From Fishing to Shepherding

A sermon preached for Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

May 3 2020

John 21

Peter. I love Peter.

Peter had been there through the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. You’ll remember that Peter was also the disciple who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. But despite his denial of Jesus, and the shame, guilt, and whatever that must have come with it, Peter was there on Easter morning. Mary Magdalene told him what she had seen at Jesus’ tomb and Peter races to the tomb, goes in, and finds nothing but the cloths in which Jesus had been buried. He doesn’t know what to do with what he’s seen, so he and the other disciples go home.

Peter and John running to the tomb by Eugene Burnand

Later he hears about Mary Magdalene’s visit with Jesus in the garden. Peter was in the locked upper room with the other disciples when Jesus appeared in the midst of them. Twice.

So, if anyone should know that the world is not as it was before, it is Peter. If anyone should be different. look different. act differently. it is Peter.

Peter, gathered together with the other disciples, says, “Christ is risen! I’m going fishing.

Now, for many of you, I’m sure that makes perfect sense. What could be better than a day on the lake with friends, catching fish, enjoying the company? But for Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the other disciples, fishing was not just something they loved to do. It had also been their job. Remember, those jobs they left behind to follow Jesus? The nets they walked away from so they could go fish for people?

Do they go fishing because it is where they find comfort? Because that is what they do?  Who they are?
Or do they go fishing because that whole following Jesus business didn’t work out so well for them? Do they think they are out of work? Even this side of Easter, having seen the risen Lord, is there still some confusion about what it means for them to follow Jesus?

The text doesn’t spell it out for us. But I do think we should carry it around with us for a while.

What does it look like to “follow Jesus” when it hasn’t turned out exactly as we envisioned? We don’t know exactly what the disciples thought they were signing up for when they put down their nets, but I think we can safely say they were not expecting their leader and teacher to be killed as a common criminal by the Romans.

They certainly were not expecting him to rise from death. Resurrection was a Jewish belief. But it had never before been understood as something that would happen to one person. Resurrection was an end of time event for all of God’s righteous.

So whatever they were expecting, it wasn’t the dead coming back to life.
Yes Lord. We’ll follow you.
But where are you?

We’ve had 2,000 years in which the theologians and Sunday school classes could help us understand what it means for Jesus to have risen from death, and on most days it still seems a little fuzzy. But what did it mean to the disciples in that moment, without the benefit of Augustine and Karl Barth?

How did they process that extraordinary news?

Peter says, “I’m going fishing”, grabs his pole and gets the can of worms out of the fridge. The disciples with him join him, get their new lures and tackle, throw their rods in the back of the pick up truck and go fishing.

All night long, they fish. nothing. not a bite. I’ve fished enough to know how maddening that can be. And for them, it must have been insult to injury. “Not only can we not fish for people, but now we can’t even fish for fish any more!”

But then Jesus appears on the beach. And he says, “children, you don’t have any fish, do you?”

“No.” they reply. He tells them where the fish are biting, they follow his directions and immediately, what had been an unproductive night becomes successful and fruitful.

Perhaps they heard the concern in his voice for their welfare. Perhaps they heard the voice of the one who loved them more than anyone else ever had.

In any case, they follow his instruction, cast their nets on the other side, and bring in the catch of a lifetime. This will go down in the annals of fish stories. “We’d been out all night and NOTHING and then he appears, we cast the nets where he tells us and we get the biggest catch you’ve ever imagined. There were so many fish our nets should have busted right open, but they didn’t. 153 of them, to be exact.” Right there. In the Bible. The biggest fish story ever.

Right after Jonah, I guess.

Peter, true to character, lives out his impulsive and exuberant nature and leaps into the water and swims to Jesus while the rest of his friends bring the boat into shore—like normal people.

When Peter raced to the tomb on Easter, he missed Jesus. Didn’t see him. Even though the boat was only 100 yards from the shore, he wasn’t going to miss him again. He dives into the water and swims to Jesus. They gather. They eat fish for breakfast. They sit on the beach, around the fire, talking with Jesus.

And Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. Peter says, “yes Lord, you know I love you.” three times.

Peter is the disciple who denied Jesus three times—Jesus knows it. Peter knows it and he knows that Jesus knows it. Presumably the other disciples around the fire know it—and Jesus brings it up. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Giving Peter the chance to affirm what he has denied. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t bring this up when the disciples first see him standing on the beach, after a night of unsuccessful fishing. He provides for them first. He gives them fish. He builds a fire. He makes them breakfast. Then he asks Peter if he loves him.

Grace and Breakfast first. Challenge second.

Like all of our encounters with God. Grace first. Our response is second. Feeding sheep is literal—Jesus has just done it. Feeding sheep happens out of love for someone—not from obligation, duty, guilt. Jesus entrusts his sheep to Peter’s care.

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

Jesus also doesn’t ask Peter, “do you love my sheep?” Which may be a helpful reminder on days when our fellow sheep are annoying us. We aren’t called to this work because of the way we feel for each other, although it is an added bonus when we do love each other. We’re called to shepherding work because of the way we love Jesus.

Jesus responds with a vocational challenge to our Easter uncertainties. Peter is told to stop seeing himself as a fisherman, and start seeing himself as a shepherd.

Fishing for people isn’t my favorite metaphor for what we do as church. When we fish, we catch something, and maybe we release it, a little traumatized, back into the water. But usually we catch and eat.

Fishing is not the best image for our faith work.

In these days, especially, the idea of churches trying to fish for people, to gather them in so we can say we’ve got the biggest haul, that seems disingenuous and maybe even dangerous.

People don’t need to be fished for right now, if they ever did. People need to be shepherded.

Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

In response to God’s love for us, we are called to feed God’s sheep and tend God’s lambs.

Want to help feed God’s sheep?

One way we can literally do that is by supporting the Bench Food distribution project that our church is helping out with, a joint collaboration with the schools, churches, and food bank. Thanks to those who have already volunteered to deliver. Let me know if you want to participate too, and I’ll get you the info.

You can also make contributions of money or food that we can use in the various food pantries we are supporting.

That’s the literal feeding of sheep, and is especially important in these days of skyrocketing unemployment.

There are other ways we can tend our flocks too. Staying home may be the least tangible one but the most important one right now. Wearing masks in public. Tending the flock means working to make sure other people are healthy. We’re still worshiping online rather than in person because that is the best way the Session knows how to care for the flock right now.

The loneliness that comes from isolation is something we can tend as well. Sending cards, texts, emails, making phone calls—all of those have helped me feel more connected to you, the people I’m missing right now. Thank you for the ways you’ve been reaching out.

Peter’s journey, after his job change from fisherman to shepherd, took him places he didn’t want to go. And he still went. I admire Peter so much. He’s a hot mess in many ways, and doesn’t try to hide it. Even after Jesus has the meaningful talk about feeding his sheep, Peter turns and says “what about him?”, getting his nose into someone else’s faith journey.

Jesus, the ultimate shepherd, guides his sheep back from the edge, and back to the point. I’m thankful that Jesus builds the church using Peter, who is imperfect in his behavior, but perfect in his love and exuberance.

This side of Easter, we live into our new vocation, as people who love Jesus, and so are sent to care for the world that Jesus loves so much. I’m grateful to be in the flock with you.

May you feel tended in love by the Shepherd who loved you so much he rose from death to meet you where you are.

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