When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”
So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 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.
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.” 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.” 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. Very 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community of believers that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.John 21:14-25
If a portion of this scripture sounds familiar to you, it should. We read the first part of this passage last week.
There are good reasons for this repeat. First, John’s gospel doesn’t end once, but twice. In the first ending, Jesus came to his disciples as they hid behind locked doors. He breathed new life into them and sent them out in his name. He gave them peace.
John made it sound like the end, but it wasn’t the end, or at least not the only end, because in this next chapter we have another story about Jesus and his disciples, the second ending of John’s gospel. The preacher Fred Craddock once described this second of John’s endings this way:
“If it’s all a little confusing, it’s hard to blame John, because everyone knows how hard it is to come to the end of something very, very important. You think you’ve said what’s necessary, and then you think of something else, something too important to leave out. You write ‘P.S.’ at the bottom of the page, and maybe a ‘P.P.S.’ after that, because it is hard to stop, hard to fold the letter and lick the stamp and call it done.” It sounds like trying to end a Zoom meeting these days; it’s so hard to hit that key & cut off the conversation (and you’ve been ‘zooming’ for 2 hours already).
It seems that John was having a hard time folding the letter and licking the stamp; or rolling up the scroll. There was more he wanted to say —something incredibly important— so he tells another story.
The story he tells happens sometime after the resurrection and long enough for the disciples to have left Jerusalem and make the journey back to Galilee; home for most of them. It was the place where everything had begun, which made it the natural place to return once it seemed that Jesus’ ministry had come to an end.
There were seven disciples left, John says, not eleven, which means that they were already coming apart at the seams, some going one direction while others going another. The seven decide to go fishing, and that makes a lot of sense. That’s what they knew to do, where they could find food and be together doing it.
They end up on the beach, huddled around Jesus, who prepared a meal for them. Fish and bread for breakfast. How many times had they had that together? Was that the same meal they always shared when they were together, like the same meal you’ve been having for weeks now? – Apparently the meal was good enough, and then Jesus dispensed with the small talk. He went for the juggler, as they say, with his opening words, which must have stung Peter like a hornet. Peter couldn’t swat the question away. “Do you love me more than these?
These words have always raised questions in my mind for as long as I’ve read them. Is this some kind of coded language? Is Jesus never satisfied? Is Peter still not good enough? Does he have to spend the rest of his life trying to prove himself, with no final grade ever being given? Even after all these years, the answer has seemed very open-ended.
But this week, for whatever reason, (maybe it’s the lock-down), I’ve come to look at this conversation in a whole new way (at least for me.) Maybe this conversation isn’t so much about the question Jesus asks Peter, but the response that Jesus gives to Peter three times over; the command he gives after each of Peter’s positive replies.
I’m thinking that Jesus isn’t concerned so much with the response Peter gives him (I don’t think for a minute that Peter could or would ever have said, ‘let me get back to you on that, Lord.’) I think that likely, Jesus’ threefold answer “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep,” has as much to do with who Jesus is as what he asks of Peter and the other disciples, sitting on the beach, listening nearby.
I think it’s likely this is why John remembers and records this encounter in the first place; not just as a string of demands that Jesus foists on Peter and the others by association, but as a reminder of who it is that is asking these questions.
This was most likely the most memorable meal of Peter, John and the other disciple’s lives. It was their final send off into their new work together, with Christ no longer physically present, but still their Lord and their guide (which is the same situation we’re in as well.)
I went into this week thinking this sermon might be all about the most memorable meal we’ve ever had, but sermons are rarely if ever about us, at least directly. I thought I might ask you all about what meal you most remember, a special holiday dinner, or a birthday; when a wedding proposal happened, (surprise!), or a meal with a friend you hadn’t seen for years and years… But then I remembered that sermons are all about God and what God is doing with us; wherever we might be. I remembered this as I read and re-read this story, and it came to me clear as day.
Jesus is busy with Peter, probing, testing, challenging, inviting, welcoming, active in his life, and all those with him… meeting them all just where they were, which might be, perhaps coincidentally in these odd times, where we find ourselves as well.
Throughout his life, Jesus met a lot of people who thought they had been stalled out in life. Nothing new. No hope in sight; in a holding pattern, waiting for the next thing to come.
That was the case with these disciples, trying to figure out their next steps without Jesus. They had it wrong and didn’t know it. Jesus was not gone, and they were not left alone, and neither are we. Jesus used this imagery of sheep and lambs for a purpose; it wasn’t a random metaphor. It was key to the disciple’s understanding of who he was, and it is a key for our understanding of who Jesus IS.
Jesus says we are all sheep and we all choose a shepherd in life, one way or another. He tells us that he is the good shepherd, the one who is willing to die for his sheep so that they may live. He returned to Peter and the other disciples to let them know this, decisively. He returns to us, and through us, whenever we come together in his name- even virtually.
The way Jesus sees it, everyone selects a shepherd in life whether they’re aware of it or not. And it is best to be intentional about this, or else life can go off the rails with no guide; with no shepherd, in place. Jesus warned that there are indeed false shepherds out there, hired hands, those who do not own the sheep, who only pretend to be shepherds, who trick the sheep into thinking they are safe. That was the reality of life then, and it is still so now.
Much about them seems to indicate that they are legitimate. They call the sheep to follow. They lead them to green pastures. They lead them by streams and offer them drink. They claim to restore the soul. In the evening they take the sheep into the sheepfolds and provide a place for sleep. In this they are doing the duty of a shepherd.
Here is the problem: when the wolf comes, the false shepherds are out of here. They hightail it. They are gone with the wind, sight unseen, looking out only for themselves. Jesus says that many people choose the bad shepherd, or don’t choose at all, which is just as empty. Choosing the bad shepherd is the same thing as choosing no one to be your shepherd, one who won’t be with you in times of trial, who will abandon you.
Making choices about who to trust may be more important to you now than some other times. These are uncertain times, and the waiting can get to us.
So the question we may be asking more so now than other times, is who do you trust, the good shepherd or the iffy one?
In this third Sunday after Easter, as we still live in the light of the resurrection, you can think of it this way. Remember what the angel said to the two Marys when they arrived at the empty tomb, “If you are looking for death, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
It is what Jesus said to the disciples gathered in a locked room, “If you are honoring death, you won’t find it here.” It is what the Lord said to Thomas, “If you are guessing death, guess again.” “If you want death, you’ve come to the wrong place. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Shepherd God ordained for you. I am at watch in the night. I am attentive at noon. I am your way, your path.”
If for some reason in the course of time you choose death, there is bad news for you. Whatever sheepfold you are in, Jesus comes and stands in the gate. If you want to reach the wolf out there and find oblivion, you have to get past Jesus. He is the Good Shepherd. If you are intent on finding death, you have to choose some other route than Jesus. You cannot get to death through Jesus. He offers life and only life. He says, “If you are looking for death, you’ve come to the wrong shepherd. I am the Good Shepherd, trust me.”
When Jesus stands in your way, the road to death is blocked. A problem with the roads as Spring arrives is often the road crews. You want to drive somewhere, and you have to detour. That is how it is when you meet Jesus. He gets in our way. He is so concerned for his sheep that he went to the cross and died. He took our death on himself. He died our death for us, and he rose again, that in faith we might receive his eternal protection. He wears a sign: “Road to Death Closed.” Alternate routes lead over the walls of the sheep pen left and right, but Jesus stands in the middle of the gate between you and death. If you insist on death, you have to avoid Jesus because if you go his way, you will only find eternal life.
Jesus says, “Believe in me, and I will be your strength.” “Believe in me,” Jesus says to everyone. “I love you, no matter what you have done. I will make you part of my community.” Our Good Shepherd leads us to new life. An amazing thing about Christ is that all of the detour roads to death eventually lead back to him.
If you are afraid to come to Jesus, Jesus will come to you. If you have been trying to bypass the Good Shepherd, why not instead say, “my Lord.” He died for you. He rose for you. Through the Holy Spirit he sends good things every day to you. In Jesus there is no “dead end.”
In Christ there is no end. In Christ there is only new beginning, new dawn, a new tomorrow. With him at the prow of the ship we sail on, the church universal, we have nothing to fear, today or any tomorrow to come. Amen.