This sermon was delivered by Erica Hartman, a student at McAfee and winner of the John R. Claypool Preaching Award at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on May 5, 2009.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon 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.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He 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. 7That 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. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So 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. 12Jesus 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. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When 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.’ 16A 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.’ 17He 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. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ (John 21:1-19 NRSV)
On May 15, 2005, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim launched young comedians, filmmakers and video bloggers into self-professed stardom. Youtube.com was invented to give young hopeful filmmakers an opportunity to market their talent on the world-wide-web. The site has grown exponentially since its birth and now over twenty countries have their own versions of the site. Though I have never given in to the temptations of divahood, I can sit on my couch for hours watching the best Youtube has to offer: old episodes of 80’s sitcoms.
Three years ago when my old high school friend Hamilton introduced me to Youtube, we sat on his couch all afternoon watching clips of Muffy, Jodie and Jeff sing a song about camping on Today’s Special, Wesley arguing with his British butler Mr. Belvedere, and Vicki speaking in her not-so-convincing robot voice on Small Wonder. I was summoning the joys and magic of my childhood with the simple click of a button. For me, Youtube is not a place of creation and innovation; it’s a safe internet haven where I can return to an easier, simpler time of sitting on the green shag carpet of my basement, drinking Kool-Aid and watching my best blue friends outwit the wicked Gargamel.
I’m a sucker for nostalgic television because I am a sucker for the nostalgic. Any reference to toys, board games, movies, clothing brands, or commercials from my childhood gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. I am deeply affected by and addicted to the past. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Something happens inside us when we when look back. Just the other day my friend Kristen and I were reminiscing about our first semester here at seminary. We let out a mutual sigh and shared memories of Hebrew class, and the fun we used to have with our friends who we now rarely see. Even the memory of just two and a half years ago has morphed into a time of simplicity, fun and comfort. I wonder, though, in reality, wasn’t it just the same as today? Is the past really a better time that we should long for, or are we simply addicted to the unreality of the past in order to avoid our unknown futures?
I’m sure many of us hear similar reminiscing in our churches. I constantly have the church’s seniors urging me to revive a program from 1948. They talk to the Minister of Worship requesting that we sing hymns from the good-old-days like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Nothing but the Blood.” We also have our middle-aged members wanting “contemporary” worship songs from the 1970’s, and young families wanting vineyard church praise music from the 90’s. Our church body wants the church to look like it did in childhood, whatever era that was. Thus, we are left with a community that wants to move forward in Christ’s ministry and grow Christ’s flock by keeping their eyes fixed on the past and their hearts numbed by nostalgia.
But aren’t we all like this? Don’t we all have something in the past that we hold close to us, some comfortable memory that drives us into a pathological cycle of celebrating and grieving…celebrating and grieving…celebrating and grieving the past? A past relationship, a former job, a former self where we were thinner, younger, better looking, a happier, more exciting, yet simpler time, these are tempting invitations to Never Land, the place of make-believe where we don’t have to grow up and face an aging and broken world. This is the Never Land which is home to the arrogant Peter Pan, who at the end of J.M Barrie’s play cannot truly love the grown-up Wendy. This is the Never Land of Peter the Apostle, who has returned to the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, the place where he sinks into the deep waters of nostalgia and continues his denial of Christ.
This story at the end of John is so strange. It doesn’t seem to show Peter as the amazing church father that I have grown to admire and respect. Here was a man that loved Jesus so much that he gave up all he had to follow him. Peter had such faith that he could walk on water, briefly. Peter had such devotion that he cut off a soldier’s ear in an attempt to protect his Lord. And though Peter, in a moment of weakness, denied Christ three times, Christ still appeared to him and the other disciples after the resurrection and, in the previous chapter, breathed the Holy Spirit onto them and sent them into ministry.
So Peter, this loving and devoted disciple, after having received the blessing and power of Christ to go forth and minister to others, gathers with his best buddies on the lakeshore and says in all wisdom, “I’m going fishing.” —What!??? Did I read this correctly? After experiencing the ministry and miracles of Christ, after having been blessed by Jesus to move forward in doing God’s work, Peter, the father of the Christian Church, the first Pope in the Catholic Church, St. Peter the sturdy rock of our faith, goes fishing!
Now, I don’t claim to be the world’s best minister, but I do know that if you are a new pastor at a church, it’s not the best idea to ask for vacation leave on your first day on the job, especially if that vacation leave is requested so you can return to your old job until you get things figured out. But this is what Peter is doing. He is returning to his old profession of catching fish because he can’t figure it out.
And why not return to this place? It was full of warm Gospel memories. Here, Christ first beckoned Peter and his brother Andrew to follow him. Here is where Christ walked on the water. Here is where Christ calmed the storm. This is the place that Christ fed the 5,000, and this is the place that Christ overlooked when he delivered his Sermon on the Mount. This place was Peter’s security blanket. On the Sea of Tiberias, in this Lake Galilee, Peter found comfort in the living Christ. And through the celebration and grief, he found his way back to the nostalgic reminiscing of days that were no more. He had found his Never Land, a place where he could deny his denial, forget his responsibility to move through the uncertain future of ministry, and never-ever grow up.
All night Peter and the lost boys sat in the boat on the lake. There they are professional fishermen who can’t catch a single fish. Perhaps there were other boats out there on the lake that night. They weren’t the only fishermen in town. I picture the other fishermen in boats nearby heaving in loads of fish from their nets. And here these sad fools for Christ could not catch a single fish. Just when the sun begins to rise after a night of humiliation, they hear a distant voice from the shore.
“Children, have you no fish?” Was this another fisherman poking fun at them?
“No,” they reply. If they kept the answer short and sweet perhaps this guy will stop mocking them and go away. But the stranger continues calling out.
“Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
At this point they are probably desperate for any tip, so they do as instructed. And to their amazement, the net becomes so full of fish that they cannot lift it into the boat. Now something about this scene seems familiar. This stranger, who stands on the far-off shore, is perhaps no stranger after all. Peter, the leader of the group, and the biggest fool of all, does not recognize his Christ. The disciple next to him had to give him an elbow-nudge and whispers, “It is the Lord.”
And once that click in Peter’s brain occurs he no sooner throws on his tunic, jumps in the water, and attempts to swim a football field’s length back to the shore. The other disciples decide to stay in the boat with the net full of fish. Can you picture this scene? Peter dogpaddling while being dragged underwater by a wet heavy tunic, and the other disciples paddling the boat with one arm while holding onto a net full of determined fish that want to swim the other way. For both parties it was a slow race to the shore. Yet, Christ waited and occupied his time by making them breakfast.
Perhaps Never Land is where Peter can once again find Christ. I’m sure as Peter steps out of the water in exhaustion, he joyously says to himself, “I’m never leaving this place.” It’s a perfect heaven. It’s a place where Jesus will show up and take all your burdens away. Who wouldn’t want to be there on the shore of Lake Galilee? Have trouble catching fish? Have a sick daughter? Need Uncle Stanley to be raised from the dead? Never fear, for Christ is here to solve all of our problems. This place is where it’s at.
But Christ didn’t appear to the disciples this third time to perform impressive miracles, or take away everyone’s problems. I like to think that the whole fish miracle was a little practical joke for Jesus to witness this hilarious race to the shore, or at least get their attention. Christ came to ask Peter a question: “Do you love me more than these?”
This is a confusing question. What does Jesus mean? And what does Peter think Jesus means? Do you love me more than these other disciples love me? Do you love me more than you love these other disciples? I don’t think Peter understands the question because Jesus has to ask him three times. I imagine Jesus and Peter sitting among two separate audiences: the audience of the other disciples and the audience of the 153 fish. What if Christ was not talking about the other disciples, but of the fish?
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than you love these fish?” It’s an important question. It seems simple enough to answer, “Yes, Lord, you know I do,” but is it that easy for Simon Peter to leave the shore, to leave his fish, and follow the resurrected Christ? Is it easy to leave the security of our former understandings of faith and move into an uncertain future? Christ knows Peter is not telling the truth. He commands him to feed his lambs and tend his sheep, thus, telling him to go out into the world and feed the hungry and care for the afflicted. He doesn’t say, “Keep on fishing.” Peter has not done what Christ has asked of him over and over again. Instead, Peter has returned to the fish, a job he once knew how to do well.
Jesus, not satisfied with any of Peter’s answers tells him that while he was younger he could do whatever he wanted and go wherever he wanted to go, but in the future someone else will bind him and take him where he does not wish to go. The writer of this Gospel suggests that Christ said these words as a prediction of Peter’s death under persecution. But we could understand this message as Christ’s command upon Peter’s life. If Peter continues on his childish path of running away from Christ’s new call to ministry, he will eventually be led down another path, losing all freedom to do any of Christ’s work. Should not Christ be the only one to bind us and take us to where Christ wants us to go?
As new and emerging ministers we really do have a child-like understanding of our calling. We seek out the comfortable places to find Jesus. We serve others on our own terms, determined by what we already know and understand, rather than what only Jesus knows and what Jesus understands. We have so much anxiety wondering where we will work and how much we will get paid. Many of us are drawn to the type of churches in which we grew up. We want the familiar hymns of childhood, the familiar faces of college, and the familiar theology of seminary. We want to provide and minister to others based upon what we want, rather than give and serve others based upon what Jesus says they need.
I have an idea of my ideal church, how it will function, what types of mission activities it will do, and what types of people will be there. I have dreamed of this place for so long that it has become like a memory. Every time I encounter a problem in my current ministry, I return to this idea of what Jesus’ church should really look like. I have become nostalgic for this imaginary church. I place my hope in that dream of my ideal church, so one day that dream will be made into a reality and church can look just like I think it should. And just like Peter, having returned to his idea of church on the shores of Tiberias, I, too, have found myself a fool who has forgotten how to fish.
The curse of escaping into nostalgic memory is that we have no power in it. It is not real. Never Land is a place where there is no room for growth or transformation. We have absolutely no impact on the certainty of the past. These idealistic memories lead us into a vicious cycle of celebration and grief over something that is now irrelevant. It’s not to say that there’s no room for memory or the reexamination of history. We must learn from the past, and embrace it, but if we hold on too tightly we might find ourselves bound to the past and unable to move forward.
Let’s not become too comfortable with how we think church should be. Most of us are in this seminary community for only three years, just as Peter walked alongside Christ for only three years. And Like Peter, we stand amazed and confused over the lessons brought before us. We are excited about Jesus and we are blessed to be in this loving community of Christ. But, like Peter, we can’t stay here at this shore. We can’t hold too tightly to what we have learned here, because there will be more to learn. Christ is not a concept to be owned, an ideal to be had or a mere memory to be cherished. We can’t love these more than we love Jesus.
Where Christ wants us to go is not always where we want to go. Each Easter when we experience the Resurrection we must be prepared to listen to Christ calling us to move on, to change, and to continue in the unknown blessed journey. We must let God, through this ministry process, change us. We must let God, through us, change the church.
We must let God open us to new and bold adventures. We must recognize the difference between church tradition and church nostalgia. Do we trust Christ enough to get out of the past and follow him into the future of our churches? Do we trust Christ enough to allow him to place more women behind the pulpit? Do we trust Christ enough to allow him to end archaic models of Christian Education that don’t work? Do we trust Christ enough to allow him to heal the true wounds of today’s culture, which have less to do with the style of worship music and more to do with addiction to spending, the demonization of homosexuals and the deterioration of community? Christ is ready to deal with these issues, but are we stuck in the past?
We see the beginning of Peter’s resurrection in this story. Christ resurrected Peter from the past and pointed him toward the future. It all started with feeding lambs and tending sheep and it grew into the establishment of the Church. Are we being resurrected like Peter? Are we saved from the grips of the past and our private idealism so that we can finally feed the starving sheep of today? Are we relevant to our surrounding culture? Do we want to be a part of the church’s memory, or do we want to be ministers of the resurrected church? Do we love Jesus more than these?