Right Where We Started

 Inspired by John 21

So, last week was supposed to be our last reading in the Gospel of John. And you’d think I’d be ready for that, as some of you know, this Gospel is not my favorite. But lo and behold, here we are, reading yet another chapter from this Gospel, and, of all people, it was me who wanted to do that! This chapter that I just read is the final chapter of John, and not only does it contain one of the most profound stories in the entire book, it just didn’t seem right to not read the last chapter! We set out to read through this Gospel, yeah we skipped a bit here and there, but you don’t skip the ending! Anyway, I understand, sort of, why this chapter wasn’t included in our list of readings. First, not everyone agrees that this chapter is original to John and might have been added later. And second, for lack of time, we always end each school year with readings from the early church in Acts and one of the letters. 

Understandable yes, but I just didn’t agree. So, here we are in the final chapter of John and we have one last appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the apostles, separated into three sections. And if these stories were added later, then think of them as deleted scenes; stories that didn’t make it into the final cut but are still worth our time and attention. And if you’re the kind of person that likes storylines completed, tied with a nice little bow at the end, then this chapter is for you, because that’s exactly what it does. It answers those few remaining questions that were left dangling at the end of the last chapter. Like, what happened to the disciples after the craziness of Holy Week and Easter? And, what about Peter? How awkward was it after the whole rooster debacle after Jesus reappeared? And maybe a question that isn’t so apparent but equally important, what does this all mean for us? 

Let’s start with the disciples as a whole. The chapter opens up, of all places, on the seashore. And if you think about it, that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. This is where Jesus met many of them for the first time. But it is a bit odd, isn’t it? After everything they had been through, not just during Holy Week and Easter, but the past three years with Jesus, they just went back to their ordinary lives, fishing on the sea. Tradition, as well as the rest of the Christian scriptures, have led us to believe that they all went on to become these huge pillars of the early church, missionaries, even bishops! But not this author. This author places them right back where they started. And there’s something I really love about that. 

It tells me that, in spite of the transformation that has taken place in their lives over the past three years, they are still who they were, they are still the poor, uneducated, simple fisherfolk that they were when he met them. And Jesus honors that by meeting them there, on the seashore once again. He doesn’t correct them. He doesn’t say, “What in the world are y’all doing here?” He simply meets them where they are. Oh sure, Jesus had lots of additional work for them to do, but now I wonder, if the comfort and familiarity of fishing on that sea, remained a constant in their lives, even to the end. And here’s why I think that’s important to consider. In a few moments, we will be welcoming new members to our community here at Bethlehem, ten of em’. Praise God! Yes, give yourselves a hand for being the kind of congregation that people want to join! 

One of the things that Holy Week really drives home is the transformation that Jesus creates in our lives; transforming us into the best little children of God that we were meant to be. And I’m all for that! But this first scene drives home another truth of our faith lives, that God loved us fully, just the way God found us, and there is nothing that anyone could do to make God love us more than the way God found us. On top of that, whatever you were or have become since God found you, is worthy of God’s love and attention. Whether you are a simple fisher, a teacher, a metalworker, a small business owner, a parent, a singer, self-employed, a law enforcer, whatever makes you, you, God, and God’s people, welcome and honor. As such, we don’t set out to make you into somebody you are not. And I don’t think that is said out loud enough. 

Let’s move to the next scene, which zooms in on Peter. The last time we saw Peter before the crucifixion, was in a courtyard outside the place Jesus’ trial took place. And the author wants you to remember that scene as he shares this scene. How do we know that? Because of the fire. The author writes that Jesus waited for them to get back on land and when they got to him they found him by a fire ready to cook the fish they had just caught. But it wasn’t just any fire, in the Greek the author writes that it was a charcoal fire, something that gets lost in translation. Why the need to be so specific? Because when Peter was outside in that courtyard, while Jesus was being tried and convicted, and while Peter was denying he was a follower of Jesus, three times no less, what was he standing by? A fire. And not just any kind of fire, a charcoal fire! 

So, picture it, here is Jesus, in a sense, recreating this scene for poor Peter. I mean, can you just imagine Peter, walking from the boat to where Jesus was waiting for them, he sees the glow of the fire at first, but the closer he gets he realizes this is the same kind of fire that he was standing by when he denied being a follower of Jesus, three times. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, he thinks, as he swallows hard, realizing that after knowing Jesus for three years, nothing is ever a coincidence. What must have been going through his head in that moment as he got closer and closer to Jesus? Was he about to get chewed out by Jesus for what he had done? Peter had been carrying that guilt this whole time for sure, and maybe he thought, “Eh, Jesus wasn’t even there, maybe he doesn’t even know!” But Peter knew better. 

So, they are finishing up a hearty breakfast, and just as Peter may have thought he was in the clear, Jesus asks, “Simon, do you love me?” Ugh, what a punch to the gut that must have felt like! Imagine a family member asking you that? You’d probably say, “Well of course I love you! Why would you even ask that! With feelings of hurt and anger swelling in you. But Peter just says, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” “Feed my lambs.” Jesus says before asking him a second time, “Simon, do you love me?” A second time? Did he not hear me the first time Peter must have thought. Or, is he just pouring salt into the wound? But Peter, with all due respect, just says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Take care of my sheep.” Jesus says, before asking him a third time! “Simon, do you love me?” 

Notice the use of Peter’s birth name, not the name that Jesus gave him, but the name—the person—who he was when Jesus met him. Not a coincidence! But now Peter is getting a little frustrated. He says, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.” “Feed my sheep.” Jesus says. Now, it doesn’t say if Peter was able to connect the dots here. I hope for his sake he was able to, at some point, to have that aha moment, where he realizes why Jesus asked him this three times. I mean, Jesus may have just conquered death and the grave but he’s not done speaking in riddles! This was Jesus' way of saying, we’re good, you and I, we’re ok. Imagine just how much Peter needed to hear that! And of course, Jesus never misses an opportunity to put people to work, with the threefold, feed my sheep, take care of my lambs, feed my sheep. 

Which is a good segue to the last, seemingly insignificant scene, and the question, what does this mean for us? After Peter and Jesus have their moment, Peter sees the disciple that Jesus loved and asks about their future. Now, this disciple has appeared many times throughout this Gospel. Never named, just described as the disciple whom Jesus loved. And I have refrained from addressing this til now, and for good reason. Scholars have debated for centuries who this mysterious disciple was. Some say it was the author, some say John, which may or may not be the same person, some say it was Lazarus. But there’s one theory that I like best, and that it is the reader of this book, you and I, all of us. So, when Peter asks, about the disciple whom Jesus loved, it’s the author’s way of not only acknowledging the reader, but also caring for our future. 

But Jesus basically tells Peter, don’t worry about it. It’s none of your business what happens to them. You do your work, and let them do theirs, Peter. Because we have the same job: to feed the sheep, to take care of the lambs, to feed the sheep. And we get to do that with everything we bring to the table, everything that makes us, us: all our experiences, all our pain, all our joy, all our skills, all our faults, with everything that makes us, us, from the day God found us, to this very second, we are called to feed Jesus’ sheep, to take care of Jesus’ lambs, to feed Jesus’ sheep—to be the hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth of God in the world, no matter what. All because Jesus accepts us, welcomes us, loves us, just as we were, just as we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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