Sunday, April 14, 2013

John 21:1-19

The story of Jesus’s ministry has come full circle.  In the first chapter of John, Jesus invited the disciples to follow him.  In this final chapter of John, Jesus tells Peter once more, “Follow me” and these are, in fact, his very last words in the Fourth Gospel (John 21:22). Luke’s gospel ends gloriously with the Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  Matthew’s gospel ends grandiosely with Jesus’ culminating command that his followers go out into the world making disciples of all nations.  John’s gospel ends as it began.  Jesus starts all over again with Lesson 1:  Follow me.

As a former teacher, I wonder if Jesus felt discouraged.  I used to dread grading final exams because there were always a few students whose finals indicated they had made little to no progress over the course of the semester.  Which made me feel like a failure.  This story seems a pretty sad account of one rabbi’s life if his best student kept failing the tests and at the end of the course had to start over.

However, the ending crafted by the writer of John may offer encouragement to those who came along a few generations later (when the Gospel of John is being written) and for those of us who came along a couple of millennia later. For Jesus followers like us who never manage to emulate Jesus perfectly, this is an ending that assures us that it’s normal to be lifelong learners and imperfect followers. In fact, following Jesus is not a course we ever complete.

Whereas the other gospels end dramatically, John’s gospel just fades to black as Peter stands poised to take the next first steps in followship. John’s ending gives the impression that the story continues not only as Peter lives on but also as new followers try to follow and fail and manage to start over again.  John’s last chapter tells us the disciples are back fishing, where Jesus first found them along the shores of Galilee.  Once more Jesus calls out to them, though at first they don’t recognize him.  It’s as if Peter and the others are encountering a stranger. And in this “déjà vu all over again” moment, Jesus again tells them to follow him. This framing of John’s Gospel is the literary equivalent of the song called “The song that never ends” in which the last phrase loops back to the start of the song and forces you to keep singing it.  At the end of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus says “follow me” one more time—and we understand the resurrection story is about not only Jesus having a rebirth but his followers, too.  Easter continues as a re-do for Peter.  And for us.

Much has happened in between the first “follow me” and the last. Most importantly, Jesus has been arrested, tried, crucified, and resurrected. But since Jesus singles out Peter in this final vignette, the writer seems to want us to notice what has happened to Peter as he has attempted to follow Jesus.  Peter often misunderstood what it meant to follow Jesus. For instance, it was impulsive Peter in John’s Gospel who drew his sword and cut off a man’s ear during Jesus’s arrest. Jesus admonished him for still not understanding his code of nonviolence.  Even more infamously, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times in the courtyard of the high priest.  Although “Simon Peter and another disciplefollowed Jesus” to that place of interrogation (John 18:15), Peter did not follow all the way. He followed up to a point, then remained outside the gate.  And it was there Simon Peter denied, three times, that he was a follower of Jesus.

New Testament scholar Greg Carey has noticed a detail common both to this scene of Peter’s denial and this final appearance of the risen Christ at seaside.  In both instances, there is a charcoal fire around which people gather.  And the Greek word anthrakia, which we translate as “charcoal fire,” is used only twice in the entire New Testament—in these two passages. The rare use of this noun suggests an intentional, artful pairing of these scenes.  In the earlier scene, Peter warms himself at a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest—as Jesus is interrogated and as Peter denies Jesus three times.  In the later scene, Jesus has prepared a charcoal fire back in Galilee and interrogates Peter, who professes his love for Jesus three times.

Parallelism like this signals something important.  There is a lesson for us.  And if we’ve missed it in a previous reading, we might catch it this time.

Taking my cues from Greg Carey, I see the story urging readers to face into past mistakes and hurts.  You might at first think that it was cruel for Jesus to stage this reunion scene with reminders—in images and words—of Peter’s worst failure.  Can you imagine how hard it was for Peter just to face Jesus again? And then to be repeatedly asked to profess his love?  Peter’s frustration and guilt can be heard in his final response that sounds a lot like this: “Lord, you know I love you.  Can we move on?”  But Jesus is not rubbing Peter’s nose in his disloyalty and cowardice.  Jesus is making sure Peter has really looked inward and faced a truth about himself.  Carey explains: “Jesus has confronted Peter with the moral injury of the past. Through a ritual reenactment of that scene, Jesus walks Peter through his past and ushers him into a brand new future. Yes, Peter has regrets; and yes, this regret has scarred his soul. But now Peter must do the work of Jesus and tend the flock. Somehow healing begins, and new life bursts forth. May it be so with all who suffer moral injury.”[i]

May it be so for us. There are times—recent or remote—when we have failed as a Jesus follower.  We have not only committed an offense against another—but in doing so we’ve injured our spirits, which may have become cynical, bitter, apathetic, or afraid.  How do we come back from moments when we’ve made a mess of things from stupid choices, from self-indulgent excesses, from cruelty or indifference to others?  If we have not been honest with ourselves or have never been willing to take responsibility for our words and action, we may still be suffering from the pain we inflicted upon another that continues to wound us. Like Peter, we forget the lessons Jesus has been teaching.

Like children, we learn through repetition.  I wonder if Jesus is giving Peter the grown-up version of the book Guess How Much I Love You, which we read during the children’s time today.  Jesus may know Peter needs to express his love.  Of course, implicit in this lesson is Jesus’ love for Peter. Jesus continues to say to Peter as God continues to say to us:  “You can’t outlove me. I love you all the way to the moon . . . and back.  But keep trying.”

Unfortunately, like a regretful unfaithful lover, full of grief and guilt—Peter decided to leave the path he’s been on with Jesus.  He’s already made a sham of the relationship. So he tells his friends, “I am going fishing” (John 21:3). And the former fisherman heads back to Galilee and the old cronies and the old ways. No more of this “fishing for people” stuff, Peter returns to his boats and nets and the real fish. But the Spirit that directed the life of Jesus is a persistent one.  And merciful. Jesus follows Peter there, seeking him out in the Spirit of infinite compassion, offering Peter a seaside breakfast for his hungry body, and offering deep forgiveness (not easy absolution) to heal his wounded spirit and help him move forward, not backward.

Moving forward allows us to stand with Jesus, not deny him.  And the way to profess Jesus is not with bumper stickers or Jesus-y praise-the-Lord-halleluia language declaring we’re part of the Jesus Club.  Jesus tells Peter exactly how to profess him. With love. We deny Jesus when we don’t show love.  Sounding straight out of a fairy tale that uses a good spell to reverse an earlier evil spell, Peter’s three professions of love undo the earlier three denials.  “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes!”  And Peter is free. Free to demonstrate that love.

The poem “Those Winter Sundays” which Charles read earlier is an example of love demonstrated by action.  An emotionally remote and physically exhausted father does the everyday work of caring for his family in a portrait with hard edges painted in blueblack austerity.  In fact, it apparently took the speaker of the poem years to “warm up” to the realization that there was love in his father’s lonely, thankless duties, rising early, as he did even on Sundays, to build the fire, to polish shoes that gleamed silently of a father’s unspoken love. The speaker is asking in the poem: Did my father love me? Did my father love me? Did my father love me?  The answer lies in the father’s actions.

“Do you love me?” the human picture of God persistently asks us, too. “Then love me by loving others.”

If we love the God we have met in Jesus, we care for others. “Feed my sheep,” he repeats across the centuries.   “Feed my lambs,” he teaches still today.  You love me—or deny—not with words but with your actions.  “Tend my flock, Peter.”

And let’s not assume this is a time to distance ourselves from the literal words of Jesus.  Sure, Jesus is speaking figuratively about feeding lambs and sheep, the people who will soon start following Peter and the others.  Feed them with God’s love.  But don’t think for a minute that Jesus is using this command to feed sheep and lambs in symbolic ways only.  Jesus fed Peter and the others—hungry fishermen—with real fish grilled over an open fire and hearty bread on the morning after a hard night’s toil.  Think how appreciatively those fishermen devoured that outdoor meal some have dubbed “the last breakfast.” We follow Jesus by loving Jesus, and we love Jesus by feeding bodies and souls.

Now a question you may have long been wondering—you who aspire to follow in the ways of Jesus—is how it can be possible for folks living 2000 years after Jesus walked this earth to know how to follow him.  I mean, Peter didn’t get it right and he was living with Jesus.  For some who easily read the Bible in simplistic ways and with great trust in some other authority’s interpretation of scriptures, it may seem easy.  But it may have occurred to you sophisticated Bible students—as it has to many over the last couple of centuries—that it’s difficult to know with absolute certainty very much about the historical Jesus. There are differing gospel accounts.  There are relatively recently discovered gospels that never made it into the Bible. And there’s the challenge of interpreting those writings (that evolved over many years) by appropriately filtering out our cultural biases and attending to the original writers’ social-cultural-historical contexts.  The process of knowing Jesus in scripture and received tradition is an important topic for another time.  And I’m not one to sidestep the troubling bits of Christianity. We’ll discuss soon the work of the Jesus Seminar, for instance.

But I also think there is a clear mark that Jesus left on all the people who knew him and who later experienced the Spirit he embodied. That mark looks like Love.  Love that is not only spoken but enacted. We follow Jesus in the simple yet demanding way of love.

Love, of course, is easy to get wrong. If you’ve known what it is to hurt someone you love and have to face them and ask forgiveness and work to mend a relationship, your heart breaks for imperfect Peter.  But hear the good news. We can start over.  When we leave the Way of Love, there is a way back.  We hear Jesus say once again, “Follow me.” So we drop our fishing nets and once more follow him.


[i] [i]Carey, Greg.  “Repairing Our Grief” On Scripture.

See also “Beyond PTSD” On Being.

Category Faith, Prayer, Scripture
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