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April 14, 2013
“The Power of Love”

Rev. Barbara Lorbach

John 21:1-19 (NRSV)

     After this, Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time at the Tiberias Sea (the Sea of Galilee). This is how he did it: Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed "Twin"), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the brothers Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter announced, "I'm going fishing." The rest of them replied, "We're going with you." They went out and got in the boat. They caught nothing that night. When the sun came up, Jesus was standing on the beach, but they didn't recognize him. Jesus spoke to them: "Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?" They answered, "No." He said, "Throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens." They did what he said. All of a sudden there were so many fish in it, they weren't strong enough to pull it in. Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, "It's the Master!" When Simon Peter realized that it was the Master, he threw on some clothes, for he was stripped for work, and dove into the sea. The other disciples came in by boat for they weren't far from land, a hundred yards or so, pulling along the net full of fish. When they got out of the boat, they saw a fire laid, with fish and bread cooking on it.
     Jesus said, "Bring some of the fish you've just caught." Simon Peter joined them and pulled the net to shore—153 big fish! And even with all those fish, the net didn't rip. Jesus said, "Breakfast is ready." Not one of the disciples dared ask, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Master. Jesus then took the bread and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus had shown himself alive to the disciples since being raised from the dead. After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Master, you know I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." He then asked a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Master, you know I love you." Jesus said, "Shepherd my sheep." Then he said it a third time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, "Do you love me?" so he answered, "Master, you know everything there is to know. You've got to know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.”
     Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Not...do you promise to be good, Peter?
     Not…will you never let me down? Not…do you understand everything?
     Not…will you never make another mistake? Not even…can I trust you, Peter?
     But…do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?



     Let’s hit rewind and go back a few days before this scene. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for Peter and the other disciples as they gathered on the lake shore that night. There is certainly nothing in my life that comes close: to watch Jesus be crucified, to have participated in it by their own denial and quickness to flee, hoping that would somehow ensure their own safety. And then the shock of the resurrection, the wonder of having Jesus actually appear to them and now simply trying to get their own minds around this new reality. I can understand their deep desire to return to the familiar—Peter's yearning to simply do what he can do without thinking about it... pushing the boat out into the lake, lowering the nets and raising them again, hoping for a good catch. In fact, Peter can do this with his eyes closed doing just that as he continues to work out in his mind and in his heart the unbelievable events of these last days. I understand that, for we do the same it seems to me. In times of crisis, or loss, or fear, or uncertainty, we grasp for what we know for sure, returning to familiar routines until our mind and heart can catch up with one another. Until we find ourselves ready to step out in faith and hope again. It is what the disciples have been doing and it is what continues to happen after Jesus makes himself known over a charcoal fire and a meal of fish and bread.
     Then we hear Jesus pull Peter into a private conversation asking him over and over again the most basic of questions, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” No questions about what do you know for certain, Peter or what do you believe? No questions like “Peter, are you sorry or do you repent for your sins?” Only this question—do you love me? And then a commission, a concrete direction for Peter that Jesus puts into the simplest of terms—feed, tend, feed. Feed those whom I love. Care for them. Give them what they need.
     A friend calls this a “come to Jesus” moment, but this “come to Jesus” isn’t what most of us would imagine. Peter’s failure of nerve on Good Friday does not disqualify him from apostleship, but may be one of the primary requisites for his future ministry. He can no longer think of himself as stronger or nobler as his companions or anyone else; Peter is mortal in every way, fearful, fallible, and fickle. But, his mortality and his imperfection—the realities of the human condition—are the materials of grace through which God will transform his life. The story of the Bible is this—God works with real people with real limitations, presenting them with “impossible” possibilities, ideals that lure us to become greater than we can possibly imagine. God does not abandon us in our imperfection but awakens us to what we can be as God’s partners in healing the earth.
     A lot of research has gone into determining what makes us happy. Most of it has told us that fame and fortune are not the answer. Two things top the list of what is essential to feel happy: 1) a sense of belonging to a community and 2) the belief that what we do matters. Those are the two key predictors of fulfillment and productivity: belonging and purpose. Out of the most devastating experience anyone could ever imagine, Peter finds both in this encounter with Jesus. He is brought back into this community of disciples and he is given meaningful work to do.
     What does a disciple do? Feed…tend…feed—that’s the mission statement of the Church. Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Feed the flock of God. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus laid out the instructions for those who would continue the way forward after he finished his earthly journey. Jesus looked into the eyes of the disciples and called out their names as he left them with all they needed to know. Do you love me? Then feed and tend my sheep.
     Howard Snyder, a professor of mission history and theology at Asbury Theolog-ical Seminary in Kentucky, says us that Christian community is not mere friendliness or good manners. It’s not a least-common-denominator fellowship along the lines of a neighborhood potluck. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have a potluck, in fact we are probably overdue for one of those. If, however, the community stops at the potluck, and we never go deeper into what it means to be a community…then we are missing out.
     True Christian community makes demands on its members, and expects a high level of commitment. To become a community where we can voice our questions, speak freely about our failures and share our struggles means getting beyond the perfunctory “Hi, how are you?” to “Hi, how are you and I really want to know because I truly care.”
     So how does a congregation become that kind of community? It begins here in worship. Being part of the community who worships together is essential. Coming together to hear one another’s joys and concerns, to offer prayers on behalf of each other and the world around us are where we develop our heart of compassion. I am moved every Sunday as I go over the prayer list because I see your faces across this sanctuary, and I know what I see is compassion. As the baptismal liturgy reminds us, “when one thirsts, all thirst; when one suffers, all suffer; when one rejoices, all rejoice.”
     Reaching out beyond these walls is also essential. Whether the issues are illiteracy, substance abuse, domestic violence or lack of resources for people in need, it is important for us to be an outward-looking congregation that engages the world with a servant mindset. It is one of the strengths of a healthy congregation—the ability to take our resources and use them to feed the hungry and minister to those in need. I believe it is one of the strengths of this congregation. Communities of faith that have high expectations about being partners in ministry are faster-growing, longer-lasting and more vital.
     The advantage of being this kind of community is it results in a more vital and compassionate congregation. A concern for the community not only benefits society, but makes the church itself more appealing. People are attracted to congregations that put faith into action and set out to make a difference in the world. People all around us are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. People are looking for a place where they will be welcome whether or not they have their lives all together.
     This is our time and place to make a difference. God has redeemed us for a purpose. Each week we come to worship where we are greeted with absolution, grounded in identity, commissioned with purpose, and sent out with good news for the world God loves so much.
     Jesus takes us as we are with our mortality and our imperfection. Jesus doesn’t ask, do we promise to be good? Not…will we never let him down? Not…do we understand everything? Not…will we never make a mistake? Not even…can I trust you? Jesus asks…do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? To us…whether we are long-time disciples, or just curious, Jesus comes with the same question he asked Simon Peter. Love is the rock on which God builds the church; there is nothing stronger. So strike up a conversation telling someone about a place where people know your name, don’t care on what side of the tracks you live, or whom you love.
     Let’s pray.
     Lord, we come to you; let our hearts be changed, renewed, flowing from the grace we find in you. Lord, we’ve come to know the weaknesses we see in us, will be stripped away by the pow’r of your love.