Sermon: Rehabilitated

Text: John 21:1-19

Date: May 5, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

Whenever I read that bit of this rich story about Peter jumping out of the boat when the stranger on the beach is recognized as the Lord, I find myself wondering, “Which side of the boat did he jump out of?” Did he jump out on the shore side, so eager to be the first one to get to the risen Christ? Or did he jump out on the other side, holding on to the gunnel of the boat and ducking down with just his nose above the surface, hoping Christ hadn’t seen him? Maybe there would be some way to slink off amongst the cattails and avoid an encounter he might not have been too eager to have. Because of that whole denial and desertion thing.

I read a clergywoman’s blog on post-resurrection encounters describing some of her Bible study’s discussion of how the disciples behaved in the post-Easter days. She asked her class why they thought Peter and the Beloved Disciple, after sprinting to the tomb to check out Mary’s witness, returned home immediately after seeing it empty. [John 20:10] One member of the class cracked, “He went home to hide from Jesus.” In the gospel of John, just before the story we heard this morning, Christ does appear to the disciples as a group, while they were huddling and hiding together behind a locked door. Christ appears to the group a week later as well, since Thomas missed the first meeting. So that awkward first meeting and even a second were already over, in the gospel’s chronology. But perhaps Peter had been able to keep to the edges of the group and avoid direct eye contact with the Lord. There’s safety in numbers. He may have been relieved when it was Thomas and not himself who had the very direct conversation with Jesus.

When he declares to his compadres, “I’m going fishing,” it very well could have been a declaration that he was closing the discipleship chapter of his life and intending to go back to what he was before—an expert fisherman. Perhaps he was already looking back to his discipleship days as a weird, unexpected chapter in the story of his life; but he was going to pick up where he left off, before he ever got introduced to Jesus who nicknamed him “Rock” and turned his life upside down. He was inches away from a clean getaway–though an unpromising re-start, fishing wise. Then the stranger on the beach advises them to fish on the other side of the boat, they catch an enormous number of fish, and Simon Peter’s colleague recognizes Jesus who has become Christ the Lord.

If you’re Peter, you could see how you might be equally drawn to run toward Christ and run away, right? In a sense Peter is the every-person disciple in the gospels. He leaps in with both feet and is sometimes in over his head. He has flashes of brilliant insight and moments of conventional dullness. He both declares faith in Jesus and denies him. He is both courageous and cowardly. He follows and deserts. The nickname “Rock” suits him; he can be either rock-steady or dumb as a box of rocks. Simon Peter’s a mixed bag—like me, like you. We can stand with him in his rocking boat, wondering whether to go backward or forward, run away from or run toward Christ.

I imagine he feared some kind of dressing down by Christ, feeling like he richly deserved it. Instead he got a suggestion to try something different than what he was doing and failing at; netted a great catch of fish; received a friendly invitation to a meal; and enjoyed a hot breakfast cooked by the One who had claimed and now was proving once again he was here on earth as one who serves. It wasn’t until Christ had fed him with what he helped him catch that the conversation unfolds. Even then there is no verbal conviction of Peter by Jesus. No shaming, no confession demanded. No “You’re fired!” No indication that Simon Peter has to reapply for discipleship status. It’s all very gracious.

Forgiveness is not asked for or offered verbally. I have thought of the threefold question and answer session between Jesus and Peter as a kind of implied forgiveness story since the three rounds of conversation match up numerically with the number of times Peter denied Jesus at the time he was on trial. But it’s not there in so many words. Maybe the way Jesus treated Peter all along, including during resurrection appearances, was forgiveness enough. Maybe the forgiveness was expressed non-verbally, in an embrace that the gospel readers don’t get to see.

What we do have is a rehabilitation of Peter as a disciple. Peter doesn’t need Jesus to forgive him so much as he needs to forgive himself. Karoline Lewis’s commentary makes this point, saying “what Peter needs is to accept who Jesus needs him to be. A rereading of Peter’s denial in John exposes his true rejection — that of his own identity. The question asked of Peter is not, as it is in the Synoptic Gospels, “do you know the man?” To which Peter responds, “I don’t know the man.” Rather, in the Fourth Gospel, the inquiry posed to Peter is, “aren’t you one of his disciples?” Peter’s response? “I am not…” Jesus does not ask three times, “Peter, do you love me?” to remind Peter of his three-fold denial, to test him or to trap him.. Instead,…Jesus reaffirms who Peter needs to be; the disciple Jesus needs him to be. And the disciple Jesus needs Peter to be is the shepherd now.” [1]

Isn’t Jesus’ confidence in Peter inspiring? Christ knows that Peter has failed and will most likely fail again, but he is still being trusted with the ongoing ministry, because disciples are needed to carry on the loving work of the servant Jesus. Christ can’t wait around for humanity to be perfected; the work of tending Christ’s sheep and seeking other sheep who are lost, or “not of this fold” (as he says earlier in John’s gospel) is urgent. Being a stumblebum who doesn’t always get it right does not disqualify Peter or present day disciples. As Thomas Troeger puts it, “For the risen Christ still calls, still feeds, still empowers, even doubters and deniers for the ministry.”[2]

The way Christ calls, feeds, and empowers the disciples in this story must not be overlooked. The huge catch comes as an abundant gift after the fishing disciples attend to Christ’s guidance. It’s a sign, along with many others in the gospels, that we will be given enough and more than enough of what we need to do the work of caretaking God’s flock. This may not always be true of gritty stuff like money, which doesn’t fall in bagfulls out of the sky just because we wish for it. But it is generally true of less tangible things like compassion, patience, energy, and strength. I bet you have found this to be true when you’ve taken up some kind of service. I was lying in my favorite lounge chair last week—the one with the pillows arranged just so, the TV remote and a dish of candy next to it—just feeling tired, low and blah. Feeling distinctly blobbish and crabby. I’ve been a Christian a long time, so I knew the cure—propel myself out of the chair and go to Super Supper to eat with the neighbors and help clean up. Even though there were so many of us from EHCC that there wasn’t much actual work to do, I was (predictably) filled up both with potatoes and renewed oomph. Because Christ is like that; we are given enough and more than enough of what we need to be in ministry.

“Feed my sheep; tend my lambs.” The figurative language Christ uses in this gospel leaves a great deal of room for rising out of the blobbish lounge and engaging in various ministries. There’s the actual satisfying work of feeding the hungry, always available to us in one form or another. I had an opportunity to assist a hungry, homeless stranger who came here on Monday. We were able to offer her a place to rest and some Super Supper leftovers. Your donations to the church made funds available for a few nights lodging (from the Compassionate Action Fund) and while I was driving her to the motel, she asked about food banks, so I drove her to Helpline House. She was given a gracious welcome and a couple of big bags of food to take with her—and that’s thanks to folks like you who donate, work the food drives, volunteer at Helpline House. It was a gift to see the tangible ministry of feeding God’s beloved happening thanks to the compassion of many behind the scenes.

There are so many ways to tend God’s beloved, ministries to match all those who are called. I was looking at the Good News Network on the internet (a lovely tonic to counter the internet cesspool) and saw the story of a wildlife shelter in North Carolina that called out for help. They take in a great many orphaned and injured baby birds in the Spring, and they asked their supporters to knit little nests for the baby birds so they have an appropriately cozy and supportive place to grow strong—nests prevent the little ones’ legs from growing splayed out which may mean they can’t stand properly as adult birds. The shelter put their request on Facebook and soon received thousands of hand-knitted nests for the baby birds, as well as notes of encouragement for the staff.[3] Isn’t that lovely? “Tend my lambs,” Christ says. If you love me, care for the little ones. I can only imagine the delight of the knitters, since handcrafts make me twitch, but I’ve seen how knitters like Winnie Tingley are filled up by making little hats for newborns–you can see the light in her eyes when she talks about using her skill, resources and time to create warmth for others. Like the fisherman who have more than enough to sustain themselves and to share when they put their skills together with Christ’s encouragement and God’s gifts, people who use their gifts in love have enough for sustenance and generosity.

I hope you’ll take the gospel of John’s epilogue with you; commit the broad outlines of it to memory. Next time you’re feeling inadequate and ashamed of yourself because of a recent failure to be a faithful disciple, think of Simon Peter–nicknamed Rock–who had it in him to be dumb as a box of rocks and also rock steady. Christ called him, and then rehabilitated him after a rather spectacular failure. It’ doesn’t matter whether you’ve been running to Christ or away from Christ lately. It’s never too late to feed on the abundant love of Christ and have enough left over to feed Christ’s sheep. Listen—Christ has come down to the shore to meet us, to seek us out. Listen–Christ is calling.


[1] Lewis, Karoline

[2] Feasting on the Word, C, v. 2, p. 425



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