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Finding Faith (& Jesus) with Peter

Wandering Heart, Final Week

April 7, 2024

John 21:1-17

David R. Collins




Today is our last week in Wandering Heart, our series about Peter in the gospels. We have been looking at Peter’s relationship with Jesus these last few months and have come full circle with him. He has dropped his nets, walked on water, professed his faith, been rebuked, received foot-washing, denied Jesus, and run to the tomb. He’s a lot like us. We’re a lot like him.


We Are Peter

We may not have literally left our jobs for Jesus, or defied the laws of physics with his help, but we’re all here today because at one time, maybe it’s in the distant past or maybe we’re right on the cusp of it, we looked at Jesus and it just clicked. We said, “Or course he is who he says he is.” And that helped life make sense, or it got you through a difficult time, or maybe you were just fully convinced by a power greater than yourself that we’re not just here because those plates aren’t going to pass themselves! But because this whole church thing was set up by God, so that every person might have the chance to learn how much God cares for them.


And like Peter, you probably went from that moment and then completely misunderstood it.


Maybe you got swept up in believing that Jesus gave his followers magical powers, or that he wanted you and those who look like you to “take this country back”. Maybe you thought if you took out all the parts of the faith that you or your friends disagreed with, or couldn’t be true, then you’d be left with the true, real faith for the ages, and also like Peter, you heard Jesus say, ‘Get behind me Satan!” And show you that God is indeed bigger and better than the books you read, or the shows you watch, or the podcasts you listen to.


Like Peter, maybe you’ve experience Jesus washing your feet, metaphorically at least. Maybe you’ve experienced a moment or two of profound spiritual bliss, that didn’t make sense, but you knew it was real. You didn’t fully understand it, but you can’t deny that it happened.


But just like Peter, you, and me, and every one else who ever “got it” also “lost it”. It stopped making sense, or it cost too much and didn’t seem worth the effort, or something else felt more urgent, or important, or maybe you just wanted to do what you wanted to do when and how you wanted to do it. We all have. And like Peter, we’ve denied that we knew Jesus, with our words, or with our actions, or our priorities. Maybe because we lost faith, or maybe because of fear.


Then also like Peter, you found out that you can’t actually unfollow Jesus. That as much as you might like to think he could pass on from this world, and join the many other relics of the past, you hear the news that the  tomb is empty, and even though you didn’t fully understand what that meant, you ran to the tomb any way, and sure enough, he’s not where you left him.


That’s a confusing place to be, isn’t it? Just like Peter, we find ourselves caught between what we thought we knew and what we’re witnessing with our own eyes. The empty tomb is a symbol of that tension, that moment of cognitive dissonance where our past beliefs and present realities collide.


In our lives, we often seek to put Jesus in a box, to categorize our faith as just another aspect of our lives that we can control or understand fully. But Jesus doesn’t stay put. Just like Peter, we find that our attempts to ‘unfollow’ or move away from Jesus don't really stick because Jesus isn't confined to our expectations or understandings.


We see the empty tomb, and our first reaction might be disbelief. We question, we doubt, and we wrestle with the implications. What does it mean that Jesus isn’t where we thought he would be?


Especially, if like Peter, we have denied Jesus? If you turn your back on someone and then they die, there will be feelings of guilt for sure, but what if they come back? That’s more than just guilt! That’s fear.


That’s where we find Peter today. Let’s get into it.


John 21 

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.


John doesn’t tell us where the other five remaining disciples are. He doesn’t really have to, does he? This is what happens after trauma. Everything has changed and so do relationships as a result. We know that they all get back together for the sequel in Acts, which just goes to show that it’s good to give each other space sometimes.


4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6 He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.


This is a call back to a previous experience in John. But it’s not just nostalgia. Jesus isn’t just recreating a favorite picture. I mean, part of it is that Jesus has a flair for the dramatic, but he gets that from his Father.


But it also speaks to something we need to hear post-Easter. Lots of churches, especially in this country, especially in the South, teach that Jesus’ teachings don’t matter nearly as much as his death and resurrection and second coming. They’re like, “Yeah, you can ignore that stuff about loving your enemies, and sharing what you have, because Jesus died for you, and rose for you, and wants you to listen to us now!”


But look at what Jesus does post-Resurrection. He doesn’t come with new teachings. He emphasizes his old ones.


This is why we’re bringing back “Everything Jesus Taught” for the next month or so. Starting next Sunday, we’re going to look at what he taught about heaven pretty systematically. Because what Jesus taught matters. When he comes back from the grave, he points back to his life and teachings before he died.


I love this next verse so much. It’s classic Peter.


7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.


I love John’s little digs at Peter. You can almost hear that’s he’s rolling his eyes.


8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, (with one fewer rower, Peter) for they were not far from the land, (Peter!) only about a hundred yards off.


You saved like two seconds Peter, and you almost drowned big guy, because robes just aren’t good for swimming in, and boats are so floaty. (Sigh)


9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.


Because we’re looking at this verse, this is how we’re serving communion today! Hope you like herring!


Nah, you’d smell it already. But these verses are important for a number of reasons. For one, like before, it’s a call back to everything Jesus taught. And for another, it shows what Jesus was like after his resurrection. He’s not a ghost. He’s a real person who still eats food. We’ll get to that in our next series on heaven too.


14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


Now we get back to Peter. This is where Jesus finally deals with him, and his betrayal when he needed him most. In these verses, we don't see Jesus scolding or blaming Peter. And there isn’t some big, formal moment of forgiveness either.


Instead, Jesus is setting the stage for something Peter couldn't have wrapped his head around before. It's in this moment that Peter's trust is solidified and so is Jesus’ faith in Peter. Jesus isn’t just forgiving Peter; he’s commissioning him… to step up as the good shepherd, to lead and protect the flock. Let’s look together.


15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16 A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17 He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.


I love this about Jesus. He doesn’t need to rehash the past with Peter. He doesn’t make him unpack why he did what he did. He already knows. He knows the reasons that were excusable: he was afraid for his life, for his future… he couldn’t imagine life without Jesus. And he knows the reasons that were inexcusable: he was a coward. He was a bad disciple and a worse friend. But rather than make Peter dig into his past, he just gives him three opportunities to start fresh, that correspond to the three times he denied him. And each time he directs him to focus his attention, not towards himself, not towards Jesus, but towards people.


If you love me, help somebody.


But there’s really cool things going on in the Greek too. And you just have to know because it’s really cool.


Words for Love

One of the first things you ever learn about Greek is that they have three words for love. There eros, which is sexual, erotic love. There’s philo, which is brotherly love, the kind where I love you if you love me, conditional love, and then there’s unconditional love: agape. This is the highest form of love: sacrificial, divine, amazing love that we sing songs about. The way that God loves.


The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he asks, “Do you agápē me?” and Peter responds, “You know I philō you.”


Isn’t that weird? What’s going on there?


It reminds me of that awkward , as-seen-on-tv moment in a new relationship when one person says, “I love you.” And the other one says, “Aw thank you!”


Or maybe this is Peter having one of his moments of real self knowledge. Maybe he’s remembering his denials, and is saying in his own way, I don’t know that I can say my love is unconditional, because deep down, there’s a coward in me. But I do know that I love you when you love me. I know that I love you when I can see you, and feel your presence. And that’s honest and real.


So then, in the greek at least, the third time, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he doesn’t say agape anymore. He hears Peter. He hears that for once, and hopefully from now on, he knows himself. He’s changed. He’s no longer the guy who makes broad sweeping promises because he’s caught up in a moment. And so Jesus steps down to where he’s at.


The third time, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you philō me?”


And if that doesn’t tell you again how much Jesus loves you, I don’t know what will.


Jesus takes Peter as he is. And he does the same with you and me. He holds up that golden standard at first. It is still the best option after all. But it’s not the only option.


It’s not all or nothing with God. It’s not perfection or rejection. Jesus meets us where we are, guiding us through and working with our shortcomings, not discarding us because of them.


God values progress over perfection. God cherishes our steps toward growth, far more than God cares about our stumbles. Every step, no matter how small or faltering, is celebrated as a move towards a place that only God can see.


So Jesus walks with Peter where he’s at. And says, “So do you philo me?” and Peter again responds, “You know I philō you.” And that’s enough for Jesus. In large part because Jesus doesn’t need Peter’s love for himself. He wants it, he needs it, for others.


The calling that Jesus gives Peter, he gives to you and me too.


He tells Jesus commands Peter to “feed his lambs,” “tend his sheep,”and “feed his sheep”


The word used here for “feed” means to nourish spiritually. Jesus says it twice. Once in regard to baby sheep, little lambs, and once about grown up sheep. That says to me that this whole church thing isn’t just about taking care of the sheep we already have, but feeding the new ones that God brings our way, both by going out and finding them, and paying close attention to the ones that show up.


Lambs are often just that. Little people. Children and babies who need to be guided in faith and life. It’s so much better to just grow up in the safety and security of God’s love. And lambs are also people who are all grown up, but brand new to church.  For them, we have to keep the simple things simple sometimes. We have to remember what our questions felt like the first time we had them. And we have to understand their worldviews, not just insist that they have ours.


So Jesus tells Peter and us to spiritually nourish his lambs and his sheep. He also intends that we feed them actual food too. But we don’t need to be told that, do we? Maybe we do, sometimes. But I think more often than not, we get tricked by the cliche to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words, and think a sandwich can speak all by itself. (When really, you have to word it like a puppet…)


The other instruction Jesus gives to Peter is to tend the sheep, which means to act as a shepherd, guarding and guiding a flock. Shepherds protect the sheep from wolves, which requires vigilance, care, and sometimes, courage to confront dangers.


Friends, I don’t think I need to tell you that there a wolves out there, and far too many people think they’re shepherds. And far too often, we don’t want to get involved, or say anything that offends, and when we do, we’re ignoring Jesus’ command that we protect and defend his lambs and his sheep.


The Barmen Declaration

I made a promise to myself and to God, to not just throw little barbs into sermons to deal with the wolves in the church and the community. So I’m not going to do that now. But we do need to talk about Christian nationalism and the existential threat it poses not only to the Church but to the lambs and sheep we are called to defend. I’m going to look for a time in the calendar when we can have a study of one of our confessions that came out of a similar time in the church, but in Germany nearly a hundred years ago. It’s called the Barmen Declaration, because they wrote it in a bar, so maybe we should study in one. So watch this space.


You see, you and I are called to spiritual leadership and stewardship, to be attentive to the needs of those we lead and to safeguard them from threats, whether they are physical, spiritual, or doctrinal. This is especially true today, as we are just about to ordain and install our new elders and deacons.


Being a Shepherd

Being a shepherd in the way Jesus describes is about more than just overseeing; it's about nurturing, providing for, and ensuring the well-being of the flock. It's about knowing each sheep by name, understanding their unique needs, and creating an environment where they can thrive and grow.


Peter, and by extension each of us, was called to be on the look out, to seek out the lost, to bind up the injured, and to strengthen the weak, just like Jesus did.


Today, as we ordain and install our new officers, we're not just filling roles; we're affirming our calling to shepherd God's flock. Like Peter, we're entrusted with the care and guidance of our community, called to nourish, protect, and lead people to love like Jesus.


We gather at the Lord's table, where the bread and cup remind us of the true Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, inviting us to do the same.


So, let’s at least try to be the presence of Christ in the world. Let's embrace the confusion, the challenges, and the joys of shepherding, knowing that, in Jesus, we have the perfect example to follow. Today, we ordain and commission not just officers but shepherds after God's own heart, who are ready to feed, tend, and love the flock God has entrusted to us.


We move forward to nourish the lambs, tend the sheep, and walk together toward the new world Jesus promised, ready to serve, love, and follow wherever He leads.


Amen.


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