Back to Basics

Scripture:

Today’s scripture reading—while short—is but a piece of another story: that of the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples are participating in this ritual meal together. He has already washed their feet. Jesus has foretold of his betrayal, and Judas has departed. While still in this moment—in the midst of this ritual meal and communal sharing—Jesus offers today’s scripture text as a word of teaching and a charge of ministry. After it, Jesus will foretell of Peter’s denial, before addressing their anxiety and promising the coming Spirit of God. In fact, from the point of our scripture lesson until Jesus’ arrest, his sole concern seems to be to communicate to his disciples how to live as his apprentices in his absence.

That lesson begins here: John 13:31-35.

The Plot Twist

I don’t remember where I found it, but I once came across a line that went like this:

The most unnerving realization is that you already knew it.

Think about it. It’s not those things that are completely-out-of-the-blue that knock us off our foundation. It is when we realize something we should have realized a long time ago. When we become aware of something we didn’t even know we knew.

Movies love to utilize this trope. You get to the climax, and all of a sudden there’s this great reveal—some sort of plot twist that is supposed to blow your mind. But to take it to the next level, the directors spend the next 60 seconds on a journey backward through the movie—highlighting all the subtle clues you missed. And somehow, it all makes sense—as though you knew it all along on some subconscious level.

 

The more I read Jesus in the gospels, the more I see Jesus doing the same sort of thing—over and over he reveals to them things about God that they (deep-down) already knew. As I mentioned last week, the gospel readings during Eastertide are actually intended to reinforce this disorientation-reorientation experience. These verses from John’s gospel certainly do.

As I mentioned when introducing the scripture, this is a tense moment.

They are in the midst of one of the most significant religious rituals they have.

Jesus has washed their feet—itself an experience full of drama and mixed emotions.

Jesus has anticipated his betrayal—but no one except John and Judas seemed to know who he was talking about.

And Jesus is about to tell Peter that Peter will deny him three times.

 

So with all this going on:

When Jesus starts to say things that sound like the end [John 13:31], the disciples are going to get nervous.

When Jesus outright says that he will be with them “only a little longer” [John 13:33a], they will feel their breath get short.

When Jesus tells these folks who have been following him everywhere that they “cannot come” where he is going [John 13:33c], they cannot help but feel unmoored.

And when Jesus says “I give you a new commandment” [John 13:34a], you better believe they are going to be listening with every fiber of their being..

 

This—no doubt—is going to be the big reveal.

This is going to be the teaching to end all teachings.

This is what they’ve been following him around for.

This is where he’s going to fully initiate them into this Kingdom and its power.

You can almost feel the disciples lean in and edge forward on their seats. “I give you a new commandment.” What’s he going to say?!?

Forty-Two

There’s a scene in the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that comes to mind here. There’s this supercomputer named Deep Thought; it is so enormous it is the size of a small planet. And for 7.5 million years, Deep Thought has been calculating the “ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything.”

When at last, Deep Thought has completed its computations, there is a tremendous celebration. Millions upon millions gather and cheer as they anticipate their lives are about to be forever changed.

Slowly, Deep Thought announces: “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything…… is…… 42.”

Not exactly what the universe had waited 7.5 million years to hear.

Back to Jesus

“I give you a new commandment……”

What’s he going to say?

“I give you a new commandment……”

What’s it going to change?

“I give you a new commandment……”

Whatever it is, everything’s going to be different, am I right?

“I give you a new commandment……that you love one another.”

[screech!!] What???

Just like the crowd Deep Thought was addressing, I imagine Jesus’ crew was more than a little confused here.

But unlike with Deep Thought, the problem here wasn’t that they didn’t understand the answer. The disciples‘ problem is that they understood the answer all too well. It was information they already knew. It was information everyone already knew. Because Jesus’ “new” instruction had been enshrined in their Torah for hundreds of years [Leviticus 19:18b]. It had been taught to them as children, as it had to all Jewish children.

The disciples undoubtedly expected something radical and game-changing, yet Jesus offered something obvious and already known; it was the definition of anti-climatic.

Only One Job

And yet, what Jesus offers here is something radical and game-changing—even if the disciples didn’t realize it until later. Yes, the gist of Jesus’ “new” commandment was nothing new at all. But there is something remarkably rare happening here too.

The four gospels that tell of Jesus’ life on earth record many instructions that he offers to individuals, to his disciples, to religious leaders, and to the world at large. Depending on how you count duplications between the gospel accounts, Jesus uses an imperative to tell someone what to do somewhere between 450-565 times.

But only one time—ONE TIME—does Jesus tell his hearers that this is an actual “commandment.” And this is that time.

Jesus the rule-breaker…… Jesus the anti-religious-establishment…… Jesus the radical…… he is forever turning their understanding of the commandments—of the bible—upside down. And here he offers a “new commandment.” You better believe it’s important.

 

In a sense, Jesus calls us back to basics. As I said earlier, Jesus begins here a section of teaching aimed at instructing his followers in how to live in his absence:

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34b-35 NRSV).

For all disciples of Jesus—all followers, all of his apprentices throughout time—the single defining characteristic is to be love. Love is what the world should see as the central hallmark of those called by the name of Christ. Jesus is unequivocal about this. He is straightforward. He is simple.

Failure & Hope

But for 2000 years, we have stubbornly refused to listen.

No one can dare claim that “love” is the reputation that Christians have in this nation or in the world at large. It is not true, and Jesus is the Truth [John 14:6].

This week has been filled (once again) with news stories about self-righteous people leading political crusades in the name of Jesus. Laws have been passed, capital punishment has been carried out, commencement speeches have been given, and war has been flirted with. All of it is tinged with religious language and justified by people claiming to follow Jesus.

When the world at large looks at those of us who call ourselves “Christian,” it is not love that they think. It’s not love that we demonstrate.

 

Why do we fail?

I think one reason is that we do not trust God to be Lord. Not really. It’s that same old sin that drove Adam and Eve in the garden, and has driven each of us since then. We simply don’t trust God to be God; we simply are not content to be subject to any Lord or King, no matter how compassionate and kind. Our selfish pride resists any outside influence, which—perhaps ironically—opens us up to every outside influence except God…… because God is the only entity in the cosmos that loves us enough to not impose itself upon us.

 

Why do we fail? Well, because we do not really trust God, we try to do it all ourselves—with our love, and our power, and our way. But control of others is not love. There are a lot of Jesus’ teachings that touch on this. We are not to control others with manipulative language, or by wielding our emotions, or by holding grudges against them. We are to love them enough to stand with them even when we disagree with them—even when they actively work against us. The apprentice of Jesus has been so transformed by God that she naturally seeks the welfare of even her enemies.

This is not natural to us. This is not something we can do on our own. We cannot love others as Jesus loved us by trying harder.

We can only do it after we have experienced reshaping in his image.

We can only do it because God enables us through the power of the Kingdom Among Us.

We can only do it when we have learned to trust God more than we trust ourselves.

This is why we have failed. But this is also why we can succeed.

The Kingdom remains among us.

God is still about the work of transformation.

The Spirit continues to work within us and through us.

We simply have to go back to basics. We have to re-enroll in kindergarten with Jesus…… become like little children, all fresh and new and born again. We have to restart our apprenticeship and actually believe that the Way of Jesus matters in this life.

Jesus somehow knew we had to have a command of some sort, so this is the one he gave. If there’s anything at all in scripture and faith that we have to hang our hats on, it is this. This is who Jesus calls us to be, but we can only get there with God’s help.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35 NRSV)

The Disciple’s Journey

Scripture: John 10:22-30

PSA

First: a public service announcement.

A long way back in our history as Christians, we sought to structure worship in ways that drew our various congregations together, even when we were not physically in the same space. We also intended to intentionally engage a wider swath of the wisdom of the Bible in our readings and reflections together. And so, following the Jewish tradition out of which we sprang, we developed lectionary cycles.

Now, all a lectionary is (technically) is a schedule of readings. It prescribes that you read the story of the resurrection on Easter and that of Jesus’ birth on Christmas. It lines up the Pentecost story with…… you guessed it…… Pentecost, and other stories with the Christian holy days associated with them. And all those in-between weeks are filled with other readings. 

Some of our Christian cousins in other denominations follow the lectionary explicitly. The prescribed texts are the ones they follow, read from, and preach about—without variance.

We Baptists, however, have the liberty to do what we want, though it is expected that “what we want” is discerned through the leading of the Spirit. 

You may not know it, but most weeks we do follow the lectionary here at First Baptist. That’s why you may notice—in speaking with a friend at another Christian church—that their pastor may have spoken about the same text that we read on any given Sunday. 

 

I bring this up because the lectionary does an interesting thing post-Easter. 

The gospels each have only a couple stories about the post-resurrection Jesus. And the Ascension—itself a holy day fixed in the calendar—does not occur for 40 days. In other words, the season of Eastertide needs more post-resurrection material than what the gospels provide. 

So what the lectionary does is it moves backward to earlier points in the Jesus story…… almost like flashback memories of the teachings of Jesus and the experiences of the disciples. The focus is on those times when Jesus tried to make it clear who he really was—episodes that others (especially the disciples) seemed to misunderstand at the time. 

In these weeks of Eastertide, we—alongside the disciples—remember and realize what Jesus was talking about all along. These are stories of an increasing “awareness”: a growing awareness of Jesus that not only reinforces our discoveries about the power of the Kingdom of God to rule even over death and life, but also an awareness that provides further insight in how we—as Jesus’ followers—are to live our day-to-day existence.

The Text

Such is certainly the focus of today’s text.

It begins when Jesus is asked directly: Are you the messiah?

And we might be tempted to believe that Jesus evades the question. But that could not be further from the truth: Jesus rather insists that he has already answered their question [John 10:25a]. They didn’t listen then, and they won’t listen now. It’s a question that has been “asked and answered,” as a teacher of mine used to say.

Jesus even insists that he has answered them with his actions as well as his words [John 10:25b-26]. He has demonstrated the answer to their question by the works he has done—-works that are enabled, empowered, and performed “in my Father’s name.”

Then why couldn’t they see all this? Why didn’t they “believe”? [John 10:25a]. Well, Jesus insists that it is because they belong to another shepherd. 

Jesus likes this image of shepherd and sheep when talking about those who follow him. Earlier in this chapter, he fully claims the image for himself, offering: “I am the good shepherd” and revealing “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” [John 10:11].

He returns to that image again in these verses, but not to communicate something of himself this time. In what is so often Jesus’ way, he is responding to an opportunity—a teachable moment, if you will—utilizing the occasion of happenstance to speak against the dominant patterns of the world at large and illuminate the Kingdom Among Us.

Jesus does this by talking about sheep and their relationship with their shepherd. All who are his followers will walk the path he lays out here. It is (in essence) an imagining of the disciple’s journey—the path that is followed by anyone and everyone who invites Christ to govern their lives.

This is what he says:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27–28 NRSV)

It may or may not be entirely linear, but I think Jesus outlines here the experience of all true disciples—from their first experience of God into the Great Ever After. There are six steps along the way.

1. Hear the Voice

The first is that the would-be disciple of Jesus must “hear the voice.” As simple as this sounds, a few reminders are in order. 

First, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we underestimate the power of God’s voice. As Genesis 1 tells the story, it is God’s voice that brings all of creation into being. Psalm 33 immortalizes this in song and prayer, proclaiming:

“Let all the earth fear the LORD;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.” (Psalm 33:8–9 NRSV)

Similarly, remember the way John’s gospel begins: 

“In the beginning was the Word [the logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1, 3 NRSV). 

That Greek word logos is hard to translate in a way that encompasses its wide range of meaning. But one newer translation argues for “voice” instead of “word.” They make some convincing arguments that “voice” reflects the personal, distinct, and dynamic means by which God created the world, sustains it, and continues to act in it—especially as it is described in John. Considered this way, these opening verses communicate something of value for our reflection today:

“Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God… His speech shaped the entire cosmos” (John 1:1, 3 VOICE).

My sheep hear my voice, says Jesus.

 

But it isn’t really as easy as just hearing, is it? 

There are, of course, lots of other voices competing for our attention and our hearing. And as that familiar story of Elijah meeting God at Horeb illustrates, the Lord is not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire—but the Lord is heard in the “still, small voice” (KJV) or “sheer silence” (NRSV). It was a Voice that Elijah heard in that moment, asking him “What are you doing here?” [1Kings 19:13]. And it is a Voice that we hear in our encounters with the living God, as that same Voice often asks us the same question: “What are you doing here?”

It may not feel like we naturally have “ears to hear,” as Jesus instructs four times in the gospels [Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35]. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, either. We are made to be in relationship with God. We are made to hear God’s voice…… to speak and to listen and to be in constant conversation with our Lord and Master. It is only because we have learned from another teacher that we have lost the ears for hearing.

But God has ways of breaking through. God possesses both infinite creativity and unrelenting desire for our friendship. And so this is where the path of discipleship begins—well before the disciple has even become a disciple. It begins with an encounter with God…… a hearing of sorts. 

Think about it: When and how did you first become aware that there might actually be something or someone like God…… something bigger than you out there somewhere?

2. Be Known by Jesus

The next step on this path is being known by Jesus [John 10:27]. Now, of course we could easily argue that this step happened long before the voice of Jesus came to be heard. But that’s not the point. The point here is to understand the perspective and the journey of the disciple. 

It is not until after one has heard the voice of Jesus that they come to know that they are known—deeply known—fully known—completely known by Jesus. Jesus knows our every success and failure. He knows our ever desire—however noble or ignoble. He knows “what you did last summer” and every day of your life. 

The psalmist even muses [Psalm 139:13, 15-16a] on how God knew us before our bodies were even constructed, before we took our first breath, before we were even alive (as our ancient forbearers conceived of life).

We may not often think about it, but God knows us far more fully and far earlier on than we know God. Being known by Jesus happens long before we know Jesus. And even once we begin to know something of Jesus—and even after we have lived and trained as his apprentices for decades, we still only know Jesus in part. Paul, in expressing his hope for the return of Jesus to reign on earth, says:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1Corinthians 13:12 NRSV)

A disciple must have heard the voice of her shepherd, and she must realize that she is fully known by him—if she is to follow the path of Jesus (if she is to become a disciple at all).

3. Follow Jesus

This being known by Jesus is important, because it rightly orients our self-identity, rooting it in the way God sees and values us instead of the way the world (and even we ourselves) value our life. 

The fact is: we do not share all of ourselves with one another. We just don’t. We guard our inner self, aiming to protect ourselves from the big, dangerous world and all the people who can hurt us. 

But what would it mean to have a friend who knows absolutely everything about you? 

Who knows all your struggles and your failures, your hopes and your dreams? 

Someone who knows you better than you know yourself? 

Someone you might as well be completely honest with, because they know it all already? 

And even knowing your deepest secrets, someone who still loves you deeply and powerfully all the same?

Those of us who have learned to hear the voice of Jesus, and who have realized the profound acceptance of being known and loved by him—we have such a friend. And there is no other response so readily and freely given to such a friend as the desire to follow him, which means to become like him.

In the teaching of Jesus and the context of his earthly life, to follow someone in discipleship was an obvious and simple thing. We want to be like them, so we order our affairs to that end. We engage in an intentional relationship with someone so we can learn to do what they do. And in Jesus’ case, the thing his followers wanted to do was to learn how to utilize the abundant resources of the Kingdom Among Us in their own lives. This is what they saw Jesus doing, and this is what his followers sought. 

To follow Jesus today still means the same thing. It means that we willfully and intentionally engage in practices—disciplines, we usually call them—that give our lives the form and shape to receive and contain that transforming power of God. In this context of the disciple of Christ, such disciplines are intended to enable God’s transforming work in us—work that cannot be accomplished by our own human will. 

As one writer has so challenged: “Am I a disciple, or only a Christian by current standards?… Being unwilling to follow [Jesus], our claim of trusting him must ring hollow. We could never claim to trust a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic whose directions we do not follow” (Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 265)

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to trust and obey him, to intentionally order the affairs of life according to his priorities, and with the purpose of becoming like him… It is to live your individual life the way that Jesus would live your life.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” 

4. Receive Abundant Life

I’ve got to pick up the pace a bit now, but the rest of these are a bit more deeply intertwined, so that should work out.

Jesus next promises his sheep eternal life. In contrast to what we typically associate with the concept, “eternal life” in the biblical sense might be better translated “lots of life.” 

But the thing to note is that “lots of life” in the biblical perspective has more than one dimension. It doesn’t just refer to a long life, but a “wide” one, too—which means a good, full life. When Jesus says that his sheep are given “eternal life,” he is referring yet again to the abundant and good life we were created to lead…… the abundant and good life for which our soul longs…… the abundant and good life of the Kingdom that is available to us beginning now and continuing without end.

5. Endure Beyond This Life

Of course, this “without end” or “long life” sense is underscored in Jesus’ next phrase: “they will never perish.”

There is no part of we human beings that is eternal—not if we believe the witness of the bible. We are built of both spiritual and physical matter, but nothing about us is created to exist forever on its own. It is only through the sharing of God’s life with us that we can possibly live on into what we now call eternity. 

When we are “born again” in Christ—following the pattern Jesus began with Nicodemus in John 3—we begin to participate in the life of God in a way wherein God shares God’s own life with us. This is the reality Paul talks about in Galatians 2 when he insists “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (v.20a NRSV).

One author has written: 

“For most people, perhaps, the thing they most treasure is staying alive on earth. As a result they live their entire lives in bondage to fear of physical death (Heb 2:15)” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.210).

This is part of what Jesus liberates us from. When we have heard the voice of our Shepherd, when we realize we are fully known by him, when we follow him (willingly and regularly positioning ourselves so God can transform us into his image), when we begin to experience the abundant life right now (utilizing the resources of the Kingdom Among Us), then we realize:

“Eternity is now ongoing. I am now leading a life that will last forever” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.208).

6. Know Security

This is why Jesus suggests that the one living in the abundance of the Kingdom Among Us will have no use for anxiety. “Don’t be afraid… you are of greater value than several sparrows” [paraphrase of Matt 10:31].

Or as he puts it here: “No one can pry them out of my grasp. Those Father has given me are more important to me than anything else, and no one can pry them out of my Father’s all-encompassing hands” [paraphrase of John 10:28b-29].

Jesus’ followers—the sheep he’s describing here—will know a kind of security that escapes the rest of the world. When you know how important you are to God, and when you learn to see your life and world from God’s perspective, then there really isn’t much to be afraid of. 

We will be cared for better than a parent cares for a child [Matthew 7:9-11]. 

We will be provided for better than the free-wheeling birds that swoop and peep around us [Matthew 6:26]. 

We will experience a lavish abundance that surpasses the wildflowers that ornament an ordinary field [Matthew 6:28-30].

Why? Because this is who we are to God. And because this is where the disciple’s journey takes us, in Jesus, and in the power of the Kingdom Among Us.

 

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27–28 NRSV)

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Called Back to Ourselves

Scripture: John 21:1-19

A Painful Text

As we continue our reading of John’s resurrection account, we come this week to one of the most challenging, painful, and hopeful texts of the entire bible. 

Here, we ride an emotional rollercoaster that spans the gamut of human feelings.

Here, failure is faced head-on, though not willingly.

Here—through the disciples—we find out something of who we really are.

Remember the back story:

At Jesus’ arrest, the disciples scatter.

Peter follows for a bit, but denies knowing Jesus three times.

Judas dies by suicide out of grief for what he has done.

The remaining disciples cloister themselves behind locked doors out of fear.

Mary Magdalene proclaims the resurrection to them, but no one believes her because she’s a girl—so they stay hidden away.

It is behind those locked doors that the risen Christ finds them—not once, but twice!—offering words of peace.

Yet even when they have all become convinced of the resurrection of their teacher Jesus, they still—as we see in today’s verses—they still go back to their life as it was “BC”: “before Christ.”

On one hand, it’s hard to fathom. So many of us think—even if we never admit it out loud—we think that if only we could have that kind of experience of Jesus…… if only we had been there…… if only we had seen what they saw…… if only we had experienced what they experienced…….

The assumption, of course, is that if we had then our life/faith/activity would be fundamentally altered for the better. We think we would sin less, practice the spiritual disciplines more, and readily and openly talk about this Jesus with those in our life. 

The reality, however (as the disciples remind us), is that we would do no better. We would have run away afraid. We would have denied him. We would have given up hope…. And we know that we would do these things because we have done these things. 

The reality is that even though we have the abiding presence and power of the Spirit and the Kingdom right here available to us 24/7, we do not do any better.

Identity

I am constantly challenged by the ways Jesus’ teachings and the stories of the scriptures confront us and drive us to questions of identity…… and this passage is no different. Among the questions of identity raised by these verses, I find myself asking:

Who am I really?
Who are you really?
What do my choices have to do with my identity?
What about my failures? 

Within the scope of life and the choices and failures thereof, we human beings tend to think in one of two ways:

We might think (fundamentally) that a person’s good choices reveal their true self. 

What choices do they make to be kind, or generous, or compassionate—especially when it costs them personally? 

How much are they willing to do for other people? 

If we think that a person’s true identity is revealed by the good they choose to do, then these are the kinds of things we watch for and we consider trustworthy indicators.

 

But more often, we seem to think that a person’s bad choices reveal their true self. It is their worst moment—whether we like to admit it or not—their worst moment by which we judge their whole life. In such moments of weakness, we believe their true heart is revealed—and thus the only fundamentally good person is the one who never falters, even in the blackest trials. 

Now……

How do you think the disciples felt about themselves in these weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion? 

How do you think they looked on their worst moments, which the Gospels have on full display? 

What impact did they believe those bad choices had on their life, and faith, and (most importantly) their relationship with this Jesus, who is now risen from the grave?

What do you think?

No Future

I think: the fact that these fishermen go back to fishing tells us a lot.

This was not a recreational activity for them. 

Nor were they bi-vocational and simply doing what they would normally do when not more directly engaged in Jesusy-things.

This is a regression…… a return, to the way things were before.

It seems that even though Jesus is raised from the dead, these disciples do not see a future with Jesus anymore. And as far as I can figure out, that can only mean a limited number of things:

Either they believe that Jesus has no future—because of Roman threat or his own choice or whatever.

Or else they believe themselves now disqualified—that Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with them since they’ve “proven” themselves so unreliable.

Now friends: I have trouble imagining the first of these options to be true. 

If Jesus had been brutally crucified by the Romans and then came back to life, what threat could the Romans really offer next? 

Or if Jesus had only ever done what “the Father” enabled (as he says [for example] in John 8:28), and if (subsequently) God the Father responded with such power to raise him from the dead, then why would the disciples assume that life with Jesus was now a spiritual dead-end?

If Jesus is raised from the dead, it just doesn’t add up.

Guilt/Failure

What does make perfect sense to me……is guilt. 

And shame.
And remorse.
And regret. 

Failure has been an all too common companion in my life. I know what it’s like to feel as though your failure—your bad choices—have disqualified you from something good. 

Or from new opportunities.
Or from even God forgiving you and trusting you with the most menial of tasks.

I know what it feels like when you give up, because giving up seems the only way to move past your screw-up.

And I believe this is the head-space occupied by Peter and these other disciples on that day—lo! those many years ago.

They go back to the beginning—back to their lives BC (before Christ)—because they cannot imagine any other path available to them now. They have messed up too badly. Their mistakes are too widely known. Their screw-ups too hurtful. Their weakness too weak. 

They believe it is over between them and Jesus. And they are convinced that they are the ones who drove the nails in their own coffins. 

These actions demonstrate their belief that those worst moments revealed their true selves. And now that those true selves have been exposed, they think that the Jesus chapter of their life is closed to them. 

They were not good enough.
They were not strong enough.
They did not believe enough.
They did not trust enough.
They were: “not enough.”

I’m not going to ask for hands, but I can see on your faces that some of you know all too well something like what those disciples wrestled with that morning.

Found

This is where they were—both emotionally and geographically—when Jesus finds them…… when they are found. 

Isn’t that a beautiful word?—”found.”

The gospel tells us that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus at first [John 21:4]. That seems to be a common theme with the Resurrected Jesus—people who know him best don’t recognize him right away. But in this particular story, it is worth noting as well that depression clouds our ability to truly see other people. 

When Jesus is at last recognized, it is clear that he has broken through another threshold—this one the expectations of Peter and the others about how Christ would regard them. Peter, the story tells [John 21:7b], hardly got his pants pulled on before he leaped out of the boat and swam to Jesus. 

It must have felt so good to be found by Jesusespecially when they so clearly did not expect Jesus would want anything to do with them. Not anymore.

But there—on the shore of the Sea of Galilee—as the disciples unexpectedly breakfasted with Jesus, the awkward silence of broken relationship again began its penetrating advance. Nobody wanted to talk about it—and John’s gospel is even written in such a way [John 21:12] that makes it unclear what they didn’t want to talk about.

Peter

And then…… Peter is drawn by Jesus out of this silent reverie. 

Peter, do you love me? [John 21:15]
Yes, I love you.
Then feed my lambs.

Peter, do you love me? [John 21:16]
Yes, you know I love you.
Tend my sheep.

Peter…… Do. You. Love. Me? [John 21:17]
Yes! For God’s sake, Yes! You know it! You know I do, Jesus. I love you.
Feed. My. Sheep.

The text doesn’t say so, but it’s hard to not imagine that it was at this moment—following three questions and professions of love—that somewhere nearby a rooster crowed the morning. 

 

We know: this is a moment of reconciliation.

We know: this threefold declaration of love parallels the threefold denial of a few chapters prior.

We know: that Peter here is not just restored to Jesus in relationship, but also given a commission: “Feed my sheep” [John 21:17]; and of course: “Follow me” [John 21:19]—which is the same call offered at the very beginning [Matthew 4:19].

What we sometimes miss is that Jesus is not calling Peter to anything new. He is simply calling him back to himself. Jesus is calling Peter back to his true self in life and faith. And this is important, because it means that Peter’s true self was not that of a betrayer or denier…… but of a believer and a follower and a servant.

In Jesus‘ eye, Peter is so much more than his worst mistake. His failings do not reveal his true character, but they frame a deviation from his true character—an abnormal blip. And yet it was a blip that could have destroyed the rest of his life, had he insisted on seeing things his own way instead of trusting in the sight of his Savior. 

Walking Away

I have seen so many people walk away from God because they believe they simply cannot be forgiven. Because they are all too aware of their own mistakes to expect God or anyone would trust them ever again. Because they know they do not deserve a second, or a third, or a thousandth chance. So they believe that God—even God—especially God would want nothing to do with them ever again.

Peter could have so easily walked away that day. He could have refused to listen to Jesus—I’m sure it was painful just sitting near him and remembering (knowing!) how he failed Jesus. 

He could have continued in despair, as well. For his colleague Judas, the remorse and grief over betraying Jesus became too much to live with, and he died by suicide. Yet I believe that even Judas was more than his worst mistake……. that even Judas could (and would) have been reconciled to Jesus had he lived long enough to have the chance.

Reconciliation

You see: it does so often seem there are two types of people: those who think you are your worst mistake, and those who think you are your best moment. 

But there is only one God, revealed through Jesus Christ. And as Jesus demonstrates here and elsewhere, God thinks you are more than your worst and best moments. God knows you are more than you even imagine you could be.

And that’s why (I suspect) reconciliation ends up being such a focus of God’s activity in the world. It is only through reconciliation that we are capable of becoming more. 

Within our human relationships, a lack of reconciliation anchors us in past hurts and prevents us from living fully in the present and future.

Within our relationship with God, a lack of reconciliation isolates us from the penetrating and transforming love of God that is available to us through the Kingdom of Christ, and that moulds us and makes us new in the image of Jesus.

It is the language of reconciliation that Paul uses to frame both the work of Jesus, and the work that Jesus entrusts to us. After telling the church at Corinth [2Corinthians 5:16] to no longer regard anyone from a human perspective but to adopt God’s perspective, and after reminding them (and us!) [2Corinthians 5:17] that the work of God in us is the work of re-creation, Paul says:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2Corinthians 5:18–20 NRSV)

Be reconciled.
Christ calls us back to ourselves. 

But the “ourselves” to which we are called is both who we have always been, and who we have never fully been. It is both who we are, and who we are not yet. It is who we were created to be, and who we will only be when we are fully
re-created by God.

Because our true self—our true identity—is more than our worst mistake, and it is more than our greatest triumph. It is the fulfillment of every true longing, and it is the free gift of the abundant Kingdom of God. It is who we will be when we are truly who we are.

And God is so excited to help us achieve that. Just consider all that God has done!