Sunday, May 18th, 2014 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-6, John 21:1-19
Hymns: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”, “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
Special Music: “Always”, by Switchfoot
“The Call: Redeeming”
If you watch TV shows – any serialized fictional TV shows at all, really – then you are familiar with the segment of your average, run-of-the-mill TV program known as the “previously ons”. “Previously on The West Wing: President Bartlet lied!” “Previously on Star Trek: Captain Kirk did something really inappropriate with an alien!” “Previously on Grey’s Anatomy: who really even cares anymore?!”
You get the point.
Here’s the deal. If there were EVER a passage in the Bible that needed “previously ons”, it’s today’s Gospel reading from the twenty-first chapter of John. What do I mean by that?
“Previously on… the GOSPEL OF JOHN…”
“’Master,’ said Peter, ‘why can’t I follow now? I’ll lay down my life for you!’
“’Really?’ Jesus replied, ‘You’ll lay down your life for me? The truth is that before the rooster crows, you’ll deny me three times.’
“And then a young woman said to Peter, ‘Aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not.’
“Then some others said to him, ‘Aren’t you one of his disciples?’ He denied it: ‘Not me.’
“One of the Chief Priest’s servants said, ‘Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?’
“Again, Peter denied it… and then, a rooster crowed.
“AND NOW… the conclusion.”
The best part about this particular Gospel passage is that you can even open it the way so many “Part 2” shows do – with a really ambiguous shot establishing a location that you’re not quite sure where it is. In this case, it’s a beach on the coast of a sea. Waves gently lap against the sand. A fishing boat can be seen tied up in the distance. Familiar figures come striding into frame from behind the perspective of the cameraman.
It’s seven of the apostles of Jesus, returning to familiar grounds after the resurrection of Christ. Safe once more, they’ve decided to return to their day jobs, and this is established by Peter saying, “I’m going fishing!”
The Gospel of John, coming this fall to ABC.
Anyway. You get the idea. This is a story that relies heavily on stories that came before it to make sense. In order to understand this story, you have to remember that Peter previously was told that he would deny Jesus, and then he went ahead and did it. But that’s also not the end of Peter’s story. In fact, it was just the very beginning.
No human being is perfect. We have all made mistakes. We all continue to make mistakes. It is in our nature – we are created in God’s image, yes, but the combination of our human nature and our free will eventually leads us to sin. Apart from Jesus, who was indwelt by the divine presence of God, you will find no human being who has lived a life purely blameless.
Had Peter known Paul at this point (which he obviously didn’t, because Paul was still Saul, and his letters to the churches were many years away), he would’ve likely been comforted by Paul’s assertion in Romans 3:23 – ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and Romans 6:23 – but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. To be certain, these verses have been of no small comfort to many humans over the centuries since Peter denied his friend and rabbi.
Take, for example, Josh Hamilton. Those of you who follow baseball will likely recognize the name, for he has been a thorn in the side of the American League – no less Kansas City than any other team – for several years now. A right fielder now for the Los Angeles Angels, Hamilton first entered the national spotlight a few years ago, while playing for the Texas Rangers. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, he sprang to prominence during the 2008 season, hitting 32 home runs and batting in 130 runs, all while hitting for a .304 average. A player who can hit more than thirty home runs, collect more than 100 RBI, and maintain a .300+ batting average is a special blend indeed – although 2008 was arguably not even Hamilton’s best season as a Ranger.
What a lot of people didn’t know, however, and what took a while to really become a nationally known story, is that even though 2008 was Hamilton’s first full season in the major leagues, he had been around baseball since 1999. Drafted that year by Tampa Bay, he had been considered a “can’t miss” prospect based on his high school play, and indeed, during his first two seasons in Tampa Bay’s minor league system, it looked like he was just that. He hit double digits in home runs both years, batted in more than 50 runs each season, and maintained a .300+ batting average – just the kind of production player the struggling Rays were looking for, as they despairingly watched the Arizona Diamondbacks, their fellow 1998 expansion entry, streak toward a 2001 World Series title.
But it was during the 2001 season that Hamilton would injure his foot and his neck, and it was while rehabilitating that he began to recreationally use drugs. Now, the full extent of Hamilton’s drug use has never been revealed; however, he was suspended for an entire season twice by Major League Baseball – in 2004 and 2006 – and they don’t hand down season-long suspensions for marijuana. The majority of baseball pundits at outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated believed that Hamilton’s career was over.
In 2007, however, the Cincinnati Reds decided to take a chance on him. After meeting a businessman who decided to take Hamilton under his wing and get him clean, Hamilton had entered rehab and come out the other end actively involved with the 12 Step program. Seeing the potential to get a possible impact player on the cheap, Cincinnati acquired Hamilton’s rights for the relatively paltry sum of $100,000. In the half season that Hamilton played for the Reds, he was quite impressive; however, they simply did not have the room for him on the roster, and so, at the end of the season, traded him to Texas, setting the stage for his career to truly take off.
Hamilton’s life has not been perfect since then. In 2009 and 2012, he experienced brief alcohol-related relapses; however, the support system of friends, teammates, and sponsors he has built for himself was able to bring him back into line very quickly. Above all those, however, Hamilton credits one thing in particular with his recovery – his faith. During his time away from baseball, Josh Hamilton became a Christian, living into the second and third steps of the twelve step program – that a power greater than himself could restore him to sanity, and deciding to turn his will and his life over to the care of God. He says that it is his belief in Christ that has allowed him to remain sober, knowing that he is forgiven for his sins in the past, and that he will be forgiven for those he commits in the future, but also knowing that God expects him to live the most Christ-like life that he can. It is in his faith, he will tell you, that he has been redeemed.
Josh Hamilton, the Lord asked, do you love me?
You know I do, Lord, Josh replied.
Feed my sheep.
Now, it might seem interesting to compare Peter to Josh Hamilton. No, Simon Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus would build his church, was definitely not a baseball player. Insofar as we know, he was also not a recreational drug user. Indeed, the only faults of Peter’s of which the Bible makes us aware are that 1) he lacked faith at times, 2) he was hot-headed and hot-tempered, and 3) he tended to leap without looking.
It was these faults, however, that tended to get Peter into trouble. Consider everything that had happened to him. Out on the boat and saw Jesus walking on the water? “Come to me, Peter,” Jesus said. “Sure!” Peter said, hopping out of the boat and walking across the water, right up until he realized what he was doing. Logic flooded in, faith left, and boom – Peter was sinking beneath the waves.
Or what about when Jesus told the apostles that when they got to Jerusalem, he was going to be tortured and crucified? “Surely not you, Lord!” Peter told him, having failed to actually listen to Jesus’ reasoning for his death. “Never!” And Jesus’ response? “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter was attempting to act as a stumbling block to Jesus’ own faith in God, and while it was an attempt borne out of Peter’s love for his rabbi, it was also borne of his inattention to Jesus’ teachings and his own lack of faith.
And of course, who can forget the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor? Elijah and Moses show up to speak to Jesus, and Peter dives in headfirst to the situation, offering to put up shelters for all three, without stopping to think that, oh wait, Elijah and Moses aren’t actually there in corporeal form. Again, Peter was attempting to do good, but his failure to actually think things through got him in trouble once more.
It was these three shortcomings on Peter’s part that came together to cause him to fail Jesus on the night when he was betrayed. Think about it: 1) Jesus told Peter that he would deny him; Peter’s hot temper caused him to fire back, “Not me, never, no way, no how!” 2) Peter really should’ve known better than to go into the courtyard of the house of the chief priest, but he just HAD to see what was going on, his own safety be damned, and 3) when Peter’s association with Christ was questioned, his faith failed him, and he did indeed deny Jesus three times.
So it was likely with mixed emotions that Peter headed out to the Sea of Gennesaret a few days after the resurrection of Jesus. You know that awkward place, when you’ve had an argument or a falling out with a friend or family member, and you’ve seen them and talked to them since then, but the argument has gone undiscussed, looming like an elephant in the room? That’s where Peter was with Jesus. He had seen Jesus since the resurrection, had spoken with him, had eaten a meal with him. He knew he had denied Jesus, and he knew that Jesus knew, but the subject had gone completely untouched.
There’s a sort of twisted feeling that you carry around in your gut when something like that is hanging over you, and Peter was probably carrying that around with him that morning. Perhaps he thought that going fishing would clear his head, and so he headed out, taking his fellow fishermen among the apostles with him. As the sun was coming up, they hadn’t caught anything yet, but there, standing on the shore, was Jesus – though they didn’t recognize him in the early morning light.
Well, as he had once before, Jesus told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they caught a ridiculous amount of fish – enough to keep the seven of them from hauling the net back into the boat. That’s the point at which one of the seven realized that the man on the shore was Jesus, and upon hearing this, Peter – hot-headedness coming into play once more – decided it was time to confront the issue head on.
Of course, as the Scripture tells us, the boat was only about a hundred yards out, so jumping into the water and swimming back to shore was really unnecessary on Peter’s part, especially since when he got there, Jesus wasn’t quite ready to have the talk yet, instead wanting to have breakfast with his disciples. No doubt by the time breakfast was over, Peter was quite antsy, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.
And finally, drop the shoe did. “Simon Peter, do you love me?” Jesus asked.
“You know I do, Lord,” Peter replied.
“Feed my sheep.”
Three times Jesus asked him. As many times as Peter had denied Jesus, he was asked if he loved the Lord. The third time Jesus asked, Peter was upset and hurt by the question, and reminded Jesus that he knew everything, and he surely knew that Peter loved him. Jesus’ reply the third time? “Feed my sheep… and follow me.”
The argument over, Peter forgiven, asked to follow Jesus once more, he set forth. After the ascension of Christ, Peter would become one of the greatest of the apostles, regularly mentioned in the same breath as Paul. Perhaps he was not as prolific a writer as was the Pharisee-turned-apostle, but only one man was ever credited as being the rock upon which Jesus built his church – Simon Peter. Simon Peter, the flawed, fallen human being, Simon Peter, the man who denied Jesus before Israelites and Romans alike, Simon Peter, the man who was brought up from the depths of his own internal despair, redeemed by his Lord, called to follow Jesus once more and to shepherd his flocks.
In 1980, Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Saved”. “I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined,” the lyrics say. Dylan speaks to how his human nature led him to sin and despair, and it was only through the mercy and grace of Christ that he was saved. “By his grace I have been touched, by his word I have been healed, by his hand I’ve been delivered, by his spirit I’ve been sealed,” Dylan says, echoing the forgiveness that Peter experienced on that seashore.
The call to follow Christ is a beautiful thing. Many seek it, as did the disciples on the Emmaus road. Many find it without even knowing they needed it, as did Paul on the Damascus road. But sometimes, it takes a little push from Christ to find our way out of our sin, and back into his grace. Sometimes, it takes a little redemption to free us from the internal struggles that we feel.
Do we love him?
Feed his sheep.