Friday, September 27, 2013

Jesus Catches Peter

Text: John 21:1-19
14 April 2013
St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge


The 21st chapter of the Gospel of John feels tacked on. In chapter twenty, the resurrected Jesus appears twice to his disciples, appearing in their midst despite the locked door. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them. He brings doubting Thomas back. He turns their fear, weakness, and doubt into joy, boldness, and faith. And then the writer seems to bring it to a close, ‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (20:31). One might expect to be able to put the book down at this point. What a neat resolution! But, no. Just like the risen Jesus keeps turning up where he’s not expected, the story continues.

‘After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias’ (21:1). From John’s account, they spent at least two Sundays in Jerusalem, but now they are much farther north, by the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus resolved Thomas’ doubts, they might have spent the whole week walking down from Jerusalem. The topic of conversation shifted on their journey from the mundane to the miraculous, but Peter, despite the joy and wonder of two Sundays of Easter surprises, has a shadow over his face. A charcoal fire, rekindled each morning by the cock’s crow, still burns in his memory.

Their long journey done, still troubled, the night fast approaching, Peter looks out over the Sea upon which he had made his livelihood before Jesus came. ‘I am going fishing,’ he says matter of factly (21:3). The six others with him rise to the challenge: ‘We will go with you,’ they reply (21:3).

And all night they labour. They cast the nets. Nothing. They laugh about it at first, but then silence falls on the boat. As the hours toil on, they continue trying, again and again. Casting, retrieving. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. They strip nearly naked because of the heat and the work, but nothing they do helps. As the sun rises in the East, the cock’s crow can be heard across the hundred yards of water between them and the shore. The charcoal fire of regret rekindled in his breast, Peter pauses a moment … but then labours on.


‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with friends.’ ‘I wish I had let myself be happier.’ Palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware compiled these ‘top five regrets of the dying.’ At the end of life, with the clarity that comes from hindsight, more than anything these are the regrets she heard from people in her care.

From Peter’s experience, we might modify one of these. Not, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings,’ but, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to tell the truth.’ And isn’t this a regret that we all carry around with us? Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid of losing his life. We deny Jesus as well, but for different reasons.

We live in a world of compromise. Too often, we slide into habits of neglect and denial. We neglect our duties to God and to one another. We deny with our lips and our lives that Christ has made us his own in Baptism and the breaking of bread. As a result, we learn to lie, to dissemble, to do what it takes just to ‘fit.’ But, when we come to the end of our lives, will we regret not having the courage to tell the truth about ourselves? Will we regret the relationships we have lost as a result?

As we watch Peter struggle with the regret burning in his chest, we too are reminded for the need to seek and know God’s forgiveness. John’s Gospel seems like it could have ended in the room with Jesus’ two appearances, but it can’t end until this one relationship is resolved, until Peter has the opportunity to tell the truth. Until then, he, and we, will continue in our troubled labour, catching nothing, because we don’t yet understand what the whole thing means.


 Peter spent the whole night catching nothing, but Jesus catches Peter on the first throw.

Daybreak, and a man on the beach. He asks if they have had any luck in the night, then he tells them to cast the net on the other side. As they pull the net in, the little boat tips to one side. Fish fill the net, and they cannot haul it in. The disciple Jesus loved leans over to Peter and says, ‘It is the Lord’ (21:7)! Before anyone dealing with the nets can realize it, Peter is dressed and overboard, swimming towards the shore.

When the others reach the shore, there is a charcoal fire, cooking fish. Bread lies beside, and Jesus invites them to share their catch. Peter helps pull the net up. 153 fish. Not one tear in the net. ‘Come and have breakfast,’ Jesus says. Peter eats, but the firepit reminds him of the other firepit. The courtyard. Three denials. Jesus’ look of betrayal.

After breakfast, Jesus calls Peter aside, and he asks him three times, once for each denial, ‘Do you love me?’ Each time, Peter replies that he does. Each question fuels the fire in Peter’s chest, until the third time when the pain becomes unbearable. Hurt, he replies, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’

‘Feed my sheep,’ Jesus responds. ‘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’ (21:18). Then, Jesus says those two words again, the two words he used to start their relationship, and the two words that will restart it: ‘Follow me.’ Peter may have fished all night, but Jesus, the fisher of men, catches Peter, and brings him home.


Every week, we turn up on the doorstep of this church, and the same thing happens. We get the opportunity to sit, to listen, to worship, and to reflect. Some of us will be here this morning with the feeling that we have been casting our nets all week and catching nothing. But, when we get out of bed, get dressed, and swim the 100 yards to these doors, we always find the charcoal fire. We always find Jesus waiting and asking, ‘Do you love me?’

Jesus asks this question in the context of the love he has already shown for us. The Jesus who asks about our love is the Jesus who having loved his disciples, loved them to the end. He is the one who washes our feet. He is the one who draws us up out of the waters of Baptism. He is the one who feeds us with the meat of his Body and drink of his Blood. Every week, we pull up on this shore, and Jesus greets us. ‘Are you hungry? Eat.’

And there are some days, not just Sundays, when Jesus pulls us aside. He points at the fire of regret burning in our chest and asks us to tell the truth. ‘Do you love me?’ he asks, and he keeps asking until we have heard the question and until we have really answered it. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’

‘Feed my sheep.’ We may have spent the last week denying Jesus’ love for us and our love for him. We may have stood around the firepit, or the water-cooler, and denied him. But, Jesus’ love for us overwhelms those regrets, and he asks us to treat this week differently. ‘Feed my sheep,’ he says. Take the time to live like Jesus’ love for you is true. Take the time to serve your colleagues, your neighbours, the people you meet on the street. With your words and with your life, tell the truth about yourself: Jesus caught you, has caught us. And with the 153 other mismatched fish in this one big net, we are being drawn into a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own for ever. At the end of our lives, may we be the people who can say, without regret, ‘I have loved Jesus, and I had the courage to tell the truth.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I: "On the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, 1891"
II: "Wheelchair," by Craig Toron
III: Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberias, by James Tissot.
IV: "Diocese 1," by Ben Earwicker (Garrison Photography, Boise, ID;

Monday, September 02, 2013

SERMON: God builds a kingdom that cannot be shaken

Hebrews 12.18-end
25 August 2013
All Saint's, Cottenham

It was AD 79, and the sky was burning. Stones and ash flew into the air. They soared over 20 miles straight up. Every second, 1.5 million more tons of ‘molten rock and pulverized pumice’ were added, and the fall-out over the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum was devastating. Mount Vesuvius exploded, ‘releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy’ of Hiroshima. Over 16,000 people died. It was so devastating that only two extant letters recount the explosion. Despite the horror of 79, and despite the fact that Vesuvius is the ‘only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years,’ over 3 million people still live nearby. ‘It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.’ (heavily borrowed from Wikipedia,, 2013-08-19).


Thousands of years earlier, the people of Israel trembled before another mountain. The author to the Hebrews describes it vividly: blazing fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, the sound of a trumpet, a voice that came from the mountain causing everyone’s knees to buckle, which caused them to beg it to be silent. The mountain was Sinai. It was the mountain that Moses climbed to receive the Law. He entered into God’s presence, out of the sight of the people, and stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights, being instructed, being given the Law on tablets of stone.

And the sight was terrifying. The people had no leader. The mountain looked like it would erupt at any moment, and Moses had commanded that no one should touch the mountain. For, it was holy, set apart. To refuse this command would be to refuse the God who gave it through Moses. The people were receiving the Law from God, a great gift. But they were receiving it from God, their judge. The earth shook with his judgment. ‘Indeed,’ the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear”’ (12.21). For those at the foot of the mountain, nothing was stable. Nothing was sound. All they could see was the sky alight with fire. They were afraid.


Fear is a valuable human emotion. Now, most of us don’t like to be afraid, but fear does protect us from things that might hurt us. In fact, it’s the potential for harm that triggers fear in the first place. I personally have a hard time with edges. I can nudge myself near them slowly, but it takes a lot of willpower. The sensation makes me want to freeze in place, or take several steps back from the edge.

Fear is valuable. It protects us from things that might hurt us. And if fear is generally valuable then when the Bible talks about the fear of God, what does that mean? In short, to fear God means to treat God with the respect that God deserves. Right now, off the coast of Cape Cod in the United States, there is an infestation of great white sharks. They are there to feed on the exploding seal population. The locals have learned to treat the sharks with respect, to keep their distance, to know their limits, and to not go out dressed like seals. To fear the shark is to respect it.

Against the God who made Mt Sinai smoke, we are like ants. So small compared to someone so big. If God were against us, he could crush us at any moment. When we think about God, it is right to be afraid. Our God is a fearsome God, one who must be treated with respect.


To the people huddled in fear at the base of Mt Sinai, the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest … but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (12.18, 22a). ‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…’ (12.28). God builds a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

And what a different picture this kingdom is to Mount Sinai. Those at Sinai stood under God’s judgment, but those who come to Mount Zion see something different. As Hebrews says, they come to ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12.22-23). There is no anxiety here. There is joy and celebration and homecoming.

Why do they see these things? Because, Hebrews says, they also come ‘to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (12.23-24). Those who gather at Mount Zion gather because God did judge the world. He did make it shake with terror that Good Friday as Jesus hung upon the cross. And Jesus’ blood, which speaks a better word than Abel’s, speaks for us. It is part of God’s new covenant with the world, a new covenant which will see the ‘spirits of the righteous made perfect’ (12.23).


Looking back at the author to the Hebrews’ language in this passage, what strikes me is the joyful description of those who gather at Mount Zion. I’m tempted to see it as a description of heaven, a description of the life to come. It is, in a way. Those are all things we believe we will see at the Resurrection of the Dead. But, wait. The author says, ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (12.22). This is past tense. This is something available to people now.

This passage presents us with a choice. We start out at the base of Mount Sinai, trembling in fear. That fear might be the rightful fear of a just God. It might also be all kinds of other fears that plague us. But, the Scripture invites us on a journey. It says we don’t have to live outside the mountain of God’s judgement. We don’t have to live in constant dread of an explosion that would pour down fire and brimstone on us. We can come to the mountain of God’s love, where innumerable angels dance with joy. And the mountain of God’s love is the mountain upon which three crosses stand. It is the mountain out of which Jesus exploded that first Easter Sunday. It is the mountain at which we gather with joy each Sunday to climb together.

It is no mistake that every Sunday we join the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in proclaiming, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.’ This is our calling. This is our duty and our joy. Our God is a consuming fire, burning away all that keeps us from being the people he wants us to be. As we climb the mountain together, we are part of the spirits of the righteous being made perfect.

The Scripture gives us a choice. Will we climb Mount Zion, or will we continue in fear at the base of Mount Sinai? It is up to you. Heed the voice that calls from heaven, and give your life to Jesus Christ in faith. The party the angels are throwing is always a ‘welcome home’ party. Brothers and sisters, welcome home.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.