May 12, 2019 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: John 21:1-19
In today’s gospel reading, we have another post resurrection appearance by Jesus. After the dramatic events of Passover which included a last supper with Jesus, his arrest in the garden, and the betrayal and denial of his closest followers before being brutally beaten and executed, Jesus’ followers scattered for a time and then found their way back to that upper room where their world last made sense. Late on the day of his resurrection, as his disciples’ fears forced them to hide behind locked doors, Jesus appeared to them, bringing them peace and reassurance that he had conquered death and lives again. But just as he told Mary Magdalene in the garden not to hold on to him, and just as he had vanished from view of the two friends in Emmaus, almost as soon as they recognized him, so now, Jesus does not stay with the disciples. So his disciples do the only thing that makes sense – they return home to Galilee, to the lives they knew before Jesus; back to that same place where many of them first encountered Jesus when he met them as fishermen and invited them to “Come, follow me.” When Jesus appears to them in Galilee, it is with a surprise breakfast of fish and bread.
I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced a surprise breakfast before. Maybe that’s not really a “thing” here in Iowa, but when I was growing up in Mississippi, my mom threw me a surprise breakfast for my 16th birthday. I woke up that morning to a bedside of giggling friends, yelling “Surprise” and singing “Happy Birthday.” My mother had arranged it all with them, had even gone and picked up a few of my friends who didn’t drive, and had cooked breakfast for us, all before 6:00 am! (It was a school day, after all!) I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t believe my mom would go to that much trouble to do something that extravagant for me! By the time I had turned 16, I had already racked up a number of mistakes, and knew there were plenty of times that I had disappointed my parents and broken my mother’s heart. There were plenty of reasons, some seemingly small and some more serious – talking back, telling lies, staying out too late, pulling pranks that bordered on trespassing and vandalism, and the list could go on – reasons for my mother to have stayed angry at me; reasons I should have been grounded for life. And, as I recall, it was around that age that I flung terrible words at my mother, once. Words that, as I mother myself now, I understand how incredibly hurtful they are: “I hate you!” And so, on that morning of my 16th birthday, when the recognition hit me of all the things my mother had done to orchestrate this breakfast with smiling friends and painted toast, my first response was tears of shame, at the ungrateful, irresponsible, and unkind daughter I had been.
On this mother’s day, I think it’s fitting to think of Jesus there on the beach cooking up this surprise breakfast for his dear children – for the ones who have deserted him and denied him, and who undoubtedly are experiencing their own shame and regret as the realization finally and fully dawns on them of all that Jesus is and how he loves them.
As we look closer at today’s scriptures, I want to invite you to step into Peter’s shoes. Remember that even as Jesus warned Peter that his faith and courage would waiver, that before the dawn came after Jesus was arrested that Peter – the Rock – would deny Jesus three times, Peter indeed found himself huddled around a fire that night, and succumbed to self-preservation. Peter must be wrestling with his shame over his inability to remain faithful to Jesus, over his fear which led him to tell lies, denying that he even knew the man, over his regret that he abandoned Jesus the moment things began to get hard or real. As you imagine Peter’s struggle, I want to ask you to think about your own. When is the last time that something you did or failed to do left you feeling embarrassed or humiliated? What was it that left you feeling like you had failed to live up to a promise, or a something entrusted to you? Or, when was it that you last said or did something out of fear or anger that you really wish you could take back? As you take a moment to think about this, I invite you to acknowledge and confess this to Jesus silently as we pray:
Prayer: God with a mother’s heart, you gather us as your children. You comfort and hold us in your warm embrace. When we hurt your arms enfold us. When we are afraid your wings protect us. When we are hungry you feed us with the bread of life. Today, as we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to love you with our whole hearts, and as we confess the things we have done or left undone that have denied you, that have betrayed your love for us and for all of your creation, we ask for your love to come and heal our brokenness, and to restore our relationship with you and those whom we’ve hurt. Remind us that your love and mercy are new every morning. For this we give you thanks and praise. Amen.
So, how often does our regret leave us feeling guilty or ashamed? That’s the part of today’s gospel that I want us to focus on today. Peter is likely wrestling with guilt and regret over the way that he denied and abandoned Jesus. And these feelings would only be compounded in Jesus’ absence, without a way to make amends. Sometimes, when we are struggling with our own feelings over things that we regret or for which we are left feeling guilty, like Peter, we go back to what is comfortable. Peter seems to need to do something to take his mind off things, so he announces, “I’m going fishing.” Fishing is what Peter did before he met Jesus, before Jesus made him a fisher of people. And in this uncomfortable state that Peter finds himself, he goes back to what he knows. Maybe we do something similar when we are discomforted by our own failures – we begin to doubt or deny the person we think we’re supposed to be; we may tell ourselves we’re not really good enough to do that new thing, to be in that relationship or part of that group; we may talk ourselves out of trying too hard to take on something difficult. And so, we go back to what we know, back to what’s comfortable, back to our old habits, or our old ways.
I’ve mentioned before that in my early 20’s I found help for turning my life around through a support group that practiced the Twelve Steps. If you’re not familiar with the twelve steps of recovery, I encourage you to go home today and Google them. They were written specifically for those who needed a disciplined way to stop drinking; but they have been adapted and used by a variety of other support groups these days, and can even be a way to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith. After all, they are based on Christian principles! These steps begin with an admission, or confession of the problem, a belief in a Higher Power, and a decision to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God. The next few steps deal with a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” admitting our shortcomings to ourselves, God and others, and making amends to those whom we have harmed. I think this story of Peter’s encounter with Jesus is a wonderful example of the restoration that can come about as the result of making amends.
Peter is out on the sea, in the dark, wrestling with his shortcomings. What a metaphor! The sea can be stormy, tumultuous, deep with mystery and difficult to navigate – just like our human lives. And the darkness can represent our confusion, or the things that we hide, or the things that bring us pain or regret. And that regret can lead to shame. Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher who has written extensively on shame and vulnerability. You may be familiar with some of her books such as, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and her latest one, Braving the Wilderness. She has written, “Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
What Jesus does for Peter in this resurrection story is to restore Peter’s connection and relationship, both with Jesus, with the community and with himself. In essence, Jesus takes away any feelings of shame that Peter may be experiencing because of his failings. Notice that when Peter recognizes it is Jesus calling to them from the beach, he first covers himself. This may remind us of Adam and Eve in the garden after they have disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In becoming self-aware of our failings, we may be tempted to internalize the feeling of guilt to such a point that we let the failing itself define us as a person. If we give in to shame, we may begin to believe that as a person, we are worthless, that as a person we are a failure. I remember sitting around the table in those 12-step meetings and listening to person after person describe themselves in this way. And their descriptions echoed my own. I began to realize that from an early age, I had so internalized some of the most insignificant failings of my youthful self as something that was wrong with me! As if that’s just who I was – a disappointment, a failure, a rebel. I began labeling myself, and then acting like those labels. And it wasn’t long before other people started labeling me, and I began acting like those labels, too. Many of us who found ourselves struggling to life life in a healthy and productive way found that because of our shame, we had come to believe that we were unlovable, unforgivable, and unworthy. We lived out the rule of the self-fulfilling prophesy. We assumed that others thought we were just as much of a failure as we did. So we acted the way we expected that others’ thought of us, and then others’ thought of us that way.
According to Dr. Brown, shame can drive people to try to hide it or numb it; shame can lead to resentment, anxiety or depression; shame can erode relationships, destroy careers, and even cause physical harm. According to her research, the only way to end our shame is through vulnerability. Vulnerability looks like becoming honest with ourselves and others about our stories. She says, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
In the light of the dawn, Peter recognizes Jesus, and becomes vulnerable enough to throw himself into the water and swim for dear life towards Jesus, towards second chances, towards the hope of something new. On the beach, Jesus begins this work of restoration with table fellowship – with a breakfast of bread and fish. I can’t imagine how hungry Peter and the others must have been; so hungry for this opportunity to be nourished and fed again by their Lord; to be brought back together in community by the One who made them a community; and to be able to experience firsthand the presence of the Divine.
After breakfast, Jesus walks with Peter. To me, this is where the real miracle of the story happens – this is the real encounter with resurrection. Maybe Peter was hoping that Jesus wouldn’t say anything about, would just gloss over his mistakes. Isn’t that the way of it in our own relationships sometimes? We fail, we disappoint, and then we just ignore the other, or they ignore us, until – one day – the freeze out is over, they start talking to us again, and we just pretend that never happened. Or… we have huge argument about it. We keep score, we bring up all of the past mistakes, all of the other hurtful words that have ever been said; we punish, we resent, we hold grudges. But not Jesus. He neither avoids the topic, or uses it as a weapon. He simply invites reconciliation.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (vs. 15-17)
Jesus made it safe for Peter to return to the incident of his denial. Without blame or resentment or punishment, Jesus opens the door for Peter’s own interspection. With Jesus’ questions, Peter is able to make a searching, fearless moral inventory. Yes, three times I denied you. Yes, I abandoned you and everything you taught me. Yes, I forgot who I was, the purpose you gave me. You know everything. But Jesus also opens the door for Peter to reclaim his identity, for Peter to find renewed purpose. Fish for people. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. You are not a failure. You are my child. I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you.
In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, his appearances were not to multitudes of people like they were in the days when he was teaching on the hillsides. He appeared in the context of relationships, and fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread. He appeared at times when it was least expected; when hearts were broken, when hopes were dashed, when guilt and regret stood in the way of love and community. Jesus comes to us in the same ways today. What is it that is standing in the way of you seeing your place in the eyes of Jesus, your place in the context of family or community? Or, who do you know who is struggling today with a broken heart, a broken dream, or a broken life? Jesus still comes to us offering to be our Bread of Life, offering to heal our shame, offering grace upon grace to remind us that we are each a Beloved child of God.