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Living Into the Oneness of Christ

Living Into the Oneness of Christ

Reading: John 21:15-23 (John 17)

Introduction: It’s great be with you again this morning as we complete this short sermon series centered on Dialogue – Conversations that really matter. While this is the last story from the life of Jesus in the series, I trust this is the beginning of what will continue to be many ongoing conversations we find ourselves in that change relationships, deepen faith, and transform lives. Today I want to spend time with Simon Peter and the Resurrected Christ in John chapter 21. We’ll begin reading in verse 15 in a moment, but remember the scene: in chapter 20 Mary Magdalene went to visit the tomb of Jesus and discovered that the stone had been moved from the entrance. When she reported what she had seen, the disciple whom Jesus loved and Simon Peter ran to the tomb to see for themselves. The other disciple got there first and peered inside. When Peter arrived at the tomb, he went all the way inside to see for himself. As John tells the story, the resurrected Jesus then appears to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples minus Thomas, and eight days later, the disciples with Thomas. The whole Gospel then gets summarized at the end of chapter twenty, making chapter 21 seem almost like an appendix.
Chapter twenty-one begins with a small group of disciples – Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two others not named – and Peter announces he is going fishing. They get into the boat, go fishing and spend the night on the boat catching nothing. As the sun is coming up Jesus appears on the shore about 100 yards away from where they are fishing. “Children,” he says, “have you caught anything?” Of course, they haven’t, so he tells them to put their net down on the other side of the boat. When they do, the net can hardly contain the huge catch of fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved (our presumed author John) says, “It is the Lord.” Peter puts his cloths back on, and jumps overboard, leaving the others to haul the fish ashore.

When they land they see that there is a charcoal fire, with fish already on the fire. There is also bread. Jesus sends Peter back to the boat to get more fish and then invites everyone to breakfast. He takes bread and gives it to them, and then does the same with the fish (words very similar to those used to describe feeding the 5000 back in chapter six). That brings us to our dialogue:

“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’
“Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is going to betray you?) When Peter saw him, he asked, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’ Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’” (John 21:15-23)

As I’ve told you before, I became a student again this past semester. My last class focused on mediation – the art of helping individuals or groups in conflict come to a shared conclusion or settlement. The professor said something the first day of class that I can’t get out of my head. She was teaching us the importance of asking the right questions of the clients when trying to help people reach agreement. “Remember,” she said, “what you don’t know, you don’t know.” I have to confess, my first thought when she said that was, “Duh!” The more I thought about it, the more I realized this is actually my life-long problem! I often think I KNOW what I really don’t know! When I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator the first time, the interpreter told me I was the General Patton type – always right, never in doubt – especially when I’m wrong!

I’ll never forget the first big church fight I was part of. Anne and I had been married for about 4 years at the time, and I was a know-it-all Bible teacher fresh off of my first Master’s degree, teaching at Columbia Christian College. Smartest years of my life! We were attending a church that had been planted about 7 years before and they just recently had moved into a new church building. It was a church without a full-time minister, so there were a number of us who took turns preaching each week. For a host of reasons, it was also a church that was in the early stages of a major conflict that within another 9 months would split the church in half.

In an effort to mediate the growing tensions, there was a Sunday afternoon men’s business meeting. Sure enough the perspectives of this growing polarization couldn’t be spoken without tempers beginning to flare. Finally, while a man on one side of the debate was calmly sharing his thoughts, another man on the other side of the room jumped to his feet and said, “I know what you’re trying to do here! I know you! You may not know you, but I know you!”

A lot can go wrong in critical conversations when we assume we already know what we don’t know. Sometimes we call it intuition, and sometimes we’re right. Sometimes, I suppose we really don’t know our own minds and hearts and someone else might perceive things that are true about us. But most of the time what really gets me into relational trouble is thinking I know what I really don’t know.

Now here’s the point, or at least one of them, regarding our dialogue in John’s Gospel this morning: I want us to pretend that we don’t know what we don’t know. You see, many of us have heard this story before, and we’ve heard other stories about Simon Peter from the other Gospel accounts like Matthew and Luke. We’ve heard other people, perhaps, tell us about the two different words for love that Jesus uses in conversation. So we remember the stories in the other gospel accounts about Peter being a fisherman who was called to follow Jesus after Jesus was in the boat with him and he had fished all night and caught nothing until Jesus told him to put the net down on the other side of the boat. We remember from the other gospels about Peter at the transfiguration scene wanting to build the tents in honor of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. We remember the failed attempt to walk on water. We remember the scene after Peter denies Jesus three times and the rooster crows and Jesus looks over at Peter and their eyes meet for one crushing moment, and Peter goes out and weeps bitterly.

What I want us to do for a moment, is at least pretend we don’t know what we don’t know. You see, none of the stories I’ve just told about Peter appear in John’s gospel. There is no hint in John’s gospel that Peter is a fisherman until chapter 21. In John’s account, there is no story of Peter attempting to walk on water, no transfiguration scene, no conversation where Jesus asks whom people say that he is and Peter says, “You are the Christ of God.” There is no “get behind me Satan” rebuke of Peter and there is no moment of contrition – weeping bitterly when Peter realizes what he has done.

If we stay with John’s story, here’s what we know. Peter (or Simon, son of John as he is first introduced in chapter one) is one of the early followers of Jesus. In chapter six, after that disgusting monologue about people having to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, many people are leaving, and Jesus asks his disciples if they too want to leave. It is Peter who says, “where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life? We have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God” (6:68-69). In chapter 13, when Jesus is washing the disciple’s feet, Peter refuses to let Jesus do it at first. When he finally is convinced by Jesus, he wants Jesus to give him a whole bath! Later in the same chapter Jesus says he is going away, and Peter insists that he wants to go with Jesus, that he is willing to lay down his life for Jesus (13:37 – a phrase Jesus will use for true friendship in chapter 15). Jesus has to tell Peter that not only will he not lay down his life, he will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows.

In John’s account, when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus in chapter 18, Peter is named as the one who draws a sword and cuts of the ear of a slave named Malchus. And when Peter follows behind the arrested Jesus he enters the courtyard of the high priest and stands beside a fire to warm himself. After his third denial, the rooster begins to crow. We don’t see or hear from Peter again until after the resurrection when he and the other disciple race to the empty tomb.

What we know in John’s gospel is that we are supposed to draw direct lines between the fire of Peter’s denial in chapter 18 and this breakfast fire. There is word used both places to describe the “fire of burning coals” – that word is used nowhere else in the whole New Testament. We know that the three denials are now being matched with three affirmations of love. We know that the language of Jesus as good shepherd in chapter 10 is now being used in this conversation of instruction to Peter. “Take care of my sheep, tend my lambs.” Become for others what I have been for you. We know, by the way, not to get anxious about the different Greek words for love here. John uses two different words for everything in this story – two names for Peter, two names for sheep, two words to describe care for the sheep, two words for love. Earlier in the Gospel the words for love are synonymous – God’s love for Jesus is described at different times with each of these words (5:20; 1017); God’s love for the disciples is described with both words (14:23; 16:27).

Jesus is reclaiming Peter for mission. What’s missing is all of the guilt and shame that you and I would normally heap upon ourselves if we had been guilty of such a full scale denial and betrayal. No one else gets to verbally abuse Peter and remind him constantly of how badly he messed up. There is no tribunal by Jesus to decide what proper repentance looks like. Peter isn’t falling over himself in apology, or even just saying I’m sorry! Although, it is a bit ironic that Peter is “hurt” that Jesus would ask him a third time “Do you love me.” In this story, we live out of our past mistakes by living into the lives of others – caring for the sheep, loving those that Jesus loves. Peter is being reoriented to what happens next – and the audience of this Gospel is being invited to do the same.

There is one more important aspect of not knowing, however, that Peter needs to learn. Peter doesn’t need to know what’s going to happen to the other disciple. Peter has his calling. The disciple whom Jesus loved has his. We don’t know what we don’t know – and sometimes it’s supposed to stay that way!

Some have suggested that chapter 21 is the author’s reflection on what the Unity Prayer of Jesus in chapter 17 looks like after the resurrection. This is how the earliest disciples were asked to live out oneness in Christ. Life is never the same again. Even when you try to go back to routine, the Resurrected Christ is likely to show up. When he appears, you can’t miss it! You may have fished all night and caught nothing, but at his word the nets can hardly contain the catch. When we come to him, there is always food and conversation – breaking bread, and invitation to wholeness. Whatever happened in the past, even if it was literal betrayal of the Son of God, is transformed by the love command. To love Jesus is to love others, care for others, and not get caught in comparison games with how God is calling and using anyone else!

At a time when a lot of us are wondering what church next looks like, maybe this is still the model. People coming together out of the ordinary, experiencing the appearance of the resurrected Christ in a powerful way, eating together, having meaningful dialogue – life transforming dialogue – that affirms our calling and our future and sends us out to follow Jesus, however our particular calling may work itself out. Sent out to love as we have been loved, forgive as we have been forgiven, worried less about what God may be up to in someone else’s life, but assured that there is nothing, not even full scale betrayal, that cannot be overcome by God’s love for his children.

This morning, we have come together and the bread has been eaten and the Resurrected Christ now says to us, Otter Creek, “Do you love me?”

Delivered at Otter Creek, May 31, 2009.

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