Second Chance to Go
A sermon on John 21:1-19
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Yannick Menard on Unsplash.]
There is a snarky prompt that I occasionally see floating around social media inviting people to “tell me to leave your house without telling me to go.”
It’s like an exercise in passive-aggressive communication, which – I guess – has its appeal.
There is an ironic rule of polite society that we should avoid saying uncomfortable things directly, even though indirect communication can cause all kinds of problems and can actually being a lot more rude, in my opinion.
But whatever our own particular mores for hinting that it’s time to wrap-up the party, we can be certain that Jesus does not have a problem being clear about telling people when it is time to go.
In reading today’s gospel we must remember that this is not the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus has appeared to his disciples after the resurrection.
After his appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden, where he told her to tell the other disciples that he was going to ascend to the Father, he also appeared to the disciples directly. In that meeting he told the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Jesus didn’t offer subtle hints, or vague suggestions. He made it perfectly clear that the mission of carrying on Jesus’s work and message had been transferred to his followers. He explicitly sent them out to do the work.
But here, in his third post-resurrection appearance, we find Peter and the others back in Galilee; back in their boats; back in their old lives.
They might have left the upper room. But they didn’t “go” the way that Jesus had sent them out.
Which raises the question of “why”?
Jesus hadn’t been speaking in parables this time. He wasn’t asking them to draw the connection between a claim that he would “rebuild the temple in three days” to a prediction of his own resurrection.
This time he was clear. He had lead them and taught them for three years, and then he told them that he was now sending them to carry on the work… and instead they just went home.
I’m not harping on this because I think we should be hard on the disciples. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I think we need to spend time with the question of why they didn’t go when they were sent, because it speaks so directly to our lives of discipleship.
There are very real barriers that can get in the way when God calls us… so let’s talk about them.
Perhaps the most obvious is fear…
That’s why the disciples were hiding in the upper room, of course, when Jesus first appeared to them. They were afraid that the authorities who had killed Jesus would come after them next.
But, of course, we can be paralyzed by fear even when there is no external, physical threat.
Sometimes fear looks like the belief that we don’t have what we need, that we aren’t “enough,” with all of our limitations and inadequacies, to do the work that God has called us to do.
And our instinct when we get stuck in that kind of scarcity mindset is to go back to what we know – to go back to “our boats and our nets” because that is what feels safe.
Jesus recognizes the trap of fear and scarcity among his followers and his response is one of abundance… but only after he lets them grapple with the insecurity of what they think they know how to do.
They go back to fishing, and they fail.
That must have been an awfully hard night. After they have retreated to what was familiar… what was supposed to be easy, and it wasn’t.
But then Jesus is there, telling them to throw their nets out again… to not believe the whispers in their heads that they are hopeless… to not retreat further in defeat… and then the catch is overwhelming.
It is a double-gift from Jesus to his hesitant disciples.
It’s a gift of over-flowing more-than-enoughness. A symbol of abundance where they could see only scarcity.
And it is also a gift of shifting their perception about where safety really lies.
They had looked for safety in the familiarity of what they knew they could do. But that wasn’t where their needs were met.
Instead, there needs were met when they trusted Jesus and followed his directions.
Of course, that lesson raises the other huge barrier to stepping out in faith when Jesus calls us: the barrier of shame.
A call to trust in Jesus can invite us into abundance… but it can also remind us of the times when we have failed to trust.
That’s Peter’s story, of course. It’s the reason that Jesus has to ask him three times if he loves him… because Peter three times denied even knowing him.
And that failure, that denial must have weighed on Peter’s soul.
Just hours after blithely asserting that he would lay down his life for Jesus, Peter actively rejected him. The mere risk of association was enough to push Peter into outright lies to protect himself.
After such betrayal, can we wonder that Peter was shackled by shame?
Unable to receive the peace that Jesus breathed on him after the resurrection.
Unable to believe that he would ever be worthy to carry on Jesus’ work, or deliver his message.
For any of us who have ever felt trapped and defeated by shame, this story of Jesus’s conversation with Peter by the lakeshore is such a gift of grace.
Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, so three times Jesus invites Peter to assert his love… to tell the truth to erase the lies; to convince himself, as much as Jesus, that his love was not invalidated by his failure.
And there is more… Jesus responds to Peter’s professions of love with an assertion that Peter has a job to do…”feed my sheep.”
Peter’s denials did not disqualify him. Jesus is telling him that he is still called… that his past failures do not need to interfere with the work that Jesus has sent him to do. Peter’s love is more powerful, more relevant than his shame.
The SALT Commentary this week offers a beautiful paraphrase of what Jesus is saying to his followers when he meets them on this lakeshore – after he has sent them out to do his work, and instead they have slunk back home:
“The risen Jesus pursues them, from Jerusalem to Galilee. I knew I’d find you here, back to your old habits, empty hopes and empty nets. You’re worried you’ve let me down, that you’ve been disqualified – but on the contrary, you’re the ones I’ve chosen. Do you really think I didn’t know your weaknesses when I called you? I knew you better than you knew yourselves, and I called you and taught you and sent you, and now I send you again. Stop thinking in terms of scarcity, of limitations, of what you can’t do! I came so that you might have life, and have it abundantly – so think in terms of bounty, of opportunities, of what you CAN do. Look at all these fish, for God’s sake, filling the net to overflowing! Take courage, and go!”
None of us were on that lakeshore with Jesus and his first followers.
None of us fled at his arrest or denied knowing him during his trial. None of us heard words of sending from his resurrected mouth and then hung our heads and went home, seeking the safety of familiar tasks to hide our shame.
But I would be willing to bet that all of us need to hear his words of knowing and of calling all the same.
Because all of us have been sent, and all of us face the barriers that broken, imperfect people face when entrusted with such an awesome task as being Christ’s church in the world.
When we see scarcity, we need to be reminded of Christ’s promise of abundance – not through our ability or skills, but through God’s provision.
When we are weighed down by shame, we need to be invited back into love, and into the work of sharing that love with others.
When we feel unable to answer Christ’s call to be his disciples – to be his messengers of love, and abundance, and resurrection in this world, we need to hear him say:
“I knew I’d find you here. Back where it feels safe. I’m not shocked or disappointed… but I’m not giving up on you either. I sent you once, I will send you again. Take courage, and go!”
Just listen for his voice. He’s calling you.
Thanks be to God.