(John 21: 1-19)
Life certainly has a circuitous way about it, doesn’t it? And I’m not talking simple deja vu here – that something feels familiar. I’m talking about when life seems to come full circle, almost like matching bookends on a shelf with the volumes of your life in between. I don’t know – there’s just a sense of comfort in it, right? Like it’s not about you. Like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
If you asked me what the two bookends of my life would be, well, that’s a no-brainer. Years ago, on a boat with fisherman friends, fishing for that elusive catch. No luck all day. Until this stranger comes along and points us in a direction. We’ve fished that already, we say. Just give it a shot, he says. We do, and our nets are so full they start tearing.
And just a week ago – there I was, on a boat with fishermen friends, fishing again for that elusive catch. No luck all day. And then this stranger comes along. He points us in a direction. We’ve fished that already, we say. Just give it a shot, he says. We do, and our nets are so full they start tearing.
I wonder if Jesus ever thinks to himself, “When will these guys ever learn?” Sorry, Jesus, but you realize who you’re working with, right? It takes us a little longer. Especially me.
You’ve probably heard before that I’m not the most patient man. My motto is fairly simple – Act first, think later. It’s true, the story of my life. You know the kid who picks up a snake and takes it home, oblivious as to whether it’s poisonous or not? You’re looking at him. Or the boy who jumps out of a tree, arms outstretched, thinking he can actually fly because he really wants to, until he realizes – most painfully – that he cannot? My family still gives me grief for that.
Because I know you’re wondering, I don’t have any idea how I, of all people, wound up as a fisherman. I mean, all we do is wait. All. Day. Long. It is as monotonous a routine as one can have: sail out at dawn, cast the nets a hundred times, haul in whatever fish you get, come back at dusk.
Which, not surprisingly, is right where Jesus found me. Twice.
And in between those two fishing bonanza bookends, well, you probably know that story as well as anyone. Twelve of us, but really more, following him all around, watching him, listening to him. Man, could he preach! And all that time, I didn’t stop being my impulsive self. You probably heard about that time in the terrible storm when I tried that whole walking-on-water thing. Not my finest moment.
But see, that kind of sums it all up. I mess up as much as anyone – probably more, to be honest. And yet, that never stopped him from loving me. All I ever wanted was to be with him, wherever he was, even it meant jumping into tumultuous water with reckless abandon. And every time I did, there he was – reaching out to save me when I needed it the most.
And man, did I ever need saving the other week. It started off so well – there we were, celebrating Passover together like we did every year. And then Jesus goes and throws this curve ball and tells us we’re all going to leave him and one of us will even betray him. I couldn’t believe what he was saying! So, of course, Mr. Impulsive here has to open his big mouth. Act first, think later, right? I told Jesus he was crazy; that none of that was going to happen. And I proclaimed in a bold voice that I, I would never desert him – never! That’s when he looked right at me and told me that before that night was over I would deny knowing him not just once, but three times.
Thing is, he was right. Spot-on right. I didn’t see it coming. None of it. I mean, would you? Would you have expected Roman soldiers to show up in the garden unannounced and haul him away like that? Would you have thought that you and everyone else would’ve run for the hills like frightened kids? And would you have ever imagined all those people coming to you later and calling you out as a “Jesus-follower?”
You understand how terrified I was, right? You understand that, in the heat of the moment, I was more concerned about my well-being than anything else. You can’t blame me for that. Put yourself in my shoes. Wouldn’t your self-preservation kick in and form the words in your mouth before your heart could stop them – no, I don’t know Jesus. No, I’ve never been with him. No, I had nothing to do with him!
Act first, think later.
I certainly did think later. For days. That had to be the low point between the bookends. I couldn’t tell which weighed on my heart more – the fact that he died, or the crushing guilt I felt because of what I’d done.
If you’ve ever experienced that crushing guilt before, where something you’ve said or done – or not said or done – hurt someone or caused them pain, I want you to know that someone else knows exactly how you feel. I know how heavy that weight can be to carry; I know the ways it can paralyze you and immobilize you, like you can’t go on until you find some way to let go of it, but you don’t even know where to start. Believe me when I say I’m right there with ya.
Which brings me to now. I mean, the minute I see all those fish in my nets….. I know it is him. Because I’d seen it before. And I couldn’t help myself! I know, shocker, right? Forget waiting on the boat to get me to him. Who needs a boat? I just jump right in the water with all my clothes on and run to shore as fast as my sea-soaked legs can take me. And there he is, cooking breakfast. Feeding us, once again. Bread and wine on that dreaded Thursday night. And now grilled fish on the beach. He is always feeding us.
And somewhere in there – I can’t quite remember when – he speaks to me. I mean, really speaks to me, not just chit-chat. I could tell in his eyes he’s going deeper. And he asks me – he asks me if I love him. I’m cramming a bite of fish in my mouth so I mumble “yeah.” And then he responds that he wants me to feed his sheep. And I don’t pay it much attention. I mean, I’m a fisherman, for crying out loud; I don’t know a thing about feeding sheep! Jesus always used to love speaking in metaphors, so I assume that’s all this was.
A little bit later he asks me again – do you love me? Now I’m wondering what’s up. Did he not hear me before – was the wind blowing in his ear or something? He knows I love him, he has to! He’s not doubting that, is he? I couldn’t live with him thinking that. So I swallow my food before speaking this time. Jesus – of course I love you. You know that.
And to that he says, Then tend my sheep.
Tend my sheep. What is up with this sheep thing?
More casual conversation, more eating. I thought we might be done with this odd little exchange. But near the end of our meal, Jesus turns to face me. Like, he’s giving me his full attention. He looks me square in the eye; and I remember he reaches out his hand and touches mine, and asks me a third time, Do you love ME?
Okay, forget confusion, forget nervousness. Now I’m a little angry! I say, Look, Jesus, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but it isn’t like you need me to tell you this. You know me through and through. You know me as well as anyone does. So stop asking if I love you. You know I do!!
Jesus just sits there with this look of love on his face, and it was as if for a moment it was just the two of us sitting there in the sand. He takes in a deep breath and says, Then Peter, feed my sheep. And follow me. And I take his extended hand, and he embraces me, and that’s it. He turns back to the others and we get to talking about something else.
That happened a few days ago. But for me, it’s like it’s still happening, that question he asked three times and that whole sheep thing. And yes, yes, I know what some of your biblical scholars say – that somehow his three questions absolved me of my three denials before. Tit for tat and all that.
Listen – if only it were that easy! No, it’s more than that. See, I think back to that moment when I first recognized Jesus – that first time on the water, that first big catch we could not haul in. And you know what I realize? I realize I didn’t recognize Jesus because he’d just done this amazing miracle, wowing the crowds, proving his divinity or anything like that. I recognized Jesus because of the sheer abundance. Because there was so much in those nets. More than you and I could possibly imagine or hope for. That’s what we came to expect from Jesus – abundance.
And please know, I’m not talking about abundance like currency or investments or “stuff,” okay? This isn’t’ some “Prayer of Jabez” thing or prosperity gospel garbage or anything like that.
No, I’m talking about an abundance of the heart. An abundance of life, of living and loving, of community and fellowship that filled my soul to its absolute content. That’s what Jesus was trying to say to me that first time in the fishing boat – you think these nets, full of fish and about to break, you think this is a big deal? Come with me and let me show you some real abundance.
And for the next three years, that’s exactly what he did. And I saw it first-hand. The sermons he preached. The people he healed. The things he taught us. The people he fed – thousands hungry for far more than bread and fish. Even on that last night when he took bread and cup, leftovers from the Passover meal, and created something wonderfully new out of them. Every moment of every day, he just kept giving to us. Giving his grand abundance.
And it blew me away every time. Because there wasn’t a whole lot of abundance in my life without him. It was scarcity I had to keep dealing with. This longing inside, wanting something more, seeking something more and not finding it. And there was perhaps no greater scarcity for me than that Friday and Saturday – running away, denying and denying and denying. Because for three years I’d seen what abundance was really like, what it could do in the world. And I had just lost all that. No, I don’t know him! I said three times. If ever there was a moment when I acknowledged just how empty I was without him, it was then.
That’s why that breakfast on the beach meant so much to me. Asking me if I loved him, telling me to feed and tend his sheep. You know, it struck me later how he was telling me to do for others exactly what he had done for us all along. Of course! Jesus tended to us, he cared for us. And man, did he ever feed us. Jesus was constantly, and still is constantly, filling full the emptiness inside. The abundance is so ridiculously extravagant!
So I know what needs to happen next – it’s our turn. Because that abundance that Jesus shared was never meant to stay with just me. I get that now. If this morning’s catch and my conversation on the beach proved anything, it is that. There is so much Jesus in us, in all of us. So much love, so much mercy, so much grace. And it’s meant to be shared. The abundance is not something we’re supposed to keep.
How are you sharing God’s abundance in your life? How are your nets overflowing and impacting people you know, and even people you don’t? How is your heart reaching out of here and into the world around you in practical, life-giving ways? How are you feeding and tending to God’s sheep?
Because that’s what the Easter story is really all about, right? It’s not about that one day. Your Bible doesn’t stop with Jesus coming out of the tomb. It keeps going, the story! I’m in there. Paul and his letters are there. Women and men for a hundred years after Jesus are in the Easter postscript.
As are you. And maybe that’s the thing we need to remember most. Every time we read the pages of God’s story, we’re reading our own. Every time we come together as the body of Christ that is the church, growing together and welcome all wherever we are, we are writing new pages to the story, each and every day. The chronicling of our collective lives of faith in between the bookends and beyond. The narrative that defines us all.
Keep writing the story, will you? There’s so much more of the story to be written. Keep on living out of God’s great abundance!
In name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.