“Moving Forward”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
5 May, 2019
Easter 3C
John 21:1-19


Have you ever found yourself saying or doing something you immediately regretted, because of the instant impact you recognized it would have on a relationship that really matters to you?  Or, maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of a betrayal of trust—someone you thought you knew well, whom you cared for and who cared for you said or did something that made you wonder whether it would ever be possible to reconcile or get beyond what just happened?

That’s the situation Peter was in with Jesus. In our Scripture lesson this morning, we find Peter and several of the other disciples at the lake.  It was after the crucifixion, and after Jesus had made a couple of resurrection appearances to his disciples as they were concealing themselves in a locked, out-of-the way room.  Apparently, they had gathered comfort and courage from those unexpected resurrection encounters, because they dared to remove themselves from hiding.  They were resuming some normal activities.  And so, as we heard, Peter declares that he’s going fishing, and the others say, “We’ll go with you!”

Is the scene of disciples at the lakeshore reminiscent to you of an episode much earlier on in their relationship with Jesus? Although John tells the story slightly differently, Matthew and Mark reported that Jesus’ firstencounter with Peter and his brother Andrew, and also the sons of Zebedee (James and John), happened on the shoreline—when Jesus encouraged these four fishermen to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”[1]  And they had dropped their nets, left their boats behind, and followed him.  And, though it hadn’t made life easier or more comfortable by the world’s measures, their decision had forever changed their lives for the better.

Back to today’s story.  There they were: some of them including Peter, James, and John, returning to the routine manual labor that felt most familiar to them as they mentally processed everything that had transpired across the previous weeks, and tried to figure out how to move forward.

Peter, no doubt, found his mind endlessly replaying those dreadful moments when he—not just once, not even twice, but three times—denied that he knew the man whom he had previously and proudly identified as God’s Messiah; the same one he had claimed as his own Lord.  But out there in the palace courtyard, he had denied knowing Jesus—the worst thing he could imagine doing now.  Why had he done that?  What had come over him, and why had he broken faith with his own convictions like that? Fear can drive us to do strange and regrettable things.

I’m sure Peter was punishing himself with internal rebukes and self-contempt.  He must have felt swallowed whole by his remorse, consumed by his silent regrets, and wished that he could turn back time and do it all differently.  Yes, Jesus had appeared to the disciples and blessed them with words of peace and empowerment to go and live as he had lived. But Peter had not yet personally spoken with the one he both worshiped and adored.  (The one he had also betrayed.)  He wasn’t sure his relationship with Jesus would or could ever be the same.

Pushing the boat out onto the Sea of Tiberias, Peter felt himself returning to something familiar.  Internally—emotionally and spiritually, he was adrift in some unsettling ways.  But here on the water in a boat he knew how to handle, he could occupy himself with something that helped him to feel grounded.  Casting nets for fish was an activity he understood, one that brought him back to his core self-understanding.  And after traumatic events, especially after events that shake up our faith and turn us inside-out, retreating to what feels familiar, what we remember as being safe (or at least safe-rthan our present experience), retracing places and activities that helped to shape us long ago, is an almost instinctive response.

Hadn’t Jesus given Peter his name, which means ‘rock’?  According to Matthew, it was after Simon (the name Peter was previously called by; Simon means ‘listen’) announced to Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”, that Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! . . . And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”[2]

But that rock had crumbled, at least in that fateful moment of denial.  When he was asked to demonstrate his confidence in what Jesus had taught him, Peter had retreated.  It was too scary.  And it changed their relationship.   He couldn’t sleep.  He knew he’d disappointed Jesus. But he’d also disappointed himself.  He was embarrassed.  Ashamed for denying, for his inconsistency, for his lack of courage.  Peter recognized he had acted from a place of fear on that night before Jesus’ crucifixion.  He had been committed to doing difficult things, he’d felt the strength of courage when Jesus was with him—when Jesus led the way.  But when things began to change, when he felt less in control or less confident of what lay ahead, Peter had allowed fear to be his propeller.

Chastened and shaken to his foundations, Peter was out in the boat with the others all night dragging their nets but catching nothing. Suddenly, in the morning twilight, they heard a voice on the shore calling out to them with the suggestion that they should cast their nets on the other side.  Peter recognized that it was the Lord.  While the others hauled in an overwhelming catch, Peter jumped into the sea (which was actually more of a lake) and swam to meet his Lord.  It was a sort of baptism into a new beginning.

John writes that, after sharing some breakfast, Jesus and Peter have a private moment where Jesus asks his troubled, yet newly-resolved, disciple: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” And Peter says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”  Then a second time, Jesus says, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Notice, Jesus is addressing him by the name that means ‘listen’and not the one that means ‘rock.’  When Peter responds the same way, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”  And a final time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

At that point, Peter was missing Jesus’ point, because John tells us that he felt hurt and responded somewhat defensively: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And, as if to override Peter’s three courtyard denials that he knew the Lord, Jesus said a third time, “Feed my sheep.”  Each time he asked the question and received Peter’s avowal of love, Jesus follows up Peter’s response with an instruction that will help his disciple to demonstrate, to prove, his love—actions that would allow him to practice moving beyond the fear that had set him back in his relationship with Jesus (and with his best self).  Jesus then indicates to Peter that he, too, will die a difficult and painful death. But, as Peter is experiencing the resurrection first-hand, there’s an implicit reassurance that he need not be afraid; that, when one lives in the spirit of Christ, and the spirit of Christ lives in him, death is not the end.  Jesus concludes the conversation by inviting Peter to do what Matthew and Mark reported was his original invitation, saying simply: “Follow me.”

The beauty and power of the moment Jesus shared with Peter is that it created the possibility for Peter to move forward with his life.  Had Jesus not made it clear that he accepted Peter’s human moment for what it was, forgave him for it, and invited him to follow him into a stronger, healthier tomorrow, Peter might never have fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that he would become the rock upon which his Church would be built.  But to this day, Peter is recognized as the first Pope, the solid leader who—guided by the Spirit of Christ working in and through him—organized and equipped the church in Jerusalem to bear witness to the resurrected Body of Christ.

If it had been anyone other than Jesus, chances are Peter would not have experienced such grace.  And even if he did, eventually, it certainly would not have been so immediate.  But that’s the point: as human beings, we all make mistakes.  And occasionally, we seriously mess up.  We disappoint other people, and we’re disappointed bythem.  And periodically, we find that the violation we’ve either committed or experienced makes it impossible to reconcile with others.  When we’ve made a huge mistake with someone who loves and trusts us, when we’ve violated their trust, or when our trust or belief in the strength of our relationship with another has been violated, forgiveness doesn’t always feel possible for fellow human beings.  There are times when we might try to forgive someone who’s hurt us terribly, but we just can’t figure out how to get there.  That particular change—of heart, or mind, or soul—just seems out of reach for us sometimes.  That is part of the broken, sin-filled human experience.

But the message contained in our lesson this morning is that God’s capacity for forgiveness is always greater than our capacity to screw up; greater than our haste to deny our relationship with God when it feels inconvenient, or asks too much of us, or threatens us in one way or another.  God will always pursue us in love, offering us a new beginning, and a way forward to greater strength, to deeper wholeness and more liberated, fuller selfhood.

What regrets are you living with that you’d like to put behind you once and for all?  What do you need to let go of in order to move forward in faith and life? What needs to change in you, in your habits of thought or action, so that you no longer feel like you’re stuck—or, worse, moving backward—due to some endless loop of an automatically-replaying episode where you hurt someone or you were hurt bysomeone?

Peter and the other disciples, when confronted with the realities of a resurrected Jesus who imparted to them both his peace and the gift of his Spirit in order for them to make it possible for us to receive the Good News, had a choice to make: they could open themselves to the changes God is always working in the world—they could pay attention for what new things God was doing with them, and trying to do through them.  They could accept that they were forgiven and invited to follow Jesus afresh each day.  Or, they could cling to what was familiar and comfortable, resisting transformation by refusing to trust in the power at work in them, and thereby denying themselves a greater experience of joyful, abundant life.

Either way, God’s love and grace was there for them—just as it is for us.  The choice is ours.  But only one response moves us forward in life toward deeper faith, greater hope, more abundant love.  Amen.

[1]Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20.

[2]Matthew 16:16-18

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC