April 15, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Yankees catcher Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja vu, all over again.” Well, here in the final chapter of the gospel of John, it’s deja vu all over again. Peter and the other disciples are fishing, casting their nets continuously into the water only to pull them up empty time and time again throughout the night. As the dawn breaks, a figure appears on the far shore and calls to them, “Throw your nets down on the other side,” and when they do, the net is so full of fish it is too heavy to haul aboard.
Weren’t we in this very same place so long ago when Jesus first called to the disciples, when they first left their nets to follow the man who could do such remarkable things?1 In the very last chapter of the gospel of John after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, where any good story teller would put a period and say, “the end,” instead the gospel of John reboots, and everything begins again. Jesus once again calls the disciples from their fishing, once again they leave their nets behind and rush to shore to follow Jesus, and once again they share a meal together — a meal of fish and bread just as they shared on the hillside when Jesus broke bread for the 5000. Everything in this scene is reminiscent of the ministry of Jesus and his time with his disciples, and as we watch the scene flicker through the years of Jesus’ ministry, we notice that it is backlit by a fire on the beach kindled by Jesus to warm the disciples after their hasty swim to reach him. It is, John carefully points out, a charcoal fire. I have a cottage on Lake Ontario and over the summers, my family and I have made a lot of campfires on our beach but never in my memory did we make a charcoal fire because there is always more than enough driftwood to spare. I doubt that the Sea of Galilee is much different, so why lug charcoal all the way to the beach when you can just burn driftwood? We might shrug off that charcoal as a quirky detail except that there is only one other time in the gospel of John — in the entire New Testament, in fact — when anyone makes a charcoal fire. Do you remember when that was? Peter probably does. I imagine Peter eying this fire on the beach a little suspiciously, wondering himself if it is just a coincidence. Here in the last chapter of John, as the entire life cycle of the disciples’ time with Jesus is collapsed into a moment, we see Jesus’ call to follow, the disciples casting aside heavy nets, the sharing of fish and bread, and yes, finally that charcoal fire.
It was a charcoal fire that the Roman guards used to warm themselves after Jesus’ arrest; it was that charcoal fire that lit Peter’s face enough to cause the soldiers to frown in recognition.
“Did you know the man Jesus?” the soldiers had asked Peter three times in the courtyard, and in the light of that charcoal fire, Peter denied Jesus — three times.
“I don’t know him,” Peter said even as his heart broke.
How Peter’s heart must have sunk again there on the beach, with the charcoal fire licking his conscious, as he heard Jesus’ words, “Peter, do you love me?” Three times Jesus asked, and Peter was thrown back to that night when his world collapsed, when he utterly failed the man to whom he had once pledged his life.
Deja vu all over again.
We think of our lives as straight lines from birth to death, and as Christians, we hope, to life again but in the gospel of John, time collapses and in the end we see the beginning and in the beginning we see the end. So too, in our own lives, instead of straight lines, our roads follow hills and valleys, and even curves that double back upon themselves until we feel like we’ve been in this place before. The musician Harry Chapin wrote a song called, “All My Life’s a Circle,” and in the verse he sings, “It seems like I’ve been here before, I can’t remember when, and I’ve got this funny feeling that we’ll all be together again. There’s no straight lines make up my life, and all my roads have bends. There’s no clear cut beginnings, and so far no dead ends.”
Chapin’s song would be the perfect soundtrack for the gospel of John, and I’m guessing that if any one of us were to choose a song that described our own journey with Jesus, “All My Life’s a Circle” would be high on our list as well.
You are here in this sanctuary (or for some, listening to this podcast) because you have felt the pull of Christ who has promised that your life can have significant meaning if you dedicate yourself to his way of grace, mercy, and compassion, and so you have declared that, “Yes, this is who I want to be. I want to live a life that bears fruit, that makes at least this little corner of the world brighter and more beautiful because I was here.” Maybe you made that declaration in a public way in the waters of baptism, or the oils of confirmation, or maybe you made it quietly in the privacy of prayer, hesitatingly, not even exactly sure what you meant by it but knowing that this life of meaning that Christ promises is something that you want for yourself. And so, as the old hymn says, you decided to follow Jesus. You set off on a life of service and kindness, trying to put Christ right there at the center of everything you do. You worked hard to be a parent whose decisions reflected Christ’s love. You gave away your time and money to causes that would bring justice to the oppressed, protection to the vulnerable. You prayed, and gave, and worked to create a life of beauty. And for a while, your journey of discipleship chugged along quite nicely, but then suddenly you got up one morning and for reasons large and legitimate, or small, petty, and human, you quavered and fell. Just like Peter.
“I don’t know the man; I don’t want to know the man!” you cried out as you pushed away all of your good intentions and Christ’s call to you, and instead gave into your doubt, your apathy, your exhaustion, and your fear. Your discipleship turned to dust that day. Instead of showing patience, you growled at those who annoyed you. Instead of praying for the suffering, you turned on the football game and shut out the world. Instead of caring, you ate Oreos. All too human, you gave into your temptation to let Jesus go on ahead without you while you hunkered down in the warmth of a charcoal fire and gave in to the weariness that had burrowed into your bones. And if discipleship were truly a straight line from commitment to fulfillment, that would have been the end for you. God would put a period on your life and said, “Well, that one didn’t work out so well, did it?” and would have moved on to someone else who God thought had a little more staying power. But Jesus doesn’t do that to Peter, and he doesn’t do it to us.
“Let’s just reboot,” Jesus says to Peter. “Let’s give it another try.”
“Peter, do you love me?” Jesus says in a deliberate echo of the moment of Peter’s failure, and then invites Peter to start afresh. And this time, Peter says, “Yes. Yes, I love you. A thousand times yes.”
Now, I have to step aside for a moment and make this disclaimer. This may be a non-denominational church but I grew up Baptist, and I still consider myself a good Baptist. I was immersed in the waters of baptism at the age of 12 when I said the words, “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior,” and I take that moment very seriously in my life of faith, because any journey has to have a starting point, but I can also tell you without a doubt that there was nothing magical about those waters that made me a perfect disciple in the decades that have followed that dunking. Ah, how many times I have wished there had been, but deciding to follow Jesus isn’t a one time accomplishment that you hang on the wall like a college diploma; following Jesus is a decision you make every morning when you get out of bed. It is a decision you make every time you are tempted to rip into someone in anger but instead bite your tongue. It is a decision you make when you tell your child not to seek revenge on the kids who bullied them, but instead to seek a peaceful solution. It is a decision you make when you spend your day off serving at the community kitchen. It is a decision you make when instead of pulling the covers over your head because you don’t want to hear about the cruelty of the world toward the most vulnerable among us one more time, you drag yourself out of bed and lend your voice to the forgotten demanding justice on their behalf. And it is a decision that sometimes you will fail to make because the world is a hard place and we are only human, but there are no straight lines that make up the life of discipleship and all of those roads have bends and the proclamation of the gospel of John is that there are also no dead ends.
Reboot, Jesus says to Peter. Let’s give it another try.
“Peter, do you love me?” Jesus says and this time, Peter answers, “Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.”
Peter is anxious to prove that he has learned his lesson and this time, he will commit to the long haul, but then Jesus keeps pressing him: three times Jesus asks, and three times Peter has to repeat his assurances, and to those of us reading this gospel in English, Jesus comes off a little snarky, almost like he’s rubbing it in. We don’t hear forgiveness in Jesus’ voice, but a sarcastic doubt, as if Jesus is saying, “Sure, Peter, you say you love me, but I’ve heard that before, right before you denied having anything to do with me as they were nailing me to a cross. How do I know that you mean it this time? Do you really love me?”
That’s how we, who only know the English translation of these words, hear this conversation between Jesus and the imperfect Peter, and consequently, we are suspicious of the depth of God’s grace towards us. We hear the gospel proclamation that God will forgive our failures and allow us to start again — everything I’ve said up to this point, we’ve heard before — but at the same time, we can’t get rid of this nagging feeling that deep down, God is in reality disappointed by our failures and that when we gave into our doubts, it left God with serious doubts about us. Like Peter before Jesus, we hear God’s words of grace delivered to us accompanied by a heavy sigh and a roll of the eyes that says, “Do you really love me? I mean, is it real this time, or is it just empty promises…. again?”
If God’s grace is to be true grace — a grace that forgives seven times seventy times and has the power to make of us new creations — it can’t be a grace that has the air of sarcasm clinging to it. We have to believe that God really does give us a new start, again and again, a thousand times again if that’s what it takes; that God truly thinks that in spite of our constant screw-ups, that there is also within us a wealth of kindnesses and world-changing service that is worth bringing out; and so it is crucial that we hear this conversation between Jesus and Peter as it really is and not as we are hearing it in our English translations, which means, forgive me for this, that we have to hear it in Greek. You see, while English has only one word for love, Greek has several words and two of those words are at play in this conversation between Peter and Jesus, but before you think I’m going to go all geeky on you and explain the etymological differences between the various Greek synonyms for love, I will assure you that you actually don’t need to know a lot of Greek to see what is happening as Jesus and Peter talk. In fact, you probably don’t need to know any at all — you just need to hear it. Listen for yourself:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you ἀγαπᾷς me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I φιλῶ you.”
A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you ἀγαπᾷς me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I φιλῶ you.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you φιλῶ me?”2 … And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I φιλῶ you.”
You don’t have to know Greek to see the shift in the conversation. We could hear this conversation in this way, and we’d still get it
“Peter, do you Lambhorguini me more than these?”
Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I Ford Pinto you.”
“Peter, do you Lambhorguini me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I Ford Pinto you.”
“Peter, do you Ford Pinto me more than these?”
Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I Ford Pinto you.”
The love that Jesus asks from Peter is an agape love, a benevolent love concerned with the welfare of others, a love that is profound, unselfish, generous, and kind, and poured out on the entire world, and Peter responds that he loves Jesus with a philia love, the love of friendship that is also a great love but not quite as broad or selfless as agape love because Peter isn’t ready yet to declare that he is capable of agape love. He’s still suffering from the acute awareness of his failures and he doesn’t want to make the mistake again of over-promising and not delivering. He knows he cares about Jesus and he hopes that is enough, wants it to be enough, but he’s afraid that maybe it isn’t enough. In the light of that charcoal fire, in the memory of his implosion at the cross, Peter just can’t return to that cocky assurance of previous times.
And so he promises what he can: “You know that I φιλῶ you,” Peter says with tears in his eyes, ashamed that he can’t promise more.
But after giving Peter two opportunities to meet him where Jesus calls him to be, and after Peter backs off two times not able to take that step, Jesus shows us the full meaning of grace when he himself Jesus steps across the chasm of Peter’s failure and meets the man where he is.
“Peter, do you φιλῶ me?” Jesus asks, and in that simple change of vocabulary Jesus makes room for what Peter’s doubts, and accepts what Peter can offer knowing that in time, Peter will grow into the agape love that Jesus calls him to.
This is the road of discipleship for each and every one of us. We will sometimes make our lives glowing testimonies to the power of God’s compassion, meeting the needs of others, serving in joy, and shining with the beauty of God’s glory, and other times, we’ll hunker down weary and afraid to warm ourselves over the charcoal fires of doubt and self-pity, but we follow a man of infinite grace who will meet us wherever we are, and invite us again and again, a thousand times if necessary, to reboot, start again, and follow him once more.
Your road of discipleship will have hills and valleys, and circles and bends, but the proclamation of the gospel of John is that there are also no dead ends. Hear the gospel message: Christ calls you; Christ forgives you, Christ meets you where you are and makes you anew, every day if necessary. Such is the way of grace.
1. The story of the heavy nets appears in the beginning of Luke, and isn’t part of the call of the disciples in John. So too, the tradition of Peter’s three fold denial is in the other gospels but in John, Peter only denies him twice. This has led many scholars to conclude that the last chapter of John was added later, by someone who was familiar with the other gospel traditions. I agree with that conclusion but at the same time, I believe that the imagery of chapter 21 and its theme fit well with the rest of the gospel of John. For simplicity’s sake, then, I refer to the author of this passage as “John,” though it would be more accurate to say, “one from the school of John.”
2. Because of the conjugation, it is actually φιλεῖς but it’s the same verb as Peter uses previously.