Sunday, April 22, 2007

Easter 3 Sermon: Dogpaddling towards Redemption

Philippians 2: 12-17
John 21

In John’s second narrative of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, we find the disciples back at their old professions. Instead of fishing for people, as Jesus had asked, they are here fishing for fish again. It is as if Jesus had never come to fetch them out of their boats in the first place. It is as if the last chapter, where Jesus spoke to them and encouraged them and breathed on them, commissioning them with the Holy Spirit, hadn’t happened.
I have a friend in Arkansas who preached that Easter Sunday is the ultimate “so what” event. We see in John’s story and in others that even the disciples who physically witnessed the resurrected Jesus didn’t immediately follow God’s vision for them to make other disciples and start spreading the good news.
For us, as inheritors of that tradition, Easter is a “so what” moment for us as well. Is it just a day of the year when in my friend’s words “its okay for men to wear pastel colored shirts?” (He actually had all the men in the congregation raise their hands if they were wearing a yellow shirt, and then a pink shirt, and then a mint green shirt. Then asked, “it needs to be more than this for us, doesn’t it?”)
Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.
This beautiful story from John shows us how Easter is indeed “more than this.” At the beginning of the story, it seems that the resurrection has been met with a collective “ho hum” from the disciples. Peter decides to go fishing, he’s joined by the disciples, and then they get a little déjà vu. They are unsuccessful at fishing that evening, but the next morning they are met by someone who asks them, “Have you caught anything? No? Then throw the nets out on the side of the boat!” Then the text tells us they catch such a haul that they can’t even pull the net into the boat. The beloved disciple immediately recognizes “It is the Lord!”
Peter swims to shore, reminding us of the last time he had jumped out of the boat upon seeing Jesus. Though that time he walked on water a few steps and then started sinking, this time, weighted down by his soggy clothes, he swims with all his might toward the shore. Last time, he floundered, sinking, and called out in desperation for Jesus. This time, with no pretentions of walking, Peter simply dives in and swims toward his master.
Once again, Peter’s personality shines through the text. As John tells the earlier story, the beloved disciple and Peter race to the tomb upon news of his resurrection. John spells out very clearly that the beloved disciple makes it to the tomb first, but does not enter the tomb. But Peter arrives and immediately bursts into the empty tomb.
This time, in the boat, the beloved disciple is the first to say “It is the Lord,” but stays in the boat, rowing to shore with all the fish. Peter forgets about the fish and everyone else and flops into the water. Peter wants to get there fast, but yet wants to be adequately dressed for his master, so he puts on his clothes and then jumps into the water.
John points out twice that the other disciples were perhaps a little more level-headed about going to meet Jesus than Peter was. He mentions that they were not far off from the shore, and then says, the boat was only 100 yards away from shore. I would think that a boat full of men could row 100 yards faster than a man could swim, weighted down with clothing. So why does Peter swim, what does John have in mind by relating this aspect of the story?
I think it has something to do with what happens when they get there to shore. Peter is dogpaddling to redemption. Whereas he once floundered and sank, and called out for help, this day he does not call out for help—in the words of Paul, he’s “working out his salvation.” I can see Peter, full of “fear and trembling” as he gets to the shore to meet the man that he thrice denied. When he gets to shore, he and the other disciples are invited to eat with their master a meal of bread and fish—reminding us of the story where Jesus takes bread and fish and creates an abundance. Here, the abundance is symbolized by the fish—all 153 of them.
The symbolic relationship between the miraculous catch of fish and the disciples’ mission does not seem to lie in the description of the quantity of fish, however, but in Peter’s action in hauling in the net. The verb “to haul” is the same verb used in 6:44 to describe those who come to Jesus from God (“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me”) and in 12:32 to describe the power of Jesus’ death (“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”).
The use of this verb with reference to the disciples and the catch of fish suggests that they now join God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. The catch of fish, then, marks the extension of God and Jesus’ work into the disciples’ work.
The vast quantity of fish in the disciples’ net and the gracious meal of bread and fish show that God’s gift is available in the risen Jesus just as it was in the incarnate Jesus. Just as Jesus’ ministry was inaugurated with a miracle of unprecedented abundance (2:1-11), so, too, is the church’s ministry. John 21 is a story of celebration for the post-resurrection community, because it demonstrates for the community that its life is grounded in an experience of God’s fullness and unprecedented, unexpected gift.
So we have a failed fishing expedition, a miraculous catch because of the help of the stranger whom the disciples know is Jesus, an excited dash to the lakeshore, another gift of grace, and then what? Confession and commission…………
Jesus is relentless in his re-commissioning of Peter. The Gospels are clear about this. Did you notice in our Easter passage in Mark that the angel says “Go and tell the disciples and Peter.” Peter, who symbolizes all of us, is being re-claimed by Christ even though he denied him. Christ asks him three times to match the three times Peter had denied him.
For me then, Easter brings back all kinds of great memories and elicits feelings of God’s glory and power, but at the root of it, I think the Gospels are telling us that Easter is about God’s persistence. God exhausts us with “Do you love me,” after “Do you love me?” It isn’t because God is insecure or co-dependant.
God is persistent because God loves us beyond our comprehension and wants us to mine deeper and deeper in our hearts for the love that we will give in return. Because God knows that as we mine deeper and deeper for our love of God, we will become more and more what we are created to be. God’s desire for us probes so much deeper than the surface salutes and doctrinal assent. God wants us to “know ourselves” so that we might more fully know Him.
As Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus three times gives him the same command. Feed my sheep, tend my lambs. Our responsive love of Jesus should manifest itself in servanthood. In serving others, we serve Christ. As we mine deeper and deeper into our hearts for the love of God, we will find a stronger and stronger impulse to love and serve others, because God is Love and Christ is “others.”
After Jesus helps Peter reacquaint himself with what it means to follow him, he gives him a little hint of what lies ahead for him. He lets Peter know that he will die on the cross—that his faith and his love for Jesus will lead him to the same fate. Jesus wants the best in us. He wants us to dig deep into our hearts to know for ourselves how much we love God. When Peter digs into his own heart and soul, he finds that his love of this man—once wavering, but now commissioned and blessed by Jesus, will gain him the privilege of dying the same death as his master. He will literally share in the death of Christ as he shares in the resurrection.
In these verses, Peter is enabled to move beyond his previous relationship with Jesus and claim the unity, intimacy, and mutuality with God and Jesus. These verses point to a future for Peter that is based on his relationship with Jesus after, rather than before, Jesus’ hour.
OF course, Peter also wants to know—“well, what about him.” I can see him gesturing with his thumb to the young beloved disciple tagging along behind. Jesus, swift to knock Peter off of his high horse, lets Peter know that one way of glorifying him is not privileged over another. Just because the beloved disciple will die of old age, that doesn’t mean that Peter is better or worse than John.
Peter and John are rivals. John is called the “beloved disciple,” and Peter probably resents him for it. Paul would later have words for this kind of discipleship. He wrote to the Philippians, “Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life.”
“Holding out the word of life” is what Jesus did in his ministry, and it is what he commissions the disciples to enact as well. Peter has been broken down, emotionally and psychologically scarred by his own fearful denial of Christ—even though he puffed out his chest and said, “I will go with you to the death, Lord!” Did you notice that Peter was saddened when Jesus asked him for a third time if he loved him? Now, Peter has a second chance to hold true to his original commitment.
He will hold true to his original intention. Peter, and by extension, all of us, are dogpaddling to redemption. We’re being claimed and reclaimed and re-commissioned. When we forget our responsibility as disciples to “hold out the word of life,” Jesus doesn’t give up on us. We are given grace upon grace—God is persistent in giving us life and purpose. This is indeed good news! This is the news of the Easter story. And that is more than pastel shirts and egg hunts. That is more than family lunches and new dresses. God is relentlessly loving you. Not even death can hold Christ back from walking this life with you. Open your life to the probing love of Jesus. Mine your heart to find a deeper love and commitment. Out of that love will flow fountains of living water. Out of that love will pour the word of life. So that we might shine for our God and Maker like the stars of the universe.
Christ is Risen. And Christ is Rising! Amen

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