his attention. Itís so easy to lose focus, to take our eyes off Christ, to ask what do we want to do more than what does God want us to do.

            Not that figuring out what God wants us to do is all laid out in black and white. What exactly did Jesus mean by "feed my sheep?" Volumes have been written on that one. For Peter, it involved being a shepherd of a church that often had a mind of its own, unlike most real-life sheep. Nurturing, guiding, feeding. However, the operative word, as St. Augustine once pointed out, is the word "my" not "your," e.g. "tend my sheep as mine, not yours" (Brown, vol. 2, p. 1115). It never was Peterís church. We still refer to it as the body of Christ.

            It is so easy, however, to lose focus, to take our eyes off Christ, to ask what do we want to do more than what does God want us to do. Furthermore, figuring out what God wants is also not easy, though itís maybe not as difficult as we sometimes imagine. Looking to Jesus, listening to God, thatís the key. Turning beyond this text, beyond Peter and those first disciples, in Christís church, we are all called to continue the work of Jesus. Not our work, his work. Not what we wanna do, but what he wants us to do. Okay, it does eventually need to become our work, what we want to do. We do need to own it, in a sense. Still, in the process of making the work of Jesus our own, something we are continuing, we dare no lose focus. It remains his work.

            "Follow me," he told Peter, even after this disciple had been following him for a long, long time. As I said earlier, if even this rock of man was given the opportunity to respond - as if for the first time - to Jesusí call, maybe thatís something that should be extended to those of us who have been walking with Jesus for a long time. Maturity of faith doesnít mean we stop being asked by Jesus, "do you love me?" If anything, this becomes a daily question. Some days it's easy to say, "Yes." Then there are those other days...

            As we sing the first two verses of "For Christ and the church," I invite all of you who once upon a time said your "yes" to the Lord by joining this congregation during the month of April down through the years, to come forward and join me up front. Youíre the ones wearing the red badges, in case you forgot. As we sing, look to Jesus, and hear him ask, "Do you love me?" With this focus, come ready to give your answer once again - today.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see John.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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