Eastertide – Resurrection Wonder
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
"Do you love me?"
Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
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Gospel as New Beginning
The Gospel of John is kind of a new beginning for some of the early church.
There were other Gospels available, but this one begins like the book of
Genesis and invites us to make a beginning with Jesus. Once, in this version of
the good news Jesus was developing this extended metaphor of vines and
branches and fruit. He said: apart from me, you can do nothing. Well, the
story we heard this morning, a resurrection story, is like a practical joke. That
night on the lake they caught nothing. But just after daybreak, the risen Jesus
makes all the difference. 153 fish! It’s like Jesus saying: See, apart from me,
you can do nothing! What if it’s true that we can’t do any decent thing
without the power of the resurrected One who reorders the universe in the
name of love? What if in order to make a new beginning or forgive somebody
or serve the world or advocate for those without a voice, or bless our
neighbors or love anybody, we need Jesus, risen from the dead?
The Gospel of John doesn’t say anything about the earliest disciples being
fisherman by trade. It’s odd because that’s their reputation in the other
Gospels. And the early churches probably knew that. Yet, after the traumatic
death of Jesus in Jerusalem and the astonishing resurrection of Jesus, also in
Jerusalem, some disciples return to Galilee and in the final chapter of John
Peter says: I’m going fishing.
The sea of Galilee is sometimes called the sea of Tiberias, for Tiberias Caesar.
It’s the Gospel writer’s way of reminding us that creation itself, the water and
the fish, not to mention the people in the fishing industry were, in the first
century, exploited by Caesar and the Roman empire. And–I almost don’t want
to say this–resurrection doesn’t change that. And that’s heart-breaking. We
want the world to be changed, liberated, healed from the diseases of greed
and violence and exploitation and empire. Does Jesus’ resurrection matter if it
doesn’t change these conditions? The good news at the end of this Gospel is
that the risen Jesus does not just haunt the houses of Jerusalem, popping
through locked doors to comfort his terror-stricken disciples. Though that is
good news–a lot of the world’s people need comfort and care in the wake of
trauma. The risen Jesus comforts and offers peace and blessing.
And the risen Jesus shows up on the worst day of work–or make that the
worst night of work–fishermen were night shift workers–when they had
fished all night and caught nothing. What if it’s true that we can’t do any
decent thing without the power of the resurrected One who reorders the
universe in the name of love? What if in order to make a new beginning or
forgive somebody or serve the world or advocate for those without a voice, or
bless our neighbors or love anybody, we need Jesus, risen from the dead?
The Charcoal Fire
Our Easter series theme is Resurrection Wonder, but this story is less a
wonder in the sense of miracle than some of the others. 153 large fish may be
a lot, but it’s not miraculous. Jesus just offers advice for these disciples to
make a great catch of fish–and someone bothered to count them. And then
Jesus greets them on the shore with a charcoal fire.
That fire brings back memories. A few days prior, around a charcoal fire in
Jerusalem Peter was ID’d as one of Jesus’ followers, but denied it…not once,
not twice, but three times. Seeing and smelling a charcoal fire Peter’s memory
of his recent failure may have been all the more vivid. Smells can bring you
right back to an experience. But there’s no shaming here. Jesus doesn’t talk
about the denial. Jesus offers a breakfast of grilled fish and bread, the food
once multiplied for a hungry crowd.
Emotional weight of the question
This passage is a tear-jerker for me. Do you love me more than these? Jesus
asks again: Do you love me? And a third time he asks: Do you love me? And
I’m right there with Peter saying “yes,” yet feeling the weight of recent failures
grow heavier with each repetition of the Lord’s question. The theology of
John’s Gospel is that the primary human temptation is to deny who we are.
Even Jesus isn’t tempted by Satan in this Gospel, but he is tempted before
Pilate to deny who he is. And, actually, in Peter’s denial he doesn’t precisely
deny Jesus, Peter denies who he is in relationship to Jesus. He says: I am not.
I am not. Again Peter denied. Three denials and three opportunities to
respond directly to Jesus with love. Haven’t we denied who we are in
relationship to Jesus?
The early church told the story of Jesus surrounded by his flawed, now famous
apostles. Of the three apostles named in this story, Peter denied his own
identity as a follower of Jesus. Thomas, one of the guys in this boat–resisted
Jesus’ resurrection until he saw and touched the Lord’s body–wounded and
risen from the dead. Nathanael, another guy in this boat was a stand out
among devout Israelites, but resisted Jesus’ early ministry saying: Can
anything good come out of Nazareth?
Denial and Temptation
The charcoal fire exposes all of our temptation to live our lives as if we had no
need for the saving love of the resurrected Jesus. The charcoal fire reveals our
doubts and arrogance as disciples. The Mennonite Church in recent years has
invested energy in acknowledging our own temptations to deny or betray the
way of Jesus. We have begun to admit the pattern of Mennonite settlements in
North America benefitting from the Doctrine of Discovery, that is privileging
persons considered white and displacing native people. Our church is
attempting to dismantle the racism that is systemic not only in our society, but
in our church schools, congregations and mission organizations. Our church is
working to address the patriarchy and homophobia embedded in our reading
of scripture and our expectations of leadership, mission, and worship in the
name of Jesus.
Likewise, as individual believers, we are tempted to deny who we are. Have
you wanted someone else’s life? With more impact? With more money? With
more ease? Have you been reluctant to receive even the simple gifts of your
life–like a breakfast–as being from the risen Lord? With this song we bring to
awareness our temptations, doubts, and weaknesses as followers of Jesus.
[Interlude: Song (Purple 81): When we are tempted…]
Help us to know him risen from the dead. The resurrected Lord Jesus
remembers Peter’s failures. In this and every other eucharistic meal our
former attempts at identity are transformed as we unite with Christ.
But according to scripture, succumbing to temptation, past failures, and
pursuing false identities, doesn’t disqualify us for carrying out Jesus’ ministry.
That’s the arc of Peter’s story in the Gospel of John. All of us, every day have
opportunities to make a new beginning, to respond to the One who reorders
the universe in the name of love.
The grace-filled Jesus offers Peter some responsibility, some stake in the future.
Jesus invites Peter, commands Peter, in the name of love, to feed my lambs,
tend my sheep, feed my sheep. This is a graduation weekend for many
students in our community and the weeks ahead will include more such
celebrations as high school seniors and their families enjoy commencement
ceremonies. Jesus’ affirmation for Peter is a fitting message for all of us,
especially upon graduating. If you love me, feed my sheep. If we love Jesus, if
we orient our lives as Jesus oriented his, then we are fit for service–for
feeding and tending the needs of the world. There is an essential relationship
between our love and our work in the world. By work I don’t mean our
paycheck, but the work–paid or unpaid–that is God’s will for our lives.
In this resurrection wonder, Jesus–slain during the Passover Feast in
Jerusalem–appears on the shore of the sea of Tiberias to restore his
relationship with Peter…and with the rest of us who have denied how much
this relationship matters. Feeding us and forgiving us, Jesus calls us again and
again to be who we are–with a poignant question: do you love me more than
these? I can’t really tell whether he means–do you love my more than these
grilled fish sandwiches or do you love me more than you love these fishing
buddies. I don’t think he means, do you love me more than Nathanael loves
me or more than Thomas loves me. Jesus knew that these comparisons could
work against our true identity. Jesus knew what it means to be human and
that there are lesser loves that get in the way of loving Jesus first in our lives.
For the purposes of this sermon, let’s just imagine that Jesus meant–if you
love me more than a fish sandwich, then yours can be a life of ministry.
OK, I know that sandwiches weren’t invented until the 18th century. And I
know that some of you were really hoping for a sermon on the differences
between the Greek words for love in this passage–the agape love of Jesus’
initial questions and Peter’s response in terms of friendship love. I figured
what matters today is whether you have a response to Jesus’ tender question:
Do you love me? If love has been kindled in us, we’re part of reordering the
universe in the name of love. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning. The next
practical joke on a world that denies resurrection, is your life of ministry. So
be creative in following Jesus this week.
[Hymn (Blue 640) This is a day of new beginnings]
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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